Cultural Exception, OK?

By Michael Chanan

alan-parker-outtake-3.jpgAlan Parker

Provocative Counsels on distribution and exhibition strategy

Don’t expect too much from the Film Council if you live in the heartland of England. According to Alan Parker in a speech made last Guy Fawkes day, presenting the Film Council’s guidelines for the future of the British film industry, “we have to stop defining success by how well British films perform in Milton Keynes.”

Parker's logic is that successful British films like Notting Hill make 85% of their revenues outside the UK, so we need to ‘abandon forever the “little England” vision of a UK film industry comprised of small British film companies delivering parochial British films.’ But there’s something askew in this argument, on at least two counts.

For a start, which are the films he means to call parochial? He can’t be speaking about Ken Loach, for whom he’s declared his admiration, since Loach is a very successful director abroad. And not presumably about Mike Leigh, who is also recognised abroad as one of the great originals of British cinema. Nor of a film like The Full Monty, which broke all records in the USA where they don’t even know where Sheffield is. And he can’t be talking about Lynne Ramsay, whose latest film was at the top of the UK box office that very week.

For another thing, too many of these supposedly parochial films don't get anywhere near Milton Keynes, because they often don't get distributed at all. Since lottery funding began in 1995, production has increased but so has the number of films the distributors decline to release, thereby denying them any chance to succeed. There were 101 UK films made in 1999; 27 still had no distribution deal in place by July 2001. A year later, 83 new films, but only 24 of them secured a release. It’s jumping the gun to suppose, like Evening Standard film critic Alexander Walker railing over the wastage of lottery funds, that they can’t be any good. This is not a normal situation, it isn’t found in other European countries, and it isn’t just because films are being made without securing a distribution deal first.

It is also counter to what might be expected when cinema audiences have been growing and the number of screens has increased – there are now more than 2,500 of them, 2 times the number in 1987 – and thereby, we are always told, the audience has more variety from which to choose. Except that it patently isn’t true. The multiplexes are dominated by standard Hollywood fare, and they’re swamped by the blockbusters. According to one estimate, out of 30-40 films on release in Britain at any one time, 90% of box-office goes to the top three, the next four take 9%, and the remaining 25 scramble for the last 1%.

Parker must be aware of this, but for all his emphasis on the problem of distribution, he doesn't come clean about it. The real situation is this. On the one hand, lottery funding has saved UK film production from finally disappearing altogether. On the other, all the major distributors in Britain, controlling access to the multiplexes, are American, and obviously have their own quite un-British agenda. The two things don’t join up. This isn’t anti-Americanism either, but as David Puttnam says, the way it is.

notting-hill-roger-michell.jpgNotting Hill, Roger Michell, 1999

It makes no difference that some of the Hollywood majors are now owned by transnational corporations. They have always dominated British film distribution, although in the past it was largely through tie-ins with British companies which have since given up the cinema ghost. There have been three reports by the Monopolies Commission over almost forty years (1964, 1983, 1994) charging distributors and exhibitors with monopolistic practices operating against the public interest to the detriment of British films, but they can never agree recommendations, and the government on duty never takes action against interests to which no British government has ever dared stand up. Except once, in 1947 when, difficult as this might be to believe, a Labour Government, trying to cut dollar expenditure, took on Hollywood by imposing a huge import duty on foreign films – to which Hollywood responded by placing an immediate embargo on sending new films to Britain until they caved in: a forgotten episode which seems to have had a traumatic effect on the official British mindset about the cinema.

It is not the case – as Parker at one moment suggests – that budgets are too high to recoup. In 1996, the average US film production budget was £23.4m, compared to the UK's £3m. But even low budgets like this are too much if you can't get more than half a dozen prints into circulation, and this is all that is possible without the multiplexes. Even if you believe the exhibitors’ habitual claim that they’ll show anything that makes them money, they don’t have the choice – and therefore nor does the audience – because distribution is structured to exclude the ‘small’ film. The distributor pays the print and advertising costs, and the less popular a film, the higher the proportion of the box office that stays with the exhibitor. The problem is circular. Without sufficient publicity, the film is unlikely to capture a big audience. Without the chance of that, distributors are reluctant to invest in sufficient publicity or even handle the film at all. And when they do, the release might be limited to eight or ten prints, compared to a Hollywood blockbuster with hundreds; which means they’re unlikely to recoup their costs, because you can’t do that if you don’t get into the multiplexes.

It doesn't have to be like this. There is another model, which is not unknown to the Film Council, since it is recommended by a report they commissioned from professional consultants under the title ‘Specialised Exhibition and Distribution: International Case Studies’ – an effective method, says the report, would be similar to the French automatic distribution support scheme, which reduces the risks for distributors in taking on low-earning films. This is a definite advance over the attitude of the parliamentary committee in 1995 which, as Vertigo reported at the time, found the evidence of a witness from France, describing the French system of support for national cinema, ‘very culturally traumatic’.[1] Even so, the new report fails to let on that the French scheme is part of a whole tranche of measures evolved by successive governments since the Second World War whose effectiveness is proven. In 1997, the year New Labour came to power, British films accounted for less than 10% of their own home market. The figure for French films in France the same year was more than 34%. Year on year these figures go up and down in both countries, but the French is always much greater than the British.

full-monty-peter-cattaneo.jpgThe Full Monty, Peter Cattaneo, 1997

The French system takes no money out of the public purse because it consists in recycling levies raised on the box office and the sale of blank video cassettes, which are paid back into the industry, not for profit but for reinvestment. And importantly, it supports exhibition and distribution as well as production. The result is the largest art-house circuit in Europe, as well as a deal which takes low-earning films into the multiplexes where there are no art-houses. But these are instruments of policy which in certain circles are highly controversial: they are the parafiscal measures which are outlawed as protectionist in international trade agreements, which is why the French argue for them on the basis of the ‘cultural exception’ – a phrase which the British political class regards with suspicion, and in Washington, they just don’t get at all (see the article in this issue by Julian Petley).

Meanwhile, the Film Council has got itself a new man to set up a distribution and exhibition scheme for ‘specialised films’ from his office in London. Out in the country, among programmers at the regional film theatres, there is disappointment that the Council hasn’t commented on the recommendations of its own report, but it seems that it is “on hold until Peter Buckingham has had a proper look at it". One suggestion is to expand the exhibition of low-earning films by leasing screens from commercial operators (the ‘fanatical about film’ Odeon reportedly said ‘how much?’, which gives an indication of their passion for the idea). There is also talk of creating a ‘network’, which worries the regional programmers, who are in close touch with their local communities and don’t want to be programmed from London.

The bottom line is this: it isn’t only British films which aren’t being seen on British screens. At the same time that official policy talks up the ideas of multiculturalism and cultural diversity which are the social realities of the postcolonial world, it is also the films of other countries and cultures which are being denied us. In other words, at the very moment we need to see these films more than ever.


[1] Michael Chanan, “Is Britain Ready for Europe?” Vertigo, (first series), No.5, Autumn/Winter 1995, p.13.

Michael Chanan is a member of the Vertigo editorial board and lectures on film at the University of the West of England.