The big exodus: Is the British film industry in crisis?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Geoffrey Macnab asks why the production of so many 'home-grown' movies has drifted overseas

Where has Britain's Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren been working for the past few weeks? The answer isn't Pinewood, Shepperton or Ealing, but far away in Germany, where she has been playing Count Tolstoy's wife in Michael Hoffman's new movie, The Last Station. True, Tolstoy isn't British, but not so long ago, The Last Station would surely have been put together as a British production. After all, it is being made by a British company (Zephyr) with British actors (James McAvoy as well as Mirren) and British technicians.

What about Stephen Frears, who directed Mirren in The Queen? He, too, has been in Germany, finishing off the shooting of Cheri, his Christopher Hampton-scripted adaptation of Colette's novel about the love affair between a spoiled young man and his much older mistress (played by Michelle Pfeiffer).

Stephen Daldry, another renowned British director, has also been working in Germany, shooting The Reader, his David Hare-scripted adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's novel.

Even though the action is set in Germany, one would have expected the film to be shot in a British Studio.

Where has Joe Wright (of Atonement fame) been in recent months? The brightest of young British directors has been in Los Angeles, shooting The Soloist, his new film about a schizophrenic musician on skid row.

Who would want to shoot films in Britain? This may seem a perverse question given the British film industry's continuing reputation for technical excellence, fantastic actors and top-notch studios. If the UK is so grim, one might ask, why do the Studios still make the Harry Potter and James Bond movies here?

Then again, trace the whereabouts of Britain's most celebrated film-makers and it is striking how few of them have been working at home. Of course, producers don't just look for the perfect locations for their movies. They want tax breaks, easy funding, affordable labour and the best studio facilities.

But is Britain providing them with the conditions they need to make their movies? The number of international co-productions being shot in Britain has plummeted. In some respects, this is a healthy trend. The Government has curtailed the flagrant abuses committed by renegade producers during the days of the old Section 42 and Section 48 tax breaks. It is no longer possible for films to qualify as British – and take advantage of UK fiscal incentives – by dint of some clever paperwork. Movies that want to access the new "tax credits" have to pass a "cultural test." They must prove their British credentials.

The downside is that Britain isn't an attractive place for foreign producers. "It's very hard to do something now in the UK," says Hans De Weers, the Oscar-winning Dutch producer of Antonia's Line. "The system is OK if you are fully shooting in the UK, but otherwise it is hardly interesting."

Fewer movies are being made in the UK. That means less work for technicians and a slowdown at the UK's vaunted post-production houses. One area that is comparatively robust is smaller UK films aimed at British audiences. Some argue that the Brits risk becoming insular in outlook.

"Where we might be going wrong is [in] thinking too much of ourselves as an island and not reaching out – collaborating, reciprocating and co-producing that is respectful of other people's national requirements as well," says British producer Mike Downey of F&ME, the London-based outfit behind Guy X and Bathory. Meanwhile, attracting Hollywood productions grows ever tougher. "Jeez – that pound of yours is kind of crazy..." said one American producer referring to the strength of sterling against the dollar.

The British industry remains susceptible to whatever ailments infect the US studios. "When Hollywood sneezes, the global film industry catches cold," is how British Film Commissioner Colin Brown characterises the relationship between the US majors and the rest of the world. In April, Britain's flagship studios Pinewood-Shepperton announced a 26 per cent fall in pre-tax profits in 2007, to $10.58m (£5.3m). The irony is that the British Government has gone to great lengths to cater to the Hollywood studios.

"The UK tax credit is a very generous system ...but it's a pity that it favours principally the US studios," comments one British producer who is now doing his film-making in Germany.

If Tom Hanks or Brad Pitt make a Hollywood movie in Pinewood or Shepperton, they are subsidised by the Treasury. If Ralph Fiennes stars in a British-financed film that shoots in Africa, the producer is unlikely to get anything. According to current rules, such movies as David Lean's Doctor Zhivago wouldn't qualify for the full UK tax credit.

"The failure of the legislation (for the UK film tax credit) is to make it useful for a broader, independent community that would provide a continuous and consistent throughput of work for people in all areas of the industry," suggests Mike Downey of the perceived bias toward Hollywood.

When I visited Shepperton Studios earlier this year, it was a ghostly experience. Only one movie was actually shooting – sci-fi drama Moon, the debut feature from British director Duncan Jones (formerly known as Zowie Bowie, son of rock star David Bowie.) Across the road, another bigger film – Richard Curtis' The Boat That Rocked – was in preproduction, but otherwise Shepperton was unnaturally quiet. At the time, everybody blamed the then writers' strike in Hollywood for the slowdown. A few months on, that strike has been resolved, butproducers aren't hurrying back to Blighty. They are put off by the strong pound, the changes to the tax incentives and the sheer expense of being in Britain.

British Film Commissioner Colin Brown strikes a robust note about prospects for the UK to lure back the Americans. He says that bookings later in the year look set to pick up. On bigger films (those costing over £20m), he points out the producers are offered 16 per cent of the budget as a tax credit. He concedes that the writers' strike and the prospect of an actors' strike later in the summer have slowed down production in the UK but insists that business is picking up.

The British studios are cagey about announcing advanced bookings. However, one tent pole movie, Ridley Scott's long-gestating Nottingham (a reworking of Robin Hood backed by Universal) has now set up production offices at Pinewood.

"The Americans get a warm, fuzzy feeling here," says Colin Brown of what Britain can offer to Hollywood. "There is something about the way that we tell stories and look at life and, believe it or not, even the sense of humour – whether you like it or not, the Americans admire the UK. A lot of the talent loves to work here. This is a great place to make a movie."

Arguably, the British film industry over-reacts to downturns. "We're not in the depths of a depression. There are probably a few less large-scale films shooting over the summer than there would [normally] be," says Adrian Wootton, the chief executive of Film London.

The question is how much responsibility the Brits are willing to take for the long-term health of their own film industry. You can't help thinking that the UK film sector should learn how to build up a little resistance – so that it isn't laid low quite so easily by events in Hollywood over which it has no control.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'