Time for some polemic over at WhatCulture! towers, today David Cameron has been ruffling feathers as he both praised and damned the state of the British film industry. Cameron is visiting Pinewood Studios to announce some decisions – based on Lord Smith’s review of the government’s film policy – about how British films will be funded in the future.
Cameron was quoted as saying; “Our role, and that of the BFI (British Film Institute), should be to support the sector in becoming even more dynamic and entrepreneurial, helping UK producers to make commercially successful pictures that rival the quality and impact of the best international productions.”
But what does that mean exactly? Is Cameron vying for some Brit blockbusters, a Jerry Bruckinghamshire if you will? Surely we’re doing that already with box office hits such as The King’s Speech ($414 million worldwide) and Slumdog Millionaire ($377 million), I mean, coming off of modest production budgets ($15 million a piece) that trumps all over something like Captain America which took $368 million worldwide off of a $140 million budget. Meanwhile, the highest grossing film of 2011 was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, albeit largely financed with Hollywood dollars it brought a great deal of work to British cast and crew.
Perhaps, what Cameron and the policy review should really be addressing is why so many British filmmakers up sticks to Hollywood once they have a modicum of success here? Is it, maybe, because the industry isn’t very canny when it comes to nurturing new talent? I don’t think that trying to make the UK equivalent of Fast 5ive is going to change that?
Filmmaker Ken Loach was vocal about his opinion on BBC Breakfast today, stating; “This is a travesty. If everybody knew what would be successful before it was made, there would be no problem. What you have to do is fund a lot of different, varied projects and then some will be successful, some will be original, some will be creative, and you will get a very vibrant industry.”
I don’t think the British film industry isn’t in need of change, but I think it seems, from Cameron’s remarks, very narrow minded to think that the solution is; “Oh, just make some blockbusters and it’ll be fine.” Is that any guarantee of success? Money has been thrown at plenty of Hollywood turkeys in the past, what’s to say that spending a lot of cash of some tentpole pictures will reap financial rewards tenfold?
Have a look at the production history of British mainstay Working Title films, they did well early on with the lauded My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) but a lot of their output after that wasn’t exactly box office gold until, of course, Four Weddings and A Funeral (1994), but did anyone expect that to be a huge hit?
Ironically, Cameron recently claimed that his favourite film was Lindsay Anderson’s masterful blackly comic satire If… (1968) which climaxes with a student machine gunning the staff of his private school, but it seems that a film as guerilla and provocative as this wouldn’t have the ‘box office appeal’ that would secure it funding under Cameron’s proposed regime. George Harrison set about producing films, gambling millions of pounds of his own money, because he wanted to see them get made, spawning the likes of Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian, Withnail & I and Time Bandits, whereas Cameron, if his statement is a true reflection of his taste, seems to be trying to destroy a system that produced the very thing he claims to love.
Stoicism is a great British trait, and I’m reasonably certain that any changes Cameron makes won’t dent the imagination, creativity and tenacity of British filmmakers, instead they’ll hopefully inspire filmmakers to go outside of the system more, probably seek funding from abroad, because unless they’re project is commercially viable – whatever that actually means – they’re probably going to find it difficult to get the kind of support that helped bring the likes of Tyrannosaur and Shame to our screens, and these are films with reasonably big names attached.
Because that’s the issue, as Loach pointed out, you don’t know where success comes from, and you can retrospectively cite The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire as blockbusters because that’s what happened, but it was a surprise. Prior to Slumdog its director Danny Boyle teamed up with celebrated author Alex Garland and assembled a starry and international cast including Chris Evans, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh to make an ambitious sci-fi thriller with a high concept called Sunshine, surely that’s a guaranteed blockbuster?! Well, from an estimated $50 million budget they hauled in $32 million worldwide… And why? On many levels Sunshine is exactly the kind of hokum Bruckheimer might produce, but it’s a far better, more intelligent and thoughtful film…
I guess that was the problem, British films are too concerned with being intelligent and creative and different. Not to write off all Hollywood fare, I enjoy a good blockbuster as much as the next man (see; Armagedden on the DVD shelf of Number 10), but commercially viable goes hand-in-hand with a dumbing down to some degree. Both The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire were surprise hits, there was nothing about them that would’ve drawn in a crowd if they weren’t well performed, well written, well made, carefully crafted films that slowly and steadily built up a wave of admiration that brought about their ultimate box office success. The King’s Speech’s American opening weekend was $355,450 on just 4 screens, and Slumdog’s was $360,018 on 10, though they are great returns they are both part of a paced and gradual release to capitalise – so the producers hoped – on good reviews and word of mouth, it paid off here, but both those tallies seem miniscule in comparison to the record breaking opening weekends of your average blockbuster, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
When people look back at the films that stand the test of time they’re not going to hold the likes of Transformers: The Dark of the Moon aloft, yet films like, the aforementioned, Withnail & I will still be long adored and successful. There are many things misguided about how Cameron and the policy review board are approaching this ‘shake up’ of British filmmaking, I just hope that the anger being felt through many quarters of the filmmaking community only further fires the determination to produce great work outside of a system that may become stifling and blinkered to what has truly made British cinema so special and successful over the years.