Eighteen months or so ago, the British film industry, which relies heavily on states subsidy through money from the National Lottery, was thrown into turmoil when the new coalition government, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, announced that they were shutting down the UK Film Council, the organization that, among other things, was responsible for the allocation of funding for development and production. Those responsibilites were shifted to the British Film Institute, but many in the industry were fearful of what changes were still to come.
And those fears were seemingly realized this morning. A review into the government’s film policy by former Culture Secretary and Labour peer Lord Chris Smith is set to publish on Monday, but Prime Minister Cameron seemingly pre-empted its findings this morning ahead of a visit to Pinewood Studios by announcing what he thought the industry should be doing (after a record year for attendances, when the top three grossers were British movies, two of which were independently produced).
Cameron said that he felt that the industry should “aim higher” and produce “more commercially successful pictures” without Hollywood backing, commenting “Our [government] role, and that of the British Film Institute, should be to support the sector in becoming even more dynamic and entrepreneurial, helping U.K. producers to make commercially successful pictures that rival the quality and impact of the best international productions,” adding “we must incentivise U.K. producers to chase new markets both here and overseas.”
Furthermore, perhaps a more telling hint of the report came from Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning writer of “Gosford Park,” creator of TV smash “Downton Abbey” and a Tory Peer who served on the eight-strong review board, along with Sony Pictures Entertainment chair Michael Lynton, Film4 head Tessa Ross and Big Talk MD Matthew Justice, among others. Fellowes writes in The Times today (behind a paywall) that, “Historically, a disproportionate amount of public money was directed at a type of art house production. Some were excellent, but they were aimed almost entirely at minority markets. This cannot continue, we must have a more balanced approach with greater support for mainstream films because the key to building a dynamic industry will always lie in film’s relationship with the audience.”
Even worse news seems to come from the BBC. “Today” program Arts Editor Will Gompertz said on the show this morning that, having spoken to a senior person involved with the report, it’s expected to shift towards a focus to those with proven commercial track records. If you’ve made a successful film in the past, it’ll be easier to get funding. Gompertz quotes his unnamed source as saying that the new system will focus on, “Movies that people want to see, not luvvies who are your mates,” and that “It’s over for Mike Leigh,” the beloved British auteur whose films wow festival crowds, but rarely become financial triumphs.
Twitter promptly exploded, and while this is pretty grim news all round, it’s important to put it in perspective for a second. The review hasn’t yet been published, and it’s likely to be more moderate than the grabby quotes picked up on by Cameron, who is, after all, pursuing his own agenda. Furthermore, while the review was initiated under his government, it is an independent body, so launching brickbats at the Tories for any findings is simplistic. (Even if it’s fun. And it really is fun, because, to paraphrase a “Community” line, David Cameron looks and acts like God spilled a person).
Finally, it seems that there may be some good ideas among the bad. As Ken Loach, the kind of filmmaker who may have his funding source cut off, said on Radio 4 this morning, the report is expected to recommend that rather than returning money to the central body after a film has made it back, it’ll be kept by the production companies, who’ll be able to reinvest in future productions, in theory creating a more sustainable film industry, which has been the holy grail of British film policy since the dawn of the medium.
So that’s the balanced bit, but in most other ways, there seems to be a lot of stupid, terrible ideas being floated here. Firstly, if government subsidies for the arts, or indeed any film, are to exist, surely the point is to enable the production of projects that wouldn’t otherwise exist. “The Inbetweeners Movie,” the film version of the popular TV series that turned out to be the third biggest-grossing film of the year in the U.K. in 2011, was independently produced, but was always enough of a dead-cert that it didn’t need government help. What the review seems to be proposing is that films like that would be favored, over, say “Weekend,” arguably the best British film of last year, and one made possible only through funding by EM Media, an East Midlands-based organization backed with lottery money (and a film, which incidentally, received the third-best Rotten Tomatoes score of the year for U.K. films).
Secondly, the characterization by Gompertz of the new policy as “investing in people” sounds good on the surface, but it’s terrible news for new talent. As filmmaker J. Blakeson, whose Isle of Man-funded first feature “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” won critical plaudits around the world, landing him a studio gig with Warner Bros., tweeted this morning, “If UK public film financing starts taking fewer risks, it will get harder than ever for a first time director to get a film made, and it is already nearly impossible.” Without a proven commercial track record behind you, you’ll be a less attractive proposition for your film to receive funding. Where will the next Andrea Arnold come from? The next Lynne Ramsay? The next Asif Kapadia?
