Thursday, 19 January 2012

Save The British Film Industry!

This week’s report on the British film industry by a panel of experts, including Lord Julian Fellowes, and chaired by Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury, former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (AKA Chris Smith) recommends that the industry should concentrate on producing low budget horror films. Not really, of course. I’m making it up. Wouldn’t it be great, though, if it did?

Instead the panel recommends that the industry continues to support a range of films, from mainstream to ‘arty’ (good!) but also urges film-makers to move away from a reliance on government subsidy (bad!)

In my last post I extolled the virtues of Mum and Dad (2008), not just as a good horror film but also as a great piece of regional film-making (it was co-produced by East Midlands Media) and exemplary micro-budget film-making. With 50% of its financing provided by Film London’s Microwave Scheme (a scheme to produce feature films with a budget ceiling of £100k), it is a film that may well not have been made if it hadn’t have been for government subsidy in the form of lottery money.

Monday's report also recommends that producers forge closer relationships with distributors to ensure a healthier profit return to the British Film industry. This, of course, is easier said than done. In terms of the horror film, there was Hammer Studios whose output was handled by American distributors (Warner – Seven Arts) ensuring a healthy return to the company which enabled them (during the height of their popularity) to run a British franchise second only to that of Cubby Broccoli. Things have changed since then, sadly. Production companies of a similar size to Hammer, such as Working Title Films, are now owned by American conglomerates. There lies the reason why subsidies for the British Film industry are necessary. The American domination of the industry extends to not only to UK production, but also to UK distribution and exhibition, making it so much more difficult for British producers and distributors to take a share of the UK market.  It is difficult for a UK feature film to find English-language distribution without an American-distributor, and even an independently produced hit like The King’s Speech – well, good luck getting your net profits out of the Weinstein Company accounts, boys.

Ironically, the epitome of Tory film policy was probably Pete Walker. He funded his films himself (from the profits of his previous films), kept his production budgets low and production values high (through sheer competence and a good crew) and didn’t need to rely on funding bodies or financiers. He sold his films to the American drive-ins, and when the drive-ins closed down in the late 1970s/ early 1980s, his market dried up.

The domination of the multiplex has now made such independence almost impossible.

Pete Walker: show 'em how it's done
It used to be that in Britain a levy was place on American imported films (the Eady Fund) creating a pot of money that went towards financing British films. The Eady Fund enabled film-makers like Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg and John Boorman to secure international co-funding for their work. However, Thatcher’s government put an end to the Eady Fund in 1985 in a bid to minimise trade-barriers to the USA. Since then, ‘how can we revitalise the British Film industry?’ has become the perennial question.

The answer is  – we can’t.  Not in the face of American domination. The British Film industry is likely to remain a cottage industry - a niche industry. This is why government subsidy is a necessity.

This perhaps suits horror film production well enough, as horror is a niche product; as long as budgets remain low, the  horror film, by virtue of its appeal is likely to remain profitable – the key issue is to make sure those profits are returned to the film-makers so that they can keep producing.

To read the Chris Smith’s report on the British Film industry – if you can get through the buzzwords and the blah – follow this LINK


Wes M said...

Interesting stuff Jon. I heard Cameron on Sky News a few weeks ago imploring the British Film Industry to make more commercial films which is easier said than done. Remember the glut of Brit gangster from a few years ago that came in the wake of The Guy Richie School of Gangster Cinema - they were mostly terrible. I'm not even sure if I could tell you what a commercial film is. I think the success of Four Weddings and a Funeral was a fluke - it was the right film at the right time, and I never would have thought something like Hunger, brilliant as it is, would breakout... I was a little depressed earlier when I saw the trailer for the new Soderberg film, an anonymous looking action thing which left me thinking why Soderberg would make such junk, but at least it will get him into the multiplexes - Terence Malick's Tree of Life washed up in these parts for a whole week before being elbowed out by Cowboys and Aliens. Pete Walker's approach to financing films was a smart move - after reading Ken Russell's autobiography, Altered States (aka A British Picture), I have greater admiration for indie film makers, such is the cruelty of the film industry - Russell freely admits that offers to make films spectacularly dried up after the failure of Valentino. The Egos Have Landed, the story of Palace Pictures is recommended too - an eye-opening look at the murkey waters of film financing and the international co-production...

Jon T said...

Interesting comments, Wes. I agree completely with what you say about what is commercial? I remember FilmFour ten years deciding that they were going to make more commercial films, but the failure of Charlotte Grey stopped them in their tracks. In the 1980s Puttnam and Goldcrest decided to take the same route after Chariots of Fire, but it only took a couole of failures, like Greystoke, to sink them. These compnies can't offset their losses against their hits the way Hollywood can.