2016 was a great year for British cinema. This is one message from the British Film Institute, the main promotional body for UK film. Pointing to a record-breaking expenditure of £1.6bn on film production in Britain, and box-office figures showing a 27.5% domestic share for ‘UK-made films’, the BFI’s recent report took pains to emphasize the continuing health of the industry.
Beyond the headline, the picture is complex. These ‘UK-made films’ are predominantly movies made in the UK with British crews and creative input, financed mainly by Hollywood conglomerates: Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them being the main examples. The levels of investment relate, similarly, to franchise films in production last year, such as the eighth Star Wars instalment, shot in London.
Ever since the 1970s, in fact, when the first Star Wars film was shot at Elstree, but when the market for home-grown films declined, the robustness of the British film industry has often been measured by its ability to draw ‘inward investment’ from overseas producers, and not just its intermittent production of award-winning films like Chariots of Fire, The English Patient or The King’s Speech – all of which, we should add, benefited from wider international financing. ‘British’ cinema is mostly transnational cinema: movies like Bridget Jones’s Baby, for example, a prominent British film on 2016 list, is made by Working Title, the UK company whose output is largely synonymous with British cinema overseas – Love Actually, Atonement, Hot Fuzz – but which is supported by its Hollywood parent and distributor, Universal.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Making and marketing films is expensive: usually, only significant levels of investment guarantee wide distribution, and the potential for critical and economic returns. The British Film Commission, the agency that supports filmmaking initiatives in the UK, incentivises inward investment in British production through tax-breaks. The UK Film Council, a New Labour initiative, took a mostly similar line until being dissolved by the coalition government in 2011; yet it remains a key policy of the BFI’s ‘Wide Angle’ international strategy.
Brexit has given new urgency to this question of film production. As discussed at this year’s Cannes festival, UK policy-makers need to face up to the withdrawal from EU film-funding schemes such as MEDIA. The message of the BFI report from numerous sources is in turn telling: the record-breaking statistics, they suggest, ‘demonstrate that the UK’s world-leading film sector continues to thrive and that Britain remains open for business’; ‘UK film is open for business’; ‘[we must] ensure the UK remains a competitive destination… for international production’.
Playing down the impact of Brexit, the language here seems directed more across the Atlantic than the Channel, and perhaps worryingly dependent on the continued support of jumpy Hollywood investors in a precarious production climate. Beyond the important economic questions, though, a broader cultural conversation centres on what this ‘business’ might mean for an idea of British cinema. Some of the opinion stateside just days after Brexit, alongside more optimistic UK voices, highlighted the enticements of a weak-currency and EU-deregulated Britain for US investment, as well as alternative channels of investment such as Netflix. Exactly how this helps British filmmakers, or potential films about British life, is not entirely clear, and may imply that UK film will increasingly be defined by its US-backed players.
We should avoid though creating a binary between ‘real’ British films and Hollywood movies ‘Made in Britain’. Franchise movies like Fantastic Beasts are global exports of a recognised cultural character and value. Local revisionings of genre cinema, meanwhile – The World’s End, Attack the Block, Sightseers – offer critical or political viewpoints though globally translatable forms. In light of Brexit, such films may assume a renewed cultural function. This was indicated by the reception at home and abroad of 2014’s Paddington, co-produced like the latter two films by StudioCanal (a UK company owned by the French conglomerate Vivendi): a wonderful example of how a British popular film could at once encompass its literary traditions and political topicality. I eagerly await its 2017 sequel.
Nor should we assume that the global currency in so-called British ‘heritage’ cinema, which trades in revisiting archetypal emblems of the national past, simply means selling a touristic fantasy to international audiences. Exactly why British film-making seems especially preoccupied with a return to the second world war – this year alone, following Their Finest’s light-hearted take on wartime media, we have two (more!) films about Churchill, the Joe Wright-Gary Oldman team-up Darkest Hour being the more promising – probably tells us a lot about Britain’s national incapacity to leave its (finest hour of) history behind. But the lavish scale and backward-looking nature of such films can also embrace a reappraisal of its national subject. This month, director Christopher Nolan makes a homecoming of sorts with his IMAX-enabled vision of Dunkirk. Taking a leaf from Wright’s Atonement, which offered a revisionist perspective on the allied evacuation from France, Nolan’s film is the latest to deal with this often mythologised moment of British history. Having also just watched Peter Morgan’s sublime The Crown, produced for Netflix, my appetite is whetted for further big- (and smaller-) screen explorations of the national past that confront all its failings, fables, and cruelty. Fantastic beasts, indeed.