Cash or Creativity: the Future of British Film?

Prime Minister David Cameron will suggest today that Britain’s film industry should seek to rival Hollywood, favouring mainstream “blockbuster” production over “art house” films.

He comments: “our role 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”.  Right-o.  But it does beg the question:  how to predict what will be commercially successful?

One example is “The King’s Speech”.  Who would have been convinced that a period drama about King George VI and his vocal coach would be a sure-fire hit?   The film took years to make, and underwent the usual twists and turns of talent, producers and studio backing along the way.  And yet it scored over 70 international awards (Globes and Academy Awards included) and, made on a modest budget of £8 million, has grossed well over $400million worldwide.  Cameron will no doubt use “The King’s Speech” as an example today.  And that is the key:  it’s easy to spot a winner after it’s made.

Cameron’s comments come as we await Lord Smith’s review of the UK film industry.  Considering development, production, distribution, exhibition and inward investment, the review aims to identify the most successful business models to contribute to economic growth, nurture talent and engage with UK audiences.  Cameron’s comments suggest that he expects the findings of Lord Smith’s review to “rebalance” the industry’s national lottery funding in favour of supporting independent pictures that have mainstream potential.  Successful film companies would receive greater support, rather than government funding going to unproven filmmakers.

The risks of Cameron’s comments are that they reduce this important debate to a purely economic one.  Of course it is a business – it’s a £4.2bn one – and it must be efficient and profitable to contribute to the wider economy, jobs creation and inward creative investment.  But practitioners must be empowered to use creative excellence, reach, impact and innovation as equal markers of success.  Creative risks must be taken.  And new talent must be nurtured.   Only then will the UK have a risk-taking, vibrant and pioneering industry.  And that is how Britain can challenge Hollywood.  Mainstream and creativity do not have to be contradictory terms.

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