Magic! British cinema flies to record takings

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The Independent Culture

The magic of Harry Potter has rubbed off on the UK box office, which has enjoyed its highest ticket sales in 20 years thanks to the celluloid adventures of the young wizard.

More people visited cinema's in Britain and Ireland last weekend than have done since records began in the mid-1980s. Even more remarkably, four out of the five top films that people were flocking to see have strong British links.

Bucking the worldwide trend towards a decline in cinema sales, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 3.8 million people went to see a movie on the big screen, according to the Film Distributors' Association.

The surge was largely accounted for by Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth in the series of movie adaptations of J K Rowling's best-selling books about the boy wizard. The latest instalment, starring Daniel Radcliffe, was directed by Michael Newell, who was behind Four Weddings and a Funeral.

But a number of other homegrown hits also contributed to a bumper weekend for British cinemas. The Constant Gardener, an adaptation of John Le Carré's thriller about the questionable practices of a pharmaceutical company in Kenya, starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, sold 150,000 tickets.

Nanny McPhee, written by and starring Emma Thompson, was watched by 127,500 people, while the British feature-length animation Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit, sold 100,000 tickets at the box office.

"It was a really unprecedented weekend for homegrown cinema," said the FDA's chief executive, Mark Batey. "As well as Harry Potter having a real crackerjack weekend, The Constant Gardener, Nanny McPhee and Wallace and Gromit are still doing really well. Harry Potter accounted for just over three-quarters of the business that weekend, but the other quarter is still highly significant. It's that mix and selection of films which is the whole story.

"We've hit a real purple patch [for British film]. It's very hard to be scientific. Inevitably, the product will ebb and flow. It's not like soap powder. Every movie is different and the range of releases changes every week. One of the reasons we're doing relatively better than a lot of other countries is that there has been this strain of British product right through the year, from Vera Drake and Closer to Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

The death knell was sounded for British cinema earlier this year when there was a conspicuous lack of UK movies at the Cannes film festival. But the latest figures indicate that the obituaries were premature. Wallace and Gromit, made by the UK-based Aardman Animations, has been watched by more than six million people over the past six weeks, while the recent film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley has been seen by three million.

A spokesperson for the UK Film Council said: "Film audiences in this country love well-told and well-crafted British films and there are some fantastic films currently on offer. British films have accounted for a third of ticket sales at UK cinemas so far this year, compared with 23 per cent over the same period last year. This success demonstrates the great story-telling and film-making talent that we have in the UK."

Charlotte Jones, an analyst at Screen Digest, said that an additional reason for the success of Harry Potter at the weekend was the wide release of the film, which was shown in a total of 535 cinemas and 1,500 screens throughout the United Kingdom.

Ian Freer: 'We can take pride from our films'

With Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice and The Constant Gardener we seem to be in the midst of a rich vein of British films which do the things we do well, such as classy entertainment. But they also do the thing we haven't done well in the past - putting bums on seats.

We also have some great British actors in Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz and Keira Knightley.

This time of the year is when you tend to get more intelligent films, such as The Constant Gardener, which maybe play better with British audiences.

Harry Potter in particular is a British institution. People care about the characters. It's not a fly-by-night thing. It would benefit them greatly if they stayed with those three kids. When people think of Harry Potter, they can only see Daniel Radcliffe.

It's been a slow process to get to this point though. Four Weddings and a Funeral and Trainspotting were 10 years ago, it's taken us that long to figure out how to make popular entertainment.

These films appeal to British people and reflect Britain, but they are not parochial. Before, we were making films about Britain that only really appealed to British people. They've got really good at developing international projects.

People like it when British films are doing well. They are happy to support something British.

Ian Freer, assistant editor, Empire magazine

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