A Word in your Ear, Minister...

By Julian Petley

Julian Petley on David Puttnam's The Undeclared War

In an open letter to Chris Smith, Minister of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Julian Petley takes on David Puttnam’s account of Hollywood’s celluloid saturation of the world.

Dear Chris,

It's common knowledge that you and your thankfully-renamed Department have been talking to David Puttnam recently, but I wonder if you've managed yet to find the time to read the new books that he's written with Neil Watson: The Undeclared War: the Struggle for Control of the World's Film Industry. In many ways, I do hope so. But there again....

Puttnam can be excellent on why cinema matters so much. As he puts it: 'a hundred years after its invention cinema has established itself as one of the most powerful and effective means of communication that we have, not just to entertain ourselves, but to express ourselves. The appeal of the movies is universal. Its stars provide a mirror in which we can see a heightened reflection of our own lives and dreams. Its stories can open a window through which we can see and understand the lives of others. Cinema has become part of our sense of identity, as individuals and as nations. And, located as it is at the heart of a rapidly expanding range of moving-image media, it has now acquired an economic importance which we cannot afford to ignore'. And again: 'some try to persuade us that film and television are a business just like any other. They are not. Films and television shape attitudes, create conventions of style and behaviour, reinforce or undermine the wider values of society. At a time when the most highly developed nations (which, incidentally, also have the most highly developed and pervasive media industries) are, almost without exception, going through a crisis of social disintegration, it is inconceivable that we should pretend that film and television do not have a major impact on our lives. Creative artists, and those who work with them, have a heavy moral responsibility to challenge, inspire, question and affirm, as well as to entertain. Movies are more than fun, and more than big business. They are power'. And that's why, presumably, movies are thought of as important enough to be included within the remit of your Department.

Puttnam is also excellent on documenting the sheer extent to which American films and television programmes now dominate world markets. I don't want to blind you with figures, but did you know that entertainment is now America's second largest export after aircraft manufacturing? That 40% of revenues of the American film and television industries are now earned overseas, with more than half of that total coming from Europe? That in 1994 the net receipts of studio films from overseas theatres exceeded for the first time the amount earned from cinemas in the States, with countries such as Germany, Japan, France and the UK generating the largest proportion? That in most European countries American movies account for at least 80% of the box office take, and in some countries (including the UK), well over 90%? And that, in return, foreign-language European films account for a minuscule 0.5% of the American box office, since Hollywood prefers to remake European hits rather than import them.

The Undeclared War's sections detailing the close, mutually supportive ties between Hollywood and the American government are also well worth reading, partly because they demonstrate how hypocritical are American complaints about support by European governments for their countries' film industries, and partly because they will prepare you for the intense bombardment of flak you'll receive from the highest (and I mean highest) level in the States if your government should ever dare even to dream of interfering with the 'free' (albeit largely one-way) flow of films between the States and the UK. Apparently the MPAA's formidable Jack Valenti could put the wind up even the Iron Lady herself, so I don't give much for nice Mr Tony Blair's chances here. Anyway, in 1926 the government established a Motion Picture Division within the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce whose function was 'to serve the industry in every legitimate way in maintaining and developing the exhibition of American motion pictures in foreign markets'. After WWII the Americans enthusiastically demolished the German film industry, then the strongest in Europe; the overt motivation was the destruction of Goebbels' propaganda machine, but only the terminally naive would not see this also as the wiping-out of a formidable rival. In 1946 the Americans signed the Blum-Byrnes Agreement with the French, by which the French war debt was written off and they were granted $650m in aid - in return, valuable trade concessions were extracted by the Americans, including the abolition of import quotas on American films. At the end of the war a Department of State memo informed Hollywood that: 'in the post-war period, the Department desires to co-operate fully in the protection of American motion pictures abroad. It expects in return that the industry will co-operate wholeheartedly with the government to ensuring that the pictures distributed abroad will reflect credit on the good name and reputation of this country and its institutions'. And, sure enough, in 1948 the Truman administration created the Informational Media Guaranty Program under which the government paid dollars for soft foreign currencies earned by American media firms, providing that the material presented a favourable picture of American life. In 1971, after fierce lobbying by the film industry, the Internal Revenue Service was persuaded to allow investment in films and television programmes to qualify for tax credits, providing production took place in the States. And finally, of course, the CIA was caught spying on French officials during the recent GATT negotiations in an attempt to undermine the French refusal to include the film and television industries in GATT's radical 'free trade' remit. So don't say you haven't been warned.

