A string of global successes has underlined the breakout potential of British films. But how easy is it to sell UK projects around the world? Geoffrey Macnab reports

When the UK Film Policy Review was launched in January, chair Chris Smith spoke enthusiastically about the British film “brand”.

“A run of British-made and British-based movies has been taking audiences around the world by storm,” Smith noted in the wake of successes such as The King’s Speech, The Inbetweeners Movie and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But one issue he failed to address directly in either his morning press briefing or his afternoon presentation to the UK industry was the export of British films.

Speak to UK sales companies and they are markedly less upbeat than government policy-makers about how easy it is to sell British movies abroad. While they welcome the public support they continue to receive under the BFI transition fund — which includes the London UK Film Focus sales event and the Film Export Fund, which underwrites the cost of taking British films to key international festivals — many believe their role is still under-appreciated by policy-makers and funders.

“What you don’t want to happen is having this sector feeling like the poor relation. That’s just not healthy,” says Gary Phillips, managing director of Moviehouse Entertainment.

Stephen Kelliher, chair of trade body Film Export UK and co-founder of Bankside Films, points out that the old idea of sales agents as glorified retailers who simply turn up at markets no longer rings true.

‘Real-life characters that offer a window into a world people haven’t seen are hugely appealing all round the world’

Mike Runagall, Pathé International

“We are there for the entire process and are, in many cases, de facto producers,” Kelliher says. “From development right through to the film being on screen. And we are integrally involved with every aspect of film-making — development, script, casting and providing finance — as well as selling the film in international territories to recoup for the investors.”

On the one hand, these are boom times for British films and the companies selling them. “In the past, British films have often been associated with low-budget crime thrillers which, frankly, have lacked originality and sophistication. It feels as though we’re moving away from this type of British film and are embracing stories with more genuine international appeal,” Kelliher says, citing movies as diverse as Shame, The Iron Lady and Trishna.

On the other hand, there is evidence of a polarisation. While prestige movies that foreground pomp, circumstance and a very particular kind of Britishness have traction in the marketplace, more realistic fare currently struggles.

“It is very important that we don’t narrow our ambition by focusing on south London council estates,” says Prescience’s Paul Brett, one of the financiers of The King’s Speech. Then again, Brett acknowledges, the film business is cyclical. In 1996 when Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting was the toast of Cannes, scabrous, street-level stories with attitude were precisely what international distributors looked for in British cinema.

“From an aspirational point of view, I think The King’s Speech is a very good example,” High Point’s managing director Carey Fitzgerald suggests of the encouragement Tom Hooper’s film has given the UK sales community. However, she adds that British genre films are also still selling well abroad.

Protagonist’s huge success with the StreetDance movies is a case in point.

Moviehouse’s Phillips has long experience of selling British documentaries and genre fare. He points out that international distributors, especially those from the “tougher territories like Spain and Italy”, are “looking for the bigger fare with the star cast” if they are going to release British movies theatrically.

They also want the reassurance of knowing these films have already proved themselves in their home market. Otherwise, British movies that do sell abroad are likely to go straight to VoD or DVD.

Another issue is language. “If you’re doing a film from Scotland or the north of England where the dialect is strong,” Phillips suggests, buyers may balk.

‘From an aspirational point of view, The King’s Speech is a very good example’

Carey Fitzgerald, High Point Media Group

Mike Runagall, Pathé International’s senior VP, international sales, cautions against simplistic notions of which British films will travel. Whether it is work from film-makers such as Ken Loach, biopics such as The Queen and The Iron Lady or horror films such as Neil Marshall’s The Descent, the range of international successes remains surprisingly broad. “It is either branded material in some way, be it a biopic or based on a piece of literature or, at the other end of the spectrum, genre films,” Runagall suggests of the UK movies which Pathé has sold successfully in recent years.

One trend Runagall notes is that success breeds success: the worldwide popularity of Stephen Frears’ The Queen made international buyers even more receptive toThe Iron Lady. “The experience with The Queen was very much a template for The Iron Lady. That fascination with real-life characters that offer a window into a world that people haven’t necessarily seen is hugely appealing all round the world.” The worldwide gross of The Queen was around $120m (and less than half of that came from North America). The film was a hit everywhere from Japan to Australia. The Iron Lady is shaping up equally well.

Runagall says: “The film opened very strong in Spain. We all know and expect it will do a level of business in English-speaking territories because there is that cultural connection, but everywhere it has opened it has done very decent business.”

British sellers cast envious glances at their French counterparts, who receive substantial backing from Unifrance (though, as Phillips puts it, foreign sellers are “battling the English language”). Whatever the case, the UK sales community has broadly welcomed the fact government is now paying attention to export. As Kelliher states: “Sales companies are at the forefront of the marketplace and true engagement with us can only strengthen the possibilities for British films overseas.”

RankTitle (Country Of Origin)Release DateUK DistributorUK GrossROW Gross
1The King’s Speech (UK/Aus)07/01/2011Momentum$71.2m$344.2m
2The Inbetweeners Movie* (UK)19/08/2011Entertainment$70.1m$12.8m
3Slumdog Millionaire (UK)09/01/2009Pathe$49.3m$328.6m
4Gnomeo And Juliet (UK/US)11/02/2011eOne Films$24.8m$166.4m
5Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy* (UK/Fr/Ger)16/09/2011StudioCanal$22.0m$26.5m
6St. Trinian’s (UK)21/12/2007Entertainment$19.1m$10.1m
7StreetDance 3D (UK)21/05/2010Vertigo$18.1m$28.8m
8The Duchess (UK/Fr/It/US)05/09/2008Pathe$11.1m$34.2m
9St. Trinian’s 2: The Legend Of Fritton’s Gold (UK)18/12/2009Entertainment$11.0m$0.5m
10Miss Potter (UK/US)05/01/2007Momentum$10.8m$24.0m
11Horrid Henry: The Movie (UK)29/07/2011Vertigo$10.3m$1.0m
12Unknown (UK/Fr/Ger)04/03/2011StudioCanal$10.2m$123.8m
13Nativity! (UK)27/11/2009eOne Films$8.2m$0.09m
14The Young Victoria (UK/US)06/03/2009Momentum$8.0m$21.7m
15Planet 51 (UK/Sp)04/12/2009Entertainment$7.8m$100.5m
16Harry Brown (UK)13/11/2009Lionsgate$7.1m$4.7m
17Son Of Rambow (UK)04/04/2008StudioCanal$6.5m$4.4m
18How To Lose Friends And Alienate People (UK)03/10/2008PPI$6.4m$12.8m
19The Ghost Writer (UK/Fr/Ger)16/04/2010StudioCanal$6.4m$57.8m
20The Bank Job (UK/US)29/02/2008Lionsgate$6.4m$60.6m

Based on conversion rate of £1 = $1.56. *Still on release. Figures from Jan 5, 2007 to Jan 5, 2012. Chart does not include titles with worldwide studio releases. Source: Rentrak.