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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What are the main issues around 'British' Cinema? From Social Realism to Cultural Imperialism via reindeer jumpers...

In looking at 'British' Cinema several issues come to mind:
  • the overwhelming dominance of Hollywood and the 'big 6' conglomerates in particular. How many British (or filmmakers from any other nation) companies can compete with the 2008 $185m budget spectacle movie Dark Knight, an example of the 'tentpole strategy' of a small number of mega-budget releases underpinning the big 6's release strategies (which hoovered up $533m in the US alone, getting a brief 2009 re-release to take it over $1bn worldwide? (WT are increasingly coming close to the $100m mark, but this is only possible as a subsidiary of NBC-Universal - e.g., the 2004 smash BJones: The Edge of Reason cost $70m)
  • the ongoing dominance of the social realist genre - at least partially a reflection of British filmmakers inability to attract funding for UK-set action/fantasy/sci-fi films (Harry Potter and Bond franchises excepted), but also the popularity of such films in Europe, where our few auteurs (Ken Loach, Mike Leigh especially) generally look to for funding. The British social realist tradition, growing out of the 1920s-40s British Documentary Movement, was a key influence on the French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism movements of the 50s and 60s - both themselves a reflection of pragmatism in the face of limited availability for funding.
  • there are occasional exceptions to the rule that US audiences have no interest in social realist films (WT2's Billy Elliot; The Full Monty; Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies; arguably Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaires), social realist films' whose underdog protagonists triumphing against the odds neatly reflects the 'American Dream' ideology that any and all US citizens can be winners in their extremely uneven society. Interestingly, Shane Meadows' £1.5m 2006 Warp Films drama This Is England was seen as an arthouse movie in the US, where it took just $300,000 in 4 months, averaging a mere ten screens a week! There was a niche ABC1 audience for the film, but it had no prospects of wider commercial success
  • if we look at the fortunes of Hammer, there is a degree of irony here: Hammer briefly lead the world in the horror genre, establishing the likes of Christopher Lee as global icons in the process - but found their slightly camp, theatrical and gothic productions were left looking out-moded alongside low budget Indie productions from the US, such as Wes Craven's $90,000 (that's not a typo!) 1972 proto-slasher The Last House on the Left (ironically, banned in the UK until after the 1999 retirement of long-time BBFC head James Ferman). Craven, and his many subsequent imitators, took a leaf out of the social realist handbook, making films on a shoestring with that distinctive documentary feel (shaky camera work, kinetic cinematography [lots of cam movement instead of static set-ups], low-key, naturalistic lighting etc) that gave a heightened sense of realism.
  • WT began as a low-budget Indie producer of social realist films: 1985's My Beautiful Laundrette (with its challenging themes of class, race and homosexuality added to its counter-hegemonic critique of Thatcherism wedded to the company's belief in introducing new talent: Daniel Day-Lewis), a TV movie that won a cinema distribution deal after doing well at The Edinburgh International Film Festival, and 1987's Wish You Were Here which made a star out of Emily Lloyd and her 'up yer bum' catchphrase!
  • Warp Films is comparable to WT in its early days, an Indie producing generally social realist films on low budgets (like the early WT, it has links with C4/Film4). Warp X is more comparable to WT2, though, aiming to produce genre films "with a twist" (WT2's motto: "Humour, Horror, Heart")
  • its clear that following the (hybrid) genre path is the way to make serious money: if the US market is usually disinterested in British social realist dramas, often with an overt focus on social class (most Americans, rich and poor, have the self-perception of being middle-class), wouldn't any sensible business follow the WT path of churning out sickly rom-coms with their A-list American star to help tap into the lucrative US market? Look at the figures (using Guardian or IMDB): the $150m budget (Paramount, big 6!) Star Trek film took $75m from just under 4000 screens in its opening weekend stateside; almost £6m from 499 screens on its UK opening weekend. The US has 5 times the UK population and is wealthier to boot; UK filmmakers who don't attempt to build in cross-over appeal to the US market are limiting their potential profit.
  • ...however, is the bottom line all that matters in the film industry? Isn't it one of the much-mooted cultural industries [aka the knowledge economy; cf. Will Hutton] that underpin the UK's post-industrial economic future? Consider the mission statement of the UK Film Council, the quango funded by direct government money as well as Lottery funds, which in turn finances regional arms (eg Screen Yorkshire & EM Media, co-financiers of TisEng): "The UK Film Council is the Government backed lead agency for film in the UK ensuring that the economic, cultural and educational aspects of film are effectively represented at home and abroad." [emphasis added]
  • so, lets ask another question: which is the more important film: Indie Warp Film's (co-produced with UKFilmCncl, EM Media, ScrnYorks, Film4, Big Arty Productions and distributor Optimum Releasing) This is England (£1.5m budget, no stars, modest UK box office of £1.3m) or big 6 conglomerate subsidiary WT's $70m rom-com sequel (co-produced with Miramax, Universal, Little Bird, Studio Canal and Atlantic Televsion) Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (took £35m in UK, and a disappointing $40m in US - BJD took $72m)?
