Leading filmmakers have expressed concern that the UK is facing the loss of its much loved independent movie business.
Over the course of the last two decades, the financing model has become broken, which means that Oscar-winning films such as Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech have become much more difficult to create.
Many British filmmakers believe that the increasing dominance on the US online streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, will continue to drive costs upwards, making many screenplays almost an impossibility to take to the big screen. Homegrown casts and crews are choosing to work on overseas productions rather than the ones nearer home, making the stars that the UK industry once relied on for critical funding unreachable for upcoming roles.
In a bid to boost the UK’s status as a centre for film and television production, Netflix announced last week that it was setting up a permanent production base at Shepperton Studios. Spending more of its $13bn (£10.3bn) annual production budget in the UK.
Co-producer of The Railway Man, the acclaimed war film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, Andy Patterson has predicted a “streamer war” is in the air, which will take its toll on the independent sector.
“There’s going to be a massive war between those platforms over the next two years and then, inevitably, a consolidation. But, if during that time, we lose the independent film business in this country – which is going to happen unless we make big choices – then in three or four years’ time there will just be a few American-dominated platforms that control all creative content.
“We’re all making films and series for the streamers. We’re not for a second saying we don’t love that … It’s an awful lot easier to make movies for Netflix, where they pay for it, than it is to bring 50 different bits of money together to make The Railway Man. But, without some intervention to ensure that the indigenous films still get developed and made, you end up having a new set of studios dominating the world.
“I am passionate about producing, but I am horrified at the way this country develops and treats its producing talent. We’re becoming an industry focused only on servicing the colossal range of inward investment films and TV series attracted by the tax credit, the dollar and working here, or making the very low-budget films from emerging directors, which are really all the British Film Institute (BFI) and BBC Films can afford to do.”
He further expressed that the UK would look back within a few years on how its independent film sector was destroyed, which will deprive audiences of original, unusual and diverse films, which the UK has always excelled within creating.
He is calling for a shake-up of the industry in a world after the Brexit vote, where everything is changing, he explained: “Are we going to let British creators just work for America?”
It would seem tragic for the British film industry to lose something that has always been such a special and much loved element of cinema. Sadly though, Patterson’s concerns are not his alone, as Rebecca O’Brien, producer of Ken Loach films, echoed his upset by stating:
“I’m quite pessimistic for the independent sector at the moment. I certainly see a decline … The success of the inward investment business, which of course the industry is delighted to have, because it keeps strong employment is definitely a problem for the independent sector, who can’t pay so well.
“When you’re crewing a film, it’s really quite difficult to find people … People that we work with might be employed for up to nine months on a studio production and they have to commit to it because independent productions are rare … So it does begin to drill a hole in our ability to keep the sector going.”
Managing director of HanWay Films, whose productions include Ralph Fiennes’s Rudolf Nureyev drama, The White Crow, Gabrielle Stewart, also expressed worry: “It’s a lot tougher right now.”
Tax relief provides about 20% of a UK production budget, if the entire film is made within the UK, but beyond that British producers have traditionally competed for public funds from the BFI and BBC Films.
Paterson said: “£11m for BBC Films and about £15m for the BFI. These are pathetic numbers compared to the billions that Netflix and others spend. We don’t need to spend that level of money to compete because we’re really good at making films … Audiences want films in their cinemas that are not just more of the same.”
A BBC Films spokeswoman acknowledged that its budget was small, but said it was used judiciously, supporting both new and established film-makers.
Deputy chief executive of the BFI, Ben Roberts, said the independent film sector remained buoyant, with plenty of actors wanting to fit those productions into their schedules.
Noting “the incredible energy” of the inward investment sector, he stated: “I’m naturally more optimistic. We see a lot of work coming into us as an open access funder every year. It would be a shame to paint a picture of negativity.”
Time will unfold the full story on the future of independent cinema in the UK. For now, we can remain hopeful that the Streaming War, should it commence, not leave any unresolvable damage for the unique cinema that Britain has always flourished in making.