British film chiefs challenge Hollywood's dominance

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The Independent Culture

Britain is to have the world's first national network of digital cinema screens as part of a £19m investment plan to attract a new generation of arthouse film buffs.

The UK Film Council's decision to roll out the new technology to regional cinemas was announced as it revealed that American films were more dominant than ever at the British box office. Its report, Film in the UK 2002, published yesterday, showed Bend it Like Beckham, a British and German production, was the only one of Britain's favourite 20 movies not to have been made or partly made in America.

The cinema industry is enjoying a popular renaissance, with more people going than at any time in the past 30 years.

Admissions last year were at 176 million and takings up 17 per cent at £755m, the report showed. Despite that, 63 cinema sites closed as the domination of the multiplexes continued. Six companies - Odeon, UGC, Warner Village, UCI, Cine-UK and National Amusements - now operate 70 per cent of screens.

A spokesman for the council admitted problems in showing foreign-language or arthouse films to British audiences. "It becomes very difficult when you talk about niche films that have relatively small audiences that live far and wide and not just in London SW1. Distributors find it really hard to get those films out there," he said.

The success of British-made films at home will also help to boost revenue overseas. British films are especially popular in Germany, where they generated £147.8m at the box office last year.

To screen an arthouse film at 100 locations across the country requires 100 separate prints and can cost well in excess of £100,000. Digital projection would drastically reduce the expense, but only five British cinemas (four in London and one in Manchester) have the technology. There are only 113 cinemas in the world with digital projection.

As part of the programme to increase interest in British-made and foreign-language films, the UK Film Council wants to build a network of such cinemas across Britain.

The spokesman said: "It's a brave move forward but it's essential. We've got to move with the times and cinemas have not done that. The processes by which films are shown have hardly moved for 90 years except the introduction of stereo. Digital projection would be a revolution."

He said that digital projection was of superior quality and that, in spite of the fondness among movie buffs for celluloid, younger audiences had grown up with DVD.

The top 20 foreign-language films last year drew a total audience of 11.4 million, slightly less than Bend It Like Beckham. Hindi films are the most popular foreign-language films in the UK, with 11 of the top 20 non-English movies.

But although Bollywood accounted for 15 per cent of releases, they yielded only 1 per cent of box office revenue, partly because only 0.5 per cent of screens are dedicated to Asian films. Such cinema is rarely seen at the mostly American-owned multiplexes, which support their own product and have a commercial disincentive to take risks.

The UK Film Council said it would be providing funding to distributors to help more British and foreign-language films to be shown, especially outside London.

The spokesman said: "If you live in darkest Somerset you might get to read how good [the Brazilian film] City of God is but you are probably not going to be able to see it."

Arthouse favourites

Y Tu Mama Tambien (Mexico) Part of the Latin vogue kicked off by Amores Perros. Coming of age film meets road movie. Director Alfonso Cuaron made this on returning to Mexico after a stint in Hollywood. A contemporary classic.

Devdas (India) Boldest, biggest and most expensive Hindi film ever made. Based on Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's 1913 novel of the same name. Stars former Miss World Aishwarya Rai. Resplendent dance scenes, sumptuous sets.

Gosford Park Director Robert Altman teams up with Sir Michael Gambon and Dame Maggie Smith to follow the intrigues and involvements of an upper class house party. Classy take on the classic murder mystery.

Talk to Her Pedro Almodovar's follow up to "All About My Mother". Divides into three sections using flashbacks to explore unusual themes. Wider messages of loneliness, loss, friendship and art.

Donnie Darko Baffling and disturbing portrayal of American teenage life a world away from American Pie and Road Trip. Starring off-beat bright-young-thing Jake Gyllenhaal and old hand Drew Barrymore.

Rebecca Armstrong