British film industry

British film industry
   The influence of the United States on British cinema is so overwhelming that the very existence of an indigenous British film industry is question-able. Leading British film critics Sarah Street, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, John Hill, Duncan Petrie and John Caughie agree that it has become increasingly difficult to define any part of the industry as British rather than Anglo-American. Since 1980, no British company is involved in all aspects of the film business (as Rank and Associated British Picture Corporation once were). There seems only a British input into international (US) cinema. Intense international divisions of labour and huge expenditure on stars and publicity leave Britain to face American block booking, joint operation with American studios, and star drain to Hollywood. Hollywoodization appears an accomplished fact.
   In this context, it makes little sense from a British point of view to think of the film industry as an integrated organization controlling its own production and distribution. Yet funding has been conducted as if an infrastructure for such an industry could be sustained in Britain. It is more meaningful to see the British position in relation to an International Film System (IFS). Indeed a major development occurred in the IFS in the early 1980s on the basis that the infrastructure was decisively occupied at an international level by the United States. Thereafter infrastructure policy in Britain left an accumulating production bias, which as time went on became increasingly liable to US subversion.
   Thus the Eady levy taken from cinemas and given to British film-makers failed as the Hollywood majors took more and more British studio space in order to qualify themselves for levy share. Quotas on cinemas having to screen a proportion of British features also failed as the number of films registered as British fell dramatically. As the high risk character of film investment intensified, the main funding body, the National Film Finance Corporation, had to be converted into a private company, British Screen Finance Limited. Even the most significant companies, Goldcrest, Thorn-EMI and Virgin, eventually had to stop production. The underlying reason for these problems began in a phase of the IFS, lasting from the early 1960s to early 1980s. The crux was that Hollywood came to see Britain as a product of its own domestic and international role, compensating for its own anti-trust regulations, determined by competition at home, the strength of the dollar and the prospects of cultural hegemony in the international film industry. The USA’s increasing domination in the IFS drew a series of national responses across Europe, such as new wave film movements, and a playing out of national and class film cultures versus Hollywood cultures.
   In Britain there were two main reactions. One was located in cultural and studio-based organization, as at Shepperton Studios or Pinewood Studios, providing film genres such as British realism, Hammer Horror, James Bond, Carry On films and the cinema of 1960s Swinging London films. The other was a direct response to America implanting its film formulas and film making on British soil. The high costs and risks involved in hit-or-miss production encouraged erratic growth and exhaustion. At one point the problem was tackled by buying into exclusively American subjects, but for the most part this strategy flopped expensively, as with The Jazz Singer (1980), Can’t Stop the Music (1980) and Honky Tonk Freeway (1981). Further efforts on the American market followed, as Petrie commented, in the wake of the disastrous Raise the Titanic (1980).
   As Rank and Thorn-EMI were forced out of production in the mid-1980s, British production scattered to over 300 independent companies. There were still important film successes, like Chariots of Fire (1981), Time Bandits (1981), Gandhi (1982), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), Company of Wolves (1984) and A Passage to India (1985). These were mainly undertaken by Goldcrest, Handmade Films, Merchant-Ivory Productions, Palace Productions, Virgin Vision and Working Title. However, with the exceptions of Merchant-Ivory, Renaissance Films, Parallax, Recorded Pictures, Thin Man Films and PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, this period left little continuity in British film production, which declined in the early 1980s. Since then there has been a widespread tendency towards low-budget film making, with just a few companies making more than one film, as with HandMade Films, Metrodome Films, Recorded Picture Company, Branagh’s Renaissance Films, Parallax Pictures and Scala Productions. The only significant lasting company has been PolyGram (now 75 percent owned by the Dutch company Philips), as the sole inheritor of the mantle once shared by EMI, Rank, Goldcrest, Virgin and Palace.
   The subsequent phase of the IFS dating from the early 1980s took shape with intensifying US and multinational control over box offices and film distribution, and with struggles for control in the media and communications industries, which exposed cinemas to new relationships in film consumption. Hence the USA increasingly gained the power to control both audio-visual markets and the wider aspects of international media property rights. Well over half of the revenue earned by most films now comes from the secondary markets of television and video. US domination of Europe in video distribution is even greater than in cinemas. All this became apparent with the US campaign for complete deregulation of the EU’s audio-visual industries during the 1993 negotiations over the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade, and with European policies for supporting co-produc-tions, distribution and training, and promoting culture and media industries as a means for regional development and economic regeneration. This is evident in the increasingly varied sources of financing available for UK film production, which include the European Script Fund, Eurimages, European Co-production Fund, European Media Programmes, British Screen Finance, British Film Institute (BFI), Glasgow Film Fund and Scottish Film Production Company, Northern Ireland Film Council, the National Lottery, Channel 4 Films BBC Films and ITV
   Television played a key role in the transition from film industry studios to audio-visual systems, and continues to do so with the emergence of BSkyB as a major new source of investment funding through pre-investment and acquisition of pay-TV rights. This is paralleled by fragmentation, vertical de-integration and even casualization of the British film industry, though it has broadened the variety of film cultures and access to marginal producers, communities and workshops.
