Dear Peers and Peeresses,
I am a screenwriter, film producer and film director. My best known films are: George Orwell’s 1984 - starring Richard Burton and John Hurt; White Mischief - starring Charles Dance and Greta Scacchi, and Mars Attacks! - starring Jack Nicholson, Natalie Portman and Pierce Brosnan.
I, like most people in the profession, have been profoundly depressed about the British Film Industry for many decades.
As your Lordships are certainly aware, there used to be a thing called “British Cinema.” We used to have our own Cinema - like the Germans, French, Spanish, Italians, Hungarians, Dutch and Scandinavians still do. This was of importance not only to the British economy but also - more profoundly - to our culture and our sense of who we are.
We had our own producers, directors and stars. Stars like: Margaret Rutherford, Joyce Grenfell, Bernard Miles, Wendy Hiller, Paul Scofield, Harry Andrews, Peter Ustinov, Eric Porter, Honor Blackman, Fenella Fielding, Shirley-Anne Field, Leslie Phillips, Joan Sims, Dirk Bogarde, Cyril Cusack, Trevor Howard, Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee, Dora Bryan, Jack Hawkins, Lionel Jeffries, Donald Pleasance, Leo McKern, Diana Dors, Terry Thomas, Christopher Lee, Moira Redmond, Maxine Audley, Googie Withers, Hazel Court, Valerie Hobson, Hermione Baddeley, Joan Greenwood, Moira Lister, John Mills, Noel Coward, Dennis Price, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Jack Warner, Frankie Howerd, Michael Caine, and many more.
Basil Deardon, a British film director, directed 44 British movies. Charles Crichton directed 35 British movies.
The English actor John Le Mesurier starred in over 100 British films.
Throughout history there have always been one or two major media through which the nation spoke to itself. In the eighteenth century, poetry and theatre were the dominant media. In the nineteenth century they were theatre and novels. For the past century, the dominant medium has been cinema. Britain is the only country in Europe that does not produce its own cinema.
At present, 95% of the theatrical motion picture market is controlled by the Hollywood cartel - the remainder by Pathé (French) and a few other foreign studios.
Britain does not have a film studio.
Confusion about this sometimes arises because production houses such as Pinewood and Shepperton are referred to as ‘studios.’ These are not film studios; they are film production studios.
At present, the UK Film Council’s main job is to subsidise Hollywood movies with British taxpayer’s money.
If you are, say, Warner Bros. (a major Hollywood movie studio) and you have a movie project the production of which is not assigned, you will be offered a grant (essentially a bribe) of several million dollars to make the film at a British production house.
Current regulations attach conditions to this grant. These conditions include the guarantee of a minimum number of British residents to be employed in the making of the film.
Depending on the exchange rate, the size of the grant, production house rental costs, and the availability of other production facilities in the US and elsewhere, the Warner Bros. executives will decide whether or not to make their movie in Britain.
Certain people, for whom it is advantageous, flagrantly deceive the British public by describing these American movies as ‘British’. I once saw Tony Blair, in the House of Commons, extol the successes of his policies in supporting the British Film Industry, by quoting Harry Potter as a British film.
Harry Potter is not a British film. (If only it was!) The Harry Potter films are owned, throughout the world in perpetuity, by a major Hollywood studio.The success of the Harry Potter series is a disaster for Britain. So far, they have earned over two billion dollars in revenues for Warner Bros.
The author of the books, J.K. Rowling, did not wish to sell the film rights to a foreign company but had no choice because there are no British film studios.
If we still had the Rank Organisation or British Lion or ABPC, one of them could have made the Harry Potter films, and the vast revenues generated by them could have benefited Britain and British Cinema.
Another recent disaster for Britain - on a much smaller scale but no less painful because of it - is Slumdog Millionaire, a film originated by a department of Channel 4 Television.
This film, like other successful films produced by Channel 4 in the past, is a failure for the people who made it because they have no choice but to give up their rights to a foreign studio.
The considerable income that will be generated by Slumdog Millionaire - an entirely British enterprise - will go into the coffers of the French movie studio Pathé and the US studio Twentieth Century Fox.
Why don’t we have even one film studio? Every other developed nation has them. Why not us? (Finland has three!)
It may interest The House to know that the first story-based motion picture ever made and shown to a paying public was by an Englishman. His name was William Friese-Green and this first-ever commercial movie was shown in 1890 in London's Hyde Park as a fairground attraction. (This was a few years before the Lumiere Brothers who are sometimes, mistakenly, cited as the inventors of cinema.) I’m sure your Lordships will agree that it is especially humiliating that we, who invented the movies, are the only developed nation in the world to not have its own movie business.
How did this happen?
