What’s wrong with the British Film Industry?

Britain has an incredibly successful television industry. It makes some of the best programmes in the world, is internationally respected for its public service ethic and structures, and for its constant innovation. British television is right there at the cutting edge and its global sales and revenues are enormous.


Britain also has an incredibly successful music industry which has, from time to time been damaged by record company executives who’ve tried to dumb down the music with pre-teen targeted manufactured pap. But the indie spirit just keeps on bursting out of bedrooms in Glasgow, or Manchester, or Sheffield, or Hastings, or some small town on the Isle of Wight, or Cardiff. In fact wherever people can get there hands on some instruments and make some noise. And, as far as the music-buying public goes, once it’s got beyond puberty it’s the musicians and their independent spirit that they side with; whereas the executives and the big companies are viewed with anything from suspicion to disdain.


It’s the same story pretty much wherever else you look in the creative industries, be it fashion, video-gaming, architecture; we’re good at this sort of stuff.


So why is it then that we make crap films? Or rather, why is it that most of the British Films which actually make it into the multiplexes are awful unless, like Harry Potters, or James Bonds, they’re American, or French, like ‘The Queen’? It can’t be because of a lack of talent. I mean we do have some of the finest technicians in the world who are much sought after by Hollywood, even though they could make even more cost savings by shooting in Poland, or Romania. It can’t be down to a lack of facilities, we have everything from the biggest sound stages to an over-abundance of the latest technology. And it can’t be down to a lack of acting talent either. Sure it was the case once upon a time that the brittle accents and stagey performances of the RADA trained could sometimes verge on the embarrassing, but that was decades ago. But today there are many more British actors working in America than there are Americans working in Britain. No, the only reason can be that there is something very rotten at the heart of the industry itself – and that’s the people, the lawyers and accountants, and the executives and arts administrators and the distributors and the exhibitors who, whether deliberately or not, make sure that the Americans dominate what you are allowed to watch and that they pocket most of your hard earned cash.


I have a confession to make: at the end of the previous paragraph I was about to write, “what the youth audience is allowed to watch”.  I stopped myself because the film business is actually very poor when it comes to audience research. American studio executives believe that they target this audience and, having used up just about every Marvel comics hero, they are now almost frantically buying up the rights to Japanese Manga as well as the rights to remake even more Japanese horror movies. They claim that their decisions are made by the box-office, but in the UK for example where they control the market, all that tells them is pretty much what they know already, i.e. that they control the market. So it ends up being more like fashion. What ‘genre’ is ‘in’ at the moment? Sci-Fi? Swords and Sandals? Horror? Kung Fu? Serial Killers? Gangsters? “Hey! No one’s done any Westerns for a while!” – mistake!


Let’s just remind ourselves of how the studio system works. Execs spend the money, so they have to convince themselves that they know best. They have bright ideas about what foreign films to remake or books or comics to adapt. And because these people spend vast amounts of money they are very happy dealing with balance sheets and contracts. If they themselves are not lawyers or accountants they spend much of their time in meetings with people who are. But I digress. The execs employ people to turn their dreamt of profits into reality – scriptwriters – on deals under which they have no ownership or control over whatever they write. But then they start to fret. Are the scripts any good? So they employ script readers to answer that question. New writers get brought in, the script goes through draft after draft until what might have started off as vaguely like art ends up conforming to the received wisdom as to on which pages certain plot points should emerge (a sort of ‘painting by numbers’ by which, at any given time, most studio films in the same genre have the same running time and rhythm); and then people are hired to direct, cast, organise and do whatever else it takes to ultimately get it on in a ‘cinema near you’.


This system which seeks to control the market is financially very wasteful and quite easily exploited if you’re an insider. Execs can be persuaded to buy the rights to certain stories, first draft scripts, even ideas, just so that they have the option of maybe making them at some time in the future, or maybe not – just so long as no one else has the rights they can sleep easy in their beds. And then, because a lot of the scripts are crap, Hollywood created stars as the reason why you were supposed to go to the movies. So the stars demanded ever more money and adulation. And, OK, as an exec you might get it wrong more often than not, but if you can control the market then both the winners and losers are your films, so most years you turn a nice profit, but some years you really fuck up. Anyone wanting a more detailed description of how the medium to large budget film industry works would no better than to read “So You Wanna Work in Film?” by one of the world’s top cinematographers, Oliver Stapleton. You can find it, and much more besides, on his excellent www.cineman.co.uk website.


