Why Cameron hasn't got a clue about the British Film Industry

Jon Williams

Boss Bad Lad
Cast & Crew
Only Quotas can make British Cinema Great Again

This article first appeared in The Guardian online edition, 7.12.10. It's now nearly 30 years since Thatcher scrapped, along with much else that had supported British cinema since 1928, so now most people weren't around to remember what it was like.

But this article doesn't just deal with the UK, it also documents how cinema has fared in countries such France, Spain, Latin America, Mexico, South Korea which refused to cave in to US pressure and follow Thatcher's disastrous route. And the lessons are obvious, your own cinema only thrives if it's protected.

And no one knows that more than the USA which effectively operates maybe a 95% quota (if they don't own it they don't screen it) imposed by Hollywood's monopoly practices, rather than by the state which endorses them.

Once, we had a great British film industry which made everything from serious drama, to comedy, to blockbusters that rivaled the best of Hollywood. And we had British directors, such as David Lean, Michael Powell, Lindsay Anderson, Ken Russell, and many others, together with stars such as Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers, Richard Attenborough, Margaret Lockwood and Julie Christie, who were internationally acclaimed.

Why? Because British film-making was being protected by quotas.

But it all came to an end on January 1, 1983, when Margaret Thatcher, whose best pal was the ex-Hollywood actor and US president, Ronald Reagan, suspended them.

Since then we have become a country where the film industry has gone the same way as the car industry: we build Japanese (and some French) cars, and we make films for Hollywood studios – as long as we give them big enough tax incentives, that is.

Our own film-making has been reduced to a cottage industry where film-makers have the option of either making films on virtually no money, or on small budgets with grants from the National Lottery. And these films only end up in our mainstream cinemas if Hollywood acquires them – and pockets most of the money in the process. It’s hardly surprising then that nineteen out of twenty of these truly British films loses money.

Quotas were first introduced in 1928, and by 1935 20% of all films both distributed and exhibited in the UK had to be British. It is true that, because we were in the process of catching up with the Americans – and because the system was open to abuse, some of these films were not that good. But this most definitely wasn’t the case after WWII when a rise in quotas to a massive 45% of feature films, before, in 1950, sinking back to 30%, ushered in what came to be known as: the ‘golden age of British cinema’.

What’s more the 1960 Film Act made it illegal for distributors to force exhibitors to take particular films, e.g. to bundle films together so that cinemas could only screen the latest blockbuster if they took several of the studios other films as well. This too was scrapped by Margaret Thatcher, with the result that today it’s Hollywood’s common practice when it comes to both cinemas and to selling the screening rights for films on television.

The scrapping of quotas has proved to be a disaster in other countries as well. For example, in 1992 the US, as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement, demanded their repeal in Mexico. The next few years saw a near total collapse of Mexican cinema, with production falling from more than 100 features per year down to single figures. As a result, in an attempt to save the industry, the Mexican government re-introduced a 10% quota in 1997.

South Korea demonstrates that the introduction of quotas has the opposite effect. Introduced first in 1967, Korea progressively raised the quota from around a nominal 10% to effectively 40% by 1985, creating conditions whereby it was worth investing in domestic film production. The result was an industry in which Korean films regularly outstrip even the biggest Hollywood blockbusters at the box office, and which has survived the halving of the quota, under US ‘free trade’ pressure, in 2006.

Other examples include the re-emergence of both Spanish and Latin American cinema, France’s continuing significance; and, one could even argue, the USA itself, where Hollywood’s control of the North American market effectively adds up to a 95%+ quota.

Of course there are those who say that the problem is not quotas but quality, and that people go to see American films because they’re better. But, outside of the blockbusters, time and time again the Box Office returns tell a different story. British films are lucky if they open on 75 screens - whereas Hollywood films will be at six or seven times as many – but, for example, where it was on, the audience for “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” was larger than that for “Did You Hear about The Morgans”, “Ninja Assassin”, “Youth in Revolt” and “The Wolfman”.

And, similarly, even after it had been on release for a staggering 24 weeks, “An Education” was still playing to an average audience which would have put it in the top 10 if it had been on general release.

It’s only quotas that will give British films like these, and British distributors, a fair crack of the whip. Without them we will simply continue to throw Lottery money away on films which, no matter how good they may be, have virtually no chance of being on anywhere outside of London.

If you want to know more about quota's, here's an earlier article...

"Quota's really do work, in fact they're essential"

Click here to read it.

Edit: This article has since been renamed: "Why Cameron hasn't got a clue about the British Film Industry". It's quite obvious that he hadn't even read the report commissioned by his Culture Secretary, Ed Vaizey, which shows how, since 2006, and despite an accent on making 'commercial' movies, only 3 out of over 60 £300,000+ budget films with UKFC funding managed to make back their lottery grants - and one of them was the documentary, "Man on Wire". And why was that, David? Because the didn't have a chance, Hollywood had booked 95% of the screens. What an uninformed lazy idiot. Where does he get his notions from? Jeremy Clarkson?