  • we could also ask whether either of the BJones films are actually 'British' films, considering the importance of funding from the European Studio-Canal - itself, like WT, now a mere subsidiary of NBC-Universal - and American big 6 member Universal
  • which do you think speaks to you most about YOUR identity (there's no correct answer here - I'm asking you to reflect a little on your personal consumption of films)?
  • you could argue that TiE's focus on class and race is itself a little cliched by now, although the key argument here would appear to be over the extremely narrow, stereotypical depiction of Britishness seen in both BJones films: white, middle-class, southern English characters, and various shots of Britain as quaint, rural - and even akin to a Quality Street ad when it comes to representing the teeming metropolis that is London. The BJones films rely heavily on their use of an American star, and the use of stereotypical representations of Britain that will be familiar and thus comfortable for an American audience - who would surely feel bewildered and alienated by the council estate mise-en-scene we see throughout TiE, and the broad northern accents its characters employ.
  • Indeed, BJD only became a hit in the US after Miramax supremo Harvey Weinstein noted the US test audience, confused at early mentions of Xmas turkey curry, broke into laughter at the visual humour of Colin Firth's reindeer jumper - a scene notably used in both trailers and music videos for the film's marketing. Without this, it may not have got funding for US distribution and marketing. [I'll blog separately about 'Curtisland'...]
  • 'Channel 4 is one of several bidders – also believed to include Channel Five owner RTL, Time Warner, BSkyB and NBC Universal – for Virgin Media's seven pay-TV channels, which include Living TV and Virgin1.' - http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/may/29/virgin-media-channel-4 The big 6's grip on our culture could soon be tightened further it seems
  • You will hopefully have noted an incongruity in discussing 'British' cinema and representation of Britishness here: we're looking at two films set in England...
  • If Hollywood's dominance of our screens, large and small, can be said to constitute cultural imperialism, with even our foremost film production company (WT) prioritising satisfying a potential US audience over its domestic market, and churning out work even within its low-budget, Indie wing (WT2) that focusses on familiar genres (as does Warp X to a lesser degree), what about the internal UK position? As northern English viewers, do you think the British film industry represents yourselves satisfactorily; do you, at the basic level, see sufficient reflections of yourselves on screen? Does the dominance of S.Eng representations bother you?
  • The position is even more stark if we look at this from a Celtic perspective: there have been some breakthrough Scottish-set hits (Trainspotting), but not for some time; can you name ANY Welsh-set films (consider how Rhys Ifans' character portrays the Welsh, as a binary opposite of the suave HGrant, in NHill); and for the N.Irish, we only seem to see ourselves represented endlessly as violent, drunken terrorists/psychopaths (even the controversial Hidden Agenda [rem Chomsky's propoganda model: flak as 1 of 5 filters], with the main cast being entirely American, Scottish and English, saw an English policeman emerge as the hero, with Ken Loach deploying some crude stereotypes along the way)
  • So... if it makes commercial sense to target a US audience through a S.Eng setting, and a narrow focus on white, middle-class characters (using a US star if funds allow - around half of the $42m budget for Notting Hill went on A-lister Julia Roberts' salary! - contrast this to Donkey Punch's £1m budget being mainly taken up by hiring the boat its set on!), with a narrative framed in a genre familiar to a US aud, and we can consider this cultural imperialism ... then does the same apply within the UK?
  • Look at the contrasting fortunes of Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007), a £4m Indie production that made its money back at the UK box office on 300 screens a week, adding another $1.8m in the US (you can add DVD and TV sales to these figures), and WT2's $5m Mickybo & Me (Terry Loane, 2004), which was released for just one week in N.Ireland on 28 screens, taking just £172,000 and failing to gain funding for a UK-wide or even US distribution. Both have comparable narratives centred on two young boys with obsessions about a specific film, but while the former is set in S.Eng, the latter is set in N.I. and inevitably brings in 'the Troubles', with our two leads eventually engaging in a near-fatal knife fight (because the tribal Irish can't do anything else but fight, as Ken Loach pointed out with Hidden Agenda!)
  • So, British cinema is in thrall to two commercial factors: cross-marketing potential to a US audience will greatly increase potential profits, which generally means a S.Eng setting/characters; but even within the UK setting the action anywhere outside the South risks poor returns also, as even the domestic 'British audience' can be reluctant to take on characters with Scottish, Welsh, N.Irish or Northern English accents (and even 'the South' is narrowly conceived: the likes of Bristolian accents aren't part of this concept, with the Midlands also somewhat excluded)
  • perhaps then we should applaud the existence of the UK Film Council, its regional arms, and Channel 4 (its production arm with a measly £10m budget is under serious threat though), all of which make films like TiE, which don't compromise for commercial ends, possible
  • although if we simply condemn a film like the BJD (chick-)flicks as candyfloss, we step into new arguments about the notion of high culture v popular culture, and the demonisation of any cultural form primarily consumed by females (rom-coms, soaps, celeb mags etc)...
Hopefully food for thought, which you may want to continue by looking at http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/mar/22/richard-curtis-the-boat-that-rocked and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKSGdByaUIA

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