Good news for the Patient, but film industry remains in casualty

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The Independent Online
Rob Brown

Media Editor

With The English Patient pulling off an unprecedented Oscar triumph, yesterday should have been a day of wild celebration for everyone associated with movie-making on this sceptred isle, but the director of the British Film Institute, Wilf Stevenson, had no difficulty containing himself.

Naturally, Mr Stevenson warmly welcomes the fact that a British film has scooped nine Academy Awards, but he remains disturbed by the fact that Britain is making more and more movies which no one in this country will ever see.

"It's a celluloid mountain!" he declared gloomily, pointing to statistic which shows that half the films made in the UK do not receive any sort of domestic cinema release, being cast aside by the American giants which dominate distribution in Britain.

"Its ridiculous and obviously a market failure to have great films which no one sees," sighs Mr Stevenson. who warns that a glut in British films is now a real danger.

Aided by the National Lottery, British film-makers are enjoying something of a boom: investment in UK productions has increased by 60 per cent from pounds 394m in 1995 to pounds 655m in 1996.

Last year there were 121 features made by British companies or by foreign companies using UK crews, facilities and locations, a sharp increase on the 73 movies made here in 1995.

But the picture becomes a lot bleaker when we zoom in and look at the proportion of these films which actually gets released. In 1994 - the last year for which figures are available - less than one third of British films (31 per cent) were put on wide release; that is, shown on 30 or more screens throughout the country.

Another 22 per cent had only limited release, which means they were shown only in art-house cinemas or on a limited basis in the West End of London. Even more disturbing, almost half (46.4 per cent) were unreleased within a year of completion.

Wilf Stevenson explained: "People tend to talk about the film industry as a production industry. It is a distribution industry and always has been. But in Britain we don't have a distribution industry. What we have is a cottage industry struggling to turn itself somehow into a world force again."

The only sign of hope on the horizon is that a number of consortia bidding for the lottery franchises, designed to create mini studios in this country, are proposing to combine production and distribution. The franchises are due to be awarded in mid-May.

Whatever the outcome, the British Film Institute (BFI) must recognise, in the words of its director, that "concentration on film production to the exclusion of distribution is foolhardy".

If they want their films to get wider distribution, British film-makers will also have to give them wider appeal.

The BFI has frequently drawn attention to the growing tendency for British films to be aimed at an older, minority audience.

This contrasts markedly with the vast bulk of Hollywood product, which is pitched at teenagers and young adults, who are the most frequent cinema goers.

The only British film to have seriously bucked this trend was Four Weddings and a Funeral, which topped the British box office in 1994, grossing a whopping pounds 27m.

Indeed, this was one of just two UK films to recoup its production costs entirely from UK box-office sales. It earned 13 times what it cost to make in this country alone. And it took $53m (pounds 33m) in the US, where the people who dominate world cinema were all too delighted to distribute it.