But I’ve another confession to make: my main reason for popping this in right now is because, even though we don’t have a studio system left in the UK, it still is the way in which a lot of people in the handful of British companies which don’t just sell and distribute films, but sometimes make them as well, think and act. But unlike Hollywood they can’t afford many box office failures, so they are even more risk averse. The trouble is Hugh Grant is getting too old for yet another identikit rom-com; whilst the seemingly bright idea of pairing TV comedy acts such as Ant and Dec, Mitchell and Webb, or members of Rickie Gervais’ supporting cast with, generally speaking, jobbing writers and directors from within television could have only seemed like a bright idea to someone with the imagination of, yes, a lawyer or an accountant. Still, there’s always gangsters or horror…


This is also true with regards to the Film Council, with one important difference: their job is to get as much money as possible from the tax-payer and then spend it. Whether what they spend it on makes any money or not, or even results in any films, is irrelevant; so, with other people’s money, you can play at being anything from a patron of the arts to the champion of the nakedly commercial – the number of possible psychodramas is virtually limitless.


American dominance


The lawyers and accountants that run Hollywood have always sought to dominate the world market. The sheer size of the US audience means that their films can often more than recoup their costs on the domestic market; so for such films, returns from the rest of the world are virtually pure profit. They have the economic muscle to outspend on everything from production to advertising; and, anyway, they have come to dominate exhibition to such an extent that some 95% of all European cinemas are American owned. The results of all this for the UK is that, in 2006, every single one of the top twenty films at the box office were either 100% American (17) or the product of American inward investment –Casino Royale, The Da Vinci Code, and Flushed Away.


During the same year UK commercial productions came way down – topping the list was “The History Boys”, which took about 40% of what “Broke Back Mountain”  £10 million at the box office; and next was Ant and Dec’s dire “Alien Autopsy” which somehow managed to scrape a £2 million gross. But these, and all of the other British films bar two that grossed more than £1 million were distributed by foreign (and largely American) companies.


The statistics are even more illuminating as they demonstrate that US involvement is pretty much a prerequisite for a British film to be shown in cinemas. For the years 2004 and 2005 ninety per cent of such films got theatrical distribution, whereas six out of ten British independent films did not. These statistics relate to films certified by the BBFC, so the percentage of British independent films that didn’t get released is much higher than 60%, as, in most case, the producers of low and micro-budget films discover that no one will distribute them so there’s no point in forking out another £3,000 for a certificate. Yes, there are many UK (aspiring) filmmakers who having been inspired by films from El Mariarchi, to The Blair Witch Project, to Lars von Trier’s Danish ‘Dogme’ films, or by organisations such as ‘Raindance’; have discovered that UK sales agents and distributors couldn’t be bothered to even look at their films.


But why is this? The answer is that the British film industry I structured in such a way that British independent films are discriminated against to such an extent that they come right at the bottom of the pile, being even less favoured than micro-budget foreign independent productions. And that’s all down to how it’s structured.





Where’s my subsidy?


Most countries seek to protect their own media through restrictions and conditions on both foreign ownership and content, and this is particularly so with regards to broadcasting. (I think it always pays to remember R.H. Tawney’s saying that ‘freedom for the pike is death for the minnow’)


Throughout Europe there have been two responses to America’s dominance over film. The first, which applies to the EU itself, as well as to its individual member states, has been to conclude that, as the US domestic market effectively acts as a giant subsidy to US film exports, Europe has to respond by subsidising all aspects of its own film industries through its Media programme which, every year, pumps around £100 million into film production, distribution, exhibition. To this amount you need to add what each individual European country spends on directly supporting its own industry through organisations such as the UK Film Council, additional funding from the EU under the guise of business support and development, as well as tax breaks and other incentives. Yes, there’s a lot of money sloshing around, and if you’re a lawyer or an accountant your first priority is to make sure that the tap remains turned on and that you get your hands on as much of it as possible.


The second has been for certain countries, such as and Denmark and France, to also impose quotas which require that exhibitors, be it cinema, television or both, whether American owned or not, show a certain percentage – often around 30% – of their own nationally produced films. The countries which have followed this two-fold strategy of subsidies and quotas have thriving industries with their own films often greatly outperforming the required 30% quota. But in countries which don’t, such as the UK, the results of not imposing any quotas is all too painfully obvious.


