Despite an abundance of film-making talent and growing cinema audiences the British film industry continues to droop. Subsidy is not the answer. New Labour should look to Irelandby Christopher Tookey / June 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
The biggest challenge facing Chris Smith, the new heritage minister, is to solve the conundrum of why the British are so good at making films, so awful at making money out of them.
The hundreds of millions of dollars earned by the Oscar-winning The English Patient will go straight to its US investors, even though it was written and directed by a Briton and featured a mainly British cast. The same thing happened 16 years ago with Chariots of Fire.
Over the past century, the US film industry has become that country’s second biggest exporter. In Britain, despite our traditions of movie-making excellence, we scarcely have a film industry at all. Most of our top talents work abroad as mercenaries. Our cinemas are full of Hollywood products, Americanising our culture for good and ill.
Films are an important-perhaps the most important-way a civilisation has of transmitting its culture, beliefs and values. Yet against the promising background of a big rise in cinema audiences and a huge increase in profits from merchandising, video and other spin-offs, 18 years of Tory rule have left us, financially and culturally, weaker than ever.
Even Margaret Thatcher realised our film industry needed help when annual British production sank to an all-time low of 30 in 1989. She called a one-day seminar at Downing Street in June 1990, and seemed inspired momentarily by a vision of London as the filmmaking capital of Europe. She fell from office five months later, but the early years of John Major’s government took some steps in the right direction. There was the setting up of the European Co-Production Fund administered by British Screen, and the government’s commitment to the Media programmes of the EU. A British film commission was set up in 1991 to make the logistics of filming in Britain simpler to arrange.
The creation of a department of national heritage after the Tory victory of 1992 suggested that more was about to be done, but the departure of David Mellor and his replacement by Stephen Dorrell and then Virginia Bottomley, neither of whom showed any interest in films, ensured more years of drift.
Tory policy towards European filmmaking has pulled in two opposite directions. On the one hand, Britain has withdrawn from Eurimages, the Council of Europe’s production and distribution support fund, presumably on the quite reasonable grounds that it is commissioning films which few will pay…