EDITOR'S BLOG: Seven per cent hit rate not bad for UK film

We don't and can't make mega blockbusters like the yanks. But British film has its niche, argues Matthew Gwyther.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 10 Dec 2013

I watched Despicable Me 2 with the kids at the weekend. And a delight it was, too. For my money the best in American animated movies over the last few decades are up among the finest works of Western art from the last 2000 years. They are like medieval cathedrals, the product of many thousands of hands coming together to produce something sublime. 

One of the great highlights of my career as a hack was interviewing a couple of the animators who had worked on Disney’s Jungle Book.

As usual with one eye on the screen I couldn’t resist checking out how Desp Me 2  had done at the box office. It has taken $918 million against a budget of $76 million. Well done, Gru. Nice work for the investors, if you can get it.

Then yesterday came the headline that, according to the BFI, a mere 7% of films made in the UK turn a profit. The statistics relate to more than 600 British films released in cinemas between 2003-2010. They noted that lower budget films - such as those made for less than £2m - were less likely to make a profit (4%).

The figure gets better as budgets rise - with 17% of films that cost more than £10m making their money back. If you have some cash left over to pay for marketing and distribution after you’ve finished shooting that always helps, otherwise you’re just showing the results of your labours to a few cine academics, BFI buffs and your mates from film school. 

Seven per cent! Cue a whole load of self-flagellation about how we’re just obsessed with art house, non –commercial stuff in Britain, still worshipping Goddard rather than Spielberg, Colin Firth not Vin Diesel.

But is it a problem? I don’t think so. Firstly, making films is not a science. There is always going to be risk that what you’re convinced is a sure-fire blockbuster doesn’t capture the imagination of the viewing public. (Although there are bods in the States with computer programmes containing the track records of all the acting talent who claim they can predict very accurately what will succeed and what won’t.)

Don’t forget, also, that the Americans cock things up and, when they do, lose far more money. A hit rate of one in ten, incidentally, is roughly what they work on in book publishing. 

UK film knows its niche now and is making a pretty good job at exploiting it. We’ve worked out roughly what sorts of themes export well to the States and elsewhere – unfortunately they just love crap like Downton Abbey – and we’re getting on with it. We also are great at the technical side of film making and produce talent on both sides of the camera way out of proportion to our size.

The truth is that we cannot really compete with Hollywood or Bollywood blockbusters. There just isn’t the cash to finance them, the weather to shoot outdoors and anyway they are not really our style. Like our actors, we do quirky, small, twisted and ironic whereas Americans produce epic heroes. Can you imagine Ralph Fiennes or Anthony Hopkins as Ben Hur?  

The Ten Five grossing British films over the last 25 years are as follows.

1. The King’s Speech (2011) £45.7 million

2. The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)  £45 million 

3. Slumdog Millionaire (2006) £31.7 million 

4. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) £27.8 million

5. Trainspotting (1996)  £12.4 million.

(Skyfall, by the way, is a sort of British film with American investment and has taken over £100 million.)

None of those could have been made by Americans or Indians, for that matter.

So I think British film is not doing that badly, although it could be better. I also saw the Coen brothers True Grit the other night which is brilliant and was the first of their films to break the $100 million take. I’ve never understood why we don’t have a British Coen Bros – they’ve always struck me as having a slightly UK sensibility.  We could do that.

No. If you want real third rate amateurishness in the Uk go no further than our serial television drama most of which is third rate pap. The Americans produce The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men. And we serve up Casualty and East Enders. 

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