13 Stereotypes of the British Film Industry: True or False?
Does the British film industry produce the best talent? Does the land of Shakespeare respect the writer? Is anything happening outside of London? Industrial Scripts assesses perceptions of the UK film industry – where do you stand on the following issues?
Note: a number of these stereotypes are not necessarily particular to the UK film scene, and potentially typical of the industry in general.
Christopher Nolan’s Thoughts
“To be honest, it (London) is a very clubby kind of place – in Hollywood there’s a great openness, almost a voracious appetite for new people. In England there’s a great suspicion of the new. In cultural terms, that can be a good thing, but when you’re trying to break into the film industry, it’s definitely a bad thing. I never had any luck with interesting people in small projects when I was doing FOLLOWING. Never had any support whatsoever from the British film industry, other than Working Title, the company that [producer] Emma Thomas was working for at the time. They let me use their photocopier, stuff like that, which is not to be underestimated”. – Christopher Nolan
1) Many are Privately Wealthy
A contentious one with which to commence our list, but there’s no denying that as one drifts away from crew and physical production and closer to the power-nexus of the industry (i.e. the world of development, financing, of producers and funding AKA That Area Where Films are Made or Broken), one realises it’s heavily-populated by privately educated people who are often under no apparent pressure to pay the rent/mortgage or do their Tesco’s order. This, despite the fact that they’ve been working on “this Kafkaesque short” for the last 18 months. “Everyone’s got a backer”, was the phrase one observer once coined to describe the situation, and whether that backer is a kindly uncle who steps in when times are tough, to the husband/wife/gf/bf who works in the city or inherited a few hundred ‘thou, to the London landlord who is…the person’s own parents (and guess what? The rent bill’s MIA!), they all step in where necessary. In some ways, it’s the collective industry’s big dirty secret, the last taboo – people who confess over the 10th glass of rosé in Cannes that they are really, really struggling to find work or who reveal their endless frustrations with an ability to get a film off the ground, or even confide some personal disaster that has befallen them, will often fall mysteriously silent when the subject of money and how to get by and just live rears its unwelcome head. You can’t blame them, in a way, because who wants to admit that the only reason they’re still in The Game is because they’re still living in the family home age 35?!? Ultimately though, it’s a classic case of “don’t hate the players, hate The Game”, and it’s not like people still living at home is an alien concept in other industries… TRUE
2) All Script Development Executives went to Oxbridge
A few years ago, this would have been almost exclusively True. Even in the early Noughties, perhaps around 70% of the 20+ major script development jobs in the UK were held by Oxbridge or Cambridge graduates, and embers of this survive today. Two factors have affected the situation, however: the first is a distinct shift and recognition in the offices of various public funding bodies that meritocracy must rule and that the jobs-for-the-boys culture has gone on long enough (resulting in a new wave of development person coming through); the second is the loss of a number of these jobs due to various outside factors, not least the general economic climate and producers’ lack of cash-flow. However, as things stand, Oxbridge would probably still be the major feeder channel for the British film industry’s development executives. WAS TRUE, NOW CHANGING
3) Our Teen Market Doesn’t Travel
Given its position in creating the notion of the teenager as consumer, it’s no surprise that the US leads the way in teen entertainment. HARRY POTTER and the localised success of THE INBETWEENERS aside, this is a sticking point for the British film industry – teens perhaps preferring the escapism of glossier US releases, which has seen flicks such as HOW I LIVE NOW, ATTACK THE BLOCK and KIDULTHOOD fail to travel – just like British footballers. Is this a case of a US monopoly? TRUE
4) If BBC Films, Film4, Creative England & BFI Say No, You’re Done
Of 2012’s Top-20 UK Independent Films, 8 had major BBC Film, Film4 or BFI involvement, whilst 12 found homes elsewhere. When the NATIVITY follow-up was passed over by previous custodians at the BBC, writer-director Debbie Isitt landed with other producers. Strong institutions which provide great opportunities for new talent, but not the whole game. FALSE
5) Our System produces the Best Talent
