Drowning By Numbers – New Statesman

27th October 1989
The British film industry is a colony of Hollywood. If it is ever to have a life of its own, film-maker Tony Garnett argues, Britain has to subsidise it, as every comparable country does.

Batman and Indiana Jones are smash-hit boffo biz movies. In their first weekend, in North America alone, the box office gross was $70 million. Over the years, these movies will return hundreds of millions of dollars to their distributors, Warner and Paramount.

They were both made in Britain. Most of the Bond movies, which used to take tidy money, were made here too. British crews working in British studios: a world-class repository of skills. But are those movies British? We make Nissan cars here. Does that make them British? Does it matter?

British workers assemble these products and sometimes even help to design them. But the investment, and therefore the ownership and control, comes from elsewhere. Does that make Britain sound like any other third-world country?

Another way of looking at it is this. A hundred companies will soon dominate the planet A handful will be in effective control of the communication of ideas. Capital moves to where it can get a return. British workers are skilled and disciplined and prepared to work for low wages. So if they stay competitive with other countries like Spain or Mexico, some of this work will come their way.

British capitalists tried to go it alone in this mass production of cars. They threw away hundreds of millions of pounds of hard-earned national wealth in failing.

But isn’t the movie business different? We have always had talent. Must it work for Holly wood?

First, we must understand what Hollywood is. It is not, of course, a place, although itÕs headquarters are all within a few miles of that sleazy tourist trap which gave its name to the industry. Hollywood is the collective term which signifies a particular way of telling stories. It has dominated the imagination and the market place of human mythology in the western world for most of the century.

Hollywood is the distribution muscle and marketing expertise of a handful of companies. They are still called studios, but they are not primarily in the business of making movies. They often don’t get involved until after the movies are made. Lots of people can make movies. But only Paramount, Warner, Disney, Fox, Columbia, Universal. Orion and perhaps still MGM and United Artists have the skill and global reach to distribute them. The essence of the business is distribution. If you’ve got that, you can choose to make your own movies or have them made for you: the banks will stand in line to lend.

If you don’t have a distribution machine, you are not in control of the game. You’re likely to make real money consistently. To set one up from scratch is now so expensive that you will probably go out of business. In the 1980s, the body count of those who’ve tried has been high. It is a marketplace where only the big boys should play. Small, specialist US distributors like New Line (Friday the 13th) and Miramax (Scandal) survive, but others, like Cannon, Vestron and Lorimar, behaved like fireworks: showy but short-lived. After they were gone, you wondered why anyone had thought they were worth the money.

What else is Hollywood? It is the talent agencies, dominated by CM, William Moms and ICM. Their packaging of the main elements of a movie – actors, directors and screenplay – gives enormous leverage over the studios. It a small, tight network of a few hundred personalities, dominated by the few who can work the only magic which really counts: green light a movie. Each decision is a hair-raising throw of the dice. Add prints, advertising, other marketing costs, the interest on all that investment, and each one means a minimum of $20 million and upwards of $60 million a throw.

From Joe Kennedy and the East Coast bankers in the 1930s, through Charles Bludhorn and the conglomerates in the 1960s, to Rupert Murdoch and the media giants of the 1980s, one rule has applied. Ownership passes from hand to hand, but global mass entertainment begins and ends in Hollywood. If you want to be in that business, as an owner or a worker, there is nowhere else.

But it is not the only business to be in. Hollywood makes movies. In Europe, they make films.

This is not a snobbish distinction. There are great movies and pretentious, bad films. In many a movie there is a film trying to escape. Occasionally, and gloriously, a single work is both. But Hollywood is not in the film business and Europe has never learned the movie trade. Britain, despite or maybe because of having been colonised by Hollywood, has never tried even to make films with any consistency. Since Balcon, the most successful attempts at sustained production have been Hammer Horror and the Carry On series. The reason is simple: every other comparable country supports its film industry with one form of subsidy or another, and Britain, for all practical purposes, does not.

The small revival in the 1980s depended on one simple and long-overdue decision. Television, which had been financing films since the 1960s, but not allowing them to be shown in the cinemas, decided to invest in cinema films by pre-buying showings on television and taking an equity stake. Channel 4 at its inception, was

not inhibited by traditional practices, and took this obvious but admirable step. It has enriched international, as well as national, cinema and brought credit to Britain. But its output is now reduced. Even adding the BBC’s late contribution (too little and too late), we are talking about life-support, not long-term vigorous health.

The signs are not good. The government has stopped the ITV companies from siphoning off profits into film-making to avoid the Treasury levy and now new franchises are to go to the highest bidder. The ITV companies are acting like men who are to be hanged in the morning: it is concentrating their minds wonderfully. With their survival in question, why run the risk? Glossy co-productions of mini-series, perhaps; small-cost quiz and chat shows, certainly. But not many films.

