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The sad state of British film

Why do we accept comfortable irrelevance?

Artillery Row

The British film and high-end TV industry has seen a “record” £6.27 billion production spend in 2022. That was how the British Film Institute chose to report last year’s statistics. Dig a little closer, however, and the reality was more disconcerting. 

For one thing, inward investment was responsible for £5.37 billion, or 92 per cent of the total spend. Inward investment means foreign productions being filmed in Britain. Whilst that big spend may underline “the UK’s global reputation as the world-leading centre” for productions, it also means that very few of those productions are actually British. 

Two American sequels made more than the entire British independent film industry

The majority of that spending was on high-end TV, with £4.29 billion spent, of which 84 per cent was inward investment. Meanwhile, of the £1.97 billion spent in 2022 on films, 88 per cent was due to inward investment, with domestic British films and co-productions accounting for only 11 per cent.

Independent British films therefore constituted only £174 million out of the £6.27 billion total. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with providing a service to others but what this means is that, behind all the self-congratulation, Britain is increasingly a larger version of Hungary: a place with good technical staff and tax breaks where richer foreigners can come to make cheaper films. Indeed, Hungary is now the second biggest base of film production in Europe, after Britain. 

In 2022, the British box office was dominated by Top Gun: Maverick, which earned £83.7 million. Following close behind was Avatar: The Way of Water, which made £70.9 million. To put those in context, the entire box office for the Top 20 British independent films (making up 92 per cent of the total British independent film take) was £69.2 million. In other words, two American sequels each made more money in Britain than the entire British independent film industry. 

The BFI does seem aware of the dangers to British film, having commissioned an Economic Review of UK Independent Film last year. It warned that the sustainability of British film was “under considerable threat”. The report shows that budgets are failing to grow, revenues are limp and costs are actually increasing (partly due to onerous covid rules and partly due to success at attracting inward investment leading to more competition for production staff). 

The report suggests even more tax relief, a new zero rate of VAT on independent films being exhibited, and compelling large streaming services to also invest in independent British cinema. 

This misses the key problem with British film however: it is heavily reliant on a cultural elite, who dish out funding based more on whether a production fits their social aims than whether it is likely to succeed commercially. A look at the BFI website reveals its top story is the “BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival”. The spotlighted film showing at the BFI IMAX is Shazam! Fury of the Gods, an American superhero film. If you pop over to the BFI’s YouTube channel then you can find recent delights such as a clip from Le Beau Mec, a 1979 gay pornographic film. 

Amongst the British films which the BFI celebrates as going into production in 2022 are Blue Jean, about a lesbian PE teacher confronting her sexuality whilst living under the shadow of Section 28; and Borderland, a film about an IRA man who plots revenge on the SAS soldier who killed his pregnant wife, written by a man who was quite literally interned (but was later released) in Long Kesh over his links to the Republican movement. 

Shovelling more money into films with social aims simply won’t work

If one were to turn to BBC Films you’d find upcoming films about a black family who find out the man of the house is wearing a red woman’s dress, a Ken Loach film about Syrian refugees living alongside the British working class (no prizes for guessing whether they discover a shared sense of solidarity), and a film about Elizabeth Taylor’s gay assistant confronting AIDS. The closest you’ll get to a commercial film is a “poetic” one about a mother fleeing London when it is submerged by an environmental catastrophe

Shovelling more money into such films simply won’t work. Indeed, if you look at government statistics, Film Tax Relief has been increasing over time. In the year ending March 2022, the government had paid out £362 million in such relief. That’s more than twice what was spent on independent British film and five times more than British independent film earned.

Since Film Tax Relief was introduced in 2007, a total of £4.8 billion has been spent on it by the government whilst High-End Television Tax Relief has spent £10.9 billion since it was first introduced in 2013. Although clearly successful at attracting inward investment, it has failed to help British independent film stand on its own two feet.

The film sector requires real reform. One possibility is to copy the Korean Hallyu wave, which applied industrial policy to culture and turned the country into a globally successful film and television exporter. That involves spending far more but also cutting out the cultural elite. The focus would be on commercial success, with the government funding a range of production companies but only maintaining funding to those who prove themselves financially. 

The other possibility is to accept that the British film industry exists to support the production infrastructure needed to attract inward investment, by providing employment for technical staff and providing a space to develop creatives such as directors or actors. In that case it is largely about patronage. Rather than let a failed cultural elite continue or handing control to ministers who know little about culture, it would be better to let ordinary people choose.

One way to do that would be Henry Hill’s Kickstarter Culture plan, which would let artists post potential projects on a government run website. Anyone with a National Insurance number would get a number of credits, which they could distribute to whichever projects they liked. Those projects which reached their “funding goals” by getting enough credits would have them turned into money by the government. 

That would get ordinary people involved in the arts and broaden the range of what culture is supported. Perhaps then the likes of Gareth Evans, director of the 2011 hit film The Raid, wouldn’t have to leave Wales for Indonesia in order to follow their dream of making action films. Similarly, British film has utterly failed to make an unambiguously anti-IRA story, despite its murdering thousands of largely unarmed British people, whereas the Chinese were happy to fund the anti-IRA Jackie Chan film The Foreigner. It not only made a significant profit but was also one of the most watched films in Britain on Netflix. 

Providing that power to the people would sidestep any debates about marching through the institutions, from left or right, provide more opportunities to make popular culture, whilst still allowing room for the avant garde and arthouse, as well as encouraging people to become more involved in culture. Perhaps what British film needs most is to get its audience involved. 

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