Changing Channel: France becomes the unlikely saviour of British film
Antipathy has long been the default setting for the countries' cinematic relations, but French investment is behind a string of new British productions
The Hollywood studios are retreating, and the UK Film Council is heading for oblivion. But help is at hand from the other side of the Channel. The French are coming.
François Truffaut famously once suggested that the words "British" and "cinema" were incompatible. Fortunately his compatriots at StudioCanal don't seem to agree.
StudioCanal has emerged this year as the most significant new force in UK film-making. It stepped in to finance Working Title's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy when Universal passed, and it's powering up the production slate at its own company, Optimum Releasing. After many years distributing crucial British films such as This Is England, In The Loop and Four Lions, Optimum has plunged headfirst into making its own. Its first production, Rowan Joffe's Brighton Rock, premiered at Toronto and opens next February.
Joe Cornish's alien invasion film Attack the Block, Nick Murphy's period ghost story The Awakening and Nigel Cole's Asian family comedy Rafta Rafta are also in the can for release next year. Matthias Hoene's gangster/horror mash-up Cockneys vs Zombies is getting ready to shoot next spring. StudioCanal is also looking at the Sam Mendes project On Chesil Beach, based on Ian McEwan's novel, after US studio backer Focus Features dropped out.
As a distributor, Optimum is also handling two of the most hotly anticipated UK directing debuts – Submarine by the IT Crowd's Richard Ayoade, which went down a storm in Toronto, and Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur.
Historically, the UK and the French film industries have never been as close as they should have been. The British have always looked to Hollywood first while the French barricaded themselves behind the fortress of their language. In cinematic terms, the Channel is wider than the Atlantic, and harder to bridge.
The British mistrust the seriousness with which the French regard the septième art while envying the unshakeable political and financial support their film-makers enjoy. The French laugh at (not with) our floppy-haired comedies while envying our international success. And like Truffaut, who delivered his notorious snub in an interview with none other than Alfred Hitchcock, they love to provoke us with their sense of cinematic superiority – yet cherish our great directors better than we do ourselves.
But some on both sides have always dreamed of an entente cordiale that could unite the contrasting strengths of these two industries and mount a real European challenge to Hollywood.
"Being French, StudioCanal want to produce great cinema – and they are passionate about talented film-makers, and so are we," says Optimum's chief executive, Danny Perkins. "For example, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has got a great literary pedigree and a very exciting Swedish film-maker attached in Tomas Alfredson, so Working Title found a better fit with StudioCanal. We're also very involved in The Tourist, with another highly-rated European director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, going on to his second film."
Another French studio, Pathé, showed the way by backing The Queen and Slumdog Millionaire. Pathé's François Ivernel says: "We are naturally drawn to a different type of material than the Americans because we come from a different cultural angle. Our relationship to film-makers is more one of respect and collaboration and flexibility."
StudioCanal has been waiting in the wings for a while. It already owns a big chunk of British cinema heritage in the shape of a library of 5,000 titles, including the Ealing comedies. It has been a quiet investor in Working Title's films for many years. But now it is moving to centre stage.
Optimum is mining its library for material – both Brighton Rock and Rafta Rafta are technically remakes. But it has also shown a French willingness to take a punt on new talent – Joffe, Cornish and Murphy are all big-screen debutants.
"We are standing very firm in a fragile landscape," says Optimum's head of production, Jenny Borgars. "We want to encourage established film-makers to come and make a home here. We offer the comfort of cash and a creative partnership. And it's very helpful to have a proper financier with a European sensibility, which perhaps has more respect for the film-maker than the American one."