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- This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of Sight and Sound.
Two years ago I decided that, as I had been making films for 25 years or so, it was time to step back, take a break and think about the way I was working. I thought the best way of doing this would be to talk to directors whose work I like and admire. I had to have an excuse for talking to them, so I said the conversations were for a book, which is now being published by the BFI and Bloomsbury. I was lucky that so many people were willing to give up their time to talk to me. This was perhaps because the interviews took place during the first lockdown of 2020. Everyone had time on their hands.
I spoke to 15 directors who began their careers in what could be called British independent cinema: Paweł Pawlikowski, Danny Boyle, Joanna Hogg, Asif Kapadia, James Marsh, Andrew Haigh, Carol Morley, Edgar Wright, Steve McQueen, Lynne Ramsay, Stephen Daldry, Ben Wheatley, Peter Strickland, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach.
As I started to think about the people I wanted to talk to, I began to think about how few British films they had made.
Pawlikowski’s first non-documentary film was The Stringer (1998). He has made two in Britain since then, the last being My Summer of Love (2004). McQueen’s first film, Hunger, was in 2008. That is the only film he has made for cinema in the UK. Lynne Ramsay’s first feature was Ratcatcher in 1999. Since then, she has only made one other British independent film – and that was Morvern Callar, 19 years ago. And so on.
There are exceptions of course. Danny Boyle has made 11 films based in the UK. Mike Leigh’s first film was Bleak Moments in 1971. Since then he has made 13 more films here in the UK. Ken Loach’s first film was Poor Cow in 1967.
For any individual director it may well be a matter of the choice to move to America, make studio films or work in television or theatre. But it leaves British independent cinema sadly depleted. Think of the films that we have missed out on.
Even if filmmakers were only making one film every two years, we would now have ten films made here in Britain by Lynne Ramsay, instead of two; ten British films by Jonathan Glazer, instead of two (Sexy Beast and Under the Skin); 11 films made here in Britain by Paweł Pawlikowski, instead of three; ten by Stephen Daldry, instead of three. And so on. Who knows what those films would have been? But surely British cinema would be richer if they had been made.
If you look back at film history, many of the greatest directors have also been the most prolific. My first job as a director was making two films about Ingmar Bergman. He directed more than 50 films, as well as running Dramaten, the biggest theatre company in Sweden. Godard made 18 films in one decade in France; Truffaut, 21 films in total; Fellini, 24 films; Fassbinder made 21 films before he died at the age of 37.
There are no doubt broad economic, social and cultural factors that have reduced the number of films a director makes. But are there more specific aspects of film culture in Britain that stop directors like Strickland, Morley or Andrea Arnold from making more films here?
In the book many of the directors talk about the frustration of the development process. That is too long to go into here. Many of the most productive directors have a close, ongoing relationship with a producer. The most stable way of cementing this relationship is to have a production company together. Way back in 2007, Film4, the BFI and BBC Films promised that UK tax credit money would be seen as the production companies’ equity. This excellent idea would have put money back into future productions, but it never happened; the idea was abandoned. However, there is an even simpler way of encouraging directors like Ramsay or Morley to make British indie cinema: correct the licensing arrangements of BBC Films and Film4.
In my experience, BBC and Channel 4 pay roughly three times more per hour for the rights to show a TV drama than they do per hour of a film. Why?
One example. We made The Road to Guantánamo for Channel 4 in 2006. The film went to Berlin and won a Silver Bear. But in the UK it wasn’t a film. It was TV. Because when we went to Film4 we were offered less than a third of the amount than if we took Channel 4 money. For the same film.
That doesn’t make any sense. A small release can draw attention to the film and make it more valuable – which is exactly the strategy used by streamers like Netflix. If Netflix believes a theatrical release makes their films more visible and therefore more valuable, they will do it. There is no justification for publicly funded TV companies, funding British films, to pay such an artificially low licence fee for them.
If a British independent film was getting £1.5 million rather than £500,000 from the UK TV rights, then this would have a huge impact. Many of the filmmakers in my book have made films which cost less than £1.5m, so these would be immediately greenlit once Film4 or BBC Films were on board. They would also be in the black, so that any earnings internationally would be profit. This, combined with a return to the policy originally trumpeted by Film4, BBC Films and the BFI, where the tax credit is seen as the producers’ equity, would transform the ability of small, independent production companies to provide a space for directors to make their films.