Dozens of British feature films are sitting on shelves gathering dust years after they were made with little hope of ever being shown in cinemas.
Robert Duvall, Jonathan Pryce and the late Ian Bannen are among the high-profile stars with movies that have been left in limbo because their producers have failed to find distributors willing to market them.
The staggering scale of Britain's "phantom film industry" is exposed in new research published in specialist trade journal Screen Finance. Of 103 films made in the UK in 1999, more than half had yet to reach the big screen and 38 were still casting around for distribution deals by 1 May this year, according to the magazine's figures. Twenty-eight of the 90 pictures shot in 1998 were in the same position nearly three years after they went before the cameras.
Completed projects that were still looking for distribution deals ranged from A Shot at Glory, a US-backed comedy about a Scottish football team featuring Robert Duvall and Michael Keaton, to Paradise Grove, a black comedy starring veteran actor Ron Moody.
Others, including Sabotage, a battle of Waterloo spoof with Stephen Fry and David Suchet, and The Ghost of Greville Lodge, starring George Cole and Prunella Scales, have gone straight to video.
Meanwhile, of the handfuls of unreleased films that have managed to secure distributors, a large number is still some way from reaching the big screen. That Girl from Rio, a comedy thriller with Hugh Laurie, and Greenfingers, starring Helen Mirren and Clive Owen, are still awaiting firm release dates.
Another, Strictly Sinatra, produced by DNA, one of three UK-based companies sharing in a £96m National Lottery franchise deal, is now expected to see the light of day in America before it debuts here.
Distributors claim that the mounting backlog of unreleased British films is the result of scores of inferior movies being allowed to flood an already saturated marketplace. They argue that, by introducing lottery funding and new incentives to encourage film production, the Government has made it too easy for people with no obvious talent to make movies.
Rupert Preston of Metrodome, which has distributed films including Human Traffic, said: "The problem with British films is that they're all a bit similar and a bit average and slightly unambitious. The past five years will be looked back at as the golden age for producers in this country, because there's been so much money floating around. This has meant too many average films and poor scripts have been made with all the lottery money."
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Adam Minns, UK film editor for movie industry magazine Screen International, said: "If a film hasn't been picked up after two years in its local market it probably doesn't deserve a theatrical release."
Other industry insiders blame the surfeit of poor quality British movies on recent tax changes brought in by the Government to boost film funding. Under a complex leaseback arrangement introduced by Chancellor Gordon Brown last year, financiers contributing to the cost of movies with budgets of less than £15m can now defer 100 per cent of the tax payable on their investment for the first year of production.
John Drinnan, editor of Screen Finance, said: "There are a lot of investors wanting to take advantage because they get an instant cut in their tax."
Most of the unreleased UK films brought to light in the Screen Finance survey have been funded by private investors. Only a handful received money from the lottery, amounting to less than £5m in total, and all of these are now scheduled for release over the next few months.
News of the backlog comes in the wake of repeated criticisms of the quality and performance of British movies, particularly those funded by the lottery. By February this year, all but one of the 13 films released under a lottery franchise scheme had flopped at the UK box office.
A spokesman for the Film Council, which took over responsibility for lottery film grants from the Arts Council in October, said awards would be offered on a case-by-case basis. "We don't especially want a lot of British films made," he said. "We want fewer films made, but ones that are going to work."
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