Several independent south London cinemas have spoken out against Vue Cinemas’ decision not to screen gangland drama Blue Story after a brawl at a Birmingham cinema.
The incident in question took place at StarCity multiplex in Birmingham on Saturday, which saw five teenagers aged between 13 and 14 arrested and several police officers injured. Footage on social media appeared to show people – some armed with machetes – fighting in the foyer, where families and children were queuing to watch Frozen II. Later, witnesses said some of those involved tried to force their way into screening rooms without paying.
- Read more: Shame on Vue – the cinema chain’s decision to stop showing south London gang drama ‘Blue Story’ reeks of hypocrisy
Blue Story, directed and written by musician Rapman aka Andrew Onwubolu, tells the story of two lifelong friends turned against each other by London’s brutal gang culture. After news of Vue’s decision emerged, a collection of local cinemas that operate in the area have defended the film and condemned Vue’s move as an “overreaction”.
“I think maybe they’ve overreacted,” said Sunil Chauhan, Programmer for Deptford Cinema in Lewisham, where large amounts of Blue Story are set. “It would be fine to pull it from perhaps one cinema, but even then it seems a bit unfair… It seems a bit disproportionate, a bit of an overreaction.”
Isra Al Kassi, Marketing and Programme Manager at Catford Mews independent cinema in Lewisham, agreed: “We find it excessive, and a very rushed decision, and it’s a shame because it’s now tainted the perception and intentions of the film.”
Recently, Vue clarified their position in a statement, claiming “25 significant incidents in 16 separate cinemas” were behind their decision to remove Blue Story from screening schedules. However, when NME contacted the British multinational, they were unable to give specific details. In addition, West Midlands police stressed that the force did not ask for the movie to be withdrawn by Vue and is still investigating what happened.
Catriona Mahmoud, Marketing Manager at Screen25 in South Norwood, was sceptical of the chain’s latest comments, telling NME: “It seems like such a ridiculous thing for Vue to do… If they’re not able to give an example of it or if they’re not willing to release that information, it kind of sounds like they’re just trying to justify their actions.”
Showcase Cinemas had also pulled Blue Story following Saturday’s events in Birmingham, but has since reinstated screenings after backlash online. Other major cinema chains such as Odeon and Cineworld haven’t cancelled any showings at all.
According to Mahmoud, increased security would have been a better course of action from Vue. “It shouldn’t be a case of the whole ‘Big Brother’ thing where everyone needs to be searched intensely,” she said. “But often when I’ve been to Vue I’ve found I’ve never had my ticket checked, let alone any kind of security measures put in place.”
She added: “[At Screen25] we take steps to ensure safety, so I feel like they definitely could have done something.”
Some critics of Vue’s actions have claimed there is a racial element to the ban, with several of the local cinemas we contacted in agreement.
“It can’t be denied that Blue Story – a film by a young black filmmaker – has been under more scrutiny than other films released this month,” said Al Kassi of Catford Mews. “It doesn’t only come down to representation but also narrative and unfortunately the narrative continues to be silenced. This situation has highlighted how assumptions continue to be made, and it’s disappointing to see how those assumptions lead to performance-altering decisions which I haven’t seen be made regarding any other film this year.”
Mahmoud (Screen25) made reference to similar incidents that have occurred in screenings of other films, but which weren’t met with an outright ban. In 2012, 12 people were killed in America at a Colorado screening of The Dark Knight Rises, while fights broke out in Burbank, California, during a showing of DC Comics origin movie Joker. In December 2018, a gang fight broke out after a screening of Mary Poppins Returns at Vue’s Princes Quay branch.
“You get these really awful things happening in cinemas, like The Dark Knight Rises or Joker [incidents], and no one thinks to do anything about it. They don’t cancel screenings over it,” said Mahmoud. “Whereas this, it didn’t happen in the screen, it’s making the assumption it’s to do with the film when really it had nothing to do with the film.”
As Vue represents nearly half of the UK screens Blue Story was set to be shown on, some worry that its box office performance will be affected dramatically by the ban. These concerns are shared by the local cinema community.
“Any small amount of negative publicity with this kind of film could affect it a lot,” warned Chauhan (Deptford Cinema). “It’s possible that, in the future a studio or producers might think, ‘well, is it worth the gamble, worth the risk if we can’t get cinemas to even show these films?’”
Luckily, the film still performed well on its opening weekend, racking up £1.3m to reach No. 3 at the UK box office. But with a much reduced screening schedule, it could still lose out over the coming weeks.
“It already has,” claimed Al Kassi (Catford Mews). “Being pulled from one of the biggest chains on opening weekend will have a massive impact on its box office performance, but hopefully audiences have been able to show their support by going to other cinemas.”
Peckhamplex, alongside Catford Mews, has pledged to continue screening the movie, despite recent events. The independent six-screen complex is located in Peckham and even features as the backdrop for a scene in the film.
“Following a successful advance Q & A screening attended by Rapman and cast members, Peckhamplex has been screening the film since Friday 22nd with sold out performances over the weekend,” Peckhamplex director Simone Brown told NME in a statement.
“We obviously sympathise with those caught up with events in Birmingham but have no plans to remove Blue Story from our schedule.”
- Read more: Rapman on gritty crime drama Blue Story, and how to solve London’s gang violence problem and knife crime epidemic
Likewise, Deptford Cinema and Screen25 confirmed plans to show the film in the future at their cinemas. Screen25, a local community cinema which operates out of Harris Academy (rapper Stormzy’s former place of education) in South Norwood, also has plans to screen it to students.
“They [school staff] came to us and asked if we were planning on showing the film,” said Mahmoud. “We said we would show it, but also if you wanted to collaborate in some way with students and teachers, we would be very happy to get that set up.”
She added: “I think they probably just wanted to understand where we were coming from and I think they are excited about the idea of having a positive outcome from all of this and just challenging that.”
Blue Story was released on November 22 and is showing in cinemas nationwide now.