david cameron avatarAhead of next week’s publication of Lord Smith’s review on the state and future of the British film industry David Cameron visited Pinewood Studios today to deliver a speech setting out his thoughts on the aims of the industry.

The choice of Pinewood was well made. The studio, which is already two projects into its new initiative of film production as well as being an icon of British film, is at the heart of the industry in this country and much of what Mr. Cameron said will impact those working in this, and other, British studios.

Lord Smith’s report is expected to focus lottery funding to encourage more commercially successful, the word ‘mainstream’ rears its head here, as well as culturally rewarding films and the Prime Minister talked about the £4bn contribution to the economy as well as the ‘incalculable contribution to our culture’ of British film in his speech. His encouragement of the talent in the industry here is commendable, and he is right to promote this sector in the glowing terms he does.

However, unless you’re Martin Sheen, politics and filmmaking are rarely tender bedfellows, with the clamour for immense financial returns often running up against the artistic vision of the filmmakers. Though this is clearly not always the case it is at the heart of the statement from the Prime Minister.  A key misunderstanding comes here, the devil revealed in this particular detail,

Our role, and that of the BFI, 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.

Equating quality and the nebulous notion of impact with commercial success gives us a few scenarios. The first is that we pump out films like Disney’s recent Alice in Wonderland which, through star power and audience familiarity with the characters, made a mint despite disappointing many. A second, and more troubling, option is that projects are only put into production once their original vision is adapted for maximum financial potential.

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire surprised many people with its success, not least at the 2009 Oscars; it became a defining film of that year, and many in the UK will remember the marketing campaign coating the image of a hugging Frieda Pinto and Dev Patel with the graceless misnomer ‘The Feel-Good movie of the Decade’. That this was not expected to make any money, and was considered for a straight-to-DVD release, is important.

Number 10 are naturally keen to pull out The King’s Speech as an example of how successful a British Independent film can be. Likewise Harry Potter is rolled out as the other end of the production spectrum, focusing on the British talent involved in front of, and behind, the camera. When I spoke to Tom Hooper last year, prior to his Oscar win, he talked of the process of getting the film out there, and how he found the commercially focused studio system,

[The King’s Speech] has taken on this momentum, so people might not acknowledge it as a British, small budget, independent film. But that’s what it is. Without the Film Council it would not have got made, without Momentum, the distributors, it wouldn’t have got made. And the studios all had it, but they were never going to make it in today’s climate.

It may change, and these things are cyclical, but at the moment the studios are focused on films that make £400 million or so, or franchises that can make over a billion and they’re not so interested in this kind of filmmaking. I think it might change but certainly when I was setting The King’s Speech up that was the world we were in.

So what do we do? Have Noel Clarke complete the Kidulthood trilogy with Knighthood? Should Joe Cornish have made Decorate the Block (with Carol Smillie and Alesha Dixon), maybe Ben Wheatley have made a film about two men organising a dinner party,

shopping kill list
Shopping List?

Should Andrew Haigh have been encouraged to throw in a mainstream actor to bump up the audience appeal for Weekend?

Where will it all end?

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Not here. But you get my point?

The recent BAFTA awards longlist failed to include Kill List or Weekend, despite both films having a very strong showing critically and commercially. Whether it is the pre-Oscar placing or a desire to be seen as mainstream and populist those omissions are stark indicators of where we find ourselves. Richard Ayoade’s Submarine was a shining example of a new voice emerging, as was Chris Morris’s Four Lions the year before. Both had the quality Cameron appears to be talking about, but not the impact, assuming soaring box office hauls and success abroad (i.e. America) is what is suggested here. The question therefore is, if the UK Producers are being supported to focus on making commercially successful films as a guiding principle, would these films have been made?

We need a British Film industry that encourages, develops, supports and celebrates the variety of talent it has, commercial success is necessary and a very high priority for everyone involved in each film that is produced. Understanding that the nuturing of homegrown talent enables the individual rivulets to find their way to making up the mainstream rather than simply being thrown in and becoming obscured by it is crucial.  If the report by Lord Smith has these ambitions then we should see a continuation of the emergence of a strong identity through filmmaking. Focusing on the box office take is not the way to do this.

david cameron avatar

David Cameron’s full speech is printed below and further information is available on the Number 10 website,

The UK film industry, the skills and crafts that support it, and our creative industries more widely, make a £4bn contribution to our economy and an incalculable contribution to our culture.

“But in this year when we set out bold ambitions for the future, when the eyes of the world will be on us, I think we should aim even higher, building on the incredible success of recent years.

“Our role, and that of the BFI, 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. Just as the British Film Commission has played a crucial role in attracting the biggest and best international studios to produce their films here, so we must incentivise UK producers to chase new markets both here and overseas.

“I am confident that Lord Smith’s Review will form an ambitious blueprint, and look forward to his recommendations next week.

As do we all.