The ICA Cinema in London has just hosted New British Cinema. On one level, the season was a cause for celebration. The eight films chosen underlined the richness of independent, low- budget British film-making. On a less upbeat note, though, the season pointed to the struggles that young British film-makers face in getting their work shown at all. In a sense, these were orphan films, spurned by mainstream cinemas.
"Selling British films to the British public is notoriously difficult because they don't like British films," says Christophe Granier-Deferre, producer of The Hide (which was screened at the ICA.) Granier-Deferre's remarks may seem perverse at a time when Harry Potter fever is sweeping Britain. However, there is a huge difference between US studio-backed, big-budget James Bond and Harry Potter movies and independent British films. All the evidence is that the latter are struggling more than ever to find traction in British cinemas. "There are a lot of films going by the wayside," says David Cox, who programmed the ICA season.
Cash-strapped UK distributors defend their reluctance to pick up low-budget Brit movies which don't have stars or big-name directors. These distributors face a Herculean struggle to persuade cinemas to show them. Duane Hopkins' Better Things, a slice of British social realism set in the Cotswolds and touching on drug taking, boredom and the tension between the generations, is a case in point. The film screened in Cannes in 2008 to respectful notices and was then released in France on 20 screens. Back in Britain, its UK distributor struggled to find more than one cinema that was willing to show the film.
"There is a certain amount of familiarity breeding contempt. This is true of British distributors as well as of British critics," agrees Julian Richards, producer-director of Summer Scars (also screened in the ICA Season). "We [the British] tend toward the exotic. If things are too familiar, they are often considered less interesting."
If films aren't released in British cinemas, UK broadcasters are markedly less willing to buy them for television. They therefore risk sinking into anonymity.
The irony is that British film-making seems to be enjoying a mini renaissance, whether in experimental work like Steve McQueen's Hunger, bigger budget films like The Damned United, or family dramas like Andrea Arnold's second feature, Fish Tank (which won a prize in Cannes this summer). There are many low-budget initiatives being hatched by the BBC, Film4, WarpX and others.
The lower budget films that distributors seem so wary about releasing play a hugely important role in nurturing new talent on both sides of the camera. A decade ago, a UK distributor was prepared to take a chance on Christopher Nolan's micro-budget Following. This gave Nolan the platform to launch a career that now sees him directing Batman movies. Future stars like Emily Blunt (first noticed in My Summer of Love) and Carey Mulligan (who gives an exceptional performance as the precocious schoolgirl in An Education) have likewise benefitted.
Public money for supporting British cinema is in short supply. Nonetheless, a strong argument can be made for backing distributors prepared to take a chance on Brit movies. Otherwise, we may never be able to find out whether British cinemagoers don't like homegrown fare, or whether they are simply not given enough chances to see it.