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London makes a pitch for US movies

THEY CAME to conquer Hollywood, not in an official limousine but in a slick sports vehicle. Their briefcases did not contain piles of Whitehall stationery, just a stack of interactive digital video discs and players. There were a few suits around, but the emphasis was definitely Paul Smith, not Savile Row.

This was a British government delegation the big movie studios had never seen before. Janet Anderson, the Minister for Film, Broadcasting and Tourism, and her colleagues from the Foreign Office, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury, who did the rounds of the studio heads this week, were not coming to preach about the allure of English country houses for location shooting. They were out to prove that London was second only to southern California as a centre of film-making excellence. "This government is a great encourager of the creative industries," Ms Anderson boasted. "We've always had the skills, but now people can be aware of everything we have to offer. For the first time ever we have these things in one organisation."

Clearly enjoying herself in the November sunshine, Ms Anderson laid out her wares to the industry players: the Treasury's tax benefit programme; the British Film Commission's services in facilitating everything from location permits to work visas; the Los Angeles-based British Film Office, which acts as a local liaison for production companies; and the newly formed British Film Council, which will coordinate film policy and help finance British film-makers.

It certainly helped that her visit coincided with the US release of two high-profile films made in Britain, the new James Bond installment, The World Is Not Enough, and Tim Burton's ghost story, Sleepy Hollow.

The DVD was a slickly edited roll-call of film-making highlights - including last year's Oscar winners Shakespeare in Love, Saving Private Ryan and Elizabeth, all of them made in Britain - interspersed with more than 100 testimonials about the joys of working in Britain from both Brits (Kenneth Branagh and Anthony Minghella) and non-Brits (Jon Landau and George Lucas). Curiously Lucas, who made all four Star Wars films in Britain, was one of the most effusive interviewees even though he has decided to take the next two episodes of his space opera to Australia - an inconvenient fact that was cause for some embarrassment.

Steve Norris, the British Film Commissioner, described it as "a very surprising move" and said he had not given up hope that Lucas might change his mind. He and other officials admitted that the strength of the pound was a problem for London as it competes with both Sydney and Vancouver for Hollywood productions. But he argued that Britain had strengths the other centres did not: notably, its technical excellence and ability to coordinate the film-making process.

Asked whether he thought Australia and Canada risked taking business away from Britain, a defiant Alan Parker responded: "Let `em try, darling, let `em try."

It is certainly true that the British film presence in Los Angeles has changed beyond all recognition in recent years. The residence of the British Consul-General, traditionally more used to hosting defence contractors, is now regularly filled with major players from the film world. According to Mr Norris, Hollywood investment in Britain has increased sevenfold over the past seven years, from pounds 58m in 1992 to a projected pounds 400m this year.