Christian Bale, Andrew Garfield & Henry Cavill – Batman, Spiderman & Superman. When Brits are taking the all-American hero roles, you know the nation is producing exceptional talent. But then the UK has a natural language advantage when it comes to breaking the world stage (THE ARTIST’s Jean Dujardin is yet to convert that Oscar into a major follow-up) and perhaps this gives an over-prominence to our film talent. Though some may stay local – Mike Leigh – many will take flight and test themselves in the US market – from Hitchcock to the Scott Brothers and Steve McQueen’s success with 12 YEARS A SLAVE, the tradition of UK talent rising to the top will likely continue for some time yet – including in the screenwriting department, as our article on British Screenwriters in Hollywood showed. Or maybe everyone just likes the accents. A BIASED TRUE
6) Commercial is still a Dirty Word in Soho
HARRY POTTER, JAMES BOND, THE WOMAN IN BLACK and THE INBETWEENERS – mammoth commercial successes built on existing intellectual property. In parts, UK film certainly isn’t shy of targeting the big bucks. But with public money, policies targeting wide representation and strong artistic sensibilities, the film scene is markedly different to the production line models of Hollywood & Bollywood – and filling audience demand just to compete with Hollywood isn’t always at the forefront of people’s thinking. In addition, the days of Merchant Ivory die hard: commercial is still a dirty word in the offices of a number of UK production companies, with phrases like “distinctive” and “authentic” and “vision” liberally sprinkled into every meeting and press release. Perhaps the key word, however, that is never referred to is “worthy” – the UK film industry doesn’t always realise it but we’re slightly obsessed with films which can’t really be accurately described any other way. These films often possess the Golden Goose for many a UK film producer/commissioner – prestige and the respectful nods of approval from his peers. Things are changing, with various new genres springing up (the “street” movie, the dance film) and new, hungry producers raised on a strict diet of Michael Mann and Ridley Scott, with minimal interest in being “worthy”, and overall there’s probably a healthy balance at work. Just don’t try selling your frat-house script to WeOnlyShootinBlack&White Films! WAS TRUE, BUT CHANGING FAST
7) It’s all about London
Just as LA provides a major centre for US film, so too is London the lynchpin of the UK film scene with its hub of agents, production companies and post-production. But the indie scene is alive and well – Shane Meadows, Christopher Nolan and Ben Wheatley all made their feature starts independent of the capital’s film community. The BFI’s NET.WORK talent development initiative is pushing the nationwide expansion of talent and with public transport links never more plentiful, there are more and more significant film players conducting business from the capital, but living elsewhere. FALSE
8) Writers Wield More Power in the British film industry
Listen to interviews with British screenwriters, and one of the repeated comments concerns greater studio & producer involvement in the US – with a much more cut-throat approach to development. Is this because there’s more dev money available? Or is it because the Hollywood Studio system was born before the emergence of the great American playwrights? Many UK scribes come from the theatrical world (Patrick Marber, Lee Hall) and theatrical respect can carry over. Certainly, script-by-committee, writers’ rooms and the rapidity of Hollywood’s writer hiring-and-firing culture are still quite foreign concepts in the British film industry. TRUE
9) It’s Just Costume Drama & Cockney Geezers
Nations put themselves up on the silver screen – with such a rich history full of intrigue, it’s no wonder the costume drama remains as strong as ever, especially as the baby-boomers look back (NOWHERE BOY, SIXTY-SIX, THE DAMNED UNITED) – and just as the US isn’t short of a mob tale or two, so too a Brit gangster flick usually just around the corner. Though these categories might be prevalent, great variety is still out there – THE SELFISH GIANT, SHAME, BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO. FALSE
10) The British Film Industry is Negative, Narrow and a “Closed Shop”
