BOOKS: A Seat up the front please - Cast aside by investors and the big US studios, can our film-makers ever make it big? Sarah Curtis finds a flicker of hope in this survey

BOOKS: A Seat up the front please - Cast aside by investors and the big US studios, can our film-makers ever make it big? Sarah Curtis finds a flicker of hope in this survey - The British Film Business, By Bill Baillieu and John Goodchild, John Wiley poun

by SARAH CURTIS, an independent film producer and a partner in thefilm company Parallax Pictures
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The British Film Business, By Bill Baillieu and John Goodchild, John Wiley pounds 19.99

Any producer who has tried to make a living out of making films in this country will recognise the boom/bust cycle described in this book by Bill Baillieu and John Goodchild. Every four or five years, the American studios get excited about investing in British films, galvanised by the monster profits to be made when a low-budget film such as The Full Monty takes dollars 250 million at the box office.

We producers are yet again seduced into the fantasy of a creative and lucrative relationship with an American major: all we want is respect for our creative integrity, a successful Oscar campaign and real box office returns. But when it becomes clear that The Full Monty 2 won't be so easily come by, the big studios leave London, and the painful process of knitting the finances together resumes.

Making sense of such a frustrating and volatile business is a challenge and The British Film Business, written by a financial analyst and a corporate investor, only partially succeeds.

The authors approach their subject through a history of the industry from 1896 to today. It's well researched and academic. It also makes for depressing reading. In 1966, the authors inform us, two-thirds of the feature-length films made in England were 100% American financed'. In 2000, when dollars 750 million was invested, the US's contribution was a substanital 69%. After a few pages of this, you may want to flick to the end.

Sure, there are lessons to be learned from the demise of Goldcrest, but apart from explaining the City's almost pathological aversion to investment in film, it isn't relevant to the state of the industry now. Potential investors and practitioners targeted by this book have a more pressing need, and it's only later that this is addressed.

The authors describe the steps taken to counter the disillusionment of investors and encourage producers to develop much more long term strategies. Only in the very last chapter are future trends outlined.

But this section, probably the most useful, is doomed to be out of date by the time it's published. There's no mention, for example, of the recent ventures of two of the industry's most experienced players, Michael Kuhn and Stewart Till. Both men have moved in the past 18 months from high-profile corporate positions to starting their own international production and distribution companies - Kuhn & Co and Signpost Films. They now have access to funds totalling more than dollars 2 billion and represent the best chance producers have had for some time of finding a partner who is sympathetic and effective.

There are plenty of insightful people at every level and yet the authors limit their quotes to a few soundbites from Tim Bevan of Working Title.

This is a company that has established the international appeal of UK films, but which is unqualified to speak on behalf of the independent industry, being owned and funded by Universal Studios.

The authors' claim that 'independent producers find it hard to hold on to rights' is correct. Getting to the first base of rights purchase and screenplay on Charlotte Gray, the film I recently produced, required us to sell an option upfront to Film Four to exploit the film in all territories.

Without their involvement it would have been even harder.

Some case studies would have been interesting to demonstrate what producers are up against. What are the hard economics of getting a film going without the participation of a major player? And what makes distribution such a no-lose proposition?

Although the lack of anecdotes make for a rather dry read, the authors are balanced and surprisingly optimistic. They foresee opportunities to wrestle back the initiative from the US majors and create new firms whose stability will attract outside investment. So the next time American filmgoers take a British film to their heart, some of those dollars might just come back to the people who made it.

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