Every European country protects its Cinema on cultural grounds. In France, twelve percent of all the films shown in French cinemas must be, by statute, French. (This small market-share supports over 100 new French film releases each year).
The Spanish government recently increased its protected share of the market to 30%. This means 30% of all the films shown in Spain must, by law, be Spanish films. Germany protects its cinema by ring-fencing 10% of its market for German films.
We in Britain do not protect British films, which is why there are no British film studios. Protections were removed from British films in 1969. In 1970 and 1971, the Rank Organisation and British Lion (Britain’s two major film studios) went bust.
Since 1971 Britain has had no Cinema of its own.
In 1983 I wrote the shooting script for George Orwell’s 1984. This was a project financed by Sir Richard Branson through a company called Virgin Films. Sir Richard Branson’s aspiration was to revive British Cinema by establishing a British film studio. This, if it had been successful, would have been the first British movie studio to exist since 1971.
George Orwell's 1984 cost £6 million to make. This was a big budget in 1983. The only British films being made at that time were television films made by Channel 4 whose budgets were then about £200,000 per film.
George Orwell's 1984 was a British film by a famous British author, George Orwell, adapted by British screenwriters, produced and directed by British citizens, shot, edited, designed and so forth by British people, with a cast of British actors.
When the film was finished, we could only release it in one cinema in Britain. The American studios (who control our cinema chains) were determined not to allow Sir Richard’s enterprise to succeed.
Norman St. John Stevas, Arts Minister under Margaret Thatcher - urged on by the British film community including people such as Sean Connery, Sir Michael Caine and Sir Richard Attenborough - lobbied the Prime Minister to restore protections to British films. This was denied on the grounds that to do so would be inimical to Free Trade.
This is nonsense because for Free Trade to mean free trade it must be reciprocal. The US domestic film market is 100% protected. No non-American movies can be released in America to the general public unless they are American “pick-ups” - that is, films like Slumdog Millionaire that are picked up cheap from foreign producers by Hollywood studios.
Hollywood can set the purchase price because the Hollywood cartel controls the market.
There is a great deal of rhetoric about Free Trade from Washington. If, however, you look at the reality on the ground, you will find that America is and always has been, protectionist in its trade policies. This applies to movies as much as it applies to US steel or US agriculture. (For example: despite NAFTA, Washington subsidises tomatoes grown in Florida so they will be cheaper to buy than Canadian tomatoes).
It is not reasonable to deny a modicum of protection for British Cinema on the grounds that this would violate Free Trade agreements if those Free Trade agreements give full access to American companies in British markets but no access to British companies in American markets.
I can give examples of attempts, over the years, by European filmmakers to release their films in America and the obstructions they encountered. But in the interests of keeping this letter short, I suggest - if you need confirmation - you speak to British film producers. No British or European film producer would dream of trying to release a film in the US. It simply can’t be done.
The Americans, however, are free to release as many films as they want in our country.
Someone once said: "If you want to conquer a country, first destroy its poetry." And Cinema is the poetry of our times.
But the key point is this: if you cannot release films in your own country, you cannot make any money which means you cannot have a film industry.
The statutory 30% protection of the film market in Spain has resulted, as you would expect, in a boom in Spanish Cinema. The Hollywood studios, far from making good on their threats, are actually seeking to do co-productions with the new Spanish film studios. The recent Woody Allen movie Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona is a case in point.
If we protected our cinema by only 10%, we would not upset the Americans very much. After all, they would still control 85% of our domestic market. However, we would revive British Cinema.
It’s absurd that a tiny country like Denmark, with a population of 5 million, can release 25 Danish films a year while we, in the 60 million plus UK, can release - in small theatres, with short runs - only half a dozen British films.
I beg your Lordships to advocate measures to protect British Cinema by reserving a minimum of 10% of the theatrical market for indigenous British pictures. This can be done with the stroke of a pen. It would be of incalculable value to our culture, our British identity and our morale. It could also be lucrative - especially if we produced something like the Harry Potter films.
The Hollywood movie industry is the second largest earner of foreign currency in the US. We, too, could earn foreign currency from British films. We have an advantage because our language - English - is understood pretty well throughout all the 65 major film markets in the world.
We are also renowned for our talent in acting, writing, cinematography, editing and design.
Instead of the wealth accruing from our talents and effort going to America (and some to France), we could divert 10% of this wealth back to our own country - and use that to build a world-class film industry.
It’s well known that the most popular further education course in Britain is media studies. We are churning out thousands of aspirant filmmakers each year - and have been for the past twenty years. At present, these media graduates must go to Los Angeles if they want to make films. This is not a happy situation.
In conclusion I would like to suggest that, once the protections are in place, some of the grant-aid currently given to Hollywood movie studios by the UK Film Council be diverted to support British films.
Thank you for your kind attention.