Professor James Chapman, University of Leicester
The government’s decision to abolish the UK Film Council has once again focused attention on the relationship between Whitehall and the British film industry. This has polarised opinion. To supporters of the Film Council, it is no less than an act of cultural vandalism, depriving an economically impoverished industry of the support it needs to develop distinctively British films in face of unfair competition from Hollywood. Without the Film Council, it is argued, we might never have seen such films as the Academy Award-winner The King’s Speech, or Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which in 2006 won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes.
For its critics, however, the demise of the Film Council was to be welcomed. Why, so the argument goes, should public money subsidise a commercial industry – let films stand on their own feet in the market place. If they deserve to succeed, they will. And it would be fair to say that, for every critical success backed by the Film Council, there have been some turkeys. Even the most passionate advocate of subsidy may find it hard to defend The Sex Lives of the Potato Men!
In other words it’s the old debate – art versus commerce. Film as a medium of artistic expression, or film as a vehicle of popular entertainment?
We can look to the past to see various strategies that have been adopted to support the film industry – with varying degrees of success. In the 1920s and 30s the answer was protectionism in the form of the Quota Act. The intention was to ensure that British films would be shown on British screens. The (unintended) result was a glut of cheaply-made, low-quality films that cut corners because they were more or less guaranteed to be shown.
In the 1950s another response was the Eady Levy, which set out to incentivise investment in British production through a subsidy scheme. To a large extent it succeeded. Classic films such as The African Queen and Lawrence of Arabia were produced under this scheme. It was the Eady fund which persuaded Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to base their James Bond films in Britain: Dr No, in 1962, was the first of what has become the longest-running and most commercially successful franchise in cinema history. But the Eady Levy distributed funds in relation to box-office receipts. It was in effect a subsidy for commercial success – the films that benefited the most were those that needed it least.
Neither protectionism nor subsidy are appropriate strategies now that Britain no longer has a mass-production film industry. Since the 1970s the production sector has contracted and far fewer British films are made. So what should be done?
There are strong economic arguments in favour of supporting film production. The film industry in Britain supports in the region of 67,000 full time jobs. There is a vast reservoir of talent in Britain – from writers, directors and actors, to production designers, costumers and special effects. A major Hollywood studio film can bring over £100m into the British economy. I am not an advocate of direct subsidy – this invariably involves questions of cultural taste over which films should be supported and which should not – but rather of support through tax breaks and apprenticeships. This is a strategy adopted successfully by other countries who are competing with us. Create the conditions in which film makers will benefit from coming to Britain, and they will come.
But there’s also a cultural reason for supporting British film. I would argue that more should be done to promote awareness of our film culture – through festivals, journalism, and, dare one suggest, ‘film studies’ courses in our schools and universities. As a Professor of Film at a British university, one of the things that dismays me most is how little understanding many of our students have about their own film heritage. This is not the case with students from, say, France or China. There’s an important role here for the British Film Institute, which is to assume some of the Film Council’s responsibilities. A wider social and cultural awareness of British film will help to create the conditions in which more British films can succeed on their own feet in the market place.
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies in the Department of History of Art and Film, University of Leicester He is a Council member of IAMHIST (International Association for Media and History) and is book reviews editor for the Journal of British Cinema and Television. Professor Chapman’s research focuses on British popular culture, especially cinema and television in their historical contexts. He is interested in the role of the mass media as propaganda, the representation of war and history, and the cultural politics of popular fictions including, but not limited to, Dick Barton, Dan Dare, James Bond, The Avengers and Doctor Who. He is currently writing a short book on War and Film and is planning future projects on cultural production in Britain during the Second World War and on television swashbucklers.