But, you're probably asking by now, what does Puttnam want me to do about this situation? Give up in the face of what might appear to be insuperable odds? Simply admit that the Americans know better than anyone else how to make and market movies and that Britain, along with the rest of Europe, is beat? No, according to Puttnam 'it's an option we should not even consider'. So, should we take unilateral action or decide that this is a battle which we absolutely cannot fight on our own and thus forge closer links with our EU partners? It's in trying to answer this fundamental question that The Undeclared War's real problems begin to show through.

Most unfortunately, Puttnam's view of contemporary efforts to protect Europe's film industries and to create a common European film policy is fatally infected by a bad dose of that all-too-common English complaint – Francophobia. In particular he seems to be quite obsessed with what he perceives to be the negative legacy of the 'auteur' theory. This, according to Puttnam, is the source of Europe's inability to compete effectively with Hollywood. Huh? OK, let me try, as fairly as I can, to explicate what I must confess to finding a particularly bizarre view.

When Alexandre Astruc wrote his famous essay on the 'caméra-stylo' in 1948, he took, in Puttnam's view, 'the nineteenth century romantic idea that art should be considered as the expression of individual personality and applied it to film-making. In doing so, he gave new impetus to the traditional French conception of cinema as, first and foremost, a form of cultural expression, rather than an industry dependent like any other on the right blend of capital and labour. From this perspective the producer, the cast, the writer, the composer, the crew – all were little more than tools to be manipulated by the director, the means by which he transferred his vision to celluloid'. When the 'auteur' theory was taken up in the early 1950s by the magazine Cahiers du cinéma, in spite of its enthusiasm for hitherto neglected American directors it became tainted by 'the kind of contempt that the French intelligentsia had harboured towards Hollywood and all things American since the 1930s'. Thus American directors were celebrated only for the extent to which they rose above 'the deadening and impersonal studio system' and managed to 'turn dross into gold'. And so, according to Puttnam, 'the sterile opposition between art and commerce had reasserted itself once more'.

Worse was to come, however. The French 'auteuristes' like Godard and Truffaut were soon to become 'auteurs' themselves, and their pernicious influence began to spread outside France to other European countries. Subsidies were increasingly directed towards 'films d'auteur' or simply towards 'auteurs' themselves, but in any case towards films which may have been of cultural value but stood little chance of commercial success. Worse still, success at the box office came to be seen almost as a mark of dishonour by the 'auteurs' and the critics who supported them. European movies became increasingly self-absorbed, insular and elitist, whilst audiences deserted them in droves for Jaws, Star Wars and the like. According to Puttnam: 'traditions of radical film-making had always functioned alongside the mainstream commercial cinema in Europe, but for much of the 1970s and '80s those traditions were debased to the extent that they seemed to function simply as an excuse for failure. Indeed, by demonizing the mainstream industry as part of a global capitalist conspiracy, and by dismissing reluctant audiences as victims of "false consciousness", some European film-makers managed to contort themselves into a position from which any commercial failure seemed a badge of artistic success, and any form of commercial success somehow carried the stigma of artistic betrayal'. The absolute insistence on the primacy of the 'auteur's' vision as the measure of a film's worth became the unquestioned orthodoxy throughout most of Europe and 'the power and privilege of the "auteur" was also inscribed within legal and institutional framework governing film production'. With the aid of subsidy systems it was thus relatively easy for critically-favoured 'auteurs' to fund their films whether or not there was a significant audience for them. Puttnam bitterly concludes that a theory which was based on a 'quintessentially romantic conception of the beleaguered artist' and which was 'designed in part to salvage the neglected reputations of certain Hollywood directors' ended up as a 'political ideology which played a key role in shaping both the aesthetics and the economics of European film-making for twenty-five years or more. In doing so, it seems as if it has condemned much of Europe's cinema to a cultural ghetto from which it may never have the will to escape'.

