David Cameron’s comments about the UK film industry have attracted a good deal of controversy. His view is that the film industry’s primary concern should be investing in films which are likely to be “mainstream and commercially promising”.
This is part of a wider range of government statements on the subject of British film, most of which will be formally set out in Lord Smith’s review next week. The emphasis is largely on the notion of making British film more lucrative than it is now, by appealing to broader international markets (i.e. America) and trying to maximise profits by investment in the aforementioned “commercially promising” projects.
The rhetoric has been brief and undetailed so far, but the tone is troubling. It comes across as ill-informed nonsense. Whilst I have sympathy with the idea that so-called mainstream projects should get a higher proportion of public funding than they presently do, there are many issues with these ideas.
Firstly, as has been widely said, you cannot predict which films are going to be successful. The two most successful British films of recent years, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech, were not ideas which seemed “commercially promising” until very late on in their lives. Who would have thought that millions would see films about the slums of Mumbai, or a man's struggle with his stutter? Famously, the former lost its American distributor a matter of months before it won the Best Picture Oscar.
Secondly, given that you cannot make these predictions, if you are looking for potential commercial successes, you are more than likely to go for safe-bet ideas, which generally translate to the inane, the dull and the forgettable. If one looks at the most bankable films made in Hollywood, the Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbeans of this world, they are often (but not always) unremarkable. Distressingly frequently they are dumb, lowest common denominator and generate repetitive sequels. Are these the characteristics we want for the British film industry?