If someone asked you to think of a British film, what would come to mind? For some years now, the most likely answer would have been any of the select but powerful band of little films that made good on the world stage. Four Weddings, perhaps? The Full Monty? The more recent King’s Speech?
The British film industry has lived out something of a scratched existence as the weedy intellectual cousin of Hollywood, producing shoe-string comedies, or thoughtful films that are more refined than American studio pictures, but still adhere to some sense of coherence (and so avoid being mistaken for European cinema). It has survived in large part due to the miracle every half decade or so, of a small budget film that wildly surpasses expectation.
Very few when asked that same question would answer Star Wars, and yet for the past few weeks, Hollywood’s weedy cousin, Pinewood Studios, has been playing host to spectacle, stars and finance from another galaxy entirely as Disney, Universal and others invest in the “Project Pinewood” scheme. In addition to the 16 original stages, and post production facilities located there, the plan is set to increase the production space by a further 99,000 square metres.
Through Star Wars, and the massively successful Harry Potter, Britain has proven its ability to play host to the very biggest of international film franchises. This is very much to be celebrated, and the final approval of Pinewood’s £200 million expansion can only increase the potential in future.
The excitement amongst the hard pressed, oft cynical community of privateers and rogues that populate UK Film PLC is palpable. It’s contagious to the point of regressing grown men to children. Having been promised a set visit on the new Star Wars film, a friend of mine has rescued his mint condition Chewbacca toy from the attic and restored it to its rightful place – in his bedroom. His wife is taking marital advice.
But for those of us who love cinema, merely making the next American film with American stars and money isn’t enough. Films such as Gravity reveal the potential to innovate and exceed expectation, but there should be the opportunity to make more of this. And so my real interest in this latest development is not in the Colin Firths, Helen Mirrens or the Ridley Scotts, but those fighting at the grass roots.
Let me lay my cards on the table. I’m a screenwriter and producer of feature films, and I’m currently producing on a Hollywood film at Pinewood. I am also a lecturer of film and theatre in a London University. What I want to see for the students I have taught is a studio system to rival Hollywood rather than pander to it or provide for it, one with the budgets to match.
Film graduates are emerging into a cinematic landscape not unlike that which greeted me as a new graduate ten years ago. A financially dominant television sector dwarfing a small, heavily politicised and underfunded public film body with a heavy focus on regionalisation.
There might be a place for Ken Loach within the modern film canon, not least for those of us made to read Kes at school. The worthy British film will doubtless continue to be what it sets out to be – the toast of festivals and industry insiders. What’s lacking is a “spec” system such as exists in Hollywood, where writers can take their ideas to market with a realistic chance of them being produced commercially. The routes for a screenwriter in the UK are a stark choice between starvation in the independent sector or cutting teeth through the television development schemes and working on soaps.
Neither option held much attraction for me and I built a career by way of Bollywood, Nollywood, the Middle East and France before finally ending up with American representation. Even now, the British industry remains constricted by its scale and beset by the challenges that accompany poverty of resources and opportunity – namely a nepotism and class bias that restrict it even further.
My hope is that the expansion of Pinewood and with it, the far reaching investment in the British talent pool will evolve into a systematic financing model with the scale and ambition to take some risks. Bear in mind here that in the film industry, the words “risk” and “original” are more or less interchangeable.
We may be the kings of the £4 million film, but we need to grow from this to provide real opportunities for the reams of incredibly talented performers, writers, directors and technicians. A huge proportion of big budget film spend goes on publicity and advertising (there are reasons why audiences go to see Transformers movies, and the power of the human condition is not one of them). We need to see the birth of UK entities which are prepared to back the quality of the work they produce and market it to a global audience.
If the British industry is able to take steps in that direction, we might find that the wait between “great British films” is not measured in years, but in months. Pinewood’s expansion is the first step. Let’s hope British film takes the next one.