FILM / Profits without honour: Will the Oscars next week breath new life into the British Film Industry? Sheila Johnston reports

This year the announcement of a grand total of 25 Oscar nominations (per Screen International) for British contenders has tipped the UK media into one of its periodic feeding frenzies. It's sobering to remember, though, that this general aura of self-congratulation and euphoria isn't nearly matched by the three main candidates' box-office success in their own country. The Crying Game (6 nominations) steamed this week past the dollars 40 million mark in America, and on to the front page of Variety. It has, according to Neil McCartney of Screen Finance, more than doubled its take there since the nominations were announced. Here, it has taken just over pounds 1.3m, adding only pounds 400,000 over last month.

The third candidate, Enchanted April (three nominations), clocked up over dollars 13 million in the States and even a brief stay in the top ten. Not bad when you remember its fleeting stay on British screens and the dismissive reviews. Of the three front runners, only Howards End (nine nominations) could be said to have matched its American success with anything like proportionate acclaim and box-office (over pounds 3.6m) in its own country.

It's not the first time this has happened. Two years ago, for example, Ken Loach's Riff Raff won the International Critics' Prize at Cannes and was voted the European Film of the Year. It played in 30 prints in Germany - as opposed to three in the UK, where the film was barely released. The following year, Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet was elected Best Film by America's National Society of Film Critics. At the time Leigh said, 'It's wonderful but my only worry is that it has sunk without trace in Britain. Nobody can see it except on video.'

It is tempting to diagnose a classic case of prophets (not to mention profits) without honour - to argue that the British media and audiences remain stubbonly blind to their glories of their own cinema. That, certainly, is the view of Stephen Woolley, the producer of The Crying Game, who has been vociferous in condemning both the British media and the 'cock-ups' in the marketing and exhibition of his film. 'There's a disdain and apathy towards British cinema,' he said last week. 'The Crying Game was released here with a sense of predestined failure.'

When a film seems to underperform, there is never a shortage of theories about what went wrong. Some point to the fact that The Crying Game opened here last October, just as the IRA was stepping up its mainland campaign (even this week some of the tabloids were running stories of its Oscar prospects alongside reports of the Warrington bombings). 'The Americans certainly have a more open attitude to its subject, which is understandable,' Woolley concurs. 'There are 45 million Irish-Americans. And the IRA isn't on their doorstep.'

Others, like Terry Ilott, the Managing Editor of Variety's European section, believe that its publicity campaign was mismanaged. 'It was a very lacklustre marketing effort, he says. 'There was no buzz. You didn't get the hype you normally associate with a Steve Woolley film. In America, it was a case of the distributor's complete monomania winning out.' With a clever teaser campaign hinged on the films 'secret twist' and a sexy new poster, that distributor, Miramax, has turned The Crying Game into a considerable hit.

Enchanted April was different again. 'It was made as a television film,' says its executive producer Mark Shivas, Head of Drama at the BBC. 'We tried to get distributors interested but most of them said that it was too soft. It ran a couple of months. It didn't get terribly good houses; it didn't get terribly good reviews. And a film like this needs good reviews to reach an audience. People in Britain have seen more of this kind of stuff, although fewer costume dramas are being made now than before because they are expensive.' When the film was broadcast soon afterwards, its cinema life was at an end.

Like The Crying Game, Enchanted April was sold to America by Harvey Weinstein, the brash, fast-talking, endlessly energetic head of Miramax. Where comparisons with Howards End worked to its detriment i8n Britain, Shivas says, 'Harvey really went for the Merchant-Ivory comparison. He spent a lot of money advertising it, brought the girls (sic) over and put them on every show he could manage. It was brilliantly marketed.' Weinstein even wanted to take the word 'BBC' off the credits, replacing it with something anodyne and non-televisual like 'Wood Lane Films' (Shivas took a dim view of that suggestion).

David Aukin, the Head of Drama at Channel 4, concurs: 'Howards End and Enchanted April are . . . exotic to American audiences. Enchanted April may have been helped by the arrival of Howards End and the demand for that exotica. Howards End opened very narrowly, and couldn't satisfy the demand.' And Enchanted April was there to fill the gap.

Partly it appears a case of cross-cultural fantasies - films like Enchanted April caters to American travelogue images of old Blighty. But this, Steve Woolley notes, can work both ways: 'There's an interesting comparison with Reservoir Dogs, which opened disappointingly in America - people thought it was too violent. Here it was perceived more as a pastiche; we were able to look past the violence. In America it touched a nerve. And that process worked in reverse for The Crying Game.'

So persuasive is the inferiority-complex theory that one or two people have been wondering if it might be better to release new British films in America first - when they finally cross the Atlantic, trailing (one hopes) clouds of glory local critics and film-goers will, sheep-like, flock to see them. Aukin (who was one of the backers of The Crying Game and Howards End), has entertained the idea, while finding it disquieting.

'There are certain films which it might make a lot of sense to open first in America,' he says. 'But that's just another symptom of the lack of nerve here regarding British films. I believe there is a collective loss of faith which success at the Oscars might help to reverse.' For Shivas, 'it would be a terrible admission of defeat about British audiences if we had to do that.'

Ken Loach, the director of Riff Raff, sees the problem as one of continuity. You can't sell a British film on the strength of its stars and special effects. But there aren't enough of them either for a new Britpic to be marketed as part of a movement. 'Commercial films are expected to be American; art films are Swedish. Briefly in the late 1950s and early 1960s there was a group of films about British subjects that weren't either posh or escapist, but today a small English film doesn't fit anywhere. Distributors don't know how to distribute it; exhibitors won't book it. Every film has to cut a path on its own because the industry produces so few of them. There's no audience expecting a new British film to come along each week.'

That's why so much is riding on the Oscars. If a limey waves his statue shouting 'The British are coming', it might just usher in the bullish mood that carried along the New British Cinema of the early Eighties in the wake of Chariots of Fire. But Terry Ilott takes a view that this year's contenders might well find controversial: 'British films are over-represented at the Oscars,' he says. 'It's stupendous; completely out of proportion. Hollywood produces nearly 400 films a year, and the Uk about a dozen pictures. It's true that British directors are more highly regarded in America than they are here. But that tells you more about Hollywood than it does about these films. What's wrong with Hollywood that our films, weak as they are, have so many nominations? If anyone has cause for complaint, it's the offbeat American independent films that have been passed over in favour of the Brits.'