And even with that first feature under your belt, it may not make things any easier. Director Rupert Wyatt‘s Film Council-funded debut “The Escapist” made a meagre $370,000 worldwide, despite critical acclaim, in part thanks to mis-handling by its distributor. Rather than make another British film, Wyatt headed to Hollywood, where he had a half-billion dollar hit with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” How many other Wyatts or Christopher Nolans will the industry lose to the studios if their first films fail to bust blocks?
And of course, it’ll mean a narrowing of production companies actually able to get films financed. The number of shingles with the power to get films green-lit is already slim, but if only the likes of Film4 and Warp can get government funding, because they can point to the success of previous projects, then it’ll limit the kind of films that can get made, particularly if the companies are being steered away from “uncommercial” pictures like, say, Paddy Considine‘s “Tyrannosaur,” the kind of gritty drama that’s being used as a pinata by the anti-subsidy brigade.
And here we come to the biggest problem with the idea of funding films based on how successful they’ll be. It’s not going to work.
To quote William Goldman‘s oft-used maxim: “Nobody knows anything.” Cameron and co. love to use recent examples like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech” as shining lights of the kind of film that the industry should be aiming for; British talent and money, critical acclaim, Oscar success, and international money-spinners ($377 million and $414 million respectively, on $15 million budgets). But on paper, they certainly weren’t home runs. ‘Slumdog’ was a mostly subtitled drama about poverty with a cast of unknowns, so commercially unappealing that original distributor Warner Bros. dropped it only a few months before it went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. “The King’s Speech” was famously turned down by most of the big British production companies, and only got the financing thanks to, yes, the UK Film Council. It’s easy for someone like Fellowes (whose directorial debut, the dull-as-ditchwater adultery drama “Separate Lies,” was also backed by the UKFC, ironically enough, and made only $3.5 million worldwide) or Cameron to laud their success now, but on paper they were the kind of arthouse films that the new policy will ignore in favor, presumably, of period dramas and star-driven comedies.
And going with companies with proven track records isn’t exactly a goldmine. Working Title have become, over nearly thirty years, arguably the most successful British production company, thanks to the success of films like “My Beautiful Launderette,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Billy Elliot,” “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” “Love, Actually,” “Atonement,” “Hot Fuzz,” “Senna” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” But they’re also the compnay who ploughed tens of millions into “Thunderbirds,” “Wimbledon,” “Catch A Fire,” “Smokin’ Aces,” “Green Zone” and “Hippie Hippie Shake” (a film which remains unreleased, nearly five years after it went before cameras). Film4, meanwhile, nearly went under in the early ’00s after expensive flops like “Death To Smoochy,” “Charlotte Gray” and “Buffalo Soldiers.”
We don’t say this to embarass anyone. We say this to again illustrate — no one knows anything. Those films probably looked like good bets at the time. But any policy that can be summed up by saying “we’re going to make more successful films” is doomed to failure, because there’s no guarantee to success. If there was, film funding wouldn’t be a problem because an equation would have told you that, to pick a random example, a film about Edinburgh heroin addicts, “Trainspotting,” would prove to gross $72 million worldwide back in 1996. But it didn’t — someone took a risk, and a risk paid off. The homegrown success of “The King’s Speech” and “The Inbetweeners Movie” undoubtedly means that we’ll see plenty of “safe bets” more period dramas and teen sex comedies from the U.K. in the next few years, but the majority of them will perform more like “The Other Boleyn Girl” and “Sex Lives of the Potato Men” than their more recent inspirations.
Maybe we’re wrong, and the report will include plenty of provisions for first-time directors and producers, for a wide range of cinema, for more than just an endless series of sequels to “Johnny English.” But after the best year in quality for the British film industry that we can remember, one that saw record-breaking attendances for British film, with not just “The King’s Speech” and “The Inbetweeners” performing, but also diverse offerings like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “Attack the Block” and “Weekend,” it’s depressing to see the industry’s decision makers following the same kind of thinking that has left Hollywood studios in a creative slump. A factor that has contributed to the U.S. box office at the end of 2011, being the lowest it has been since 1995.