Why is the UK short of homemade mainstream films?

Key members of the UK film industry assembled this week at the Screen Film Summit in London to hear shadow arts minister Ed Vaizey speak about what a new government would do with the publicly funded strands of the industry if, as is likely, the Conservative Party is elected next year.

Vaizey was re-assuring. While the UK Film Council might have to undergo some further streamlining, he all but guaranteed the tax credit for inward investment, the local agencies and the film funding for both the BBC and Channel 4 would remain untouched. Sighs of relief were heard in the room, as fears were allayed that culture would be an easy cuts victim.

“While France, Germany, Spain and Italy regularly score local blockbusters with homegrown comedies, thrillers and event dramas, the UK has found its culture co-opted and owned by Hollywood”

As for the Film Council, chief executive John Woodward said the focus had to remain on film production, with an emphasis on new talent. You didn’t have to be psychic to know the Premiere Fund, which has helped finance established producers on ambitious commercial films such as St Trinian’s, How To Lose Friends & Alienate People and Stormbreaker might be a casualty of the cutbacks.

Having lived and worked in Los Angeles for many years, the conversations reminded me of a nagging issue I’ve always had with the UK business. On the one hand, like its European neighbours, it fosters extraordinary auteurs from Mike Leigh and Ken Loach to Shane Meadows, Andrea Arnold and Steve McQueen.

But the fact the UK shares a language with the US has also damaged its home market for mainstream films. While France, Germany, Spain and Italy regularly score local blockbusters with homegrown comedies, thrillers and event dramas, the UK has found its culture co-opted and owned by Hollywood.

So, yes, the Harry Potter series is British-made but nobody can deny the influence of Warner Bros on its creation and distribution. Likewise those other British films the UK half-heartedly calls its own, such as Mamma Mia!

The Movie or the Bond films. In fact, every country around the world reaps the rewards of its own hits -apart from the UK. So Dany Boon and Pathé can clean up in France when Welcome To The Sticks strikes gold, but Ricky Gervais’ new films The Invention Of Lying and Cemetery Junction are both Hollywood backed.

It’s a blessing and a curse. UK talent is accepted warmly in Hollywood and many - Colin Firth, Carey Mulligan, Peter Straughan, Emily Blunt et al -are at the forefront of Oscar contenders this year while continental Europeans jostle for attention in the one foreign-language film category.

And when it bought the assets of PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Universal Pictures was quick to keep hold of and further invest in Working Title Films, the great London company behind the key UK blockbusters of the last 15 years, from Four Weddings And A Funeral to Billy Elliot, from Shaun Of The Dead to Love Actually.
But that US relationship also emasculates the UK and deprives it of owning its greatest successes. In some respects, the only bona fide UK blockbuster in recent years is Slumdog Millionaire, which was very specifically financed away from Hollywood and indeed produced outside the UK, partly in a foreign language.

There are no easy answers to the UK’s transatlantic conundrum -and for the record, Hollywood is now actively trying to co-opt the same local successes in other countries. The Premiere Fund’s choices haven’t always worked over the years but if it has to go, the UK loses another channel that encourages the creation and exploitation of homegrown blockbusters rather than the auteurist cinema that falls under Hollywood’s radar.