Our green and profitable land

Where would you go to film the Vietnam War? Why, Beckton of course. Britain is back as a location for blockbusters. And it's good for jobs, too. By Peter Guttridge
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This summer Hollywood comes to Britain again as Madonna finishes Evita, Val Kilmer films the big-screen version of The Saint and Sandra Bullock plays Hemingway's wife in Richard Attenborough's In Love and War. Over the past couple of years, Britain has played host to more major Hollywood film productions than at any time since the heady, tax-incentive days of the Fifties: films such as Judge Dredd, Braveheart, First Knight, Rob Roy, Goldeneye, 101 Dalmatians, Mission: Impossible plus Emma and Portrait of a Lady, US contributions to our thriving heritage industry.

Such productions bring millions of pounds of inward investment into the British economy. The British Film Commission (BFC) reckons that the 16 feature films which began principal photography in Britain in the first three months of the last year are worth pounds 168m to us.

The BFC was set up in 1992 under the aegis of the Department of National Heritage to maximise this inward investment. The BFC thinks it "fundamental" to their goal that the UK has a network of film commissions throughout the country. So from the Highlands of Scotland to southern England, from Liverpool to Bath, Britain now has 20 city and regional film offices - more, if you include the small local initiatives, such as Penwith District Council's own one-stop service.

These film commissions, funded largely by local authorities as part of an area's economic development or tourism strategies (several get European regeneration funding, too), are there to provide facilities and locations for productions. The BFC chief executive Andrew Patrick says: "Our ultimate goal is to ensure that any production from anywhere in the world that could be made in the UK is made in the UK."

But the film commissions have their work cut out, given their limited funds and powers compared with the hundreds of other film commissions around the world. The Canadian Film Commission, for example, has production funds available to stimulate film-making and can offer a range of tax concessions. (To its credit, the Central England Film Commission has a production fund aimed at first-time filmmakers, but the money available is only about pounds 50,000).

Although the US has no national film commission, the plethora of local commissions - 45 in Florida alone - can offer concessions on local and state taxes and other deals attractive to film production companies. Only the Isle of Man film commission, utilising the island's independent status, can offer anything remotely similar. There the Department of Industry has established a scheme to provide transferable tax credits to investors in approved film productions. Terence Ryan's The Brylcreem Boys and Gary Sinyor's Stiff Upper Lip are the first two films to take advantage of this.

The other problem for the various British commissions is that not only are they competing with other countries, they are also competing with each other. And the rewards are high. Local economies benefit enormously from film production. A major production will typically spend pounds 65,000 a day on local employment and services. (A TV production can spend pounds 50,000 a day.) Film commissions estimate that for every pound spent on production, pounds 2.50 goes into the local economy. First Knight filmed for only 10 days in Gwynned but "prepped" for 31/2 months and left pounds 2.5m in the local economy. (And Dolgellau shoppers could also thrill to the sight of Richard Gere buying clothes in a local shop.)

There are employment possibilities too. For Braveheart, the Fort William Job Centre in the summer of 1994 was asked to find 200 workers including joiners, labourers, film extras and security staff. One estimate suggests that for every person directly employed on a film production, a further 1.7 jobs are created in the local economy.

And then there's the tourism. A film on the big screen may come and go, but where it was filmed lives on forever. The village in Ireland where John Wayne's The Quiet Man was made in the 1950s still attracts tourists with its annual Quiet Man festival. In the US no location is too humble to attract movie devotees. The cornfield featured in Kevin Costner's Field of Dreams - 25 miles from the nearest city and four miles up a gravel road - has attracted over 60,000 visitors since 1989.

UK tourist authorities here have already caught on. There are a number of movie trail maps and some long-established trails - from Morse trails in Oxfordshire to Howard's Way on the south coast.

The film commissions all have the same target market. Paul Wingard, formerly film commissioner in Liverpool, the country's first commission, and now running the Northern commission says: "Everyone concentrates on the west coast of America, although we are also starting in the Far East." Half- heartedly, he insists: "There is some competition with other commissions but we work with them more."

Each film commission has a database of possible locations on computer - Northern has 20,000 - and each produces a brochure indicating the range of locations and boasting about the productions that have been made in its area. The English ones they seem to merge - at any given moment, someone, somewhere is filming Jane Austen, while Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Madness of King George seem to have been filmed everywhere in England.

Selling film locations is a marketer's nightmare since no one can predict what a production might want. Every commission therefore covers itself by stressing it has hills and valleys, rivers and mountains, medieval, Georgian, modern and postmodern. But it isn't always the pretty pictures film productions want. As Sir Sydney Samuelson, head of the BFC, put it when the South West Film Commission was launched last year: "It has everything a film director could wish for: beautiful scenery, charming villages and wonderful light. But there's plenty of grot too."

Some locations do well doubling as other places. Back in the Fifties, Charlton Heston as El Cid did his famous horseback ride along the beach beneath the walls of the besieged Valencia not in Spain but on Bamburgh Sands in Northumbria. Dunrobin Castle in Scotland took the place of a French chateau in the most recent Three Musketeers. Liverpool has stood in for Poland, Italy, London (frequently) and even the Utah Salt Plains for a car commercial. The CBS mini-series Buffalo Girls had Gloucester docks standing in for New York City Harbour and Bristol and Bath streets for London ones. Stanley Kubrick is notorious for recreating the Vietnam War at Beckton Gas Works in Full Metal Jacket.

You can safely assume that film commissions get miffed when such doubling means they lose the business from their own area, especially when they might expect a literary connection to bear fruit as it has for the South- west and Jane Austen. Dorset hasn't done as well out of Thomas Hardy as you might imagine. Polanski's Tess was famously filmed entirely in France while the recent Jude used locations in Northumbria. And the Morse Trail won't include his flat - which is in a quiet road in Ealing.

Assessing the success of the film commissions is difficult. As Andrew Patrick points out: "Just how tangible and quantifiable the BFC's achievements are is difficult to prove because there is always the possibility that a production might well have been shot in the UK anyway. This highlights the perennial problem in trying to quantify accurately the 'added value' which the BFC brings to the table."

A number of film commissions are still finding their feet. Scotland spent three years marketing itself at industry events before, in the summer of 1994, films and TV productions spent pounds 20m there on accommodation and services alone.

It looks as if it's worth taking the time to get it right. The global "audiovisual" market (which includes television, cable, satellite and so on) already generates annual revenues of more than $200bn and is growing by 14 per cent a year. Analysts London Economic reckon the number of feature films made in Europe will increase by 400 per cent in the next 15 years. The Producers' Association, PACT, estimates that the total value of the audiovisual market in the European Union will have grown from pounds 30bn to pounds 80bn by the year 2010.

To get in on this action, the BFC has a clear priority. Samuelson says: "Our job is to target executives who may be considering mounting productions somewhere in Europe to get the word 'Europe' crossed out and 'United Kingdom' written in."