The decline in UK productions based on original screenplays has been caused by a misguided film-industry culture says development consultant Phil Parker
In the last decade, the proportion of original screenplays produced within the UK film industry has declined significantly compared with adaptations, sequels and remakes - a trend reflected in the US studio system. Is this inevitable? Are UK screenwriters incapable of creating successful original films?
The UK film industry over the last decadehas shunned original ideas, and new screenwriters, in favour of ‘safer’ bets
Major UK films of the 1990s such as Four Weddings And A Funeral, The Full Monty, Shallow Grave and Shakespeare In Love were all original works, and all but the last one were from first-time feature film screenwriters. So, why has there been such a decrease in backing for new screenwriters with original ideas?
The answer lies in the development culture that has grown within the UK film industry over the last decade - a culture in which original ideas, and new screenwriters, are shunned in favour of ‘safer’ bets: true stories, adaptations and new writer-directors.In the early-1990s the UK film industry was described as a cottage industry but in truth it was closer to a bunch of, often inexperienced, individuals desperate to make a film, any film. This all changed at the end of the 1990s with the government and the City backing UK talent into production.
The result has beena production explosion, with an average of more than 100 films a year since 2000 achieving theatrical distribution. Alongside this, more than $165m (£100m) was spent on development anda new generation of untrained, inexperienced development executives, readers and new producers suddenly found themselves making UK films.
However, the box-office share of UK independent productions in the same period did not increase substantially. When the majority of the larger UK-based film companies were asked why this was the case, their answer was, “Development does not work.”
This was based on the simple fact that the massive increase in development spending had not produced more successful films. The rapid growth of production had not been matched with a supply of good, if not great, screenplays.
This failure of development was put down to spending too much on new talent. However, no-one seemed to question whether the money had been spent on, or by, people who actually knew howto develop feature films, and it should be noted that the vast majority of new talents were not new writers, but new writer-directors.
Some may put this situation down to writers not being ableto match the demands of filmbut ultimately the answer lies elsewhere - with the new generation of producers and development personnel.Their inexperience and the wealth of opportunities, in contrast to what was availablein the 1990s, created a culturein which people realised theydid not need a good screenplayto make a film.
This generation has created a culture based on simplistic notions of screenwriting and development theory learnt on script-guru weekends and driven by producers, and directors who know that cast and/or budget, sometimes just a saleable idea, are the key to getting a film funded, not the quality of the screenplay. Writers were frozen out, writer-directors (more than 300) were ultimately treated as expendable talent, and too many poor films were, and are, made.
If this culture continues, the UK film industry will remain dependent on adaptations, true stories or remakes. The lack of originality could force up-and-coming screenwriters to work in TV or migrate to other countries instead of working in the UK.
The Screenwriters Festival is one place where this culture is being challenged. It is where a new generation of original screenwriters meet with producers and financiers who see the commercial potentialof backing new original screenwriting.This annual meeting will take place in October and could be where the next Four Weddings or Full Monty are born - and the 2010s see a rebirth of original UK screen hits.
The Screenwriters Festival runs in Cheltenham, UK, from October 26-29.