Darkness falls on British independent cinema

The UK Film Council was one of the last bodies that invested money in British films. With its demise Arts Editor Andrew Clarke wonders if home-grown cinema can survive

Unlike many government bodies and quangos here was a small organisation that actually did something. With only 75 employees, it was a very small organisation but it had far reaching and highly beneficial effects. Since it was created in 2000, taking film production responsibilities away from the British Film Institute which was charged with education and archive work, the UK Film Council has financed or part-financed more than 900 films, shorts and features, entertained more than 200 million people and helped to generate approximately �700 million at the box-office worldwide.

It’s easy to criticise the duds things like The Sex Lives of Potato Men but even the highly attuned commercial studios come unstuck far more regularly. More importantly without UK Film Council backing we wouldn’t have had such award-winning, hugely enjoyable UK produced films such as Bend it like Beckham, The Constant Gardener, Bright Star, Gosford Park, Happy-Go-Lucky, Man on Wire, Red Road, This is England, Touching the Void, Vera Drake and The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

Film-makers such as Paul Greengrass (Bourne films and United 93); Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland and State of Play); Andrea Arnold (Red Road and Fish Tank) would not have been given a chance to break into the big time without help from the UK Film Council. They have brought a fresh vitality to British cinema and they have also helped audiences become exposed to a wider range of films.

They funded the duplication of extra prints of independent films – helping them be seen by a larger audience. They boosted the number of prints for foreign language films making award-winning and popular films more available to audiences including: A Prophet, Broken Embraces, Let the Right One In, The Curse of the Golden Flower, Volver and Tell No-One.

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The UK Film Council has also been driving the adoption of digital technology in cinemas supplying state-of-the-art digital projectors to cinemas in return for a guarantee of a more varied programme. And its not just the big cinema chains who have benefited from their largesse – the Aldeburgh Cinema and Ipswich Film Theatre both have digital projectors supplied by the film council to help in the drive to get people to see more than Hollywood blockbusters.

The future of this scheme is uncertain.

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It was the fact that the announcement came out of the blue that left everyone wrong-footed; that and the fact that it is difficult to see what will replace it. What can do the job better? Private British investment in the film industry has never been lower, so the film-making coffers are not going to be re-filled by the city or industry – particularly not in a recession.

The biggest investors in British film – outside the America and the Hollywood studios – were the UK Film Council, BBC Films and Film Four. One by one these funders have seen their budgets chopped until now British independent film faces a crisis.

Our studios, actors and technicians are among the best in the world. In 2009 British films and talent won 36 major film awards. But, it is sad to report that it is often American companies that benefit from British skills. Harry Potter, James Bond, Jason Bourne are all largely shot in Britain with British actors and crews. Harry Potter and James Bond are both British icons but all three highly successful series are made with American money.

Most films which are British in look, feel and character are invariably made with American money. Why is it that British investors are so reticent about supporting one of our greatest art-forms?

Commercially you can achieve great returns even with smaller films like Emma Thompson’s highly successful Nanny McPhee or the re-vamped Oscar Wilde films The Importance of Being Earnest, The Ideal Husband and the recent Dorian Gray.

Since the UK Film Council was created, the UK box office has grown by 62%. In 2009, it reached record levels of �944 million, with British films accounting for 23% of all UK cinema takings over the ten years to 2009.

Despite this success the number of UK funded films dropped from 77 in 2008 to 71 last year with budgets also taking a tumble. Contrasting this, the number of US-funded films shot in Britain rose from 27 in 2008 to 32 in 2009.

The demise of the UK Film Council means that UK film production no longer has a champion – no-one fighting its corner in government circles, no-one trying to drum up funding for films which reflect the British way of life, the British view of the world.

Who is going to give a voice to a talented film-maker from East Anglia now? Not someone from Los Angeles. Who is going to provide audiences with an alternative to Avatar?

The dwindling number of independent cinemas in this country need films to show and the UK Film Council played a huge role in making sure those films got made. It invested more than �160m of Lottery funding in UK film production in the past ten years.

Although the government has decreed that the UK Film Council will no longer exist as from April 2012, the future of UK film investment is less clear. Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt says government support for film will continue but does not say how and then adds he wants to develop stronger ties with the British Film Institute - an organisation which is far larger and more bureaucratic that the UK Film Council. It makes no sense.

My biggest fear is that we may now be seeing the beginning of the end of indigenous film production in the UK. We may finally become a Hollywood outpost. The last films made with Film Council backing include Mike Leigh’s Another Year, Stephen Frears’s Tamara Drewe, Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, Peter Mullan’s Neds and Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights.

Treasure them, they may be last independent films made in this country for the big screen.

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