The Golden Age of British Cinema?

The state of the British film industry ☛

This week saw the publication of the Smith review, commissioned by Prime Minister David Cameron with the stated aim of consulting with the industry and shedding light on how the government might help British films. After Cameron so helpfully called last week for “more commercial films”, many people had feared that the report would herald a dramatic new government policy threatening independent cinema. We needn’t have worried. There is no dramatic new policy and the level of consultation with the industry will be revealed below. The review makes little comment on either the style or quantity of movies Britain should be making. The only big-picture comment comes in the introduction; we’re told that “British cinema is going through a golden period”.  As evidence it points to an increase in box office share for British movies.

David Cameron making his announcement

But are we Brits really living through a golden age for the silver screen? If so, why have I, and most British film technicians I know, seen my pay packet shrinking year-on-year? Why are the film students in London being taught by Oscar-winning cameramen, editors and the like who just aren’t getting work in the industry? For many crews 2009 and 2010 were all-time career low points. 2011 was only marginally better. It’s not just technicians who are feeling the pinch; many facility companies have hit the wall in the last three years. Not long ago the manager of an internationally renowned dubbing facility in London told me that they’d not been able to put up their prices for almost ten years, despite having had to invest in some pretty expensive new kit. If there’s gold about, we ain’t seeing it.

A British film technician getting stuck in.

I know what you’re thinking: global recession. These things happen in tough economic times. But, if more ten pound notes than ever before are hitting the counters at Odeons across the land, and if more of the images flickering on those screens are British, the recession shouldn’t be problem. The movie industry is supposed to weather economic storms pretty well and that seems to be holding true, if the report’s figures are to be believed.

So what’s the problem? A lot of it is down to the middle having dropped out of the British movie business. Up until about ten years ago most British movies were made on a budget of about £2-8m ($3-12m), low-budget features costing around £500k-1.5m ($750k-$2.5m). Now that middle ground is all but empty; most British films are made for less than £2m($3) or over £10m ($15), by far the majority being in the lower category. Our most senior technicians have been clinging on to a shrinking top-end, while middle-ranking crew have been forced to take one hell of a pay cut. This is partly because of digital technology making it easier to produce films cheaply, but mainly down to forces within the marketplace supposedly making it more difficult for mid-range films to turn a profit. The pressing issue of falling pay for trained technicians is one the government review wholly fails to recognise.

The Smith review does make recommendations designed to allow writers, directors and producers to share in the financial success of their films – a welcome suggestion – but there is no reward for the rest of the crew. It also suggests measures to encourage more feature production outside of London.This might have the side-effect of helping crews. With production concentrated in South East England where the cost of living is crippling, the drop in pay has forced a lot of people out of the business altogether. Many film technicians would happily live outside London, if there were films being made in the regions. But, given that the concentration of facilities and talent around London is so firmly established, this measure wouldn’t provide a complete solution to the problem, even were it to succeed.

The review also has much to say on encouraging film to be taught in British schools. Not a bad idea: the more cinema is understood, the more we’ll enjoy films and the better movies we’ll go on to make. But part of me does worry that this is priming kids for disappointment. The British film industry is small, there aren’t even enough underpaid jobs to support one tenth of the media students who currently want to work in the business. Teach it at school and the tidal wave of young hopefuls might become a tsunami.

Colin Welland shoots the British film industry's albatross

In short, the review offers few bold or far-reaching proposals. It feels like the belief that everything’s rosy has encouraged government complacency. I can’t help thinking of Colin Welland standing up at the 1982 Oscars and shouting “The Brits are coming!” just before our industry entered the deepest drought in its history. (Uttering Welland’s name on a British sound stage is asking for bad luck: a bit like saying “Macbeth” in a theatre.)

Most notably the Smith Review fails to address the British film industry’s most deep-seated problem: that most of the money the public spend on cinema tickets goes to the US companies, who dominate distribution and exhibition in the English-speaking world. Very little of the increased box-office share Chris Smith boasts for UK film comes back to Britain, either to pay crew or to make more movies.

It’s not as if Lord Smith and the members of his panel were ignorant of this problem. If they hadn’t known already, the summary document they produced, based on their online survey, records the dominance of the US studios in controlling UK distribution to be one of the top three challenges facing the industry (piracy and new media are the others). Those surveyed even suggested ways of tackling this problem, ranging from a quota system to a cinema tax. These ideas, or any others to take on the corporate giants, are ignored in the report’s recommendations.

Indeed the online survey of film industry opinion in the report is largely ignored in the review’s conclusions. The survey actually makes more interesting reading than the report itself. I looked at it first, and it raised a lot of expectations that the report failed to fulfill. In fact it directly challenges the Prime Minister’s call for greater commerciality, most of the people filling in the survey feeling that British producers should be incentivized to make bolder, more risk-taking movies. That doesn’t sound like the sort of response you get in the middle of a golden age.

As I read on, I grew to like the people who’d responded to this survey. Rather than accept the prepared multiple-choice answers on offer, a number of times their most popular answer had been ‘Other’. Quite what ideas had been voiced under ‘other’ was rarely recorded.  The suggestion that the government should encourage private investment in film through ‘exhortation’ – exactly what the Prime Minister did last week – was welcomed by 6.5% of people polled. Why didn’t I fill out this questionnaire? Why didn’t you fill out this questionnaire? Turns out we could have done: the survey had been online for three months, available for anyone to answer. You didn’t even have to be in the industry, as even the views of audience members were taken into account. During this time it had been filled in by a grand total of… 252 people.


Some Brits... coming

Given that it would have an effect on the future of British film (supposedly), surely they could have drummed up a greater response than that. I’m pretty sure I could drum up a greater response than that, and I’m not a government. The fact that I’d not been aware of the survey might be a clue to this poor response. I may not read Screen International or Variety from cover to cover, but I do keep my ear to the ground. It had not been advertised anywhere I knew about – no sign of it on any of the industry websites. Post it once on and I’m sure you’d get more than 252 replies. Clearly Smith’s team thought the website of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to be the epicentre of debate on film industry matters. News to me.

Some other Brits, also coming.

As it happens I needn’t feel left out, or any more left out than I would have been had I been able to fill in the survey, as little of what it discovered made its way into the final report. How many of the report’s recommendations the government will actually put into action, is questionable anyway. After all, the Prime Minister hasn’t seemed too interested in the findings of the study he’d commissioned, making very public comments on the state of the industry less than a week before it was published. Cynics and naysayers will complain that little will change and that the government is more interested in appearing to help the British film industry, than in actually engaging with it and meeting its needs. The rest of us can sit back and bask while the government showers us with golden words. There may be less brass, but hey at least it’s the golden age… The Brits are coming!

My thanks to Dr. Sara Lodge for her assistance with this article.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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3 Responses to “The Golden Age of British Cinema?”
  1. Carlo Ortu says:

    Great article Guy. An enjoyable read as ever.

  2. Jordan says:

    Well thought out once again Guy. Keep the posts coming.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] broke last week that justified my skepticism about the recent claim that we are in a golden era for British film – London’s Twickenham Film Studios has gone into administration and is up for sale. After […]

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