British cinema: somewhere between European model and American empire

Article  by  Axel SCOFFIER  •  Published 14.05.2014  •  Updated 29.04.2014
The success of the British production model, which is highly integrated into the Hollywood system, raises questions about the future of the film industry in Europe and the development strategies that are open to it.


The James Bond franchise celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012. The face of James Bond, Daniel Craig, was seen alongside the Queen of England in the opening clip of the Olympic Games, while the film, Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond film, achieved a worldwide box-office success.
The James Bond phenomenon is in a way emblematic of what British cinema has become today: international, financed by American studios, while displaying, despite everything, certain truly British cultural traits. This powerful industry, which leaves little room for economic and cultural diversity of its productions, represents a certain angle of European cinema which should perhaps be put into perspective.

A dynamic and concentrated market

The film market of the United Kingdom is one of the most dynamic markets in Europe: it accounted for 172.5 million ticket sales in 2012 for a population of 62.9 million inhabitants, which comes to an average of 2.7 sales per person per year. In total, 769 cinemas and 3,817 screens are operated by three major companies that run 70% of the country’s screens: the Odeon group (100 cinemas, 850 screens), Cineworld (101 cinemas, 800 screens) and Vue (80 cinemas, 755 screens). Independent cinemas like Curzon (4 cinema theatres in London) exist, but find it hard to stand up to the entertainment offering provided by the multiplexes. They target a niche population who are older and more cultured, open to arthouse films and films in foreign languages. The main independent network, Picturehouse (21 cinemas), was bought out in 2012 by Cineworld with a view to diversifying its offering. The fifty-four independent cinemas that belong to the Europa Cinemas network give a little boost to the distribution of European cinema (53% of the films projected there are European or British). However, of the 647 films that came out in the United Kingdom in 2012, only 25% were British and 35% were in a foreign language (that latter only accounting for 2% of box-office sales, compared with 15% for British cinema). So, American cinema dominates the box-office with over 80% of ticket sales. A European film is on average only distributed in seventeen cinemas, with the exception being The Intouchables, which was the greatest foreign language film success of 2012 (£2 million in box-sales in 150 cinemas).
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The successes of entertainment cinema

In 2012, the twenty top public successes in the United Kingdom were films made by American studios, and include several British co-productions: Skyfall (Sam Mendes), The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan), Prometheus (Ridley Scott)… In Europe and elsewhere, several British films met with public success, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden), Anna Karenina (Joe Wright), The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Lasse Hallström), and even Shame (Steve McQueen)… The distinction between films by American studios and British films is not clear: of the twenty-one top box-office hits in 2012, ten came about as a result of Anglo-American collaboration and thirteen were based on characters and stories created by British writers, which shows the power of British culture and the proximity to American culture. British cinema exports are doing rather well: the romantic comedy genre, embodied by the films by Richard Curtis, is identified and liked throughout the world. It is a form of cinema that is historically, economically and culturally highly integrated into American cinema. British actors often play the star role: it is amusing to note that the popular American icons, Batman, Superman and Spiderman, are played by British actors in their most recent film adaptations!
The weak presence of European cinema in the United Kingdom was commented on by the producer Julien Planté (Minky Productions), former director of the channel, Cinémoi: “as for cinema, the main independent distributors are Artificial Eye and StudioCanal UK. There are fewer arthouse cinemas than in France, and they are mainly located in London. PictureHouse cinemas have a very eclectic programme, and the little chain, Curzon, in London, part of Artificial Eye, is also very open. But apart from that, British multiplexes only show very large European films. Even on VOD platforms like LoveFilm, there are very few European films. On Netflix I only found one film by Almodovar, namely La Piel que Habito!” According to Bertrand Faivre, producer and founder of the English company, The Bureau, the explanation is partly linguistic: “from a British point of view, films in French, Italian or Spanish are language films! There is a real linguistic barrier.”