This is all so wrong-headed and thoroughly misleading that it's hard to know where to begin putting the record straight. However, if Britain is to begin to play a more constructive role in pan-European attempts to withstand and counter the ever-increasing hegemony of Hollywood it's extremely important that you and your Department realise that this line of analysis is hopelessly flawed and thus provides no sensible basis for future film policy.

First of all, Puttnam utterly fails to understand the deeply contradictory and ambiguous attitude of many French intellectuals to American culture. Consequently he completely misreads what was in effect Cahiers' distinctly love-hate relationship with Hollywood. The magazine by no means championed only those directors who fought against the Hollywood system (what about its adulation of Hawks and Ford for example?), nor did it regard only directors as 'auteurs' - witness the profiles of producers, writers and so on. It's certainly true that many of the writers on Cahiers were critical of Hollywood as an industry – but, there again, it would be difficult to read The Undeclared War, either, as an unalloyed panegyric to unfettered American capitalism! Certainly the combination of auteurism and various European subsidy systems has given rise to films of minority appeal, but it has also produced numerous classics of world cinema which not only act as considerable cultural ambassadors for the countries which produced them (something which has undoubtedly beneficial economic consequences for those countries, incidentally) but which also have helped to revitalise cinema as a whole. This, of course, includes Hollywood and, as Puttnam himself admits, the generation of De Palma, Scorsese, Schrader, Coppola et al have been unstinting in their praise of the European 'auteurs' who so clearly influenced them. And Hollywood itself was not exactly slow to adopt 'auteurism' and adapt it to its own needs. Meanwhile the fashion for 'auteurism' in Europe ceased to be an animating force long ago!

One also has to ask what, particularly in the light of Puttnam's earlier remarks about the cultural and social importance of cinema, is so wrong with using subsidies to produce films with minority appeal? Are minority tastes to be entirely ignored simply because the market deems it uneconomic to cater for them? Furthermore, given the situation of American dominance of European distribution and exhibition, which he so chillingly documents here, many European movies are almost inevitably doomed by structural factors to a life of limited visibility on the margins, however good those films may be. Of course subsidies produce duds on occasion, but so does Hollywood too, where losses from the many commercial failures at home can be mopped up by overseas sales (dumping) and by the vast profits from the few successful blockbusters. And so, most certainly, does largely subsidy-free Britain where, as Puttnam admits, 'the "auteur" tradition never exercised the same kind of influence' as elsewhere in Europe.

Puttnam's anti-European strictures would be rather more convincing and palatable if Britain had succeeded where our continental neighbours have allegedly failed. The incontrovertible fact is, however, that thanks to subsidy, other forms of state intervention and a conception of cinema that embraces culture as well as commerce, France has a film industry and we have what Ian Christie has called a 'precarious network of boutique producers' and 'more a carefully contrived illusion than a serious industry'. It is also far easier to see French films (by no means all subsidy fodder playing to empty houses, either) in French cinemas than it is to see English films in English cinemas - indeed it's probably easier to see English films in French cinemas than in English ones! Whilst other European governments have supported the MEDIA programmes (imperfect though they may be), British politicians and civil servants have simply sniped and griped from the sidelines, finally distinguishing themselves on the European front by wrenching Britain out of EURIMAGES. No wonder our EU partners frequently wonder, in movie matters as in others, if we'd be happier as the 51st state of the Union and if they'd be better off without us, an impression that won't be dispelled by Puttnam's repeated insistence that 'in film-making, as in so much else, the British had felt far closer to the Americans than to their European neighbours'. I do hope Labour doesn't feel this way - and your Department in particular!

