Wistreich - Thank you all for coming to Who Shot British Film. Probably more people here than would turn up to British film at a multiplex, but there you go! (laughter)
Fogg - I'd like to introduce David Castro, Chief Executive of the New Producers Alliance, and next to him the Executive Producer of One Life Stand which won five Scottish Baftas, Owen Thomas.
Wistreich - Here I have David Cox who is the Channel Editor for FilmFour and the Film Editor for iD Magazine. Next to David is Amanda Posey who started out at Palace Pictures. Amanda has overseen films like the Crying Game and Interview with a Vampire before becoming Head of Development at Scala, she then produced Fever Pitch through her production company Wildgaze.
State of the Industry
Fogg - I suppose the first question to ask is, what is the current state of the British Film Industry?
Castro - Well if you put the September 11 incident on the back of what as happening in the industry, including foot and mouth, we were 65% down on production before September 11. So, in those kind of terms, not terribly healthy. These things happen and there's not much that anyone can do about it but the infrastructure is changing through the Film Council.
Wistreich - And already we've had five major film productions cancelled or postponed this year.
Posey - Yes, for one reason or another. They were British in terms of material and cast but quite a lot of them actually involved foreign financing - either American and European. But it gave an example of how, with seemingly the most cast iron financing in place, crews, casts, and indeed producers can be left in the lurch with hundreds of thousands of pounds owing to them. It's happened to reputable companies as well: Nick Powell at Scala had a big film with Michael Caine attached, Andrew Paterson at Archer Street who produced Hilary and Jackie and various other films, they were producing Girl with a Pearl Earring with Mike Newell directing and a big cast attached. That leaves you thinking that if those sorts of films aren't getting made then it does leave a lot of cast and crew nervous when asked to commit to smaller productions for smaller companies.
Cox - Do you think the smaller independent films will suffer in the same way as the likes of the John Boorman film? Do you think it will impact on the smaller level where filmmakers are still doing it more out of passion than anything else?
Posey - My opinion is that anxiety affects everyone but I think you are right in saying that, with the infrastructure of independent pictures people are used to everything being on the edge.
Fogg - Owen have you had any recent experiences of casts and crew being reticent to commit to productions?
Thomas - No, not at all. I suppose I ought to state now that these two (Posey and Cox) make their living from this business and I haven't succeeded in doing that (laughter) in spite of the surprising success of One Life Stand. Having made it for USD50,000 entirely from our own money and then attempting to sell it after the fact, we discovered what an arduous process it is, despite having a very high profile. And then attempting to finance a picture that is less than half the average UK feature budget, my comment on this would be, whether the industry is rising or falling it is nearly impossible to get anything made at any time. Even with three or four pictures under your belt it's still near impossible. So with production down 65%, people having trouble committing, people taking longer in development because they are even more scared than normal - it really doesn't matter. You will always face a brick wall. It's true, there's always 500 people ahead of you in the queue and a good proportion that have a longer track record than you have. You can either feel even more despondent or you can say, "well nothing's changed, I may as well keep going." It's a cause for optimism. The only reason you get into this ridiculous business is the tiny chance that you make the picture that you really want to make.
What are we watching?
Wistreich - David (Cox) you must have a pretty good idea from FilmFour of whether people want to watch low budget independent British film. Do they?
Cox - The lab was set up at FilmFour Ltd to make those types of movies but I think there was a feeling that FilmFour Ltd, as a company, was going to start making bigger films, I daresay on the Miramax model, FilmFour Lab would fill in the gap. Films like The Lowdown, Day Break and the succession of films that are coming out in November: This Filthy Earth, My Brother Tom and Jump Tomorrow. So, there's a feeling from production that, although many people will not want to see them they are still a vital component in the industry. As much as FilmFour would like to be making films the size of Lucky Break, there's more a chance of a break out success with the low budget ones. Whether or not people want the low budget stuff. We know it's best to show them because we know that when they come through they are about as interesting as anything coming out of the independent sector. It's hard to know what the response is. Box office wise we know they don't perform and whether that's distribution or whether they aren't hitting the cinemas, perhaps TV is their ideal home and perhaps the Channel should be more committed to showing them but it's hard to know because the research doesn't show us enough.
Fogg - Can you track audience figures?
Cox - You could track them if they were, well, big enough (laughter). I think a lot of digital channels do have trouble tracking audiences because they are so minimal, you just get a row of 0.1's and there's little way of distinguishing until you get to terrestrial.
Castro - How about that drug season for an example, how do you know that works?
Cox - Well we don't particularly. It's quite a terrifying admission. In limbo you kind of know that the films within that season are potentially popular and that it's a subject that has some interest because there are still films being made on it. And it markets well, it has an appeal and we know that seasons work on the whole.