This is the identikit view held by just about every Brit who’s flown the nest to LA. They sit there, on Santa Monica beach, braying away en masse about how London is all “don’t, can’t, won’t” and LA is the only place where you can get anything done. And, if we’re honest, there’s probably at least some grains of truth to that POV. On the one hand, it’s hard-wired miles deep within the British psyche to be negative: we love it, ultimately, and in some ways it defines it us in a positive way to the rest of the world (i.e. “if even the British like it, it must be good!”). The problem is, film is not really a medium or a profession that can be fuelled or fired by negativity: it’s hard enough already, without some brow-beaten old crone telling you your film’s got no chance! Certainly, many share the feeling that one can drown in the bleakness and negativity of the UK film scene. It’s also probably accurate to say that London is far more “closed shop” than LA, where they’ll meet anyone, once. “To be honest, it’s (London) a very clubby kind of place”, said Christopher Nolan, “in Hollywood there’s a great openness, almost a voracious appetite for new people. In England there’s a great suspicion of the new. In cultural terms, that can be a good thing, but when you’re trying to break into the film industry, it’s definitely a bad thing. I never had any luck with interesting people in small projects when I was doing Following. Never had any support whatsoever from the British film industry, other than Working Title, the company that [producer] Emma Thomas was working for at the time. They let me use their photocopier, stuff like that, which is not to be underestimated”. So, even the great and the good feel London has a long way to go. But equally, the braying Hollyoak-ers on Santa Monica beach aren’t totally right either: after all, people aren’t stupid, if it was that bad and you really couldn’t get anything done no-one would be here. But the fact that so many leading directors, writers, producers, actors and crew do live in the UK puts paid to the notion that you can’t get anything done. Don’t believe us? Check out the IMDb listing for a certain Iain Canning. And yes he is based in London and still in his 30s. STRAINS OF TRUTH, BUT TOTALLY FALSE TO SAY YOU CAN’T GET ANYTHING DONE
11) The British Film Industry is Small – Mostly Facilities, Public Money & Film Tourism
Business may be booming at Pinewood – with STAR WARS set to return – but much of that comes in the form of runaway Hollywood productions such as THOR 2 or MALEFICENT. Take away public funding, tax incentives and international productions, and what is left of the core indigenous industry? With our studios mostly transformed to hosting facilities, the disparate film industry lacks a core of major British players. TRUE
12) Those in Power Have Questionable Taste
The demise of the UK Film Council held a fascinating mirror up to British film industry culture. For those ignored and dismissed by the council down the years, champagne corks were heard popping in the streets of Soho at the news, but for anyone with a more realistic view of how difficult making funding decisions really is, it was a dark day. There have certainly been some questionable funding decisions and public film projects down the years – the by-now notorious SEX LIVES OF THE POTATO MEN taking up fully £1m(!!!) of Lottery money – but is the hit-and-miss ratio any different to the free market? Ultimately, someone, somewhere has to push the button on a project – whether with public money or private capital – and either camp can fall victim to flawed projects. JONAH HEX, R.I.P.D, ISHTAR, THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH – human fallibility extends across all areas of the film industry. Oh, and as a sidenote, if you were in power could you really do any better? FALSE
13) UK Lit Agents are Half Asleep compared with their US counterparts
“We know about all the great talent out there and, if we don’t, it makes its way to us eventually anyway”. Exact quote from a major British film industry exec (not lit agent, granted), but the perception has run for a while that due to the lack of serious competition in the lit agency world, a certain complacency has crept in. There’s another industry in-joke that does the rounds: “how do you get your calls returned by a UK lit agent? Lease the building across from them and start lobbing stones at the windows”. Certainly, compared with their LA peers, UK lit agents read far, far less material, there’s no denying that. But then again, if they miss out on a hot new client, who cares? They’ve still got their steady, stable list of other solid earners, the bosses are happy enough, and it’s not even like they can find enough work for their existing clients, let alone taking more on! Even IS, with our relationships, reputation, backers and “no-fees-if-something-sells” structure, have found it very challenging to gain the attention of some UK lit agents for our Talent Connector programme. So – are they dozy, or is it a simple case of too much supply and not enough demand? Is the market simply not big enough here to supply all the writers and directors who want representation? YOU DECIDE!
If you enjoyed this article, why not check out our article containing 11 Screenwriters on The Big Screen?
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