As the above implies, Puttnam's analysis of the consequences for British cinema of Hollywood's domination of its own market is actually based on an extremely narrow and partial view of what actually constitutes British cinema. Thus, according to Puttnam, 'the renewal of British film-making in the mid-1970s and early '80s' was largely 'instigated by a group of people who had started their careers in the advertising industry. As well as myself, this group included Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne and Ridley Scott'. Oh really? The British movies of the last twenty or so years which are mentioned in the book are: That'll Be the Day, Stardust (both rather unwisely compared with American Graffiti!), Midnight Express, Raise the Titanic, Chariots of Fire, Ghandi, Room With a View, Local Hero, The Killing Fields, The Mission, Absolute Beginners, Revolution, Scandal, The Crying Game and Orlando. The last three are clearly the odd films out, and they're mentioned briefly in the book only as examples of work financed by British Screen. There's no acknowledgement of the crucial role of Channel 4, neither Film on Four, Film Four International nor the feature films produced by the independent workshops which the channel played a crucial role in funding. Similarly there's nothing on the BFI Production Board, the Regional Arts Association or the Arts Council. Nor is there any mention of, for example, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, Derek Jarman, Don Boyd or Sally Hibbin. One could go on (and on!), but the obvious point here is that this is a very particular view of the industry from a very specific position within it. I do hope that you are fully aware that the industry as a whole is a far more diverse and rich mix than the narrow picture of it presented here, and that many in it would disagree wildly with Puttnam's decription of it, his prescriptions for its future and his negative views on subsidies, European or home grown.

These criticisms and caveats notwithstanding, Puttnam has some extremely useful things to say about distribution and, to a lesser extent, exhibition. As he repeatedly, and rightly, points out, Hollywood's success is not built simply on producing popular films but is 'dependent on a complex and long-established system in which consistent profits were generated by control of distribution and cinemas. The Americans saw their industry as a totality, in which the glamorous business of production was crucially underpinned by ownership of other aspects of the marketing chain'. Leading on from this he rightly criticises European film industries for not paying anything like enough attention to the distribution and marketing of the movies which they manage to produce. As he puts it, the film industry in Europe has 'remained hopelessly fragmented, an industry in which there was little consistent connection between the production and distribution of films. As a result, the production sector remained severely under-capitalized. At the same time the obsession with making films, rather than marketing and distributing them, meant that there was, if anything, an oversupply of production. Four hundred films a year were being made in Europe, with many of them never finding an audience. Where films did receive adequate distribution, it was largely carried out on a national basis, since there were almost no companies in Europe - other than the American studios - capable of distributing films in a cost-effective manner to cinemas in more than one country. Only around one in five European films was ever seen at the cinema outside the country in which it was made, and even then it was difficult to find an audience'. Quite right, and as true of Britain as other European countries. But then Puttnam spoils his argument by positing a foolish (if, by now, not wholly unexpected) explanation for this sorry state of affairs: 'incredibly, in many European countries, the attitude still exists that a good film shouldn't really have to be marketed at all, that the public will somehow instinctively find and appreciate artistic quality without the assistance of a vulgar marketing campaign'. The real truth of the matter, however, is that many distributors or European films simply cannot afford proper marketing campaigns - indeed many cannot even run to an adequate number of prints! Furthermore, the stranglehold exerted by the Americans on distribution and exhibition in many European countries, and most certainly Britain, means that European films often find it extraordinarily difficult to get shown, as they wait for months while Hollywood saturation bombs the exhibitors with hundreds of prints of the latest blockbuster, or screens in largely empty cinemas are clogged up by the American dross which exhibitors are forced to take if they want that blockbuster. The whole situation is so fundamentally skewed in Hollywood's favour that only various forms of state or EU aid to the distribution and exhibition sectors can even begin to redress the balance slightly in favour of European movies - and this is something to which the MEDIA programmes have indeed turned their attentions. Equally important, in this respect, is last year's Middleton Report which suggests the creation in Britain of a US-style film studio which would retain distribution rights in the films which it produced, a suggestion which deserves your Department's full support.

On the exhibition front, Puttnam is quite rightly critical of Rank and ABC, with their appalling record of cinema closures and jerry-built multi-screen conversions. No wonder cinema admissions dropped faster in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s than in most other European countries, thereby precipitating even more closures. It is because this duopoly managed to make cinema-going such an unpleasant experience that Puttnam welcomes the rise of the multiplexes and the return of the audience in their wake. But what he entirely fails to grasp is that the multiplexes have done absolutely nothing to secure wider exhibition for British or other European movies. Thanks to American dominance of the distribution and exhibition sectors all that the multiplexes do is to deliver more Hollywood movies to more people. Again, there is a desperate need for some form of state intervention to 'mend' the market here, so that it can cater not only for those who don't want to see Hollywood movies at all but also, equally importantly for those Hollywood fans who, just sometimes, also want to see something else.