Thomas - But all of that is about showing a film on TV, it's very different to getting people out to the cinema. It costs six quid a month for FilmFour and at least a fiver per movie at the cinema on a wet October evening when free TV is on. It doesn't say much about people's willingness to go and watch films that don't have much publicity or any associated names behind them. When you try to sell a film idea or you complete it before battling with various companies to get it into cinemas, with the belief that people will want to see it, you come up against the opinion of industry insiders who believe they know what people want to watch. To a very great extent, and for reasons of job security and of self-importance, there is kind of collective lie in the industry which is, 'We know what people want.' If you sit them down in a room on their own and buy them enough drinks they will eventually admit that they haven't got a clue what they are chucking out into the cinemas. They go on a hunch and if the hunch is good they will spend a lot of money on making you see it. That's very different from introducing an audience to a film organically and letting it grow through word of mouth.
Posey - It's a little bit more than a hunch though.
Thomas - Well that's what I'm wondering. The American model is driven by very different things but in Britain, where we can't rely on a star system or total blanket coverage in the press, indeed we can't even rely on reviewers to look at them, what you see is that people are surprised by the films that do succeed. There've been a number of calculated hits, the frequency with which Working Title make good returns on their films - that have been calculated - has been high. Most people are increasingly surprised when a British film is a success and I wonder whether that isn't because we are all pretending to each other that we know what the audience wants. Here's the big example. People loved One Life Stand wherever it was shown, people cheered it and yet is has all the elements for it to fail: A stupid accent that no one can understand, it's in black and white, it's shot on videotape, it's too long and it has no names in the cast.
Castro - From what you were saying earlier, Working Title did Bridget Jones and Corelli. Corelli was expected to do a lot better and yet Bridget, surprised them with a first time director.
Wistreich - It's interesting because they were both released at the same time, they were both book adaptations and they were both phenomenally successful books in their own right. One was a comedy, traditionally a sure-fire bet in the UK where the other was much broader
and bombed in the US and in the UK, Bridget has taken over USD200m worldwide. It could be said that British films that succeed are comedies and not much else. Fever Pitch is an example of a romantic comedy.
Posey - Well it makes it easier, people rely on British comedies more than anything else. If you come up with a comedy idea without much of a cast behind it you know that if the humour plays it will work. I can think of a load of examples of films like that and I suppose we dug our own grave with The Full Monty because everyone then searched for the next break out comedy. I'm afraid I hadn't prepared a list before coming here of non-comic British films that have been successful.
Thomas - It's a reflexive thing. Everyone gets behind the film and believes it will be a hit, anyone who makes a film believes that anyway, most aren't hits and that's in the nature of both British and American business. From the films that do hit everyone scurries about looking for the reasons, they congratulate themselves for being right all along and they think they have a model for success
which flops next time.
Fogg - What about British films that are disguised as Hollywood like The Hole. To all intents and purposes and as far as the public know it's American.
Wistreich - British money, British director and crew but with Thora Birch in the lead.
Posey - Well to come back to Owen's perspective and, at base it's absolutely true, you can't rely on anybody else to tell you how to make your movie or to tell you why your movie is going to be any good. If you expect other people to give you money, it's a lot of money and a lot of time and commitment, you have to convey to them that you know what your audience is even if they don't know. And you have to be able to back it up. If you know there are millions of teenagers out there desperate to see your film then go online, do your research and get your statistics. So many independent filmmakers have the passion but not the interpretation that convinces those with the money that there is some commercial, and I don't mean formulaic, but financially sound reason to make it and that you are trying to reach a certain audience. What's often levelled at British filmmakers is that they don't give a fuck who their audience is and I think that's something that should be focused on.
Castro - When I get producers to talk to me about their stories I say, "Who is this aimed at?" They say "Everybody. The demographic is 18 to 103" and I have to say, 'No it ain't.' The point is that you don't know the story you are trying to tell and who it's aimed at.
Fogg - Why don't they know that?
Castro - I don't think people have actually thought about it.
Posey - Very few people on the creative side have the exposure to the marketing and distribution so they don't know what choices have to be made when putting out a trailer or devising a poster or deciding where to place the ad. I was lucky in that I started in a company called Palace which went under for all sorts of reasons but it was then the biggest independent distributor and producer. You got to see the film from start to finish, so whether it succeeded or failed you learnt lessons throughout.
