“I think one of the keys to Warner’s success in your constituency is the Harry Potter film franchise which they have been making. There is a great tip and key for film-makers here. That is, we have got to make films that people want to watch and films which will benefit beyond themselves as they will also encourage people to come and visit our country.”
For those who are unfamiliar with that quote, it is from the lips of Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, delivered at a Prime Minister’s Questions, back in November. The leader of the government, who abolished the UK Film Council, he now looks to encourage the seemingly in limbo film industry to chase after the Hollywood dollar, and seek to make us a subservient satellite blockbuster academy where our promising talent both technically and artistically are essentially hired out for the ‘greater good’, in this case attracting industry, tourists and money to the British economy.
I have written about the future of the British film industry before and I stand by those comments. I believe that we should have a vibrant and diverse national cinema that caters for the public and also reflects the wide strata of concerns and experiences we have. That is my ‘great tip’. Sorry, Dave, probably not as patronising and ill-informed as yours.
However, it is probably best to clarify and describe what many see as the two extremes of current British cinema, and also explore a third way, which could realistically point the future of how the industry revives and develops itself.
Despite my obviously negative tone so far, it would be churlish to deny that commercially driven films have played an important part in British film industry success, both financially and, indeed, artistically (and even socially).
The great Ealing comedies and Hammer horrors, which are regarded with such appreciation, existed for mass consumption. This has now found its modern equivalent in the big Hollywood blockbusters that are now routinely made here, as exemplified by the Harry Potter franchise and Marvel films, such as the upcoming Captain America.
Overseas investment in the industry has been around £790 million for the last few years, a massive amount, and with tax breaks of up to £100 million (in total) being offered, it seems that business is booming, and will continue to do so. It’s statement given further weight by Warner Bros’ £100 million investment in Leavesden Studios, the selfsame investment which prompted Cameron’s quote.
These mega-blockbusters being made here is also good news for tourism, as not only can Potter fans visit Alnwick Castle, Cambridge and, umm, Kings Cross Station to get their real-world wizarding fix, but they can now go to the studio and see sets, props and costumes in a permanent visitors attraction. All of which makes good economic sense, and on the face of it would mark the British film industry as robustly healthy.
However, as we all know, film is most definitely not just about good economic sense. It is also about risk-taking, daring decisions and, god forbid, artistic merit.
It also seeks to address social issues, which is, sadly, a fact of British life still at the heart of our national psyche. And this is where the other extreme of British film is also widely held to exist.
There has been a lot of critically lauded contemporary British cinema over the last few years. Most of it deserves the acclaim it has received, and indeed, I count a few of the films amongst the best I have seen worldwide.
Take a handful of the following and you’ll see my point: Red Road, Fishtank, This Is England, London To Brighton, Nowhere Boy, Bright Star, Unmade Beds, and Better Things. All deserving works of film, with a strong message about the country we live in.
However, none of them particularly set the world alight, and although many people are familiar with them, and several have won prominent awards, many more people will have never seen them, nor even heard of them.
While some of you may find this a bit incredulous, I would like to share a story I was told when I first moved to London and talked to people about films we all liked. I mentioned Ratcatcher, a film of the same ilk and quality as the above, and was told that its director Lynne Ramsay (a few years after the ‘success’ of Morvern Callar, and at that point attached to The Lovely Bones) was sleeping on the floor of a friend’s house while trying to get funding together. And this was one of our more lauded talents. She has now only just entered post-production on her next film, an adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin, nearly 10 years after her last film.
So, is there a middle ground? Can a film remain truly British, yet attract an audience?
You may not like this, but I believe the answer may just be in the shape of films such as The King’s Speech. A potential mega award winner in the same vein as Slumdog Millionaire (a film I am retroactively grouping in this middle ground), it is definitely not seeking to address crucial social concerns, nor is likely to become a blockbuster franchise earning billions. It is merely (or, I should say, refreshingly) a well made film, almost for films’ sake.
It is well written, directed and acted, and most definitely a British production, with a British feel, and this is before you consider the subject matter. With a budget of under £10 million, it is also not incredibly expensive, and while suggesting that the British film industry just copy the template of this and Slumdog Millionaire is almost as ridiculous as Cameron’s ‘tip’ to make more films that ‘people will want to watch’, I do think there are lessons to potentially learnt from it.
Subject matter is important, and there is no need to sacrifice either an audience or a cultural identity in order to remain a truly British film.
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