Statistics can be used to show that Britain’s film industry is now the third biggest in the world and a prime destination for inward investment. This success story was heralded by James Purnell, new Minister for the Creative Industries, in a speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research in June this year. But what is the relation of this economic success to the vibrancy and breadth of our film culture?
A further look at the statistics provided by the UK Film Council for 2004 shows that last year domestic production fell from 44 films to 27, where domestic is taken to be films made by a UK production company shot wholly or partly in the UK. In 1997, the year when the government set up the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, UK production had been at a record high, and 84 domestic productions were registered. In terms of what UK audiences could see in 2004, beyond American features and American co-productions, the rest of the world share of the market in UK and Ireland was just 2.7%, a figure which betrays the failure of film policy to encourage interest and understanding in the stories of what goes on beyond our shores. Last year also saw the consolidation of companies operating in the exhibition sector and a series of momentous deals which changed the landscape of UK exhibition. In August 2004, Terra Firma acquired both the Odeon and UCI cinema circuits for a total of 580 million pounds, acquiring a 35% share of the market. Then in December Cineworld UK, controlled by the Blackstone Group, a huge private investment firm, took over UGC’s cinema operations in the UK and the control of 408 screens in 42 cinemas. Up until the takeover, UGC had demonstrated the best record for the range of films exhibited by a multiplex chain. As a result of the mergers the property and management of our cinemas is now largely in the hands of venture capitalists with no commitment to exhibition strategies beyond the imperative of capitalising on the upward curve in business (cinema admissions are growing), cutting costs and delivering profit margins. Terra Firma bought into landfill sites and waste recycling with the same considerations. What this is likely to deliver in cultural terms is more of the same. Mainstream cinema (largely American) will continue to thrive, while independent and foreign cinema, requiring special strategies to build an audience, will suffer. Unless, of course, there is some policy intervention.
Beyond the game of statistics there is a serious challenge. How can government policy deliver a broad film culture where the moving image can realise its potential in helping to construct a society which is tolerant, diverse and well-informed? In this country the public do not necessarily recognise that film and audiovisual media have a significant role to play. A recent document prepared by the British Film Institute in response to a public consultation by the Cultural Commission of Scotland observes that “The words “culture” and “cultural provision” do not, for many people, connote or include the moving image media of film, television and video. But these media are in fact for almost everybody their dominant cultural experience….They are also the predominant way in which people can access other aspects of culture such as language and history”.
In the UK, government policy with regard to film has also long devalued cultural factors compared to those of trade. One significant reason for this is the nature of film itself. From the beginning film has been an expensive art form to produce, requiring high levels of investment and labour resources. The most successful economic models to emerge, Hollywood and Bollywood, demonstrated the strength of a studio system run on industrial management principles. Today, the global marketplace continues to deliver lucrative markets to transnational companies. They can capitalise on the benefits of digital formats and media...