Thomas - A lot of people here won't remember Palace but it was putting story ideas up on screen that no-one else would touch, and it was getting critical and box office success with them. It was going against the grain and I think there's a lot to learn from that. Often what you consider to be a necessary assessment of demographics can be a blind. Sometimes a belief that this can play to anybody is the most powerful thing, the simple conviction that it is a great story well told and anybody can tune into that. What we must remember is that it is often easier to get a British film shown abroad, some are never even released here and part of the argument that may develop is the way that you are able to go against established wisdom.
Cox - Well that's a confidence you are speaking of that's missing and it's something that Palace had, the amazing confidence between '83 and '85 when they were rolling out films like Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa and Scandal. They weren't all great movies but they finished them and really followed through with the marketing. They put together merchandising and ad campaigns and you got the feeling that they were committed to finishing movies. That confidence rubs off on an audience and they can tell when a company has backed off from a movie. Palace seemed to be behind their movies all the way and you miss that. I evenn miss that scheduling for FilmFour, you miss the breadth of Palace because they would do any genre.
Thomas - It's called spread betting where now everything is on the nose.
Posey - One of their biggest disasters but which shows why it's worth being brave was Absolute Beginners. They lost a lot of money but somebody trying to make a movie set in '50's London out of a cult book is a great piece of bravery and it was good for Stephen Woolley that he had a company that would back the film the whole way.
Audience - What do you think the Americans have to make British audiences go and see their films?
Cox - Marketing budgets
Posey - I'd say stars.
Audience - What about the French market?
Posey - Well they're making films in their own language for one thing.
Fogg - They've also put systems in place to encourage the French public to watch French cinema and even inhibit American cinema in France but it's taken years to reach a comfortable level.
Cox - They also had the CNC funding and they've had the confidence to keep their stars at home so they have this fantastically indigenous star system.
Thomas - I read a very interesting statistic which said that American films, until very recently, were no more successful in Britain than they have been for 80 years. It was in the 1920's that they started taking 80% of receipts so nothing has changed. For me the reason American pictures succeed is because they are American and we can all talk about spend or stars but the truth remains that it's their artform.
What films are we making? What films should we be making?
Wistreich - I'd like to discuss the types of films that we should be making and aren't. I asked Jenny Borgars, who's the Head of development at the Film Council, whether she got scripts with far out, sci-fi ideas and she said she'd had none. All she was getting was my father raped me when I was a kid or romantic comedies.
Thomas - I think films that are doomed to fail in this country are ones that emulate things American. Films like Hardware. Ambitious idea, to make sci-fi movie in Britain with the resources we have available but where it falls between two stools.
Posey - Hardware actually did very well.
Thomas - I didn't know that so I take it back but the problem of falling between two stools stands. There was a vogue in Scotland a few years back of the Scottish Western. The idea behind it was, we have lots of open country so how can we exploit it? The Western isn't successful because it's a Western, it succeeds because when you watch one you are feeding into a hundred odd years of America's experience in the West.
Audience - Well coming from Spain I can say that, although American films do well, Spanish films do better and it's the same parallel between Spanish films in South American countries and vice versa. What's the formula?
Thomas - Find your own formula.
Cox - We don't have a distinctive film language. Look at Hong Kong for an example. Shaolin Soccer will be the biggest grosser at the box office when it comes out regardless of what's around at the time - they have a culture that seems weaned on a particular film language. France is the same, although not quite as visceral as the eastern territories, in that people respond to their own stars, writing and storytelling. One thing we haven't developed here is a specific film language.
Thomas - Didn't Palace develop a wholly British tone in their pictures.
Audience - There is, if you look back over the history of British cinema, a distinctive tone and if you name any classic British film you'll see that tone in it.
Posey - It is a tone though.
Audience - Yes it is and that's why we are so good at comedies because half of what we do is self-deprecation.
Posey - Well if you can make people laugh it's not so important for it to be delivered by a star but it's unfortunate because it locks us in a particular area. It's a much longer and more philosophical argument about the fact that we do and have always told our story through literature and theatre where America has always done it through film. It's a matter of more and more people becoming more film literate by basically watching as many movies as possible.
Audience - It's about filming our own history as well and essentially reflecting our own culture instead of mimicking American culture.
Thomas - This is getting quite in-depth. To follow on from there, of course you feel that you should be able to tell stories you want to. I have a strong feeling that maybe there is a certain gift for comedy but you can't build an industry on one genre. What you need to find is a pattern of working and a conception of an industry that satisfies successful productions in all genres. I have the strong suspicion that the single area that is failing the industry, and forgive me if I make any enemies here, is development. It may be great for people to go out and identify subjects that are close to peoples' hearts but unless we have a development structure to turn that into a vivid, visual and communicative film story that has an understanding for instincts of the population - in all it's classes - then the subject itself will not succeed. You need to know how to shape stories and I wonder if the key reason why many British films fail is the way in which they are developed.