In the UK this subsidy-driven culture has some unexpected effects, especially with regards to distribution. In the period from 2001 – 2006 British distributors obtained more than £5million in subsidies. But the purpose of these is to reward “distributors who set out to release non-national European films”, i.e. who don’t distribute British films! And this money comes in two parts- here’s how it works: a British distributor acquires the UK rights to a French, German, or other European film and the EU gives them anywhere between 25,00 and 150,000 euros. Not bad! But then all they have to do is submit the annual box-office returns for the film and the EU automatically gives them even more money. And exhibition’s not that much of a problem either as the EU subsidises what is effectively a chain of 35 British Arthouse cinemas committed to programming themselves with a high proportion of ‘non-national’ European films which includes such as The Cornerhouse, Manchester; The Gate, London; The Filmhouse, Edinburgh; and the Cambridge Arts Picture House. Between 2001 – 2006 the EU subsidised UK distributors of these non-British European films to the tune of almost 8million euros, and this wasn’t just for cinema distribution either, almost one million went towards DVD distribution and more than 600,000 was also handed out to UK sales agents as a subsidy for them to sell…that’s right, foreign films.


But the distribution subsidies don’t just stop there as, having acquired these films, they can then apply for money from the National Lottery through the UK Film Council’s “Prints and Advertising Fund”. You might be forgiven for thinking that the aim of this particular fund was to help promote British films and get them into more cinemas, but you’d be wrong. The Film Council’s stated purpose of the “P&A Fund” is to support ‘specialised films’. And what do they mean by ‘specialised’ films? To quote their own definitions: “foreign films with subtitles, documentaries, (and) archive classic films e.g. The Leopard, Gone With The Wind…”  So, no mention of ‘Independent British Films’ so far. But they do go on to add that specialised films may also include ones that are hard to classify by genre (no examples given), or ‘with more complex and challenging subject matters’  e.g. The Station Agent, Palindromes (both US indies) or ‘Cinematic Style’ – i.e. films which ‘often have more innovative or unconventional storytelling style or aesthetic and may deviate from straightforward narrative structure found in mainstream cinema.’ for which they give as examples a further string of US indie films plus one Danish-led Euro co-production, Dogville.


At least you’d think from this list that, if you made a British indie film that wasn’t a genre film and which dealt with complex issue in an innovative and unconventional way then you’d have the right to say, “Hey! Film Council! Support the struggle to promote our film and get it into some cinemas!” And it is the case that they do mention British films as rather an afterthought by saying that, whilst supporting specialised films, they do back ‘more commercially focused (my emphasis)British Films’.  


So the ‘P&A Fund’ is designed to largely subsidise not just European films, but American, Canadian, Australian, Chinese, Korean – and maybe the odd British film as well. And it’s not just the small companies that benefit either. In 2007 £500,000 was handed over to the US Major, Universal Pictures for their titles: The Curse of the Golden Flower, and ‘Lust Caution, whilst other beneficiaries included the French giant, Pathe, and the large Canadian independent, Lionsgate. But the total support in the same period for British films amounted to around 17% – mind you, it was a particularly good year which saw the release of Brick Lane (£200k), Shane Meadows This Is England (£90k) – most critics choice for British film of the year, and £100K to Slingshot Productions rather poor and stagey run-of-the-mill London Gangster flic, Sugarhouse; so this 17% was, perhaps, abnormally generous. Perhaps it’s more interesting for the aspiring British indie filmmaker to consider the following example from the previous year: in 2006 two ‘no-budget’ first time features,  both made for around the £3,000 mark, received P&A Fund support. One was The Magician, an Australian mocumentary, whose distributors got £43,260. The other was The Plague, to which Mike Leigh had given his public seal of approval and distribution by Wysiwyg Films (who had been established with an express commitment to British independent cinema); it got £1,470…


By now it should be no surprise that, when one examines the catalogues of the British members of the UK’s ‘Film Distributors Association’, they are almost completely full of American, European and other foreign productions.


