Commercial UK cinema should live or die on the open market both in financing and distribution, but artistic cinema needs government support.
While the UK government works on its new plans for film after initiating the dismantling of the UK Film Council, it’s a good time to lay out a key idiosyncrasy about British cinema that makes it different from other European industries.
The English language, simply put, gives UK films of a certain commercial bent the opportunity to break out into the US market and score sales around the world that French, German or Swedish films do not have. So in North America, for example, The Queen grossed $56.4m, Gosford Park took $41.3m and The Constant Gardener $33.6m.
That’s not to mention Working Title’s steady stream of UK hits through Universal or Focus or an all-out blockbuster like Slumdog Millionaire. The common language can help turn these accessible audience films into bona fide hits.
British arthouse films, on the other hand, are a different animal altogether. Usually telling stories set in the UK, reflecting UK society or displaying unique artistic visions, they encompass the visual bravado of Jarman, Greenaway or Sally Potter and the social drama of Loach, Leigh and Shane Meadows.
From critical favourites Terence Davies, Pawel Pawlikowski and Andrea Arnold to world-class documentarians like James Marsh and Kevin Macdonald, these film-makers are renowned on the global movie stage as among Europe’s finest artistic voices.
So which of these strands should get the government’s Lottery funding? Clearly the latter makes more sense. These films need all the help they can get from development and production to sales and distribution. They are important cultural items, standard-bearers for the nation across the world and, when made at the right price, they are commercially viable and possess longterm value.
The former category of films, on the other hand, should live or die on the open market, raising independent finance to endorse their ultimate worth in theatres and beyond.
The UK’s European counterparts France and Germany may invest in bigger mainstream films in their industries but then those films don’t have much of a shot travelling in the same way that UK films do. While the English language can be a blessing to some films and a curse to others, the UK should not be judged by other standards. It is an industry divided by its relationship with the US. That is not the case for the continental industries.
It’s often said that British audiences don’t like to pay to see British films. Local journalists have raged that Lottery funding is poured into films that don’t find large audiences. But that is not necessarily the point of Lottery funding which elsewhere is used to fund far more rarefied artistic activities than film like dance, sculpture, theatre and literature.
The UK Film Council tried to accommodate all types of film in its lottery funding mandate and that could have been a mistake. Perhaps the new Lottery agency, whether that is a broadcaster, the BFI or Film London, will focus on film as artform just as The Arts Council directs funds to public artwork and exhibitions. That should not be confused with commercial cinema which is a big capitalistic business and needs no help from government.