   Although European television companies invest much more money in cinema than their British counterparts, British television has been one of the last remaining props for British film making. Channel Four developed its public service role through partnerships with British Screen and the BFI, and commissioned many critically important films including The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), Angel (1982), The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), A Room With a View (1985) My Beautiful Launderette (1985), Letter to Brezhnev (1985), Caravaggio (1986), Mona Lisa (1986), Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), Riff Raff (1990), Life is Sweet (1990), The Crying Game (1992) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). The IFS has brought a new international division of labour to the British film industry, particularly in relation to Hollywood. In Hollywood there is an influx of British talent at every level of film making, including producers such as Sarah Radclyffe and Eric Fellner, directors like Stephen Frears, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and Mike Figgis, cinematographers like Douglas Slocombe and David Watkin, set designers, and a new international set of actors such as Gary Oldman, Miranda Richardson and Tim Roth. Among leading British earners in Hollywood are Sean Connery, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Kenneth Branagh, Jeremy Irons, Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Grant, Gary Oldman and Ewan McGregor.
   Within Britain, this division of labour takes the form of a service sector for international film making. Hollywood has increased its film making in Britain so that 121 feature films were produced or shot in 1996, compared to seventy-three in 1995 and ten in 1986. By 1995 the total production value of UK films reached £450 million, with the growth of Hollywood films bringing US investment here to £280 million, alongside a steady stream of European co-productions. Despite withdrawal from Eurimages at the end of 1995, twenty-eight UKEuropean co-productions were shot in 1996 (and twenty-six in 1995). At this point there were fourteen US-UK collaborations (the same as 1995), seven Canada-UK partnerships and nine UK combinations with Japan, South Africa or Australia. After decline in the 1980s, it became difficult to maintain studio space anywhere in the UK. Despite this, Pinewood Studios saw a turning point with new US and US-UK productions in 1994. Elstree was re-opened in 1996 after scaling down three of its ten stages, and Ealing was bought by the National Film and Television School. New demand for space prompted a new studio, Leavesden, while Ridley and Tony Scott expanded Shepperton Studios to become the biggest post-production studio, with digital facilities to keep US post-production in Britain. Another notable development was Warner Brothers’ search with United News and Media for a movie-themed amusement park.
   On the periphery of this division of labour there is a small-scale independent British sector mostly formed by new production alliances. Fiftythree of the starts made in 1996 were completely UK funded (triple the 1995 total). Almost all were made for considerably less than £2 million. They include notable films such as Glasgow Film Fund’s Shallow Grave (1994) (backed by the European Regional Development Fund), Merseyside Film Production Fund’s Butterfly Kiss (1995), and Scottish Film Production Fund/BBC Scotland’s Franz Kafka’s Its a Wonderful Life (1995). On the other hand, many independents had to rely on major international studios for extra backing, and thus lost their own share of the profits. Britain’s Working Title, without benefit (or restriction) of a major studio, made Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Dead Man Walking (1995) and Fargo (1996) for under £4 million each, financed at arm’s length by PolyGram.
   The difficulty for the independent sector is that its successes become embedded in the core processes of other audio-visual and television industries, or in distribution controlled by other corporations (as with The English Patient (1997)). A key problem is the need to retain rights and gain access to distribution channels; and not being in the core means the lack of an adequate legal regime for protecting property rights.
   A worrying prospect is that the autonomy and low-budget talents of the small sector may be used to shore up the creative gaps in core production. Equally there are problems about the main service sector: while on paper 1996 and 1997 looked like great box office years for US studios in the UK market, in reality their profit margins narrowed dramatically as screen bottlenecks caused many films to underperform. Unless the US industry can save at least ten percent it will not come (as it showed in Ireland). Hollywood increasingly needs diversified leisure/consumer complexes tied to media strategies which integrate marketing and merchandising, along the lines of 101 Dalmatians (1997) or Space Jam (1997).
   In policy terms, the Arts Council’s plan for franchises with National Lottery funds to encourage new groups of distributors and producers appears to approach several of these problems. Many of the strongest bids for funding, however, have so far been coming from foreignbacked consortia of producers. Given the state of the contemporary IFS, a major question has to be whether it is wise to encourage such production at the expense of policies for new audio-visual organization and property rights, or cinemas or distributors, especially when the vast majority of British films cannot get screening in Britain. The intention that franchises promote shadow-like vertically integrated combines could have had a far more appropriate hearing in the previous phase of the IFS.
   See also: BAFTA; BFI; cinemas
   Further reading
    Finney, A. (1996) The State of European Cinema, London: Cassell.
    Friedman, L. (ed.) (1993) British Cinema and Thatcherism: Fires Were Started, London: UCL Press.
    McIntyre, S. (1996) ‘Art and Industry: Regional Film and Video Policy in the UK’, in A.Moran (ed.), Film Policy: International, National and Regional Perspectives, London: Routledge.
    Street, S. (1997) British National Cinema, London: Routledge.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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