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Arthouse cinemas seek slice of action

Daniel Rosenthal reports on efforts to wean teenage audiences from Hollywood blockbusters to foreign films. As the Oscar ceremony approaches featuring multiple award nominations for British talent in hit films such as The English Patient and Secrets and Lies, arthouse cinemas are trying to encourage more pupils to watch foreign-language films.

Academy Award recognition coupled with the prospect of more than Pounds 150 million of Lottery investment in domestic film production over the next six years, has prompted talk of a major revival in the British movie industry.

But these positive developments are of little comfort to those concerned that the breadth of film culture is under threat because schoolchildren in the 1990s are growing up with scant opportunity - and even less inclination - to experience French, German and other foreign cinema.

"The audience for foreign-language films in this country is getting older and smaller all the time," says Ian Christie, vice-president of the Europa Cinemas network, which represents almost 400 arthouse screens throughout Europe. "Urgent action is needed to generate interest amongst the young," he said.

Mr Christie joined about 30 secondary school media studies and foreign language teachers in Cambridge last week for "Hollywood or Bust?", a three-day conference designed to generate initiatives that might convince pupils that foreign films can be as "cool" as Mission: Impossible.

About 1.5m seven to 18-year-olds go to the cinema at least twice a month in the UK. But only a tiny fraction of that figure buy tickets for foreign films. It is easy to see why.

A Hollywood blockbuster such as Independence Day is released on more than 200 screens across the country after a multi-million-pound marketing campaign. With the exception of occasional hits such as Il Postino, foreign movies - mostly carrying 15 or 18 certificates - limp into three or four arthouse cinemas in London before popping up weeks later for a handful of screenings at some of the 40 regional film theatres funded by the British Film Institute, such as the Arts Cinema in Cambridge.

That means that if teachers hear about an age-appropriate foreign film that appeals on educational grounds, there is little point in recommending it to their pupils because it will almost certainly not be showing at a local cinema.

"We have to convince distributors to import more foreign films that will appeal to young audiences and then give them a wider and more prolonged release," says Mr Christie. He also points out that, in recent years, there has been a significant drop in the number of subtitled films shown on television.

Subtitling itself is perhaps an even more significant problem - an instant turn-off for most teenagers. "No child starts off with an innate ability to follow subtitles," says Mr Christie. "It's something you learn gradually. That's why we're in such a vicious circle: without access to foreign films in the cinema or on TV, how can children become accustomed to subtitling?" Amanda White, a teacher adviser with Film Education, the national charity that sends out thousands of teaching packs on new releases, said: "Language teachers tell us they'd love to use foreign films more. But they are almost totally reliant on video - and on a television screen subtitles are much harder for pupils to follow."

Borrowing from the French approach may help to improve the situation. "Hollywood or Bust?" was co-funded by the French embassy and the speakers included Dominique Jules, a co-ordinator with the Industry Partnerships Programme, which brings film-makers, script-writers and technicians into French grammar schools.

"The pupils are taught about films from all over the world, not just the American movies that most of them go to see," he explained. "They discover that there are many diverse kinds of films out there, which is a gain in itself. "

Sarah Jones, education manager at the Cambridge Arts Cinema, said that establishing a similar scheme here could bring major benefits. "We need to convince children that the story and the images are more important than what language a film is in. I think that involving film-makers would help to demystify foreign movies."

Cinemas that programme 32-50 per cent European films are eligible for up to Pounds 24,000 a year in European Union subsidy. Mr Christie is encouraging British arthouse screens to use a large slice of this funding to lay on free or heavily discounted school screenings and workshops. "There is a natural synergy between cinemas and schools because cinemas are normally closed in the morning when teachers can take advantage of special events."

Powerful figures in film distribution companies must also be won over, but Mr Christie is optimistic that today's children have not lost "the appetite and sophistication" which will enable them to enjoy and learn from foreign films.

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