Box-office Success and Wasted Potential: A critical look at the current state of the UK Film Industr
According to The Guardian the British film industry is “on a roll”, fuelled by “Hollywood studios increasingly choosing to shoot big-budget films in the UK” attracted by the tax-reliefs offered by the Government and access to studios and experienced crews (Sweney, 2017). At first glance this appears good for emerging British talent, after all in 2016 the UK film and television industry contributed “£7.7 billion to the UK economy, 80% more than five years earlier” (ONS Digital, 2017). The fact remains, however, that although lots of money is being funnelled into the UK film industry the vast majority goes straight back out to the Hollywood based companies profiting (Cooper, 2017). The challenges facing young and emerging independent film-makers working in the UK film industry today are ever growing. These challenges are wide reaching and encompass a massive scope. They range from finding funding, working with studios and corporations, competing with other films, choosing the appropriate distribution models and marketing.
Funding for independent film is available, coming from a variety of difference sources, like the BFI, Creative England, the National Lottery, Film 4 and BBC Films. But independent productions are now finding themselves competing with higher budget films from Hollywood studios (Sweney, 2018). Product placement and sponsorship are also areas commonly used to source funding for films in the UK, but UK Law is strict on production placement, only allowing it to appear with “editorial justification” (Jones, 2018). Another key source of funding for mid-to-low-budget feature films in the UK is Creative Europe. Independently produced British films such as Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, Andy Serkis' directorial debut Breath and the wildly successful Paddington movies have all benefited from this source. However, after the Brexit vote in June of 2016 continued access for UK based projects has been thrown into question, and while we remain a a member of the Creative Europe Fund until 2020 under current rules, after that our continued membership has been thrown into question (MacNab, 2016).
Film-makers working in the UK often find themselves subject to a host of restrictions when attempting to make a film. If the film is to benefit from UK funding it must first be granted “British Film” status. The tax reliefs offered by the current UK Government allows productions to access Tax Relief at 25% assuming films pass the BFI “Cultural Test” or qualify as an official co-production (BFI, 2018). The “Cultural Test” only requires a pass mark of 18 out of a total 35 possible points, and gives six points for dialogue recorded in English while only four points for a film being shot in the UK (BFI, 2018). This means that often films that are seemingly not British will be granted “British Film” status, such as Baby Driver, The Martian and Everest, all movies that feature a predominantly American cast and are not based in the UK (Follows, 2017).
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing emerging film-makers today is distribution. Distribution is one of the key sectors of the UK film industry. There are many different avenues by which film-makers may approach the issue of finding distribution for their films, from independent distributors, straight to DVD or blu-ray, online video on demand services such as Vimeo or YouTube or cinema distribution, which is made up of cinema chains, such as Cineworld, Odeon and Vue, and art-house and independent cinemas. Chains will often have bookings departments that focus on blockbuster movies certain to bring in customers. Art-house and independent cinemas are more likely to show independent and low-budget films. They tend to use companies such as City Screen or the ICO when it comes to bookings (Jones, 2012).
A common route to distribution is entering films into film festivals, such as Cannes, London or Sundance, in the hopes that a distributor may see the film and licence the rights (Lights Film School, 2017). Film licences are usually available from the major gateway distributors, the BFI, Filmbankmedia or MPLC. There are several different licensing options, but the most popular are on a title-by-title basis or a general umbrella annual fee (ICO, 2018). However, the festival circuit is very competitive and real success stories are rare, film-makers submitting their films to festivals are competing with hundreds of other film-makers for a very few coveted spots (Paul, 2015).
