New Films

By Vertigo

Vertigo previews 3 new films: Carla's Song, Nothing Personal, The Disappearance of Finbar

The Government Heritage Minister on duty, Virginia Bottomley, greeted the Report of the Advisory Committee on Film Finance last August as ‘a thoughtful contribution to the debate.’ She added, ‘I am committed to broadening and deepening the UK film industry by promoting co-production between the UK and the US.’ Ken Loach, whose new film Carla's Song, will hopefully be seen in Britain next January, was reported to have commented that precautions should be taken to prevent Britain turning into a period costume centre for the American film industry. ‘We could end up,’ said Loach, ‘presenting a parody of ourselves for the benefit of the Americans and that’s a most demeaning position.’ (Guardian 3 Aug 96)

Carla's Song and the other films previewed here are exactly the kind of films which the Committee’s chair, Sir Peter Middleton, was not thinking about helping at all. This former Permanent Secretary of the Treasury who is now chair of the banking group BZW, is of the opinion that the British film industry ‘has never been allowed to develop on the scale needed’, that ‘people claim that Hollywood is run by accountants, but we could do with a bit of that’, and that ‘the art market will look after itself.’

The details of the report are pretty much beside the point. When Middleton explains that his proposed studio would select movies ‘on purely commercial criteria’ and ‘other franchises could deal with non-commercial films’, the newspaper is absolutely right when it comments that this is a spurious divide. But when it editorialises that ‘Government finance is required to build the foundations and encourage private investment – the process economists call “crowding in”’ – which economists are these?

The real situation is this: Britain once produced as many as 350 features a year, just after the Second World War; the nadir was 24 in the mid-80s; last year it climbed back to 81 – less than Mexico. What we have is a decimated film industry structurally weakened by attaching itself to Hollywood as an appendage long ago. In plain old-fashioned language, the free market is brutal, and smaller producing countries cannot sustain activity without an effective form of state subsidy.

‘Effective subsidy’ means that it should not be money down the drain for some specious kind of ‘non-commercial’, ‘art’ movie, but is returned through the proper distribution of the film both at home and abroad. This is an area where home-grown movies have consistently been betrayed, partly because the major distributors are in the pockets of the very US industry with which Middleton and Bottomley want to promote co-production, and the independents cannot afford enough prints. For Loach’s last film, Land and Freedom, the British distributor could only afford 17 prints, compared with 120 in France. The returns from an effective system of state support which includes distribution would be many and various, from reinforcing audiences and employment at home to foreign earnings abroad, and of course the cultural benefits promoted by the films themselves.

Middleton and Bottomley apparently don’t consider the possibility that there may just be film-makers who don’t wish to deal with Hollywood (and they happen to be some of our best). They also say nothing about Europe. A double omission which is no accident. This is the government that last year withdrew Britain from the Eurimages scheme, in order to save a paltry couple of million pounds, thereby depriving British film-makers of benefits valued at ten times that amount. (Vertigo understands that the civil servant who thought that one up has since been dismissed from his post.) Carla's Song, however, is a UK-Spanish-German co-production, supported by Channel 4, the Glasgow Film Fund, the European Script Fund, the Scottish Film Production Fund and others. A hotchpotch of funding, nevertheless what we need is not overblown commercial movies aimed at North America, but low budget films grown in our own soil – and a government prepared to treat cinema seriously and oil the wheels of European initiatives. The former – the films – are there, they just need irrigating and pruning and harvesting. The latter – a comprehending government – is not one we look likely to get, whoever wins the next election.