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The Future of Film

February 16th, 2011

Are these ‘glorious’ times for the British film industry? At a recent debate at Goldsmiths College on the 3rd of February 2011, four panellists lined up to discuss this motion. Producer Robert Jones  and Head of BBC Films Christine Langan argued for the ongoing success of the British film industry, while David Livingston of Working Title Films and producer Paul Trijbits argued against.

The panel began by presenting a list of startling statistics to the audience:

 In 2010 119 films were made in Britain with budgets of half a million or more, while the total spend on British films last year was £1.155 billion, the highest on record. The total gross of the UK film industry in 2010 was £1,076.6 million, with successes like Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (David Yates) and Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton) among the top grossing films. However, by stark contrast the average budget of independent British productions declined from £3.5 million to £2.3 million. The British market share in 2010 was 22.6%, a figure which might seem reasonable were it not for the fact that 17% of this share came directly from US studios, while 5.5% came from indigenous sources. With a drop in independent British features it is perhaps unsurprising that directors like Ken Loach continue to lament the Hollywood colonisation of British film. Also, and rather disappointingly, Britain cornered just 6.7% of the worldwide market last year, down from 15.1% in 2008.

In the face of these figures, it is perhaps unsurprising that Christine Langan kicked off the debate with an emphasis on the cultural value of British productions. ‘British success has never been measured in balance sheets’ argued Christine, and this is true. The last ten years has seen successes such as Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004), This is England (Shane Meadows, 2006), Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008), Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears, 2010), The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010) and many more. The 2010 London Film Festival launched many new critically acclaimed features like Peter Mullan’s Neds, Mike Leigh’s Another Year and Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham. But where Christine’s argument was culturally optimistic, her references to the financial side of things left little doubt that these times are anything but ‘glorious.’ Phrases like ‘British film thrives in adversity’ and ‘indomitable independents continue to push far above their weight’ brought home the fact that despite recent box-office hits many professionals working in the film industry today are living a hand-to-mouth existence.  

2010 has been a mixed year for British film, and success has been tempered by an unexpected blow to the industry in the form of the axing of the UK Film Council. The UKFC was set up in 2000 with a brief to invest lottery money in British talent and productions. It funded more than 900 productions and has spent more than £300 million since its inception. Though this may seem impressive, the announcement of the UKFC’s demise elicited mixed responses. The Guardian Film Blog described it as a ‘hammer blow’ for the industry, while other people have been less troubled by the news. Perhaps this is because of the film culture that the UKFC fostered, directing money into particular types of features that had a greater chance of commercial success. These were feel-good British films of the Four Weddings ilk: idiosyncratically British and middle-class, the sort of movies that could travel well in an international market. Such films have done very well – most recently the UKFC-funded The King’s Speech was nominated for fourteen BAFTAs (of which it won seven) and twelve Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor (Colin Firth). In the face of this achievement some see the axing of the UKFC as a blow to the industry at a time of financial uncertainty, but others see it as an opportunity for exciting new development and a chance for funding to be diverted towards independent filmmaking through the new auspices of the British Film Institute. And the situation may yet improve as the money that remains in place to be distributed has been increased, while Film4 has also increased its film funding by £5 million. Nobody knows where we will go from here and how that funding will be divided, but perhaps it doesn’t do us any good to be pessimistic. Death knells of the industry have been repeatedly rung for the last thirty years, and yet things have never seemed quite as bad as the pessimists would have us believe. As Christine Langan said, ‘If I had a pound for every obituary of the British film industry, I’d fund a Bond movie.’

But is it ‘glorious’?

Paul Trijbits argued that when it came to production, indigenous British film was in a tiny margin. The total value of the film industry to the national gross last year was £4.5 billion, but the value of independent British production was only £59 million, or 1.3%. ‘Economically we have no leg to stand on’ said Paul, ‘I’m worried.’  Those arguing for the motion could not face these financial statistics head on – to do so would be rhetorical suicide. And indeed, where Christine had focused on the cultural value of British film rather than arguing for a self-sustaining industry, Robert Jones seemed concerned with the future of film in terms of the opportunities to be found in technological innovation. Filmmaking and editing is becoming increasingly affordable, and new forms of technology mean that it might be possible for films to have digital premieres online and gain publicity through word-of-blog. The democratization of filmmaking through increasingly sophisticated and accessible software means that it is easier for filmmakers to get their work out there on a shoestring … but whether those voices are heard or not is an entirely different matter. Social networking also means that marketing can be targeted to specific online groups and demographics, minimising the cost of real-world publicity. ‘We are on the cusp of the unknown in many different ways’ said Robert, ‘and in a time of uncertainty good things will always emerge.’

On the whole conclusions were mixed, with arguments seeming to be diametrically opposed. David Livingston was convinced that cinema attendances were down and the British public could not be encouraged to watch home-grown productions, while Christine Langan and Robert Jones argued that cinema attendances were up and the public were passionate about British film. On the ‘pro’ side of the argument much reference was made to ‘promising’ new British talents, and ‘promising’ new technologies. Indeed, the ‘promising’ seemed to be the word of the day, not ‘glorious.’  This is why, when the motion was called, I voted against it, simply because the use of the word ‘glorious’ in the current industrial climate might be overly optimistic. But that is not to say that the situation is dire by any means. Over the last ten years, many good films have been made, and it seems safe to assume that many good films will continue to be made. The British film industry may not be self-sustaining but it will continue to foster new talents and to deliver successful new productions, whether indigenous or (far more likely) co-produced. The attitude of the panel might not have been overwhelmingly optimistic, but one thing both sides could agree on was the continued survival of British film.

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Image taken from: <http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicogenin/3931057272/>

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