Response to the enquiry of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons: Is There a British Film Industry?
Response title: Developing a Sustainable Film Industry: the Role of Film Culture
Submitted by Sylvia Harvey and Margaret Dickinson, 2 March 2003

A Response to the call for evidence on the topic 'Is There a British Film Industry?'

Sylvia Harvey
Principal Associate Director

Margaret Dickinson
Senior Research Fellow

2 March 2003

Introduction 1.
We welcome the decision of the Committee for Culture, Media and Sport to inquire into various aspects of the British film industry including the performance of the Film Council. This seems especially appropriate as the Film Council approaches its third anniversary.
2. Our main programme of research into British film policy is scheduled to take place during 2003-4. Consequently we are only able to offer some preliminary and rather general comments at this time, in response to the questions being asked by the Committee. We hope to have the opportunity of offering more substantial comment at a later date.

Comments on Selected Questions

1. Is it important to seek to preserve a capacity to make British films about Britain in the UK?
Yes. It has been the declared policy of British Governments since 1927 to preserve a capacity to make British films about Britain. Feature films have a special relationship to the representation of national identity and national culture in all of its various and changing forms. This remains the case even in an increasingly global, culturally hybrid and cosmopolitan world. However, for most of its history, the British film industry has remained in the shadow of its American counterpart with British films occupying a relatively small proportion of UK cinema screen time, varying between approximately five per cent and twenty per cent of time. By contrast, the UK has developed a world-class television industry, with a wide range of fictional and factual genres successful both at home and abroad. There have been periods when American cinema has been strikingly more innovative and progressive than many British offerings, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s, and there have been generations of voracious film viewers who have preferred these imported images to the sometimes old-fashioned and socially conservative home-grown variety. It is in part as a consequence of this history that it has been difficult for sharp and innovative British work to reach its home audience. Other factors impeding the development of a UK industry have been:

Film in the English Regions
The Film Council's devolutionary policies and, in particular, its Regional Investment Fund for England are to be welcomed. However, there are a number of emerging issues that should be noted and addressed if we are to achieve best value in the use of public resources. We list some of these emerging issues here:

2. What should the relationship be between British broadcasters and the film industry?
During the 1980s Channel Four successfully demonstrated that the risks of investing in feature film production could bring great rewards both culturally and, to some extent, economically. It established a model for the low to medium budget feature film that reflected many of the under-represented realities of life in Britain, tackled new subjects, sparkled with visual delights and attracted new audiences to the medium of cinema, permitting the films a decent window of theatrical opportunity prior to television screening.

More recently British broadcasters and the Film Council itself have shown an unwillingness to support the theatrical premier and that window of opportunity in cinemas that can, in fact, also build audiences for subsequent television screenings (two recent examples of this are Bloody Sunday and Tomorrow La Scala).

In addition, and with regard to the availability of the best of world cinema for UK audiences, the increasing reluctance of UK broadcasters to shown foreign language films has undermined the economics of foreign language film distribution more generally. As a result those UK cinemas that seek to provide greater choice to audiences have found it difficult to obtain good foreign films. It is important here to recognise that the building of a lively, pluralistic and international film culture can also provide a positive environment for showcasing the best of British work.

3. Does the film industry merit support from Government, if so, how can existing support be improved?
We believe that the film industry does merit support from Government and that this support must extend to the creation of an exhibition infrastructure that satisfies and builds audiences through the development of a vigorous, international and pluralistic film culture.

We would prefer to reserve any comments on the specific mechanisms of support until we have been able to conduct further research on this.

4. How can the production, distribution and exhibition of British films be improved in the UK? Is the right balance being struck between these elements of the industry?
In general, we feel that the role of distribution and exhibition in 'getting the product to market' has been given insufficient attention and that the cultural and educational factors involved in building audiences for UK and international cinema require fuller consideration. There have been times when there has been more interest in, and a wider availability of British films in the major cities of other countries (for example, in Paris) than in Britain. This strange imbalance clearly needs to be addressed.

However, we would prefer to reserve our comments on the specific mechanisms (and inter-relationships) of production, distribution and exhibition until we have been able to conduct further research.

5. How effectively has the Film Council contributed to a sustainable film industry since 2000? Does the Council have the right strategy and approach?

We do not feel able to make judgements on this question at this point and believe that, in particular, some detailed consideration of the Film Council's strategy for investment in film production is required. However, we feel it is important to acknowledge the valuable actions of the Government in establishing an agency and allocating resources to sustain the film industry and to develop film culture and education.

The Role of the British Film Institute
We have some concerns about the role of the British Film Institute and its relationship to the Film Council. The BFI was founded in 1932 and is one of the premier international institutions concerned with the study and promotion of film. The BFI holds one of the finest film archives and one of the best library collections on this subject in the world.

However, we feel that there are two problems here. Firstly we have a sense that the new Film Council has been unsure of its relationship with the older body and has at times (perhaps unintentionally) begun to treat it as a kind of unwanted elder sister. The BFI has been relatively well-supported, financially, but in a wider sense it has been 'starved of oxygen' by the newcomer, and the benefits of its cultural and educational remit appear not to have fed back into the Film Council. We also feel that this has been matched by a period of 'policy drift' at the BFI where services seem to have become too much focused on London and the Institute's wider national and regional remit has been weakened. We think that the BFI should not become the 'London Film Institute' and that it still has a considerable public interest role to fulfil throughout the country. With the right leadership, and with appropriate support from the Film Council, the BFI has the capacity to build on its considerable international reputation and to make a significant contribution to film culture, film exhibition, film archiving and film education throughout the United Kingdom.

6. What has the Council contributed to education about, and access to, the moving image? What should the Council do with the BFI and the Museum of the Moving Image?

The Film Council was charged with responsibility for the development of the film industry and also film culture. However, it may have under-estimated the role that the British Film Institute can play in this wider process (as indicated above). There may also be some scope for reviewing the decision to remove the BFI's responsibility for experimental film funding. In general, and on the basis of a review of the significant changes that have taken place over the last three years, the Film Council should clarify the remit of the BFI and confirm its support for the UK-wide activities of the Institute.

In the exhibition sector the Film Council seems to have been unable to make any significant impact, and there seems to have been little or no improvement in the range of films available to the British public in different parts of the UK. It appears still to be the case that there is a significantly wider choice for film-goers in, for example, Belgium or France than in the UK.

The original concept for the Museum of the Moving Image made a bold contribution to the range of facilities available in London to UK and foreign visitors. However, the Museum proved to be an extremely costly venture and one that required higher levels of grant-aid than appeared to be available. In particular the work of renewing the exhibits was probably under-costed in the original plans. Along with the IMAX facility, MOMI should no longer be regarded as a priority for the BFI or Film Council, unless significant new sources of heritage support can be identified.


Sylvia Harvey
Professor of Broadcasting Policy
Principal Associate Director
AHRB Centre for British Film and Television Studies
Faculty of Media and Humanities
University of Lincoln
Brayford Pool
Lincoln LN6 7TS

Tel: 01522 886431


Margaret Dickinson
Senior Research Fellow



Last modified 24 August, 2004 ;