Britain’s film renaissance: made in UK, owned in USA?
To those who had witnessed the travails of the British film industry over the past 30 years, the irony was obvious. Where once politicians had either ignored the country’s filmmakers altogether or chided them for their wastrel ways, now they were proselytising on their behalf.
Back in the mid-1980s, no one in government wanted to go near the British film industry. Cinema admissions dropped to an all-time low of 54m in 1984. Production rates plummeted. An occasional Bond movie or big Hollywood movie such as Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 may still have been shot at Pinewood Studios but the industry was on life support. Frantic lobbying from Richard Attenborough and David Puttnam helped keep it alive but few would argue that British cinema was thriving in this period.
Since then, a remarkable transformation has taken place (as chronicled in my new book Stairways to Heaven: Rebuilding the British Film Industry, published by I.B. Tauris). Britain has had the video boom, The Crying Game, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter, tax breaks, National Lottery investment, a huge upsurge in British-based visual effects and post-production houses, and more and better Bond movies. Stars Wars and Disney appear to have taken up near-permanent residence at Pinewood. The cinemas themselves, with their luxury seating, “dynamic pricing” and digital projection facilities, are very different from the smoke-filled flea pits of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Every region in Britain is currently hosting big film or TV shoots and reporting an upturn in business. Since its pilot in 2009, HBO’s Game of Thrones has been based in Belfast, which is now also host to big new superhero series Krypton; Scotland has Amazon’s Outlander filming in Cumbernauld; Wales has its new Wolf Studios in Cardiff. Work is being done everywhere from converted bottle yards in Bristol to former RAF sites in Yorkshire and car factories in Swansea. Even Essex is getting in on the act. Dagenham looks set to have its own film studios in time for the opening of the Crossrail train line over the next two years.
Nonetheless, some industry insiders urge a note of caution about the nature of the film business that Britain has engineered for itself. The emphasis, they suggest, has been far more on the “industry” part of the equation than on the “creative”.
“The correct thing is to say we’ve become a film-making nation as opposed to a film-creating nation. You could argue that we’re so busy making that we have no time for creating,” Puttnam suggests, adding that the UK has become “a successful film-making factory, very successful, probably more successful than any of us would have imagined 20 or 30 years ago”.
This is a point echoed by fellow producer and industry stalwart Iain Smith, who chairs the British Film Commission. “The truth is that what we do is . . . export. Even though we call it inward investment, what we are actually doing is exporting goods and services,” he says. “There is a serious money stream coming in, letting British crews and facilities work on content that they would never be able to do within the British context . . . we’ve benefited to the tune of billions.”
Even in the dog days of the 1980s, British auteurs such as Derek Jarman, Terence Davies, Sally Potter, Bill Douglas and Peter Greenaway were carving out international reputations. Today, we still have Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, as well as such distinctive voices as Andrea Arnold, Steve McQueen and Lynne Ramsay, but it would be very hard to argue that this is a golden age of British filmmaking. Nor has Britain seen the emergence of any new production companies to match Working Title, the Universal-backed but proudly British outfit behind Four Weddings, Bridget Jones, Darkest Hour et al, or independent distribution outfits that compare with the Green brothers’ Entertainment Film Distributors.
In 2016, Working Title became the first British company to pass the $1bn milestone at the UK box office, but there is little chance of that feat being emulated by anyone else in the near future.
Some argue that Britain’s public film policy has been as much to the benefit of Hollywood as of the domestic industry. “Everyone talks about the ownership of intellectual property, but I can tell you that the only people that are acquiring IP are American-owned companies,” says Stewart Mackinnon, producer of Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet and of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle.
Top British talent is currently working on US studio-financed, Netflix- or Amazon-backed projects. Without the creativity of those individuals, many of the most memorable films and TV dramas would never have been made — but the underlying rights inevitably belong to the big US conglomerates.
“The voice of the producer, the distinctive British values — and I am not waving a little Union Jack, I am just saying the way we think about the world, our human values — that is our unique selling point,” Mackinnon says. He suggests that this distinctively British flavour is in danger of becoming lost. The goal of creating sustainable British independent film companies remains as far away as ever.
Independent British producers are in an invidious position. If they make films with budgets of £3m or £4m that don’t have big-name stars attached, they will not recover their money. However, if they do manage to cast big-name stars, the budgets are likely to be far higher and they will almost certainly lose control of the projects (and of the IP).
“There is no business at all in independent film, full stop,” declares Mackinnon. That is a gloomy thought worth bearing in mind when we hear the boosterish rhetoric about the hundreds of millions of pounds in inward investment and the thousands of jobs that the UK film industry is generating.
It would be perverse, though, to see things in too negative a light. Thirty years ago, that industry was in the doldrums. No one then could have imagined that levels of activity would have risen to their present heights. In the past, the British film business was a closed shop. It was very hard to break into at any level, especially in production. Now, thanks to initiatives such as the new London Screen Academy being set up by Working Title and the British Film Institute’s Future Film Skills action plan, opportunities are opening up for diverse, young talent that simply weren’t there before. “The skills base, the expertise in Britain is just dazzling,” Mackinnon acknowledges.
Many of the biggest-grossing films in recent years, whether Stars Warsinstalments and Marvel superhero movies or Disney spin-offs such as Beauty and the Beast, were made in Britain. As for Oscar-winners, there has been no shortage of those either. All that is lacking is ownership of the rights behind these movies.