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Producer Phil Grabsky and the rise of event cinema

PUBLISHED: 11:40 08 March 2017 | UPDATED: 11:40 08 March 2017

Phil Grabsky filming in the Chapel du Rosaire de Vence for the documentary Matisse from Tate Modern and Moma (Photo by David Bickerstaff)

Phil Grabsky filming in the Chapel du Rosaire de Vence for the documentary Matisse from Tate Modern and Moma (Photo by David Bickerstaff)

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So-called event cinema has transformed how audiences experience high culture and art. And as Duncan Halls discovers, one of the biggest producers hails from Brighton

In the past audiences would have to dig out their best clothes and pay a small fortune for tickets to see the latest acclaimed production at a theatre, opera house or art gallery.

But since the rise of event cinema a front row seat with an uninterrupted view costs a fraction of the price. And one of the production companies behind this small cultural revolution is based in a townhouse office in Brighton’s Ship Street.

Producer Phil Grabsky’s Seventh Art Productions’ Exhibition On Screen strand sends art documentaries to 1,500 cinemas in 53 countries. It has just launched its fourth season with a film focusing on the Hieronymus Bosch retrospective marking the 500th anniversary of his death at the Noordbrabants Museum based in his birthplace ‘s-Hertogenbosch. “The exhibition has managed to get 17 of his 23 existing paintings and 19 of his 20 drawings,” says Phil from an office lined with arts biographies and dominated by a large whiteboard listing all the territories his films go to. “This will never happen again. The museum is thrilled to have a fantastic record of this exhibition and 95 per cent of the audience won’t get to see it otherwise.”

What makes Exhibition On Screen unique is its focus on art shows and artists, rather than the more obvious transfers to the big screen from rivals NT Live and the Royal Opera House. “These are not guided tours, walk-throughs or dry lectures,” says Phil, who has more than 30 years of documentary film-making experience behind him. That is clear watching the latest Exhibition On Screen DVD release, 2015’s Painting The Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse. The Royal Academy exhibition is central to the film, but doesn’t dominate it. Instead the most memorable shots come from the Giverny garden which both Monet created and drew inspiration from, augmented by insightful contributions from international art curators and experts.

Monet is the subject for Exhibition On Screen’s next cinema production, which is released on 21 February. I, Claude Monet is a departure in that it is not based around a specific exhibition, but rather 3,000 of the artist’s letters. “It’s a new way of seeing his life,” says Phil, who has brought in actor Henry Goodman to read the letters and Chichester composer Stephen Baysted for the original score. “We have filmed more than 100 high-definition paintings and have been to the actual locations where they were painted. If people have an impression of Claude Monet it’s of a slightly bohemian bearded hippie who was an early Impressionist. But he had real ups and downs – he tried to kill himself, was never satisfied with his art, and spent 12 hours a day painting with 14 canvases on the go.”

Exhibition On Screen’s films are pitched to be accessible, but not dumbed down. “I always remember when I made a film about Mozart he said he wrote his music for two audiences,” says Phil recalling In Search of Mozart, the 2006 documentary he wrote and directed. “There was the audience who knew the roots of the other music he was referencing. And there was the audience who would whistle the melodies as they walked down the street. We showed our Bosch film to experts who said they learned things they didn’t know before, and we showed it to audiences in Prague and St Petersburg, many of whom didn’t have a clue who Bosch was, and were able to draw them in with the story. These are narrative films – they are about story-telling, so I make sure they are telling an exciting story.”

Story is at the heart of the third offering of Exhibition On Screen’s 2017 season, as Phil investigates a group of lesser-known artists, the American Impressionists linked to a touring US exhibition by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The film covers a period in the US between 1880 and 1920 and the summer art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel came to London. At the time no-one wanted to buy Impressionist paintings in Europe, so in 1886 he took 300 paintings to New York. “The US had become the biggest economy in the world and [people] wanted to buy art,” says Phil. “They were more open-minded than Europe and bought the works, which influenced American artists.

“At the time the middle classes were feeling squeezed – there was a big rural population which was being drawn into the cities, millions of immigrants coming through Ellis Island and the newly liberated black population coming up from the South. Added to that was the growth of the railroad and the development of the suburbs. People went out into the countryside and started painting. The results showed a certain disquiet with what was happening in the US, with this hark back to the rural idyll. I don’t think anyone has heard of the artists, but they are fantastic high quality paintings which are in galleries around the world.” The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism hits screens from 21 March.

Completing the season this year is Michaelangelo: Love and Death, bouncing off the upcoming exhibition Michelangelo and Sebastiano at London’s National Gallery from March. The film is released in cinemas on 13 June.

Phil learned his craft through television as an independent producer. He started Seventh Art while living in London in 1988 with his wife Amanda Wilkie, who is head of production and financial director. They received their first commission through the fledgling Channel Four. “Young people like me could go straight into working on a project,” he says. “I was making my first major series, about modern Spain, in 1989 when I was 26. It was a three-year project, I lived in Spain, learned Spanish and made a six-part series which had a best-selling book.”

On their return to the UK they realised they couldn’t afford to buy anything in the capital, so turned to Phil’s childhood home. “Amanda’s sister and my brother both lived in Brighton,” says Phil, whose first cinematic memory is of seeing The Jungle Book in Brighton. “I remember the head of documentaries at Channel Four said I had chosen to join the open-toed sandal brigade!” Following his Channel Four documentary he spent another three years on a project for the BBC on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. He also made six historical documentaries with former Python Terry Jones. He now releases four or five films a year, working alongside co-director David Bickerstaff. As well as the Exhibition on Screen strand, recent productions have included behind the scenes documentaries on the staging of the National Theatre’s War Horse and the Bristol Old Vic’s Swallows and Amazons. “The traditional route was to go to work for the BBC or ITV and maybe by now I would have been making my first series,” says Phil. “There are so many independent companies now – the technology for making films is cheaper and easier. It has become hugely competitive.”

Phil loves Brighton – enjoying the cycle ride down to the office from his home in Withdean much more than the painful London commute. He is also an active member of the Brighton Phoenix Running Club. The rise of email and new technology has made being out of the capital easier.

He is critical of the approach many television companies take today. “They want a presenter to write the script which will always depend on how much they know about a subject,” he says. “They have lost confidence at putting art shows on at peak times.”

The company’s main focus is on the cinema, having moved into the world of art and music with a series of documentaries on classical composers including Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Chopin. He believes the rise in cinema quality screenings – in particular HD – has transformed how art can be shown. “The quality of what you can see on screen has never been so good in all of human history,” he says. “It’s extraordinary when we get close up on a painting – the only way you could see that detail is by standing in front of the painting with perfect lighting and a magnifying glass.” 


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