ONE OF Europe's largest and most successful film production companies is to finance a British film for the first time. The decision is an important vote of confidence in a new generation of young British film-makers trying to revive the fortunes of the otherwise moribund and unprofitable British cinema.
Ciby 2000 is a French production house founded in 1990 by Francis Bouygues, the construction magnate and owner of TF1, the French television channel. Mr Bouygues wanted to put resources into international films that have mass appeal and which are also of good quality.
Mr Bouygues is on a mission: to challenge Hollywood's domination of the cinema, give self-confidence back to the European cinema and to encourage film- makers to produce films that are commercial and popular.
Among films presently financed by Ciby is Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha. Among those already completed are David Lynch's feature-length version of Twin Peaks and Pedro Almodovar's High Heels.
And, as of last month, the previously unknown names of the director Paul Anderson and the producer Jeremy Bolt have joined that prestigious multi-national list.
For three years, they have fought to raise the money to make their film, Shopping. Nobody, least of all the film-makers, dared to hope that Ciby 2000 would be interested in a British film. Particularly a British film that has no proven director, or any star actors.
For years there has been little interest in British cinema. It rarely makes any money or has much international impact. But Shopping is not the kind of British film we have become used to. It is a fast, hard-edged thriller, closer to Francis Ford Coppola's Rumblefish than the costume dramas adapted from E M Forster.
It is the product of a new generation of British film-makers who want to make commercial, contemporary films that can travel abroad. They hope that Ciby 2000's decision to fund the film is a turning point for the British cinema; that it is being taken seriously again.
British cinema survives against the odds. Immediately after the Second World War, there were 30 film studios in Britain, employing more than 7,000 people. Now there are just five which employ fewer than 300. Last year, according to Oliver Groom, head of acquisitions at Cori Films, only 33 British films were made. This year only 21 have been started.
Perhaps worse than the numbers - pitiful in comparison to, say, France where 140 films were produced last year - is the fact that 90 per cent of films seen by British cinema audiences are American.
Nobody disputes that some British films have been successful, but the truth, says Oliver Groom, is that rare successes only highlight the general predicament of film-making in the UK. 'There is no film industry in this country. You'd have thought - just by virtue of the language - that British films would have a better market infiltration than French films, for instance. But they don't'
The result is that nobody wants to invest in British cinema. For many years, British film- makers have responded to the difficulties of working in the UK by leaving, many for Hollywood. But in the last few years, a new mood has developed. Young film directors and producers are beginning to insist that there is no sensible reason why they cannot make films in Britain to compete with some of the most successful American productions.
The problem, they say, is that the British have been making the wrong kind of film. This new generation is not numerous and their experiences are varied. But there are some common characteristics: many come from outside London; most cut their teeth on pop videos, rather than commercials; they are influenced by the cinema rather than the theatre or literature, by Orson Welles rather than Evelyn Waugh; all dislike films set among the aristocracy at the turn of the century.
Some, like the producer Richard Holmes and the director Stefan Schwartz, have defied lack of funds to make commercial films. They have just finished their first feature, Soft Top, Hard Shoulder. They persuaded all those involved, including the pop star Chris Rea, who composed the music, to defer their fees until the film makes a profit.
Their persistence impressed the cast and it has impressed the distributors. The film is to go on major release next January. 'Something we never expected,' according to Mr Holmes, 29, who met Mr Schwartz, also 29, while both were at the University of York studying philosophy and electronic engineering respectively.
The team behind Shopping starts at an advantage: it has money upfront. It is a film, set a few years in the future, about gang wars in a north European city. It is a film about drugs, rootless youth culture, stealing cars. 'This is designed to appeal to an audience that would usually pass over seeing a British film,' Jeremy Bolt said. 'We were brought up with films like Lethal Weapon and Aliens and we like these movies. We're not afraid to say so.'
Mr Bolt, 26, made short films while studying English and philosophy at the University of Bristol. He became a driver for Ken Russell, and later an associate producer, until he was able to produce an American-financed version of Henry James's ghost story The Turn of the Screw, with Patsy Kensit and Julian Sands.
Paul Anderson, 27, comes from Newcastle, and has been a television writer - he wrote several episodes of the ITV series El CID - but his preoccupation was film. He started at 9, making films with a Super-8 camera. He went to the University of Warwick to read film and then took the decision to do an MBA: 'I want to run my own film company and what I could see of the British film industry was that no one treats it like a proper industry.
'We still want to make movies that say something about Britain, but these films have to appeal abroad. I get very angry when I go to Leicester Square and all the movies are American. To find a British film, you have to go to an art cinema in Hampstead. People have started to think that British cinema can't produce anything that's big.'
Many of the new wave film- makers have received encouragement from an unexpected quarter. Shopping is half-funded by Channel 4. But it was not, until recently, viewed as a friend of those agitating for more commercial, self-confident cinema. Before 1990 Channel 4 had a variable record - 'low budget miserabilism', one critic of the films said. But this is fast-changing: new management has been installed in the drama department.
'The problem,' according to Jack Lechner, deputy controller of drama and a former Hollywood script editor, 'is that there was a certain kind of movie which they made which was neither fish or fowl - neither cinema or television. We want to make films that are cinematic and are accessible.'
He recognises a new movement: 'There are a number of very young filmmakers who want to make movies, not television films.' Oliver Groom describes them as being 'less bound up in their own intellect than some British film-makers. The old mentality was to make films that film-makers think the public should see, not what they want to see.'
There is a scene in Shopping in which the main character, Billy, steals a BMW and finds a Dire Straits cassette in the tape machine. He throws it out of the window and puts in his tape of Jesus Jones. 'Billy is modern youth expressing itself,' Oliver Groom said. 'Rejecting what went before. I hope that's what's happening in British film making. But, of course, one swallow does not make a summer.'
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