Sunday, 5 December 2010

BFI and the future of British film-making

More Harry Potter or another Another Year? The BFI must decide
Taking over from the UK Film Council will see a clash between commerce, Hollywood and commitments to UK heritage and art

In his speech outlining the future of the UK film industry, culture minister Ed Vaizey made an interesting point about the relationship between British film-making and Hollywood. In the same breath, Vaizey praised Tamara Drewe, Made in Dagenham and the Harry Potter films as signs of the British film industry's current and continuing success. He went on to say:

Some people think there are two film industries in this country – the US film industry, and the UK film industry – and that somehow one side's success is dependent on the other side's failure. I do not share that view. I believe that the two industries are two sides of the same coin … We benefit massively from Hollywood's investment in this country.

The plans he went on to outline reflected this assumption. The duties of the UK Film Council, it turns out, have been handed over to a beefed-up British Film Institute, which will have an even greater pot of lottery funds to distribute than its predecessor, although with a significantly reduced infrastructure. The rationale for abandoning the UK Film Council was, in part, that it supposedly spent too much on operating costs (although the UKFC vehemently disputes this). One can presume that the BFI will have to manage its budgets, and work with film-makers, at a significantly discounted rate.

In many ways, it's an uncontroversial move, which reinforces the status quo, rather than radically breaking with it. The BFI simply replaces the UK Film Council as a one-stop shop for film investment. The decision to keep film funding centralised, rather than establishing a handful of separate bodies with different remits, will help to keep costs down, although it does mean that film-makers have to be on good terms with the BFI in order to qualify for resources. If they are not, for whatever reason, then there's not really anywhere else to go. The decision also makes one wonder whether it might have been cheaper to simply reform the UK Film Council.

So, it remains to be seen how the BFI will deal with this new mandate. Vaizey told us to expect announcements about significant structural changes very soon, and the BFI faces a substantial challenge. Throughout its history, it has been a successful force for disseminating and educating the public about the value of movies and screen heritage. When it has funded film projects in the past, it has tended to stick to its mandate by focusing on more commercially obscure but artistically worthwhile projects. By contrast, the UK Film Council was established to ensure that the UK film industry became more substantial and sustainable in terms of its value to the UK economy. It had a cultural mandate, but it was ultimately a commercial institution.

Despite some missteps, it achieved notable success in this regard. Relatively few UK Film Council-funded films have been breakout hits, but many more were small-budget affairs which likely recouped their costs, and the UK Film Council's hit-to-flop ratio was probably no worse than the average Hollywood studio. After all, film-making is an enormously risky business, because it is almost impossible to fully anticipate audience preference and demands. The great screenwriter William Goldman, described this problem neatly in his much-quoted maxim, that, in Hollywood, "nobody knows anything". Crucially, no one knows for sure what audiences want to see, and this is as true of the British market as it is of America. Therefore, the challenge for the BFI will be to find some way of dealing with an inherently uncertain and relatively unpredictable market.

One strategy is to fund very small films and expect small returns. Another is to contribute to the funding of bigger British films, assuming a minor role, but assisting with administration. The BFI clearly has some solid commercial instincts. It operates a great facility on the South Bank, including an extremely successful Imax cinema. But now it needs to find a way of balancing its cultural and education remit with the financial realities of film production, while keeping operating costs low.

However, it seems to me that the real focus of Vaizey's interest is revealed in the suggestion that visiting Hollywood productions, and American investment, has really driven the growth of film-related industry in Britain. Tax breaks for overseas production will continue, and Vaizey went out of his way to declare the need for further American investment. Some will no doubt see this as a mistake, or as confirmation that the coalition is pursuing the neoliberal policy of ensuring that Britain remains little more than a production base for companies whose revenues ultimately migrate overseas (as occurred with so much British manufacturing in the 1970s and 80s). However, Vaizey is right that many ostensibly American productions do bring work to Britain, and are culturally British in some sense. I argued last week that the success of the Harry Potter films clearly indicates that British subjects are eminently suitable for highly budgeted, commercially successful blockbusters. Next week, Michael Apted's new Narnia film is likely to generate substantial revenues across the world too (even if it does not quite match the stratospheric profits of the latest Potter film). The newly minted BFI probably will not want to dip its toe in the choppy waters of blockbuster film production, so Hollywood does still have a role to play in supporting a certain kind of nominally British film. But it must be possible for British film-makers to successfully address regular British moviegoers – not the minority audiences attracted to a movie like Fish Tank or Another Year, but the masses, the sort of people who turn out in droves for Harry Potter. The BFI now needs to build upon the work of the UK Film Council, and figure out what role it wants future British films to play in the lives of British people.

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