It's a curious ritual: the British media complaining about British films, not because they lack quality or ideas, but because of misconstrued box office figuresby Mark Cousins / October 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
It looks like self-hatred, but when the press performs its ritual denunciation of British cinema, it is more like self-love thwarted. The reporting of unanalysed but apparently disastrous box office figures is a seasonal event. The revival of British cinema is once again declared a sad joke. Lessons, we are told, have not been learned. The latest omen of doom is Peter Cattaneo’s Lucky Break, his follow-up to The Full Monty, which has shown tiny returns for its sizeable advertising budget (otherwise known as “hype”). Never mind that a surprise hit has merely been succeeded by a not-so-surprising disappointment. Other flops must be lined up, whatever their target audience or marketing budgets were, and shown to represent the demise of British film. The Independent recently exposed a movie called Another Life for taking only ?11,300 at the British box office and Steve Coogan’s The Parole Officer for taking a “mere” ?2.6m by the end of August. The term “flop” clearly covers a great deal of territory-from genuine dud to “might have done a bit better.” You have to be blinded by Hollywood financial ratios to imagine that an initial ?2.6m (now risen to well over ?3m) at the British box office is a disaster. The Parole Officer might not have won the ?18m jackpot of last year’s Billy Elliot, but the latter was a runaway hit. If it is box office that ultimately counts, then Kevin and Perry Go Large, which took ?10m, or Chicken Run (?30m) should be paragons of British cinema. How many times since the mid-1980s, when British cinema rose like Lazarus, has newsprint tolled its grave bell? Of course, the same papers, even the same journalists, will happily stretch a point in the opposite direction every time a Full Monty or a Trainspotting captures a slice of the international imagination. But that’s the love-hate pathology. They imagine British cinema has turned a corner. They want it to be so. They look for trends in an industry they don’t quite understand. They flush hot, and then they flush cold. Not since the late 1940s, and the collapse of the studio system which made and distributed films within each country (the US, France, Britain, Japan), have movies played a game of modest stakes. Then, if a film made at the Gainsborough studios was released on, say, a Wednesday, played a week or two, and was taken off the screen, it would break even or maybe return 10 per cent above costs. Nowadays, movies are either famine or feast. They make a lot or lose a lot. There is nothing unusual in that; it is the same in every western film economy. I am writing this in Italy, where the native industry’s hit rate is about the same as Britain’s. Ditto Germany. France performs better, but that’s because for two generations now movies have been taken as seriously as books. We don’t see the German flops; or the Italian ones. Once a year or so their journalists wring their hands, as ours do, about embarrassing local pictures, but they are as wrong as ours to do so. The economics of film are famously slippery. Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful Life were flops of their time (as the newspapers duly reported), yet that is no indication of what they came to be worth. And even for run-of-the-mill releases that won’t be vindicated by history, the measure of commercial success cannot be gauged merely from initial box office figures. You need to account for every territory in which a film is released on its first run. You have to add up its total sales to terrestrial and the various satellite television channels-either as an individual film or, as is often the case, in a package. Then you need to tally its video and DVD rentals and, finally, evaluate its worth as part of a catalogue of rights that will be saleable in future dispersal situations such as video on demand. Media correspondents have become blinded by box office figures, but they are not alone. At many multiplexes, ticket sales are pasted on the walls (often US takings, which is a perverse inducement to see a film in Britain). On American tabloid television the weekend take of films is often top of the agenda. Moviegoers in the US, and increasingly so in Britain, are aware of these figures. But how is their pleasure or appreciation related to the number of people who have passed that way before? Assumptions about the sorry state of British cinema, based on a few “flops,” are as phoney as the contrary presumption that, since admissions in the first half of 2000 were the highest in 26 years, British cinema must be on the verge of a new golden era. The real issue is that we-movie goers, cultural journalists-aren’t asking far more interesting questions. Why, for instance, after 50 years’ hiatus, are Rank-style comedies suddenly in the cinemas again? Why are even the serious newspapers so concerned with the budget and the box office take, instead of the themes and pleasures, stories and ideas in British cinema? A paper like Lib?ration is full of such talk about cinema. There is some good British stuff, but it is increasingly depressing to read the narrow prognoses for cinema in Britain from those who have recently discovered the box office page in Variety magazine.