How fares the British film industry?

It's been a big year for British films, it seems. But just how British are they?

How indeed is the British film industry? Fire off this particular question into the vastness of cyberspace and you’d be forgiven for thinking that things have never been rosier. A great sprawl of articles tumble forth, spewing forth hugely impressive numbers, whilst also celebrating the talent of our actors and our crews. Unsurprisingly, the runaway success of franchises such as Bond, Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings also dominate most search-engine results.

In a nutshell then, the British film industry is in a state of rude health and we should all congratulate ourselves by heading down to our local cinema to watch a British film, you know, to bask in that lovely glow of pride that naturally occurs when the place that you’re from becomes relatively good at something important.

But wait. A quick glance at my local World of Cine listings over the summer told me that of the twenty films available for my edification, fifteen were American productions, three were Indian in origin and one (Leap!) was a joint French/Canadian venture. The only other film to watch then, was Dunkirk. Okay, not quite the smorgasbord of British cinema that the internet just led me to believe, but still, Dunkirk: what could be more British? A semi-mythic tale of British heroism expertly handcrafted by a British cast and crew virtually guarantees that alongside a thrilling tale of derring-do, my money will also go back into an industry that continues to grow from strength to strength, right?

Well, let’s not make any logic leaps here.

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Firstly, the numbers regarding UK film’s success don’t lie: according to the BFI, 2016 saw £1.6 billion being spent on UK film production, the highest ever recorded and surely enough to mean we the industry is awash with enough cash that we might finally get to see that long-awaited Sex Lives Of The Potato Men sequel we’ve all been clamouring for.

Follow the money further however, and you realise that despite the towering amount of cash coming into the UK film industry, the sad truth is that however much comes in, the vast, vast majority goes straight back out again. Take Dunkirk for example: whilst the story, cast and crew may be deeply steeped in British origins, it’s Hollywood in the form of Warner Bros. (as chief financier and distributor of the movie) that stand to pocket virtually all of its profits.

Of course, how far you agree with this line of argument depends on your definition of what a British film is, but even that proves problematic: despite being financed by Hollywood, the BFI (the government-appointed institution that decide such things) have named Nolan’s WWII epic as a British movie, principally for the reasons outlined in the preceding paragraph.

The BFI use a points-based system to decide which films qualify as ‘British’ (to determine funding and the like) but when a third of the required points are supposedly awarded for simply using the British language, it’s easy to see how the system can be open to criticism. In the case of a film like Dunkirk where so many British assets were used to such spectacular effect, whilst it seems somewhat churlish to argue that the film isn’t British, it seems equally incomprehensible that the industry that largely produced it doesn’t profit financially as well as critically.

The problem lies in the industry structure in this country. Huge swathes of tax relief offered by the government make the UK a very attractive proposition for overseas studios, resulting in significantly cheaper productions. Remember George Osbourne, our former chancellor, getting a namecheck on The Force Awakens’ credits? Well, it wasn’t for mo-capping Supreme Leader Snoke, believe it or not. Instead, it was more to do with tax relief, a far-less interesting state of involvement that would’ve been more at home in an earlier episode like the dreary, bureaucratic Phantom Menace. As well as being a relatively cheap place to make movies, the fact that we also possess world-leading crews, facilities, post-production studies and on-screen talent doesn’t hurt either.

As a result, inward investment from abroad (and most notably from Hollywood) makes up almost all of our industry revenue. “So what?” I hear you cry. “Foreign investment is still investment, right? It creates jobs and means the industry can continue to grow!’”

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Well, intrepid questioner with the excitable punctuation, you’d be right up to a point: whilst the rising inward investment has allowed our industry a period of unrivalled growth and long-running franchises like the Harry Potter films have allowed UK crews to hone their skills over an unbroken and considerable period of time, there are some serious drawbacks too. British auteur Edgar Wright, no stranger to success with British films himself, has gone on record in the past, stating that Hollywood’s tendency to hog British crews and facilities mean that UK-based projects can’t always get a look in: “While the tax break is good for Hollywood films shooting here, it’s probably not that great for British films shooting in the UK. Some middle-to-low budget films are going to find themselves without crew because all the American films are shooting here.”

Kick-Ass and Kingsman director and producer Matthew Vaughn goes even further, claiming that there is no British film industry as such; if the entire house of cards is based on outside investment that could theoretically dry up at any minute (more on that later) then how can it be considered an industry, especially if it isn’t even self-sustaining? Vaughn has mentioned in the past just how very close celebrated British productions like Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Kick-Ass came to being low-key straight-to-DVD releases, also stating that such an eventuality would have left him disillusioned and outside of the movie business for good. Anecdotal evidence like this is compounded by BFI figures which suggest that the vast majority of first-time British film directors don’t make another film for ten years, a staggering figure that leaves you to wonder where all of that talent ends up.

Of course, part of the BFI’s remit is to make sure that our most talented young British directors don’t end up leaving the industry altogether and add to the statistic above. To this end of course, they have all of that lovely funding with which to support British filmmakers.