The few small US distributors which are still in business are reluctant to give substantial advances to small British films, most of which do not perform well theatrically. Video used to be a back-end protection, but the consumer now demands “A” titles from the major studios, with big stars, leaving less shelf-space for the small critical success.

Production has been declining over the past four years. So here we go again. You have heard it all before. The British film industry, said by some not even to exist, always manages to be in crisis or terminal decline. Every few years a saviour appears in a burst of publicity. Then the headlines change to medical bulletins; at which point delegations create photo-opportunities in Whitehall. The leaders always look well-heeled and do a lot of self-righteous whining. They seem as credible as farmers pleading poverty. Would that they could be as successful with the begging bowl, but Tory MPs want to own land, not work in films. It is all very demeaning.

Enter the Labour Party with measured, pre-precise proposals to put the whole business on a sound footing, once and for all. These may be the glory days of the Adam Smith Institute, but now is the time to prepare for office. You never know your luck. Search the new policy document, however, and all you will find are windy generalisations, long on rhetoric and short on concrete promises: Try.

The arts are also an element of growing significance in the quality of our lives. That significance does not only lie in their basic function of providing entertainment and enjoyment, but reflecting and shaping the values of our society. Their role in voicing dissent, in challenging prevailing orthodoxies with unpopular or uncomfortable views, is essential.

Nice one. Or:

If our arts and leisure facilities are left solely to the mercies of the increasingly powerful multi-media companies, we will be selling ourselves and our culture short

Rousing stuff. Go get ’em, Neil. And how about:

É.the arts arid cultural industries are a large and expanding sector of the economy which can benefit disproportionately from government encouragement and support. The cultural industries account for between 5 and 6 per cent of all spending on goods and services – around £20 billion a year.

I hope this includes films because the moving image is part of the communications business, the great growth industry of the next century. We work in the language which is set to dominate that business. If we choose to nourish and build upon what we have, the economic benefits will accumulate. A secure and expanding production base demands depths of skill and advanced equipment, which in turn act as magnets for producers internationally. We are the natural bridge between the US and the rest of Europe. Should we not be encouraging the traffic?

We seem to be developing a new generation of creative entrepreneurs, capable of producing medium-budget movies, as well as small personal films. Having been supported by subsidies from TV, they are now becoming stronger and more confident, making the alliances with bigger foreign companies which can assure them development finance and sales. But marketplace logic dictates that all but the smallest films have to be made primarily for the US.

Every indicator, both contemporary and historical, points to one conclusion: British film culture depends on continuing, consistent and predictable public subsidy. What is it about the British and the arts? It took nearly a century of lobbying to get a National Theatre. Opera and dance stagger from one crisis to the next. Money is given grudgingly to orchestras, museums and art galleries. But at least the principle is conceded. Films are different. Is it because they are thought to be mere entertainment and therefore undeserving, perhaps even unworthy? Or, being associated with pleasure, sinful?

Of course there must be a balance between subsidy and the box office, or the artist loses touch with society. Throughout history there have been punishments for alienating the patron, which is why we need alternatives: a one-stop centralised Morrisonian solution would be bad for artist and audience alike. But it is demonstrably true, from just a glance at the history of the arts, that when work must please the majority in order to exist, it has less value. Great wine can be hard on the palate when new. Only the most discerning can forecast its eventual glory and even they sometimes get it wrong. So we need a tension between the support of artistic experiment and the perceived taste of the audience.

Sounds familiar? It is the language of the civilised end of the debate on broadcasting from Pilkington until the Thatcher thugs moved tendentiously in. But the public service balancing act is still being attempted in television: negatively with quotas and other anti-dumping devices; and positively by public financing. The wolves are on the prowl. But even New Right fanatics dare not openly advocate the ultimate solution. Its historical strengths make British television a tough target. Our cinema, however, was colonised and overwhelmed by Hollywood at the beginning and never stood a chance.

Can a Labour government be persuaded to give it one? We must assume that civil servants will whisper objections to ministers: this proposal contravenes the Treaty of Rome, that one stands no chance with a stony-faced Treasury. We must also assume that a minimalist approach will stand the best chance, initially at least

Two modest proposals, costing the Treasury nothing, would underpin the industry. First, reactivate the Eady Levy on ticket sales; 10 per cent would deliver around £15 million. Second, impose a levy on the huge video market (at the wholesale level to simplify collection). A further £15 million.

Some of it would be creamed off to a Nation Film Development Fund, some to film school and other worthy causes. The rest would go back to the producers, but with this difference in the French model, a credit would be give towards the next film. No one could walk away with the money.

I don’t believe the customer would complain. The money ploughed back into production would increase choice. Overseas sales would contribute to the balance of payments. The credits awarded to foreign producers would have to be spent here, increasing employment. No tariffs, no protectionism, no inward-looking parochialism. Just a simple, cost-effective way of priming the pump.

If Labour is elected, Neil Kinnock promises government which acts as an enabler. If none of these proposals, then which? If not any proposals, then why? Is there someone in Walworth Road who can tell us?