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Out of Tarr's Universe

An uncompromised vision (FW34)

British Cinema
British Cinema is at a cultural low point. The British Patient needs some policy prescriptions But will the new Film Council offer the right medicine? By Mike Wayne

The crisis in British Cinema has its roots in the domination of the North American film companies. This is the uncomfortable reality that most discussions of the British film industry, at least by practitioners, film critics and politicians, ignore. In the post Second World War period, with the break-up of the old Hollywood studio system, Americàs film majors reconfigured their oligopolistic control over world film markets. Behind the plurality of producers and ‘independent’ companies which gives late capitalism the scent of democratic diversity, lies the bad smell of a small cabal of corporations controlling the strategically crucial distribution system. Just as the oil pipelines supplying the west will be protected by the American state, by war if necessary, so the distribution pipeline in the movie world is jealously controlled by North American corporate capital. In 1981 Paramount, Universal and MGM set up a joint distribution venture to pool their already massive power in the market place. The resulting company, UIP, might have been expected to face scrutiny by both national and European watchdogs, supposedly guarding against monopoly tendencies, which is a bit like setting up a watchdog to guard against the waxing and waning moon. Some barking emanated from the European Commission over UIP in the late 1990s, but they then fell silent again, having remembered who the real masters are. The Hollywood majors regularly take around 80% of UK box office takings. Meanwhile less than 50% of British films see any kind of theatrical release. No wonder then that in 1996 for example, UK, UK coproductions and all other films other than US funded films, took together a mere 8% of box office takings. The rest, went west. Hollywood’s domination of distribution within the British film market means that in order to access their own home market, British films have to be routed through the American market. Market research has shown that America has one of the most narrow, standardised and stereotypical views of Britishness in the world. British producers and filmmakers, with an eye on the American market, have played up to and reinforced that narrow cultural vision, locking British cinema into a vicious circle of costume dramas at one end of the budget spectrum and gangster movies at the other. More recently Northern grit has become chic in America with The Full Monty and Billy Elliot doing well, but the latter film in particular is calibrated to the American model of filmmaking at every level. The dissolution of class difference may work well in American mythology but it looks pretty hopeless when grafted onto British social content. It is not that all the films pitched to the American market are worthless. Some of them are interesting, although not necessarily in the uncritical flagwaving manner with which they are usually celebrated; others have been execrable (there’s no need to name names). The point is the narrowness of the cultural tapestry which film can weave about Britishness; the lack of ambition and challenge; the aesthetic and political conformity overall. The problem is not only with what we have got, but also even more with what has been left out. It is often said that the home market cannot support a film industry. Yet since a low point in the early 1980s, cinema attendances have more than doubled. This growth has been underpinned by the multiplex building programme that is still expanding, but surprise surprise, since these venues are owned and controlled by the North Americans, more people are seeing more American films. One of the promises of the multiplex expansion is that it would diversify choice, but as ever, capacity is not the crucial question: the controlling social interests are. The idea then that the home market cannot support the British film industry is a relative one. It could if two things happened. One, British films secured a larger share of the market and two, British producers, filmmakers and investors forgo their dreams of hitting the jackpot in America, at least by making big budget films. Good quality films can be made on small and medium budgets and can be sustained if they win a larger share of the domestic market. The history of British cinema is littered with doomed attempts to crack the film market Stateside. Remember Alexander Korda in the 1930s? His company went belly up by the end of that decade after the success of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) had encouraged him to make big budget spectacles. Rank’s attempt to penetrate the American market in the mid-to-late 1940s also came to nought. What about Goldcrest in the 1980s? Its implosion in 1986 after a trio of big budget films failed in the American market, blew a hole in the industry’s hull for several years. Palace Pictures had a more canny operation in the same decade, making medium budget films of some quirkiness but with crossover potential. But the aim was still the same: to penetrate the American market and that requires volume and diversification, which requires bank loans from investors who know how powerless independent producers/distributors are in the market. Overstretched, the success of The Crying Game (1992) came too late to save Nik Powell and Stephen Woolley’s outfit. Undaunted by past failures, slaves to a historical amnesia, British cinema compulsively repeats the boom bust cycle. Step forward PolyGram in the 1990s. Owned by the Dutch company Philips, the electronics giant, PolyGram invested in British creative talent via Working Title, which it purchased in 1991. The aim was nothing less than to use British cinema as the battering ram to break down Fortress Hollywood and they spent over one billion dollars setting up a distribution network in America to do just that. Despite making some successful films (successful economically, we will leave the question of their cultural value for another day) PolyGram never broke even and Philips sold the company off to boost shareholder value. Still at least we have such neo-heritage films as Four Weddings and A Funeral, Plunkett and & Macleane, Bean and Notting Hill to remember them by. It is clear, that left to itself, British cinema will not and cannot break out of this cycle. It is locked in. Tight. What the British Patient needs is some policy prescriptions: above all it needs a cultural policy and, for the first time in many years, the institutional grounds has been laid for the makings of a cultural policy. Whether it will be the right cultural policy is another and vexed question however. In April 2000 the Film Council came into existence, centralising, for the first time, the disparate activities within British cinema under one roof. The Council absorbed the Arts Council Lottery Film Department and British Screen. It has also been seen as offering some provision to replace the axing of the British Film Institute’s production arm. Colin McCabe, former head of the BFÌs production arm has conceeded that change was necessary, but has been highly critical of the lack of debate which saw the end of 60 years of government