But it would be wrong to assume that this is all a one-way traffic. British films do benefit quite substantially from the European MEDIA subsidies towards their release in other European countries. This, coupled with the fact that French culture still sees a film director as someone with something to say,  is the simple economic answer to the mystery of how Ken Loach’s films may well open in 300 French cinemas whilst, as in the case of Ae Fond Kiss – an inter-racial love story with a Glasgow setting – end up with nothing from the P&A Fund and going pretty much straight to video in the UK.


I suppose that the only conclusions that the would-be UK indie filmmaker can draw from all this is that:

  • The multiplex cinema chains, whether American owned or not, all act as exhibition outlets for mainstream American movies together with a few British mainstream films that have been acquired by US distributors, i.e. what the UK Film Council calls “British studio films”. It is highly unlikely that any of this handful of films will make it into the box office top twenty.
  • There is a chain of arthouse cinemas with the prime purpose of screening non-British independent films.
  • There is a small number of independent cinemas which screen what they see as being more interesting films from either the mainstream or foreign arthouse circuits.
  • That there are no incentives for British distributors and sales agents to actual distribute and sell any independent British films. And they can’t be blamed for this as any commitment by them to British indie films would be the same as cutting off your nose to spite your face.


Maybe it would actually be a better idea to forget about the UK audience altogether and try and sell your film, whether its completed or just an idea, to a European distributor?


But, I hear you say, what about digital distribution? What about the more than £13 million of UK Lottery money that the Film Council put into creating the ‘Digital Screen Network’ of 240 digital screens across the country. Surely that must represent a fantastic opportunity for independent British Movies….


The Digital Screen Network


The Film Council pumped more than £13million of lottery into equipping 250 screens, many of them in multiplex cinemas, with 2k digital light projectors, and in giving Arts Alliance Media both the task of supervising the installation and training involved, as well as the business of encoding any Film Council approved ‘specialised films’ into the agreed digital distribution format – i.e. the Film Council established the model by which the system works on a daily basis. This process was completed in April 2007 and the agreement will last for four years till April 2011.


All of this was not done as a total freebie for the cinemas as they have to pay a nominal rental fee for the extremely expensive projectors which, over the four year period, adds up to less than £20,000; after which they will be able to buy the projectors for some form of residual fee.


In return for this largesse the exhibitors are supposed to show a certain percentage of ‘specialised films’ through deals with individual distributors and Arts Alliance Media, and also to market the Digital Screen Network.


There are two problems with this. In the first place no one knows what the commitment of each exhibitor is; in fact the Film Council says that that’s purely a matter between themselves and each screen, but they do give hypothetical examples of how an Arthouse cinema might make an increase of ten screenings per week. And it was examples like this which prompted many distributors to think that the claim that audiences were going to have more and wider choices was actually true. Some even went so far as to think that a low or micro-budget British indie film might even be able to build a word-of-mouth audience large enough to convince the multiplex chains to give it a mainstream release.  However it turns out that this most definitely is not the case as, after many months of trying I did manage, by Easter 2008, to get the overall figures from the UKFC. Here they are:

         110 cinemas 5 shows a month

         59 cinemas 4 shows a month; 

         3 cinemas 3 shows a month,

         12 cinemas 2 shows a month, 

         26 cinemas 1 show a month.

So now you know, one a week if you’re lucky, one a month if you’re not. This is worse than a farce, it’s a complete joke. What it holds out to the indie filmmaker, whether UK or foreign, is the possibility that your film might be screened once at 10pm on a Wednesday night somewhere in the country, and it might be shown once somewhere else the following week, or the following month; or, let’s face it, it might as well be never as there’s no way that it can build an audience by word-of-mouth.


The second problem is that, whereas the UKFC sent out many press releases trailing how this wonderful opportunity was on its way, since its completion things have gone very quiet. Why? Because the cinemas have not been marketing the network. Not surprising really. I mean, how can you market something which doesn’t exist, other than in the fevered imaginations of some of the fools at the UKFC?


But it is the case that Hollywood wants to see these projectors installed and operating. They can be used to relay international sports tournaments, the Olympics, U2 and Rolling Stones concerts, as well as their films which they are increasingly shooting not just in HD video, but in 3D. And, guess what, the projectors are 3D programmable. For them the DSN has actually been a European test-bed for both installations and distribution agreements and infrastructure. On 26 May 2008 the Hollywood majors announced that their aim was to convert 8,000 European screens to digital, and not through any agreements with Arts Alliance Media, but with the Belgian firm XDC as their European partner. The Hollywood majors will come up with 65% of the cost and XDC will have to raise the rest from the exhibitors and private investors. Of course they have already acquired 250 of those screens in the UK courtesy of the UKFC and the National Lottery. Digital Screen Network my arse! More like a Trojan Horse! The must be laughing all the way to the bank – and it’s your, or should I say ‘our’ money they’ve run off with. This is actually worse than a joke. It’s a scandal.