Historically though, this in itself has posed something of a problem. At the turn of the century, with cash lottery grants flooding in like Brewster’s Millions, the British film industry was swimming in funding. The problem? It led to lots of films being greenlit that weren’t of great quality, many of which were so poor that once completed, they struggled to find distribution. This in turn did little to improve the perceived reputation of mid to low budget British cinema as being a bit naff, a perception underlined by BFI statistics showing that just 7% of British movies made profits from 2003-2010. As a result, acquiring said funding has become more difficult leading to the other broadside sometimes fired at British films: only a narrow section of movies get funded. Unless it’s a gangland crime drama, a stuffy period piece or a stark slice of social realism, you’ve got little chance.

It’s been almost two decades since all of that lottery cash left the industry with something of a hangover, and in the last ten years, it’s fair to say that things have improved, in some ways at least. The BFI have become more adroit at distributing funding, our crews and facilities have used that Hollywood money to become world-leading and consequently, we’re making better films (and not always just for other people). Renowned movie business analyst Stephen Follows argues that not only are the constituent elements of the British film industry outstanding, but also when the critical reception of British film is aggregated and compared to Hollywood’s output over the last decade, the UK’s product is markedly better. He crunches the numbers properly too, that one. That said, even if the UK is producing better films and getting better at financing them, there’s still no getting around that pesky distribution issue.

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To really make money and develop a self-sustaining film industry, audiences need to be able to find somewhere that British movies are on a screen. They also need exposure and it’s fair to say that distributors of UK films don’t exist in the same financial universe as their deep-pocketed studio pals from across the pond. The current model of ‘patchwork’ distribution deals where UK production companies have to sign lots of different distribution deals across the globe lacks the strong-arm swaying power of the Hollywood studio approach and is one of the key barriers to the industry freeing itself from reliance on foreign investment. British-based broadcasters don’t always help the situation either, with ITV and Sky in particular having been singled out in the past for not investing enough in British film.

It’s all in very stark contrast to the French film industry where legislation requires broadcasters to plough part of their profits back into homegrown film. As well as guaranteeing a certain amount of film production each year, the use of private cash (rather than public money such as lottery grants) means that broadcasters are that much more careful when it comes to quality control; after all, you’re always a little more considerate when it’s your own cash you’re playing with.

So where does this leave us then? A precariously-balanced industry, that is hugely reliant on foreign investment. British films falling in number year on year. But at least our industry can continue to rely on that Hollywood cash cow investing here in Blighty, right? Ah, yes. Well, about that… As Simon has pointed out a couple of times of late, Hollywood’s reliance on shared cinematic universes and broad appeal are veering the blockbuster model into a worrying model of short-term thinking. Couple that with dwindling audience numbers, diminishing revenues and a growing disinterest in the standard Hollywood blockbuster product and suddenly, the spectre of a sizeable industry slump in the US seems all too real. Whilst nobody doubts that Hollywood would soon correct its course (historically, it always has), the intervening period could spell disaster for the British film industry.

The protectionist approach of the pro-business Trump administration is well documented, struggling industries receive tax cuts and domestic investment is heavily encouraged whilst trade with other countries is marginalised. A Hollywood-based Hollywood (which sounds obvious but in reality isn’t been the case in years) would result in a damaging downturn in investment for the UK film business, drying up its key wellspring of income and checking its growth.

And then there’s Brexit. British films received some £75 million worth of funding via the European Union between 2007 and 2013. Access to that funding in the future is by no means guaranteed. The two year negotiating period that we’re currently in has, as in most markets, caused a significant drop in investment as everybody holds onto their money until things become clearer. Finally, that old chestnut of distribution could become an even bigger problem: the majority of UK films are co-distributed in tandem with European distributors, the better to reach as many markets as possible. A bad day at the negotiating table and the ability to do that becomes infinitely more difficult.

So interesting days ahead for the British film industry. Perhaps the most worrying thin is that, at the time of writing, nobody else seems to be talking about this potential problem. Not online at least. Perhaps they’re all happening in hushed, urgent conversations in the corridors of power, somewhere. Or perhaps they simply aren’t happening at all.

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If that all sounds a trifle too downbeat, well… there’s something particularly British about doom and gloom isn’t there? Here’s something of a ray of sunshine then, to conclude with.

Back in the early nineties, Kevin Costner was giving us the most abject Robin Hood in the history of cinema (yes, including the Russell Crowe version: twelve different British accents are still preferable to an entirely American one, wouldn’t you say?) in the form of the Hollywood-produced Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, a movie rescued only by the talents of the wonderful Alan Rickman. Meanwhile, Britain had put together its own competing version of the Robin Hood story (simply titled Robin Hood), a film which some say is superior to the American behemoth that swamped UK cinemas in the summer of 1991. Sadly, the British version’s cinema run didn’t last long, starved even of UK audiences, it disappeared into legend, much like the outlaw himself.

The ray of sunshine? A typically British self-deprecating lesson, one would suppose. We can change this. To some degree, the future of the industry lies with us, UK audiences and our willingness to go out and support British films in spite of the spellbinding marketing power of the Hollywood machine. We don’t always have to go and watch Prince Of Thieves just because the trailer’s been on the telly umpteen times and there’s a poster slapped on the side of the number 74 that rumbles endlessly past your house. There’s another Robin Hood out there, a homegrown one, and it needs your help. So the next time you’re planning a visit to the movies, think about seeing a British film.

If you can find one, that is.