Before a film can be distributed in the UK it must receive a certification from the BBFC (ICO, 2018). Certification is the rating given to a film and is a deciding factor on who, by law, can buy tickets of copies of the movie. In the UK the BBFC is the board of classification and decide on what ratings films will receive when distributed in cinemas and on home-video formats such as DVDs and blu-rays. However, local authorities and councils do have the power to challenge a BBFC certification in their local area, although this is seldom put into practice (BBFC, 2018). Sometimes films even have their own self-imposed restrictions, such as chasing a specific rating in an effort to reach a certain audience. Budgetary restrictions can mean films are compromised or re-worked, while locations and weather, when shooting, can restrict a film-maker's attempts at making a film, and even run-times.
Since Brexit the drop in pound sterling has meant distribution companies are beginning to struggle, especially in terms of box-office receipts. That, coupled with the hold Hollywood studio movies have over independent productions, means that while the UK box-office continues to grow, it is mainly the UK branches of American Hollywood studios that are benefiting when it comes to distribution (Wiseman, 2017). The increase in streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have also led to independent distributors struggling with cinema releases in an Americanised, blockbuster saturated marketplace (Grove, 2017).
However, distribution methods appear to be changing. Ben Wheatley's 2013 thriller A Field in England employed a distribution strategy that we have been seeing more and more of in recent years. Instead of following the tried and tested method the distributors, Film 4, decided upon a “multi-format” release strategy. It was released across all platforms, online, home-video, broadcast television and cinema, on the same day (O'Neill, 2013). This method of distribution has been heralded as a look into the future of film distribution. It is a response to the increasing popularity of Video-on-demand streaming services, as well as the difficulty independent and low-budget films have in drawing audiences into cinema screenings (Bradshaw, 2013). The strategy was a success for A Field in England, leading to great exposure and larger viewing figures than predicted on a more traditional release (Swartland, 2014). This suggests that independent film is moving away from the more traditional route of distribution to engage with their audiences in more experimental ways.
Many independent film-makers cannot afford the cost of cinema or broadcast television releases, but there is always the option for self-distribution through a variety of different sources. These sources include the aforementioned distribution offices and Amazon Prime (ICO, 2018), as well as services such as Netflix, Shudder and even YouTube. The online marketplace for films has becomes somewhat flooded as of late and, in the advent of digital technologies, it is now easier for film-makers to self-distribute their work via niche marketing campaigns or even placing content directly onto video-on-demand platforms like Vimeo or VHX or simply use third party aggregators like FilmBuff and get films onto more popular services like Netflix or iTunes (Bernstein, 2016).
When it comes to marketing a film there are many key factors that come into play. Whether marketing a studio picture or an independent production, the brand-identity is key in selling to an audience. This will be done in a variety of different ways, the most common being teaser trailers. Often released several months before the movie, a teaser trailer is designed to generate audience buzz (Roos, 2018). There is an entire marketing industry built around selling films in the UK. Often these marketing companies will use statistical analytics to determine where best to push a film and who best to attempt to sell that film to. They take data from the box-office, audiences and focus groups to determine where to sell the film. In 2016 the Hollywood production Warcraft was a bomb at the UK box-office but a success in China, where the marketing company had “homied in” on that potential consumers (Moore, 2016).
Viral marketing plays a big part in the advertising of films in the UK. Marketing companies specifically target consumers based on a wide variety of data (Mottram, 2017). However, for the independent film-maker it is important to have a decent social media presence. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as blogs, have totally altered the way film-maker's can reach potential audience members, and a good online marketing campaign can be key to the success of an independent film in the UK film industry (Grove, 2013).
The UK film industry is at a strange point in time, the continued out-sourcing of blockbuster studios taking advantage of tax incentives is not a secure foundation to build an industry on. Yet, British film-makers and producers are being recognised the world over, including Oscar nominations for films like Dunkirk and Blade Runner 2049 and critical acclaim for films such as Paddington 2 or The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Independent film-makers are also receiving recognition with films such as The Levelling or A Dark Song. But the future is uncertain, with the potential loss of funding from Brexit and the continued reliance on Hollywood studios for backing, it could be soon that emerging film-makers in this country are facing more challenges than simply those listed above.
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