Big bad Hollywood is always bullying British films out of the cinema - so the script goes. Kevin Maher talks to the distributors
The phenomenal might of the invincible Hollywood Movie Studio is being challenged right here on the shores of Blighty. Apparently, the British Film Industry is booming, yet still those big nasty Hollywood studios are controlling what we see in our cinemas. They flash their dollars and flex their muscles, forcing us to sit through the ugly commercial excesses of The Lost World and Men In Black, while there's a thousand humble Mrs Browns waiting patiently in the wings. They're shunting the cream of British talent off-frame in order to fill "our" screens with their yankee product. It's an outrage!

Now the government is being forced to react. Chris Smith's Creative Industries Task Force is already on the case, while the Government Film Policy Review Group will produce an extensive report on the problem next month. The European Commission has entered the fray, giving the largest US distributor UIP just 10 weeks to reply to a "Statement of Objections" about their gung-ho releasing strategies, or face being outlawed.

Meanwhile, British filmmakers everywhere are complaining that only a miserable 25 per cent of all the new Brit-films made last year were even released. And the Arts Council plans to throw pounds 3m of lottery cash at this same downtrodden distribution sector in the hope that this feeble boost will help in the struggle against the monstrous Americans. A real war is brewing, but by slavishly pointing jealous fingers at the highly successful and efficient Hollywood distribution machine, and by seeing the whole process in terms of "us and them" oppositions, we are missing an opportunity to reveal and deal with the flaws and inadequacies of our own system.

The notion that the five major American Distributors - Fox, Warner, Sony, Buena Vista, and UIP - are part of a vanguard of US cultural imperialism, attempting to flood UK cinemas with year-round blockbusters and trashy romantic comedies, has been a staple bugbear in the industry for years now. From the collapse of the 1960's British New Wave through to the "British Aren't Coming" Chariots of Fire hysteria, this explanation of mass domination and oppression has always seemed a reasonable enough excuse for a lack of local diversity and growth within the industry.

Even in 1994, when Ken Loach's Ladybird Ladybird flopped at the box office despite a distribution deal with UIP, industry watchers murmured furtively about studio apathy, conspiracy, and tokenism. The idea was that UIP only released the film (in an off-hand slapdash manner) to appease European Fair Trade Commissions, while they continued to concentrate on their regular slate of big-budget action fare. UIP's Executive Vice President Brian Reilly disagrees - "With Ladybird Ladybird we gave Ken Loach the widest distribution that any of his pictures ever had in the UK until that stage. We ended up not doing well commercially but we certainly did try. We genuinely thought we could make money from it even though it was a difficult film, but we didn't succeed." Despite the constant griping, the reality is that the bottom line for UIP and for all the others is the bottom line itself. These companies will distribute anything, as long as they think there's money to be made. "It's a cultural thing," says Reilly. "People are saying `Why do we have to watch American films when we'd really like to see our culture mirrored on the big screen', and of course I understand that. But we're not forcing people to go and see our films. If our films don't succeed at the box office the exhibitor will take them off immediately. Their interest, as well as ours, is to make money, and if a picture will make money whatever its origin then we'll take it."

However crass and indiscriminate this policy may seem, it has proven itself utterly effective in a business defined by dollar watching. Yet what has become most telling and most embarrassing for those luminaries of the British film establishment who are calling for a curb on the US monsters is the renewed "triumph" of the "British" film industry. For while most local distributors spent 1997 churning out a numbing series of Trainspotting-wannabee duds like Twin Town, Hard Men, Up On The Roof, Fever Pitch and Shooting Fish, it was again up to the US majors to set the pace, with 20th Century Fox releasing both the year's bravest British movie, Nil By Mouth, and its most successful, The Full Monty. Instead of toppling them from their pedestals, the industry has a lot to learn from the US majors. With reference to The Full Monty, Reilly notes that "taking a small film that has potential really requires an expertise - you start with three or four theatres, you platform it, building it slowly with a teaser campaign. There's a real art to doing that and it's something some companies don't have".

This wholesale veneration of the majors is not to say that local UK product should just sit down and take whatever comes their way - the recent demise of Carlton Distributors, going out with a splat with Up On The Roof, shows just how fragile this area can be. Current Loach screenwriter Paul Laverty (Carla's Song) says: "All we seem to be doing is sniping at the sidelines and calling it free market forces, but if you don't have control or major input into distribution then all this is for nothing. There's great space to broaden the distribution network. The distribution sector clearly needs a healthy revamp, which in this case means an enormous injection of capital and business acumen. But to see the current state of this burgeoning industry as one of crisis due to the presence of major Hollywood players, and to call for limits and restraints on their power, is to wholly underestimate the beneficial effects they have on boosting the entire movie-going climate. They bring you into the cinema to see Men In Black, they encourage you to see The Full Monty, which in turn leads you to see Nil By Mouth.

"We have the expertise," says Reilly, "we have the contacts, we have the people who are good at doing this work. But at the end of the day there's a finite number of pictures you can handle, and I think that the cream rises."