Hugh Grant is not in every British film
LONDON — Is this a new golden age for British movies? Think about it: a string of box-office hits on both sides of the Atlantic ("Bend It Like Beckham," "Bridget Jones's Diary," "28 Days Later," "Gosford Park," "Notting Hill"); more cinemagoers than at any time since 1971; a clutch of directors thriving in Hollywood; movie-theater numbers at a 43-year high.
It all paints a rosy, upbeat picture, a sort of fall-and-rise epic with stiff upper lip. But is there a happy ending?
Directors and producers who swapped notes at the London Film Festival earlier this month aren't so sure. They cite haphazard funding, parlous distribution, a conservative public, cautious exhibitors, and US-dominated multiplexes. Sometimes, it seems, it's a miracle that British movies ever get made at all.
And to cap it all, many express a frustration that the only British films that seem to get solid up-front financial backing are those whimsical tales about ordinary people in which Hugh Grant gets the girl at the end.
"We seem to be obsessed in this country with films about ordinary people doing ordinary things," says Julian Simpson, a director whose first movie, "The Criminal" - a slick thriller steeped in paranoid twists and twilit violence - was long on plaudits but short on profits.
"We have our 'Full Montys' and 'Calendar Girls.' But that's all we do in this country," he adds. "We ought to be trying to make films that are good films, regardless of whether they succeed or fail at the box office."
It's amazing, nonetheless, what a few box-office successes can do. Just over a decade ago, British film was in a sorry state. After a post-war heyday dominated by the Ealing comedies and epic directors such as David Lean, British cinema lost the plot in the 1970s and '80s. Television dominated, movie theaters were shut down en masse, and the only output of any note, the occasional classic aside, was James Bond.
The renaissance began to flower in the early 1990s, when a combination of public money from the national lottery and the astute output of writers like Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Bridget Jones," "Notting Hill") set the cameras rolling again. Shrewd tax breaks introduced six years ago accelerated the trend, making it cheaper to shoot and produce movies in Britain.
Suddenly there was cash to play with and a formula that Britain somehow gained a monopoly on: the romantic comedy.
There was an audience, too. The introduction of multiplexes in Britain reawakened interest in cinemagoing as an alternative to a night at the pub.
Today, one quarter of Britons go to the movies at least once a month.
And yet it is rarely British films they go to see. Less than 1 in 10 movies shown at British cinemas is homegrown.
"We can't compete with America because we don't have the money that America has," says Asif Kapadia, a young director whose debut feature, "The Warrior," won a string of awards at the London festival. "There are only three industries that really work: the Indian, the American, and the French, where their own audience goes to see their films."
"Our big issue is the English language," says Mr. Kapadia. "Because of our language, we are too closely linked to a superpower like America. It's very hard to break away from it. Most of our multiplexes are owned by American companies, and they want to show their own films."
Indeed, it can be extremely difficult for even critically praised British movies to get distribution in the UK. And many that do are sent out with only 70 copies, meaning they never reach a wide audience.
It goes without saying that there's not much point in making a film if no one gets to see it. And yet it's a fate that awaits many of the new British films showcased at the London festival.
"The Trouble With Men and Women," for instance, is a sharp, subtle depiction of love and life in London. But despite festival prominence and an award nomination, it does not have a general release date yet.
"Distribution here is in such a terrible crisis," says producer Liz Rosenthal. "It is so difficult to get your film out."
"The British are not a particularly rich cinema-going nation," she adds. "The box office is obviously massive for Hollywood, but when it comes to wider genres, we are not particularly good."
There are in fact no UK-based global distributors, so the British movie industry is really at the mercy of the Americans. And they know what they like.
"Distributors don't really need British films," says Andrea Calderwood, founder of Slate Films, a production company, that was behind notable new British films like this year's "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands." "They like the occasional good one, but they don't need them like they need American films."
"In this country we don't have a film industry, we have a television industry. Each film is really an achievement to get made."
Television is, in fact, vital for British filmmakers. Television rights generate more cash for films here than box-office admissions - more than $1.6 billion in 2002. And yet broadcasters are proving particularly reluctant to finance - and broadcast - British films.
In countries such as France, Italy, and Spain, investment by broadcasters plays a key role in underpinning film industries. Not so in Britain, where four major film-producing broadcasters have either closed or downsized recently. And during the last six month of 2002, only 2.6 percent of films shown on regular television were recent British films, according to research published by the UK Film Council.
The Film Council, set up three years ago to distribute public money, has sought to fill the gap - and with some success. Last month, it announced that its outlay of $23.2 million on 20 films last year had grossed more than $147 million - a handy return in an industry that reckons on a 90 percent failure rate.
But Council executives are all too aware of the importance, particularly for lower-budget movies, of tax breaks, which may not last forever. They are up for review in 2005.
"There is enough public-funding support as long as they continue with the existing tax breaks," says Nik Powell, executive producer of "Calendar Girls," which opens next month in the US, and head of the National Film and Television School. "If we scrap them, it's a disaster."