policy aimed at providing a cultural agenda for film. The lack of debate in the closing down of the BFÌs production arm is important because it indicates precisely how little thought has been put into a cultural agenda for the new centralised organisation. That organisation now has at least 27 million pounds worth of Lottery funds to play with annually. The chair is Alan Parker and Chief Executive is the ex-Director of the BFI, John Woodward (who shut down the BFÌs production arm). The Council’s funds have been broken down into various schemes. There is the Premiere fund, where one suspects, the old dream of the America market lives on. Ten million pounds a year has been allocated to this fund to invest in medium and big budget films. A not inconsiderable five million annually has been set aside for the New Cinema Fund which will invest in new talent and ‘cutting edge and innovative filmmaking’ with a particular emphasis on the use of new technologies. One million annually has been set aside for the First Movies fund that sees a welcome investment in offering children and young people the opportunity to try their hand at filmmaking. But as with all such educational projects, a lot will depend on the attitudes of the educators involved. If the aim is to simply impose the ‘correct’ model of film practice on the young, then a potentially creative experience will become simply another means of legitimising the hegemonic model. It is still early days yet for the Council. How serious will it take its role as an advocate for policies to correct market failures? As we have seen, if there is a single factor (and there is never only a single factor) having a deleterious effect on the industry, it is the politically explosive question of distribution. Given the political context, New Labour’s love affair with the market, and its subaltern position vis-à-vis American foreign policy, it is unlikely, even if the Council wished to talk about quotas for British and other cinemas, that anyone in government would be listening. Perhaps a start however could be made by getting more British made shorts into the cinemas to accompany the main film. Market research suggests that audiences would welcome this. But a sign of the tensions and contradictions within the industry may be gleaned by the recent emphasis that the Council is placing on scriptwriting. It has set aside £15 million over three years to invest in a script development fund. Concerns over the quality of British scripts are entirely legitimate, but it is also legitimate to be worried over the direction of such an emphasis. According to Council’s web site, the lack of support for script development is "the single biggest problem affecting the ability of the UK industry to deliver a consistent flow of high quality films." This sounds suspiciously like what psychoanalysts call a displacement, where the trickier question of distribution gets sidelined for something far more manageable. The script of course can become the key nodal point in commodifying the finished film, endlessly rewriting it as the product is instrumentally calibrated for a specific market tested effect. Duncan Kenworthy, a member of the Film Council board and the producer of Four Weddings and A Funeral proudly tells how scriptwriter Richard Curtis rewrote the script 17 times. Mike Leigh, who of course does not use scripts, has recently complained about the script-centric policies of funding bodies. It is he argues, "a bureaucratic thing… the people who fund films have not the wit, imagination nor the sophistication to find other ways of giving out dosh." And then there is the question of Europe. How seriously will the Council attempt to step outside the shadow of Hollywood and pursue collaborations with European filmmakers and encourage the interpenetration of a British-Euro film culture? The relationship between British and European filmmaking has been hindered after the then Conservative government pulled out of Eurimages in 1995. Eurimages is a public subsidy which members pay into creating a large pool of capital which is then redistributed. The UK has still not returned to Eurimages and while it is far from perfect, it is an important instrument for pooling resources within Europe and breaking down the patchwork of national markets which have weakened European cinema in the face of Hollywood’s international approach. Re-engaging with European film culture and markets would have the beneficial effect of connecting with audiences who have a less stereotypical view and expectation of Britishness than the Americans, thus liberating British filmmakers from their own complicity in trading with exhausted signs and meanings of life on this island. John Hill, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Ulster, sits on the board of the Film Council. He recognises that "some of the Film Council’s activities have encouraged an orientation towards Hollywood" but points out that a "target figure of 20% of budgets has been set for the New Cinema, Premiere, Development and Training Funds for investment in projects involving European partners." Further involvement in Europe is likely in the future, especially if and when the UK enters the single currency. But this is a geographical orientation which cuts against the prejudices of influential critics, like the Evening Standard’s Alexander Walker who was wheeled out recently to groan when the Council’s Premiere Fund announced that it was investing in Patrice Leconte’s new film starring French singer Johnny Hallyday, on the grounds that he was old hat and, well, French damn it! It also cuts against the antipathies of Britain’s commercial filmmakers who have always looked across the Atlantic for their markets and cultural orientations and regard European cinema with the same sort of nervous suspicion that British empiricists do when confronted with European social and cultural theory. The real question for the Council is whether it can develop a sufficiently sophisticated and diverse cultural policy, one which will by all means continue to mine Anglo-American seams, such as Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, but also, seed and encourage new talent and experimental work that the market would not. The direction and diversity of the New Cinema Fund is crucial here. So far the Fund has invested in projects such as Alex Cox’s Revengers Tragedy, Meera Syal’s Anita & Me, and Peter Mullan’s Magdalene. Again it is early days, but this talent is hardly new and the projects are hardly experimental: this is more like a British version of American Indy Cinema, smaller budget, quirky, less commodified and certainly worthwhile, but… Ìll see more aesthetically daring and politically challenging work from at least some of my students this year than from the New Cinema Fund. If the establishment of the Council provides the institutional basis for a coherent approach to the British film industry, its cultural coherence and substance remains to be thrashed out in the years to come. It is up to the political radicals and the avant-garde to constructively engage with the Film Council and explore why a cultural policy – as opposed to just an industrially orientated one – is important and what a progressive cultural policy might actually look like. This is something I hope to return to in a future issue of Filmwaves. Mike Wayne