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Highly international production

The production of British films accounted for £1.075 billion in 2013 for a total of 239 films (an increase compared with £929 million in 2012 with 249 films). 166 of these are domestic films, 36 are co-productions and 37 are films resulting from foreign investment. Outside capital invested in British productions accounts for well over 50% of funding, and in reality these productions are films by Hollywood studios (20 films amounting to £759 million). There are films made in 2013 that are due to come out in 2014 and 2015, such as Guardians of the Galaxy, a new Marvel adaptation by Warner Bros, and Cinderella by Kenneth Branagh with Disney. The majority of these films, however, are deemed to be British (only 7 of the 37 are considered to be foreign) given that they pass the cultural test set up by the BFI (British Film Institute) at the request of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. As for independent British cinema, the majority of films have budgets of under £500,000 (104 films, compared with 62 films above this threshold). These figures put United Kingdom film-makers in pole position in Europe alongside France (279 films) and Germany (154 films). But the system is more competitive and there are bigger differences in budget size between projects than elsewhere in Europe: according to Bertrand Faivre, “the English system allocates a greater level of funding and distribution to international projects. Alfonso Cuaron lives in London, and made Gravity based on the Hollywood film model, while playing the limits of the system”. The main production companies are Working Title (12 films accounting for £250 million in 2012), Scott Free Productions (5 films amounting to £135 million), Press On Features (9 film coming to £12 million) as well as Vertigo Films (7 films with a total investment of £18 million). Several of them work with American studios: Scott Free Productions is the company of the film-maker Ridley Scott (Prometheus). Heyday Films, the company of David Heyman, is behind the Harry Potter series (with Warner Bros) and more recently the production of Gravity (with Universal Studios. These companies also work with competent, modern English studios that are increasingly international (Pinewood, Leavesden, Shepperton etc.). The main distributors are subsidiaries of American studios (20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Lionsgate, UK), as well as Entertainment Film, Momentum Pictures, StudioCanal UK and Artificial Eye. Recently, the French company, StudioCanal, already involved in distribution with Optimum Releasing, has been developing its co-production business in English for an international market (for example in 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a co-production with Working Title).
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Target state support

Since 2011, the entire British audiovisual policy has been run by the British Film Institute, which has taken on the functions of the UK Film Council. Created in 1933 by royal charter, the BFI plays at the same time an industrial, creative and cultural role and provides support for all level of British industry (production, distribution, education, research, conservation etc.). From 2000, aid for British cinema had been run by the UK Film Council, with a budget of around £20 million voted each year. In 2011, the British Film Institute absorbed part of its functions. Its budget is more balanced: it comes for a large part from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which decides the budget each year, as well as from its business activities (projections, bookshop, café), and finally from donations, in particular from the National Lottery (£29 million in 2012). This system nonetheless remains unstable since the budget is subject to the vagaries of political decisions. In 2013, the donation from the state was maintained in January, but was reduced by 15% in June, taking it from £16 million to £13 million … The United Kingdom does, however, offer an international tax credit in the order of 16% to 20% for 80% of expenditure made in Britain. This sum amounted to over £111 million in 2009 for 170 films.
However, despite the success of We need to talk about Kevin, The Iron Lady, The King’s Speech, and The Inbeetweeners, the profitability of British cinema is constantly queried and state support for the industry is called into question. In an article on 3 December 2013, the Guardian reported the figures given by the BFI on the profitability of British films between 2003 and 2010: only 7% of a total of 613 films apparently made any profit! And barely 3% of the films with a budget below £500 K were profitable… These figures give comfort to those who back a reduction in state aid, in particular those in the entourage of the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, who recently declared that he wanted the UK to make “more films like Harry Potter”.
British cinema, which is highly international in nature, adds complexity to the European equation. It is very close to the American market, and is able to produce truly British films (the comedies by Richard Curtis, such as Love Actually and The Boat that Rocked) while attracting Hollywood projects where the entire film is made in the United Kingdom. This is notably the case for the James Bond saga, made by Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and the Harry Potter films, financed by Warner Bros and shot in the Leavesden studios. The originality of the British model lies in its ability to export its films in both cases, whether it is culturally American or British. The English language and the culture of the English-speaking world are key factors, but we also need to take into account the British studios’ logistical offering, which, benefiting from an attractive fiscal policy as well as professional expertise, is more attractive to American film-makers. Some European countries are tempted by this model, and are putting in place fiscal incentives and are supporting modernisation (or creation) of studios: the recent films, Monument Men by George Clooney and The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson were made in Germany, in the Babelsberg studios …

Translated from the French by Peter Moss
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British Film Institute, 2013, Statistical Yearbook.
Financial Times, 2012, Cineworld buy Picturehouse chain.
Axel Scoffier, 2013, Interview with Bertrand Faivre, Producer, The Bureau.
Axel Scoffier, 2013, Interview with Julien Planté, Producer, Minky Production.

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