Can it get worse? It can…




Even if they have been acquired by one of the American majors, or a European such as Pathe, British independent films are likely to get only the most limited of theatrical release, other than that week at a London screen so that it can be reviewed in the national press. A few highly selected (mis)quotations are then slapped hastily onto the DVD cover and it’s available on Amazon.


But maybe you could get a deal for your film through festival screenings. And if not a deal, then at least people would see it, you might get some reviews, word of mouth, comments on imdb and so on. In the USA most festivals are for American films. In fact they often set out to promote and showcase films made in the festivals home state. There’s one festival like this in the UK – the Cornish Film Festival which, in 2007, screened five feature length Cornish productions, a very large number of Cornish shorts, and one or two films that weren’t of Cornish origin. But, as you should expect by now, subsidies intervene. European MEDIA subsidised various UK film festivals to the tune of 460,924 euros between 2001 and 2006; money which those festivals wouldn’t otherwise have got – all they have to do is concentrate on non-British European films. Overall UK film festivals create the impression that there’s all sorts of interesting filmmaking going on elsewhere – even when they’re not being paid to do that.


Let’s take an example: the London-based organisation, Raindance which, besides organising an annual festival runs expensive short courses in on all aspects of writing, producing and directing independent films; as well as selling books covering the same subjects and offering a whole archive of ‘indie tips’ on their website. They certainly create the impression that they’ve got all this inside information that’s what you really need if you’re to get anywhere as a British indie filmmaker – just had over the money and it’s yours. You’d be right to expect that the Raindance festival is just as keen to champion British indie filmmaking – but nothing could be further from the truth. In 2007 Raindance screened a total of 75 feature length films. Of these five (yes 5) were UK features, three (3) were feature-length UK-produced documentaries, and one was an old British classic – “Performance”. So Raindance too is a celebration of all these hip and groovy underground and independent movies which are made somewhere else. But enough of Raindance for now, I’ll return to them, and to some other entrepreneurs as well, who make money from peddling tips, courses and books to the market of film and media graduates who are so desperate to make it as filmmakers that they’ll give money to people who haven’t – but know someone who has….


So, as far as distribution and exhibition goes things are almost completely stacked against the British indie filmmaker, and it’s also pretty heavily stacked against the makers of more mainstream British films as well. And it’s this that’s the nettle which has to be grasped. If it isn’t then all other initiatives add up to little more than, to use the well worn cliché, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – or to be a bit more blunt…


just buggering about on the sidelines.


Production funding: Europe and the UK Film Council


Here’s a bit of history. As far as indie funding goes for a long time there was the BFI and the film officers of the Regional Arts Associations. One had the sense that these organisations rather saw themselves as patrons of the arts. Up until the mid-1970’s the BFI didn’t even seen to enter into any formal contractual arrangements with those that it funded – they gave ‘artists’ money to make films and, when they’d made them they were  archived in a vault in a building located near the south bank of the River Thames.


But fashions come and go. There had been the events of ‘May 1968’, the worldwide campaign against the Vietnam war, the election in 1970 of a Marxist government in Chile, Portugal’s fascist dictatorship was losing its colonial war in Africa and was on the brink of being overthrown by revolutionary forces at home, and if Portugal went then Franco’s Spain would be next.  In the UK the miners were bringing down Ted Heath’s Tory government, feminists and gays were on the march, Northern Ireland was exploding – the revolutionary spirit was everywhere – or one might more accurately say that it was especially so amongst the young middle class intelligentsia. And all of this was being reflected by not just underground and indie filmmakers but had even spread into Hollywood itself. So it was hardly surprising that the Production Board at the BFI started to see itself as part of this revolutionary workers vanguard, and its luminaries could be found locked in earnest discussion in the smoke-filled backrooms of Chinese restaurants in Soho with aspiring revolutionary documentary filmmakers, such as myself and Alan Hayling ande the other founders of Newsreel, or with the Berwick Street Film Collective, or Cinema Action about how they were going to give us loads of money. And they did. Of course they ended up being not so happy about Newsreel. They never asked us to fill in any sort of application form. Instead I wrote an extremely detailed proposal in which we claimed all rights for ourselves and the BFI got nothing…


(By the way of an aside things are still very similar today in that you have a much greater chance of getting funding if you hang around with the people who hand it out. And if they like you and you fit with their agenda, then they’ll invite you to apply for money. So, if you don’t live in London, or are not bosom buddies with your Regional Screen Agency, there’s very little point in filling out all the forms….)


