Hollywood must pay to film in Britain

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HOLLYWOOD studios planning to film in Britain will have to pay a special "training tax" to fund the next generation of designers, cameramen, make-up artists and editors.

The Government is introducing the levy to raise millions of pounds and guarantee the long-term future of the British film industry.

Negotiations are under way with the big US film companies, such as 20th Century Fox.

Film-makers including Steven Spielberg, who shot most of the Oscar-nominated Saving Private Ryan in the UK, and Tim Burton, in Britain filming Sleepy Hollow, a Rip Van Winkle adaptation starring Johnny Depp, will pay around half a per cent of their production costs.

"The fact that we have 30 nominations for this week's Oscars shows the extreme depth of talent in Britain," said Steve Norris of the British Film Commission. "If we are going to build a new generation of talent we need to invest in training people now. Studios come here because they are assured of quality technicians and crew."

Britain has won more Oscars for design than any other country. But many of the award-winning technical staff are close to retirement. Forty per cent of the specialist craftsmen who build film sets are over 50, and there are few entrants to the trade because most apprenticeships were stopped in the Seventies.

Film-makers fear so few specialist prop-makers, set designers, wardrobe staff and wig-makers are being trained to support the big-budget films of the future that Britain may not be the favoured location for foreign studios.

Britain also needs to keep up to date with the cutting-edge digital editing and animation techniques developed in the US, such as those recently seen in Antz, the cartoon starring Woody Allen and Sylvester Stallone.

British film crews are heavily unionised and the staff shortage has given them a stranglehold, leading to demands for unusual perks such as a pounds 20 a day "coffee-mug" payment if coffee or snacks run out during long filming sessions.

The proposed levy is designed to give Britain the competitive edge in the multi-billion-pound film industry, but it will not fund acting or directing courses.

The tax will be payable by all film-makers, including those based in the UK. But small companies making films with budgets of less than pounds 600,000 will be exempted. Some US studios are worried they will foot most of the bill - effectively bankrolling the revival of the British film industry - because many British and European productions will be too small to be taxed. They want a guarantee that they will not have to pay more than pounds 50,000 per production.

Industry insiders say that the UK negotiators are likely to agree to this. If film companies see the levy as "punitive", then massive incentives might lure them to Canada, New Zealand or the Republic of Ireland.

They warn that without an immediate injection of cash there will not be enough skilled film personnel to staff the sets of big Hollywood movies.

The tax is central to the Government's strategy for revitalising the British film industry. Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, last year published "A Bigger Picture", his action plan for the industry.

He plans a single organisation, to be called British Film, to promote and oversee the industry. Industry leaders and government officials are in last-minute negotiations with the Hollywood studios about how much can be charged without driving them away.

"It's essential that the industry maintains its reputation for having highly skilled workers if we are going to retain our role in the world market," said Dinah Caine, chief executive of Skillset, the industry body that runs film training. The organisation will administer money from the levy.

More than 300 British prop-makers and technicians worked on Saving Private Ryan. The Star Wars prequel, shot at Leavsden Studios, was designed and staffed almost entirely by Britons.

At tonight's Academy Awards, the British film Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett, has been nominated for best art direction and set direction, and Shakespeare in Love, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, has been nominated for best art direction and set decoration as well as for best picture.

Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love are also competing against one another for best costume design and best make-up.