British Independent cinema – The Sky is Falling and the Natives are Getting Restless

Robert Carlyle on Radio 4’s Film Programme (27 November) lamented the fact that the prospects for independent UK film production, as against North American produced ‘British’ films, appear to be getting worse; and that it doesn’t seem possible to produce a film in Scotland anymore. Carlyle blamed this state of affairs on America’s dominance over UK distribution and exhibition and called for the introduction of regulations which would require one (just one) screen in each multiplex to be reserved for British films.

 

Brian Cox has now been repeatedly even more forthright, accusing North American companies of using ‘bully-boy’ tactics against independent British films, and calling for the introduction of quotas. And concerns have also been raised about how, despite large increases in the number of programme hours given over to films by the public service broadcasters, here too British films hardly seem to get a look in. Just what is going on?

 

What is pretty obvious is that no one in their right mind would invest in a non-North American, or in a few case,  non-French, produced ‘British’ film if it wasn’t for the awards and  soft loans provided by the Film Council. And most of these have no longer been reserved, as in the days of BFI funding, for works of ‘cultural merit’, but more for revenge/horror/sexploitation/crime-thriller genre films such as ‘Donkey Punch’ (£445,000), the Gillian Anderson rape/revenge movie ‘Straightheads’ (£700,000+), or the very highly reviewed and award-winning Brian Cox vehicle, ‘The Escapist’ (£779,426).

 

Each one of these films bombed at the box office. Donkey Punch grossed £300,000, Straightheads £187,000, and The Escapist closed after just two weeks with a gross of less than £140,000.

 

A major part of this Box office failure is down to British independent films – even those with very large amounts of Film Council awarded National Lottery cash – not managing to secure a general release; and several distributors have reported to me that bookers are insisting on evidence of impossibly large planned marketing spends as a pre-condition. This is another area in which the Film Council intervenes by making awards to distributors through its ‘Specialised Prints and Advertising’ fund, and these can add up to substantial additional marketing finance; for example since 2005 the Film Council has made seventeen awards in excess of £200,000. Nine of these were to North American companies, six to ones that are French owned and one to British distributor, Artificial Eye, for a foreign film. Out of these seventeen less than half had even British content.

 

This is bizarre. Not only does the Film Council do nothing to challenge the North American dominance over mainstream UK cinema exhibition, as well as colluding in policies which ensure that foreign films dominate at the arthouses, it spends large amounts of National Lottery money on promoting foreign films and on subsidising the installation of 3D digital projectors in multiplex cinemas which will allow Hollywood to tighten its grip on the UK exhibition market even further!

 

At the same time it spends huge amounts of National Lottery money on subsidising the production of British films which aren’t going to get screened, and on short film and scriptwriting schemes supposedly aimed at developing new talent whilst maintaining the market conditions which ensure that most of this money is simply being thrown away.

 

Any of us thought that when John Woodward was appointed CEO at the Film Council things would turn out differently. I mean before his appointment he’d been PACT’s chief negotiator where he’d negotiated a deal which gave independent producers 25% of the mainstream broadcast TV market. But what we hadn’t reckoned with was the fact that, as far as the heavy-hitters go, the Film Council’s Board of Directors itself would be dominated by American interests. Talk about cuckoos in the nest and Foxes being put in charge of the hen coop! Things have to change. This is a scandalous abuse of public money and the National Lottery should at least be demanding an enquiry.

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