Obviously this could not continue, so New Labour were easily persuaded to establish the UK Film Council in 2000, and to do it in a typically New Labour fashion.  The aim was:


To stimulate a competitive, successful and vibrant UK film industry and culture, and to promote the widest possible enjoyment and understanding of cinema throughout the nations and regions of the UK.


And to do that by getting rid of the cultural elitists and left-wing professors of literature and film theory who were running the BFI; and to put major film industry figures in charge. So they appointed Sir Alan Parker as its first chairman with Stewart Till as Vice-Chair.


Stewart Till took over as Chairman in 2004. A year earlier in 2003 he had also been appointed as Chairman and Chief Executive of UIP, a position he held until 2006. The Film Council doesn’t attempt to hide this fact, it trumpets it, stating that UIP is “the world’s largest distribution company, with offices in 35 countries,” and that Stewart Till’s post meant that he “as responsible for the international theatrical distribution of Paramount, Universal and Dreamwork’s films.”  Obviously New Labour thought this was someone who’s CV was just what the British Film Industry wanted; that what the chicken coop needed was a fox putting in charge of it.


I find it particularly interesting to note how the Film Council presents itself on its website. At the moment (June 2008) its home page continues to display one of three different ‘info-mercials’ that are made in the style of trailers. One is about how the specialised P & A fund has brought a load of foreign films to UK audiences – something which I have dealt with extensively above.


Then there’s one about how it funds the production of short films. Of course short films are ones which won’t get any meaningful exhibition, if any exposure at all, but that’s not actually what their agenda is. Short films are seen as a way of developing talent, of spotting someone with potential as a director. At the same time they put money into developing script writers. It was explained to me that the idea behind this was for them to act rather like a studio executives bringing new directing and writing talent together. These schemes operate both nationally and regionally through the Regional Screen Agencies. In fact about £50,000 a year for ‘digital shorts’, and the same amount for ‘script development’ is all the money that the RSA’s get to spend on production, which is why the desperately try to raise money from other sources, such as EU schemes aimed at business development and job creation. Wikipedia defines the role and purpose of the RSA’s as follows:


Each agency has interpreted the brief from the UK Film Council in its own way. Typically, this focusses on the provision of operational activities such training schemes, administration of funding for activities such as film festivals and film education, and the operation of investment funds and local services designed to make a region an attractive place for film-makers to bring inward investment.”


And it’s interesting to note that there’s no mention of encouraging and suppoprting regional filmmaking, instead the accent is on making the regions ‘attractive’ in the highly unlikely event that some major film company might just happen to want to come and shoot a film there.


The third ‘info-mercial’ runs through a further list of the Film Council’s achievements; a list which begins with “we’ve planted Regional Screen Agencies all over the country”, and then moves on to how Skillset has provided training to more than 3,000 individuals, and how First Light Movies has helped over 10,000 young people produce more than 750 short films. This is madness. Regional Screen Agencies are there financially maintained in a state of permanent readiness just in case a Hollywood Prince Charming might want to take them to the ball, so they scratch around in search of some meaningful existence. And UK filmmaking needs yet more training like a hole in the head. By now graduates from film and media course must number in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands. It’s as if there’s some mad belief that somehow putting on yet more and more courses is a way of injecting life into the British film industry. And when it comes to First Light Movies this is nothing to do with filmmaking, it’s youth and community work!


Denmark: 8 – UK: 0  (number of films in the top twenty at the box office 2006)


An international comparison.


Go to the Danish Film Institute website (google it yourself), scroll down the first page, click on ‘Facts and Figures 2007’ and you’ll immediately find out that there were 8 Danish films in the box office top twenty in 2006, and that on average Danish films got more than twice the audience for an average American film.


