Media: Land of the low budgets: Could Britain make a Jurassic Park - and would we market it? Michael Durham reports

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The Independent Online
STEVEN Spielberg's Jurassic Park, which opens on Friday, is a marketing executive's dream come true . . . but the movie's success is not a foregone conclusion. It has cost more to promote than to make: dollars 68m as opposed to dollars 60m.

In October, several promising British features will open, including the film of Ian McEwan's novel The Cement Garden. This movie cost pounds 1m to pounds 2m to make. The promotional budget is expected to be about pounds 60,000, including pounds 20,000 for prints. Compare and contrast.

Are British film distributors and their agents undermining British movies by skimping on promotion? Some film makers think so. Some British films - notably Neil Jordan's Oscar- winner, The Crying Game - have done better at the box office in the United States than in the home market.

David Puttnam, head of Enigma Films, is among the film producers who are critical of British distributors. 'Yes, there is a problem,' he says. 'You can always buy initial success for a movie. The question is, how long will it run? It is certainly the case that some British films have not been properly marketed.'

Several linked factors dominate the thinking of film industry executives when they turn their minds to the release of a new movie. One is how many prints will be made for distribution to cinema chains. (The Cement Garden will get 25). Another is the promotional budget for posters, newspaper advertisements, television commercials and trailers.

This adds up to a typical initial prints and advertising budget of pounds 50,000 to pounds 100,000 for a new British film. It could be a great deal more if the film shows it has life in it. But money may not be the only answer. Could British films be more effectively marketed?

Some distributors stand accused of failing to spot the potential of a film, missing the most obvious selling point for the home market or promoting it for entirely the wrong reasons. The Crying Game, which was a runaway success in America and won two Oscars, is believed to have foundered in Britain on both scores - lack of money and poorly organised promotion.

Palace Pictures, which made the film, ran into financial difficulties before the launch. 'The problem is what to do with a film which has intrinsic qualities, but where the distributors don't have the money to buy success,' Puttnam said. 'That is why The Crying Game got into trouble . . . There was confusion over what the film was about. Critical reaction in Britain was mixed to poor. Palace had problems and there was no money to push it with the critics. As a result it fell by the wayside.

'There have been other examples. Hear My Song (Film Four International's film about Josef Locke, the Irish tenor) could have made pounds 5m in the UK. The trouble was it was handled by a small distributor who didn't have the money, didn't make enough prints and never realised the potential the film would have for the tabloid press. It was a great film but it was all over in three weeks.'

The Crying Game is the story of an IRA terrorist, ordered to murder a British soldier, who ends up having a romance with the dead soldier's girlfriend. But, in the film's key theatrical coup, the stunningly attractive woman in question turns out to be a man.

In Britain the film was promoted as a taut terrorist thriller rather than as a quixotic love story and exploration of sexual identity. But in the age of IRA bombs in London, no film portraying an Irish Republican terrorist could hope to succeed. In the United States the film was sold as a bizarre love story, did extremely well and grossed dollars 50m.

Tony Kirkhope, marketing director of the distributor Metro Tartan, which is to release The Cement Garden in October, says: 'Of course there is a relationship between the amount of money you spend promoting a film and the eventual box office return. Basically, if you spend pounds 60,000 in prints and advertising you have to count on a return of pounds 240,000 to cover your costs and make a profit. The idea is to spend the right amount to secure your return. Underpromotion of British films is baloney. Distributors do not short change the film makers.'

'I honestly believe that if British producers make films that people actually want to see, they will turn out to watch them,' said Martin Myers, marketing director of First Independent, which is distributing two promising British films this autumn, Mike Leigh's Naked and Ken Loach's The Raining Stones.

'If a film is successful, it is because it's a great movie. If it's not successful, we get the blame.'

When all is said and done, can any low-budget British movie hope to compete with the much-hyped, massively merchandised Jurassic Park?

'Jurassic Park is not a movie, it's an event,' said Puttnam with, perhaps, a twinge of envy. 'There's no way it is not going to open very big indeed.'

(Photograph omitted)