Should films about Britishness get tax breaks? Yes, because anything that makes other countries better able to compete with Hollywood is a good thingby Mark Cousins / February 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
The new rules for tax relief on filmmaking in Britain that came into effect on 1st January have already caused what in Scotland is called a “stooshie.” It started on 5th December 2006, when the department of culture, media and sport (DCMS) published its “final framework of the cultural test for British film,” a point system that scores new movies for Britishness. The new system will make it harder for films like the Star Wars prequels, which have no British storyline or cultural relevance but were partly filmed here, to help themselves to some of the £120m in tax breaks doled out to filmmakers. This tougher line, insisted upon by the European commission, has caused grumbles. According to the Times, Hollywood responded with a speedy threat to snub Britain as a place to make films.
On the face of it, the new ruling seems sensible. Most people would accept that movies like My Beautiful Laundrette, Billy Elliot and The Queen captured something essential about the character of Britain, and so should benefit from state support. Conversely, why should our taxes subsidise Hollywood films? Nor are the new guidelines too strict. The Harry Potter films, though made with mostly American money, will still get tax breaks because they are set in Britain, adapted from British novels and full of British thesps. Ditto the Bond films.
But to argue this way ignores the benefit of inward investment. Making Star Wars or Batman Begins or United 93 here not only contributes to the economy, but maintains skills and ensures that technicians are at the top of their game for the next British film that needs them. The new guidelines jeopardise such contributions, so Hollywood’s threatened snub should be taken seriously.
The solution to the stooshie is obvious: split the cultural and enterprise agendas. Instead of one set of DCMS-treasury guidelines that scores both the cultural and economic contribution a film will make to Britain, have DCMS rules about culture on the one hand, and an inward investment support mechanism on the other. Two sets of rules, because films create culture and money. Only occasionally does the same film do both, which strengthens the argument for twin tracks.
More interesting, though, is the psychology of America’s response to the new rules. If I were a studio honcho and the dollar was this weak against the pound, I’d be alert to, and riled by, the old-world snobbery of cultural testing. The bouncers at the door of European culture like my Hollywood money, but not my dressed-down escapism. Furthermore, I’d argue that it’s me and my Hollywood pals who fuel cinema-going internationally: our blockbusters—Jaws, Star Wars, Titanic—enthral people on every continent and put cinema at the centre of world entertainment. I make cinema exciting—and puny, elitist film cultures like Britain’s benefit as a result.
These responses are reasonable, but old hat. Since 1918, when Hollywood began to dominate international cinema, its relationship with the rest of the world has been ambivalent. Other countries have repeatedly legislated to limit its influence, as if its products were diseased. Britain’s “Eady levy,” first proposed by Harold Wilson and incorporated in 1957, was a tax on cinema tickets to raise money for culturally British films. To the US it looked like an attempt to circumnavigate the global Gatt agreement, which prevented direct subventions to the movie industry. When France introduced the idea of l’exception culturelle into the 1993 Gatt negotiations, and when, in 2005, Unesco accepted it as a universal means of protecting cultural diversity, America argued that it was economically penalised by such debarring. The ringleaders of the Iranian revolution argued that US cinema was immoral, and so funded those who wanted to reinvent film as a medium of art. There are many other examples.
Hollywood has, in its view, endured such obloquy for decades now, often from countries whose populations clamour for the new Star Wars or the latest Mel Gibson. When you are stigmatised and powerless, you sulk or unravel. When you are stigmatised and powerful, you flex your muscles elsewhere. So it has been with Hollywood.
The reasonableness of America’s response depends on where you sit. Hollywood cannot see itself as others do. It doesn’t get that its often well-intended optimism can not only pall but, in its falsity, freeze the spine. An example proves the point. In 2001, the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón made Y Tu Mamá También, a brilliantly entertaining road movie about sex and class. It scores 7.7/10 on the Internet Movie Database, as good a guide to popular English-language taste as exists, and took about $30m in cinemas around the world—fantastic for a Mexican film. In the same year, Pearl Harbor, Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park 3 were released. Nearly everyone agreed that they were all very boring. Yet they took at least $450m, $360m and $360m respectively. Hollywood—by saturating advertising sites, film magazines and other media, and by pre-booking the biggest screens in major cities—forced the market into consuming these tedious, inept, formulaic films. It created a wave of maximised awareness and minimised choice that, to my eyes, looks like a very unfair playing field indeed.
The point has been made before but, in the light of the British tax stooshie, the paradox needs to be reasserted. The movie free-marketeers have created an unfree market. In psychological terms, Hollywood has a persecution complex. It thinks that everyone is against it, when in fact it gets what it wants—which is sometimes wonderful—most of the time. When what it wants is not wonderful, it should expect to be shunned, and shouldn’t get the hump. The DCMS is right to set its cultural test, and should, perhaps, go further.