Now, if you want to start tearing your hair out, go to the UK Film Council site and try to find out the same information. It’s likely to take you a rather long time. But I’ll tell you that, leaving aside the mega-bucks UK-USA co-productions  (Casino Royale, Da Vinci Code, and Flushed Away), there weren’t any.


Go back to where you were on the Danish Film Institute’s site and scroll down the report – you’ll come to a list of the films they subsidised, how much they got, and how they did at the box office. Do not try to do this on the UK Film Council’s site as there are many better and more rewarding things to do in life. Don’t believe me? Go on then, give it a try…in fact look up any fact you like on the Danish site and then see if you can actually find the same information on the Film Council before you lose the will to live.


Now ask yourself the question: What has the UK Film Council got to hide?


Obviously compared with Denmark their performance leaves very much to be desired – maybe that’s why the only things they crow about are how the subsidise the screening of (largely) foreign films in British cinemas, or how they’ve set up and finance Regional Screen Agencies which (almost totally) fail to stimulate any regional feature filmmaking, or how they fund short films that…But I’ve covered all that elsewhere.


So, why the difference? Does Denmark impose quotas to protect Danish film production? No. Do they spend more money? As far as I can make out both organisations spend pretty similar amounts – of course Britain’s population is about twelve times that of Denmark so maybe we should be spending quite a bit more. And it is also the case that the Danish Institute focuses all its spending on production and development money for features and shorts; and on the distribution and marketing of Danish films.


Maybe the most important difference is nothing to do with either organisation – it’s the fact that, in Denmark, almost a third  of the cinemas are owned by Nordisk Film – which is also the major Danish Film Production and Distribution company.  On top of that local councils and other organisations own a further seventy-nine cinemas, so well over half of have an active interest in screening Danish films. And they don’t see this as charity work either as the ‘average’ Danish film, made on a budget of less than £2million, takes more than twice the ‘average’ piece of Hollywood pap at the box office.


Does the UK Film Council recognise that the biggest problem for British filmmaking is exhibition: that it’s virtually only American, or American-owned films that get screened in the multiplexes; and that the Arthouses are there to primarily show foreign films? Does it do anything about it? Or is it the case that it’s not only quite happy with how things are, it’s actually rather proud of itself; that at best it’s America’s poodle, and at worst it’s a Trojan horse? Does it have any worthwhile purpose at all?


Let’s put things into even sharper perspective:


Denmark compared with the North-West of England.


Denmark and the North-West of England have roughly the same size populations – Denmark’s is a bit smaller. What (and no offence meant here) besides bacon is Denmark famous for? Oh yes, Lego. And isn’t there a statue of a little boy having a pee in Copenhagen, or is of a little mermaid? So, tell me the name of a Danish football club? No, I can’t either. How about a pop group? How about another city besides Copenhagen?

So what, in world-wide terms, is better known – Manchester or Denmark? Who sells more records – the North-West of Denmark? Who makes more big-budget TV drama series which sell the world over?


Now, who do you think should be making more low-budget films?


But here’s the rub. Out of all the money spent on UK film production, the North-West may get as little as 1%(!), which means that Denmark get 10,000 times the amount of investment. So the other problem, besides exhibition, is London.

2 Responses to “What’s wrong with the British Film Industry?”

  1. wumbleteed Says:

    Great post. I’m a little late to this, I wonder how much has changed since?

    The dominance of the US in our cinemas is really disheartening, and the way there is this snobbish attitude which promotes ‘foreign cinema’ and belittles our homegrown efforts. We have some amazing writers, directors, musicians and artists in this country, yet where is the support?

    The tragic thing is that now the precedent of pro-foreign anti-national production has been established, the audiences are themselves that much more difficult to persuade to give our own releases an equal chance.

    There are some parallels with the music industry, actually. It’s almost insufferable how monopolised these industries are. How diluted everything is. How much talent is wasted… Sigh.

  2. Jonathan Gems Says:

    What a wonderfully clear and truthful post. So good. So true. As Matthew Vaughn said recently there isn’t a British film industry – we are service providers for Hollywood. And the UK Film Council and Regional Screen Agencies were sellouts. And dishonest, greedy and corrupt. A disaster. Will British Cinema – which used to be so good – ever be revived? Maybe leaving the EU will spark a renewal of our identity and confidence. If the nation gets its power back, maybe we will get our power back? – and find a way to restart British films.

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