UK Conservative party MP Caroline Dinenage is chair of the cross-party Culture, Media and Sport Committee which has been looking into the challenges facing the country’s independent film and high-end TV industry.

In late February, ahead of the Spring budget, she wrote a strongly worded letter to the chancellor acknowledging that the domestic film sector is in crisis and urging the government to introduce enhanced tax relief for British films within a budget range of £1m-15m. 

The inquiry received submissions from 130 companies and industry bodies, before moving to public evidence sessions this year.

The UK industry is hoping that the committee’s report will have the same far-reaching effect as its predecessor 20 years ago (in 2003) – and whose recommendations around tax credits and training and development helped create an inward investment production boom.

Screen spoke to Dinenage (who was minister of state at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport between 2020-21) just before the second day of public evidence sessions, when director James Hawes, producer Rebecca O’Brien, Film4’s Ollie Madden and BBC Film’s Eva Yates again raised the alarm about the parlous state of the UK indie sector.

What is the time frame with the committee? What happens next?

We want to get the evidence sessions completed and the report written up in enough time for the government to respond before we hit another general election [expected to be in the second half of 2024]. 

In other words, you’ll need to get this done very quickly.
Yes, it’s the only big piece of work that the committee is working on at the moment.

How did you respond to Gurinder Chadha’s evidence? Were you shocked that a filmmaker of her distinction still faces such struggles to get her work made, especially when she is working with diverse casts?
It surprised the whole committee that someone as successful and high-profile as Gurinder who makes such iconic British movies as Bend It Like Beckham – also movies that really shine a light on under-represented communities – that someone of her calibre still struggles to get movies made. We loved the fact that she came in because, of course, she gave evidence to the previous inquiry way back in 2003. She said that one of the hardest things was just surviving. We were staggered!

Did you agree with her idea of earmarking space in cinemas for UK films? For, in essence, a kind of new quota system?
It is an interesting idea. Quite recently you’ve seen that some of our supermarkets are now going to feature Best of British products on their aisles and online sites. Actually, British independent filmmaking has always been among the best in the world, but this is what we are concerned about as part of our inquiry, that the headline success of British film production in the UK overshadows how successful the domestic film market is at the moment. That’s why I wanted to do this inquiry in the first place.

People looked at me a little bit surprised when I first got this role at the end of May last year and I said the big inquiry I wanted to do was film and high-end TV. They said, “But that is going so well. Look at all the blockbusters and Oscar-nominated movies that were made here in the UK.”

Pact chief executive John McVay has been calling for enhanced tax credits for UK indie producers for some time. Is it finally going to happen?
What we were struck by was that although John, Andy Leyshon [Film Distributors Association] and Phil Clapp [UK Cinema Association] [who gave evidence to the committee together] represent different parts of the sector, they largely spoke with one voice. It showed to me that we’ve got to consider the industry in the round, how massively interconnected it is. They made the case for this tiered tax incentive so that independent films under a certain budget might get a greater incentive than the high-budget, studio-backed films. That was something we were very interested in. 

What about streamers and discussions around a so-called Netflix tax? What is the situation with trying to get them to invest more in UK production maybe through a levy?
We have to look very carefully at that. The overlying figures are of how massive the UK film and TV industry is to the economy. The streamers are a big part of that. When you look at the written evidence we received, one of the things Amazon warned about was complacency in the UK because it is just such a highly mobile industry. There are bold attempts by other countries to attract inward investment. That makes it a very competitive market. I wouldn’t want to say anything in our committee that would make the streamers feel they are not welcome.

You received 130 written submissions. What surprised you most in that evidence?
I’d always had this slight hunch about how it was for British independent film but I don’t think I had quite understood the struggle when it comes to raising finance and reaching audiences. In terms of UK production spend, the domestic sector accounts for about 12%, which is much lower than I imagined it would be.

What about AI worries you and the committee members?
There is always the concern about intellectual property but I think it was the British Film Designers’ Guild that said AI is increasingly going to be able to do work in film production in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost it would take humans. That outlines the benefits but also the threats. 

The major exhibitors, Vue, Cineworld and Odeon, have all been struggling post-pandemic. Is there anything you can do to help them?
At the end of the day, there is no point in having a wonderful film production industry if there is nowhere for people to go to see it. Whatever anyone says, there is just no substitute for watching things on the big screen. What I was interested in, speaking to one of the big companies, was how few cinemas across the UK are breaking even now, let alone making a profit. They said it wasn’t to do with audience demand but it’s the lack of supply. There isn’t enough content coming through. The other thing that came from the meeting with John, Andy and Phil was how hard it is to get the smaller British movies into cinemas and the lack of marketing that goes around them. 

Cinemagoing can be expensive. Is there an argument for relief for VAT on tickets?
I feel for the cinema companies because at the moment they are just trying to balance everything to make it affordable when everyone is struggling with the cost of living alongside keeping the doors open. But what I would say about VAT is that every sector has a compelling argument for VAT reduction. If I think about my mailbag as a constituents’ MP, in the last week alone I’ve had emails asking me to write to the chancellor about taking the VAT off school uniforms, off hairdressers, off grassroots music venues. VAT is quite a blunt tool but it’s the third biggest tax take in the UK and funds public services like hospitals and roads. I think you’re not pushing at an open door if you’re approaching government for that reduction. 

Lord Puttnam has said that the film industry needs to be unified if it’s going to make a successful case to government. How unified have you and the committee found the industry?
It’s quite a fragmented sector. That is the truth of the matter. John, Andy and Phil spoke largely in agreement on quite a lot of issues [but] there are so many moving parts to the industry. There is no single voice that seems to bring them together because it is complex and in some cases they have competing interests.

Could there be an argument that the UK might benefit from having an industry-oriented body like the Film Council again? Is the BFI carrying out its role in a satisfactory way?
I think the BFI does remarkable work on quite limited resources. Nick Mason Pearson, who has just left the BFI after 19 years [as head of public & corporate affairs], is one of our specialist advisors on this inquiry. I don’t want to pre-empt what the committee will say but we are not going to close the door on anything in terms of our recommendations about how things should be done differently. As a Conservative, my instinctive reaction would not be to advocate for the creation of any more quangos. I always feel the best way to collaboratively solve problems is for the industry to come together.

A personal question: your father Fred is a famous TV personality who once appeared in a Goodies movie. What part did film play in your life when you were growing up?
My mum was a model, my dad was a TV presenter [Fred Dinenage]. I was brought up on a diet of fashion and music and film and theatre. I remember on my 5th birthday party being taken to see The Slipper And The Rose with Richard Chamberlain. [Film] was always a big part of my upbringing.

Are you still a regular filmgoer? What did you see last?
My most local big cinema would be the Vue Cinema in Gunwharf [Portsmouth], which is a mega cinema. There isn’t a cinema in Gosport where I live but there are various pop-up cinemas. There was one last week showing The Red Shoes. You’re not going to be wildly impressed but the last thing I saw at the cinema, because I went with my two teenage sons, was The Beekeeper with Jason Statham.

Did you enjoy it?
For what it was, it was very entertaining.