UPDATE 28/11/19: Vue has announced that it will screen Blue Story with "additional security arrangements" from this weekend onwards.
It’s probably not exactly how he planned it, but debut filmmaker Andrew Onwubolu (a.k.a. Rapman) has come out on top. Blue Story – the London-set gang drama blamed for a mass brawl at a movie theatre and yanked from distribution by one of the biggest cinema chains in the UK – has pulled in over a million at the box office and is now third in the UK film release charts.
Deptford-born writer and director Onwubolu based his feature about two teenagers who join rival gangs on his viral webseries (20 million views on YouTube and counting) of the same name. The opening weekend of his film was meant to be his big Hollywood break, receiving a four-star review from the Guardian and starring rookie actor Stephen Odubola in a highly praised breakout role.
Instead, its opening weekend saw a huge fight break out on Saturday at a Vue cinema at Star City in Birmingham, where the film was playing alongside the new Frozen 2. What began as an altercation between some girls spiralled into a disturbance involving up to 100 people. West Midlands Police approached the crowd with tasers and dogs and arrested five teenagers, including a 13-year-old girl on suspicion of assaulting an officer. Two machetes and a knife were later found at the venue.
Vue yanked the film from all its 91 venues in the UK and Ireland as a result of the incident, with Showcase Cinemas – which runs 21 movie theatres in the UK – following suit. Onwubolu tweeted: “It’s truly unfortunate that a small group of people can ruin things for everybody. Blue Story is a film about love not violence.”
The response from Vue was met with widespread criticism online as people called out the cinema chain for racism, accusing them of censoring a black film that depicts the experience of young boys in inner-city London.
Birmingham rapper Jaykae tweeted: “Was literally going to watch Blue Story tonight at Vue Star City as that’s where I usually go. To see they’ve locked it off from all Vue cinemas is a disgrace.”
The MOBO Awards – the biggest event honouring black music in the UK – also posted on Twitter: “With a powerful message and strong story, Blue Story aims to point out how senseless gang violence really is and that it basically leads to nowhere. We hope this decision will be reviewed.” Talk of a potential boycott circulated on social media with the hashtags #NoBlueNoVue and #BoycottVue.
Blue Story isn’t the first film to be associated with concerns around violence. One cinema in California cancelled Joker after security concerns that it might prompt an incident similar to the 2012 Dark Knight shooting in Colorado.
But, as Onwubolu points out in his tweet, this didn’t affect the reception of Todd Phillips' film. “It's always unfortunate,” he explained, “but I hope that the blame is placed with the individuals and not an indictment of the film itself.”
Vue claimed that the decision to pull the film was the result of “over 25 significant incidents” were reported at 16 different cinema locations – “biggest number [the company] have ever seen for any film in such a short time frame”.
"The decision to withdraw Blue Story was not one taken lightly or without careful consideration of our experience across the country,” it said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the actions of a significant few have spoiled the opportunity for others, but we stand by our decision to withdraw the film from our schedule indefinitely.”
Vue did not share the locations of these incidents publicly. But when VICE reached out to Metropolitan Police, West Midlands Police and Manchester City Police – responsible for policing in the three biggest cities in the UK – they said they were unaware of any other incidents apart from the Star City brawl. All three police forces said that they didn’t expect an increased police presence at any cinema location in London, Manchester or Birmingham.
Showcase’s ban on Blue Story was short-lived. By Monday morning, it reversed its decision and announced that they’d reinstate film with “increased security protocols” after discussions with the film’s distributor, Paramount UK.
“We took the decision to temporarily suspend screenings of Blue Story to enable us to assess the situation,” they told VICE. “After careful consideration and discussions with the distributor in the last 24 hours, we have come up with a plan to reinstate screenings of the film supported with increased security protocols and will be doing so from this evening.”
Odeon also released a statement announcing updated security measures at venues screening Blue Story. “The safety of our guests and colleagues is our number one priority,” a spokesperson said. “We have a number of security measures in place for this film, and are currently reviewing these along with our programming, in order to continue to put the safety of our guests first.”
Both Odeon and Showcase declined to share what those security measures would entail. Despite this, the link between the Birmingham fight and 15-rated Blue Story remains unclear. As Jaykae put it in his tweet: “Half the people arrested aren’t even of age to watch it. Sort your security out, it’s fuck all to do with the film.”
On Wednesday, Onwubolu told BBC Breakfast there was “no connection” between the mass brawl and the film. “And then you start thinking, is there hidden reasons there?" he added. "What's the [cinema] owner like? Has he got an issue with young urban youth? Is he prejudiced? Does he believe that this film brings a certain type? Is there a colour thing?”
Vue declined to comment further on the ban, but Blue Story distributor Paramount UK and backers BBC Films stood by the film. “We were saddened to see the events that unfolded at Star City and our sympathies are with all those affected,” Paramount said in a statement. “We feel that this is an important film, which we’ve seen play in more than 300 cinemas across the country, with incredibly positive reactions and fantastic reviews.”
“Blue Story is an outstanding, critically acclaimed debut feature which powerfully depicts the futility of gang violence,” BBC Films said. “It’s an important film from one of the UK’s most exciting new filmmakers which we’re proud to be part of.”
But even with Vue’s decision to ban the film, Onwubolu and the team behind Blue Story have had the last laugh. The low-budget indie film pulled in £1.3 million over its opening weekend, putting it in third place behind Frozen II and Last Christmas.