In short, The Undeclared War is stimulating, informative and infuriating in equal measures. If one's reaction is so mixed and ambivalent that's because the book itself is so shot through with unresolved contradictions. On the one hand Puttnam lays out with chilling clarity and abundant detail the ways in which Hollywood has come to its position of world dominance - on the other hand he seems to have little sympathy with the ways in which Britain and other European countries have tried to counter and offset that dominance. Quite rightly, he has no truck with what he calls the Thatcher government's 'ideological obsessions' and 'simplistic free market dogmas' as manifested by its film policy (or rather, complete lack of it), but he is no supporter of subsidy or other forms of state aid to the film industry. He believes passionately in cinema as a cultural asset, but then argues that the British film industry is uncompetitive because 'it has been unable to deliver the right kind of product in sufficient volume, and on a consistent basis'. However, everything in his book leads to the conclusion that 'the right kind of product' is Hollywood movies, because Hollywood is so successful at making and marketing the kind of movies people have come to want to see, and does its best to eliminate all forms of foreign competition. Indeed, he even goes so far as to suggest (unwisely in my view) that 'Hollywood movies increasingly appear to represent a truly universal experience'. Puttnam is clearly against the two most obvious options which suggest themselves at this point - giving up altogether, or merely copying Hollywood - but his preferred option of ensuring that European films are distributed and marketed more effectively simply ignores the fact of American dominance of the European distribution and exhibition sectors. This is a structural problem, and consequently needs a systemic solution.

However, Puttnam's insistence on the crucial importance of marketing to Hollywood's success does lead towards a possible avenue which he leaves unexplored, and it's this. Whilst sensibly having no truck with ideas about American movies' worldwide success being down to 'false consciousness' on the part of audiences or 'brainwashing' by Hollywood, Puttnam is at great pains to point out the truly vast amount of effort - artistic, economic, political, ideological - which goes into creating, sustaining and fulfilling audience tastes, fashions and needs. In other words, people don't just 'naturally' go in huge numbers to Hollywood movies - they go because they're ubiquitously there, because they've learned to enjoy them, and because in all sorts of ways they're encouraged and tempted to do so. In other words, over a long period of time audiences have been carefully created. And this, admittedly on a much smaller, more modest scale, is what is going to have to happen in Europe if our national film industries are to stand any chance of survival. In other words, it has to be made not only possible but desirable to see European films. The former certainly means using subsidy (public and private) to create and protect production, distribution and exhibition spaces sheltered from Hollywood's overweening market presence, whilst the latter (even more difficult) means encouraging a cultural and critical climate which is supportive of European cinema. Hardly surprisingly this already exists in France, where it's still relatively easy to see European films, but is sadly lacking in England, where critics are almost entirely under the hegemony of Hollywood and therefore (yes, therefore) it's almost impossible to see European movies (including British ones) outside the big metropolitan areas. Creating and fostering this climate is a cultural task, and needs the support of schools, universities, colleges, the BFI, the Arts Council, critics, magazines like Vertigo and, of course, the Department of Media, Culture and Sport. We have to understand that British cinema, and every other European cinema, is so much more than the production sector, more even than the distribution and exhibition sectors, and involves everybody who is concerned in whatever fashion, including of course the audience, with the existence and survival of that cinema. The French have shown that it is possible, in spite of everything, to maintain a national cinema, and the British, as Puttnam himself points out, have exhibited a remarkable determination to maintain, with the full support of the audience (if not the previous government), a strong, indigenous television industry. Surely, acting with our European partners, we can find it in us to do the same not only for our own film industry but for other European film industries too?

As a first step, why don't you organise a conference to discuss the myriad issues raised by The Undeclared War and invite to attend a genuinely diverse mix of people involved in the British cinema in its broadest sense. If not, would you like to support such a conference if Vertigo organised it? And, finally, do please remember that the British film industry possesses an independent sector, on whose films Britain's current international reputation as a producer of fine films largely rests.

Yours sincerely, Julian Petley

Julian Petley teaches at Brunel University