Robert the Bruce, a relatively low-key Scottish release has been the subject of a disproportionate amount of controversy for its initially minor public awareness. The film is a passion project of Angus Macfadyen (producer, co-writer, and star of the film) who reprises the titular role he played decades earlier in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. From initial reviews after its premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, Macfadyen’s film seems capable enough, if a little damned by faint praise by critics: Leslie Felperin for The Guardian called the film a “thoughtful crack at historical drama”, while Kevin Maher for The Sunday Times labelled it less favourably as a “camp dash of quasi-historical propaganda”. As such, it wasn’t so much its mixed critical reception which has been the cause of the film’s controversy, but rather the refusal of multiplex chain Cineworld to give the film any screenings in the weeks after its initial release, and the resulting backlash and campaign against the cinema franchise’s decision. This campaign initially took the form of an online petition of 5,000 or so signatures and quickly snowballed to gain the support of public voices from Alex Salmond to Tim Robbins, ultimately leading to the film being granted a limited number of screenings in Cineworlds across Scotland.
Macfadyen himself compared the campaign’s success to Bruce’s victory at the battle of Bannockburn (though with significantly fewer human casualties). And while it might first appear an underdog story in that vein, with the plucky campaign striking a blow against the multiplex behemoth, that narrative would be perhaps be to give the movement behind the film more credit than it’s due, and paint Cineworld’s motives as anything other than predominantly financial. It would also be to gloss over the writhing mass of online trolls that quickly found themselves surrounding the campaign. Their online ire spanned everything from aggressive patriotism and anti-Scottish Independence to conspiracy theory and dog-whistle antisemitism; as loud voices across Twitter decried the film’s connections to the Scottish Independence movement on one end, and an alleged international plot against the film that went as high up as the Cineworld board of directors on the other.
But outwith the realms of heated discourse and crackpot conspiracy, the whole affair seems more reasonably to be something closer to a discussion on the place of local and lower-budget cinema in the current multiplex lineup. Hollywood production mogul Jerry Bruckheimer weighed in on this issue, complaining that “it’s hard to make a $40 million movie”. Bruckheimer here wasn’t stating the bleeding obvious though, that it’s hard to find $40 million in the first place, but rather that it’s often hard to find sufficient demand in the multiplex market for *cough* lower budget features such as those in the measly tens of millions. In turn causing studios and cinemas alike to shy away from them. By this account Robert the Bruce lands fairly short of a sure thing at the box office, with a budget which very obviously seems a far cry from the quoted millions (unless they blew it on some stellar catering), and with no great financial justification for a spot in-between reliable Hollywood franchises and genre features save for perhaps any lingering goodwill for Bruce’s story left by last year’s Outlaw King – though the film’s opening box office of just over £18,000 suggested otherwise. Cineworld did indeed cite such “commercial reasons” for its decision not to host the film. And the cinema chain had little reason on the face of it to do so, perhaps save for some showing of significant audience demand.
It might have been commendable then, that the campaign had set out to demonstrate and create that demand on the local level through its petition and online advocacy of the film. While multiplexes may currently appear to be temples to the many-headed god of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they needn’t and shouldn’t necessarily be. And Scotland’s multiplexes have definitely shown themselves capable of showing some local variety amongst the Hollywood spectacle recently; such as earlier this year when the fantastic, low-budget Beats was given a fair chance in Cineworlds across Scotland. Macfadyen’s film itself had already been given a few screenings in Odeon and Vue cinema at the time of the controversy. But while such examples exist, they do not reflect the full swathe of lower-budget and local material in production, in turn, as Bruckheimer noted, feeding a lack of such productions. Given the financial interests involved, a shift in this respect likely will not come without open displays of audience interest – such as what that behind Robert the Bruce might have been without its controversy.
It’s sad then that any chance of that was so quickly sunk by heated discourse and wild conjecture in and around the campaign, and mired in the dense online rhetoric of loud voices across the independence debate. Complicating what could have been an example of direct and good faith engagement between audiences striving for more representation of local and lower-budget cinema at the financial motives of their multiplexes into an online war of attrition until Cineworld finally gave some ground. With all the angry noise and negative pressure, the whole thing seems a wasted opportunity; less Bannockburn and more tantrum, unfortunately.
[Ronan Duff – he/him]