British blockbusters take on the world
Matt Damon as the trained assassin Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum
Dalya Alberge, Arts Correspondent
The Bourne Ultimatum may have been the film of an American bestselling book about a renegade CIA agent, starring a Hollywood pin-up, filmed in cities around the globe and funded by a big US studio. But according to the annual report of the UK Film Council, it is a very British film.
Yesterday the latest Bourne installment became the third most successful “homegrown” film of last year - courtesy of its British director, scenes set in London and increasing efforts to stamp international blockbusters with a Union Jack.
According to the report by the council, the government-backed agency for film in this country, British movies took more than £1.65 billion at box offices around the world last year - an increase of more than 50 per cent on the previous year.
The official figures show that much of the success was achieved by the global performances of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Bourne Ultimatum and The Golden Compass - all British films, the report concludes.
Their status is assured by factors such as being shot in Britain, having a British cast and crew members, and the amount of money spent in this country.
Critics yesterday questioned the council’s findings - and an increasingly generous definition of Britishness in which the number of films in the top 20 released in the UK and the Republic of Ireland jumped from three to seven between 2006 and 2007.
Leon Morgan, head of media at the law firm Davenport Lyons, said that the council was massaging figures to boost the homegrown industry’s performance at a time when British independent films were struggling. “Take the blockbusters out and the picture looks completely different,” he said.
“Although technically British films, they are really Hollywood studio pictures. Anybody involved in British film, perhaps outside the UK Film Council, would say that. The picture for ‘indie’ films is pretty dismal.”
New criteria defining a film’s “Britishness” were introduced in January last year, offering proof that any film that benefited from new tax breaks delivered economic and cultural benefit to the UK.
A film needs to score 16 out of a possible 31 points to be considered British, with factors such as setting the film in the UK carrying 4 points.
Under the new definition, the 1970s classic Alien would be classed as British - even though it was made with American money from 20th Century Fox - because its director, Ridley Scott, and some of the cast were British and it was filmed at a studio in the UK.
A council spokeswoman said that it was not necessarily the case that the number of films being defined as British had increased.
“It is a hypothetical situation,” she said. “With the change in definition, some films would previously have been made as co-productions, but now qualify as British films.”
The research is published today in the council’s Statistical Yearbook. Now into its sixth year, the report paints a comprehensive picture of the British film industry over the previous 12 months, covering all aspects from audience taste to exhibitions and exports.
The report shows that seven of the top 20 films at the UK box office last year were “British”. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenixwas the year’s biggest film, earning more than £49 million, followed by The Golden Compass (£26 million), The Bourne Ultimatum (£23 million), Mr Bean’s Holiday (£22 million) and Hot Fuzz (£20 million).
These blockbusters meant that the British film industry had a turnover of nearly £7 billion (up from £2 billion in 2005) and their contribution to GDP was £3.2 billion, the Yearbook states.
Martin Churchill, of Tax Efficient Review, the specialist adviser, cast further doubt on the statistics. “Figures are often inflated and therefore difficult to believe. The [Film] council just puts a positive gloss on everything. Talk to independent producers and they say how bad life is.”
The council received £52 million in funding this year, including £24 million from the taxpayer and £27.6 million in lottery grants.
The report highlights “the success of lottery-funded films over the past decade”, singling out Gosford Park (£12.3 million at the box office),St Trinian’s (£12.2 million) and Bend It Like Beckham (£11.6 million) as “all co-funded by the UKFC”.
The UK Film Council spokeswoman took issue with critics of the changes, saying that it “totally disputed” accusations of massaging figures.
“Bigger-budget films financed by the US but made in the UK using British talent have always been counted as UK/US inward investment,” she said.
“If you take blockbusters out of the equation, the market share for indie British films is strong, at 11.4 per cent, whereas in previous years it has hovered around 5 to 6 per cent.”
The 172-page Yearbook also shows that one in five Britons went to the cinema at least once a month last year, making British film fans among the keenest in the world and defying a global decline in ticket sales.
Cinema attendances tend to rise in times of economic hardship, as audiences go in search of relatively inexpensive escapism.
The culture test
Films must score at least 16 out of 31 to qualify for the tax break:
— Leads? Four points if two or more of three lead characters are British; one point for one.
— Setting? Four points if at least 75 per cent of film is set in Britain.
— Is film based on British subject matter? Four points if it is, or is based on a story by a British citizen or resident.
— Is dialogue mainly in English? Four points if at least 75 per cent is; three for 66 per cent; two for 50 per cent; one for 25 per cent.
— Up to four points for promotion and development of British culture.
— Where is it shot? Up to three points according to how much of the film is made in Britain.
— Up to eight points if following are from the EU: director, scriptwriter, producer, composer, leading male and female actors, key staff, majority of crew.