During the BBC Films drinks reception in Cannes last month, I fell into a conversation with a UK film executive who told me her private hobbyhorse was to persuade Screen International to describe films such as the Harry Potter series or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight as “British”.
Her view, charmingly put, was that Screen’s insistence on reporting their provenance as “US-UK” productions or even worse, simply American, was relegating the importance of UK film-makers - and that these films were really more British than American. Her question was what she might have to do to get Screen to change the way it reported this question of national identity.
“To suggest Harry Potter, The Dark Knight or Mamma Mia! are solely British is wishful thinking”
The answer, of course, is that she would have to change the economics of the international film industry. While international production money spent in the UK is critically important to the health of the local film industry, it is not the same as the UK industry actually producing (and owning) those films.
To suggest Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince (Warner Bros), The Dark Knight (Warner Bros) or MammaMia!The Movie (Universal) are solely British simply because the majority of their production took place in the UK is wishful thinking. It would rely on a definition of origin that puts production spend ahead of all other factors - including the source of investment and to where the majority of profit will eventually flow back.
And on the basis of following the money, the national identity of most of the major blockbusters shot in the UK, like it or not, remains, at least partly, American.
I was reminded of that discussion around national identity and origin by the work of the screen agencies in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales featured in this issue. It is in the work of these agencies that notions of national identity and the origin of films becomes so meaningful. Where these agencies, supported by the UK Film Council (UKFC), have done so well is in encouraging the passion of local film-makers and creating local opportunities while also attracting international projects.
In these screen agencies, there is a real benefit to a strong sense of national identity and developing indigenous talent and creativity. Each of these agencies has done a tremendous job of supporting local film-makers while seeking to expand the horizons of the kind of films in which they will invest and encourage to shoot in their region. As public and National Lottery funding is diverted away from film and towards the London Olympics in 2012, it will be critical to ensure the screen agencies remain properly funded. But there are still new and different ways of thinking how best to stimulate the local market.
This week it was reported the UKFC’s Premiere Fund is investing approximately $3.1m (£1.9m) in Spanish language film La Mula - a co-production led by UK producer Michael Radford through his company Workhorse, with Irish and Spanish partners. This is an international co-production - not just a British film (and Screen won’t call it a British film), but that shouldn¹t deter the UKFC investment in a film involving a UK production company, that can produce a return on investment while helping to create jobs for people working in the UK film sector.
Calling films “British” when they are really American won’t change much - but imaginative investment that supports a strong local industry while encouraging international partnerships and co-funding, clearly will.