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A Giant Achievement

Tuesday 4 February 2014, 14:58

Mark Kermode Mark Kermode

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The Selfish Giant and 12 Years A Slave won top honours at the recent Critics Circle Film Awards in London. Who says the British film industry is in trouble?

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    Comment number 1.

    Hi Mark,

    Both Giant and Slave are brilliant. Does it matter which country 'owns' them? How important to the 'British Film Industry' is it to be able to define a film as British if those who are responsible for making the movies already know where the talent lives?

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    Comment number 2.

    I wonder whether the "British" Film is something analogous to "Auteur Theory". Discuss?

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    Comment number 3.

    You are an optimist Mark, and good on you for that. I am a pessimist by nature. Two swallows do not make a spring in my book. The quality of the two films that won awards should be magnified tenfold to justify a British industry working at full potential. The talent is undoubtedly there but the money and opportunity is not.

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    Comment number 4.

    Isn't 12 Years classed as American though?

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    Comment number 5.

    Where are all the well-made British genre movies? Comedies, thrillers, horrors? Our industry never learns these are what bring in the big dollars. Big dollars which can then be used to fund and nurture up-and-coming young film-makers with lower budgets. All we seem to want to finance is cheap crap - small-time, Saturday night, DVD crap. I honestly thought Kick-Ass would be the film to kick-start the British film industry into a glorious new era of movie production. What was I thinking?

    As good as it is, A Selfish Giant will only attract praise - it won't attract box office. 12 Years, on the other hand, has already made $100m. But who's seeing this profit? Us? Or the Americans who put up the bulk of the $20m financing?

    Why did the makers of The King's Speech feel they had to go to Harvey Weinstein for the bulk of its £9m funding? Why couldn't our film industry have invested that small amount? That film's current worldwide box office stands at $430m (£270m). How much of that went back into the British film industry via the UK Film Council's £1m investment? I'd love to know.

    We haven't a clue how to run a film industry here. We have the studios, the film-makers, the actors, the technicians, but no-one with the balls to put any money up. We're a joke!

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    Comment number 6.

    When hasn’t the ‘British Film Industry’ not been in trouble?

    The issue isn’t that we don’t have talent: directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, set & costume designers, SFX/CGI etc. (though world class soundtrack composers seem to be lacking at present, - please correct me if you wish) it’s that it’s always tough making a film that recoups its cost, far less makes a profit. As always it’s even more tough getting a budget together in the first place.

    The Harry Hill Movie probably stands a chance of making a better profit (including worldwide TV rights etc.) than A Field In England, but that says much about public taste.

    The UK is the third largest film market in the world, something I find hard to believe but so it goes. Inevitably China and east Asia will soon overtake it. (Hollywood is worrying about the same issue, it no longer makes most of its money from USA audiences, international audience now account for 60%.)

    Many directors/actors/writers have ‘gone Hollywood’ to get work, get work, build reputations. Others have travelled even further afield; Gareth Evans made The Raid in Indonesia.

    Funding is becoming even more diverse. Brad Pitt put a fair bit of money (along with New Regency/Fox) into producing 12 Years A Slave.

    Is 12 Years A Slave British? A British director + many actors. A US writer, production and theme + US funding. Are Harry Potter or James Bond British? Both are financed by Hollywood studios.

    In an austerity era sources of funding are shrinking, Hollywood is looking for tent-pole movies (though it has a thriving indie scene – some industry funded - catering for audiences that want more than Transformers/Marvel) so getting funding to start out is the concern. That and the ability to take chances, develop a story.

    One reason why many actors/directors/writers now look to TV, web based on-demand productions and alternative means of funding (crowd-sourcing) and distribution (cinema, DVD, TV and video-on-demand) to get work made and seen.

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    Comment number 7.

    One thing I always loved about hearing about the Bollywood film scene in Bombay was that of all the extras they needed and had a huge "village" of them in one district and that if you turned up sometimes they needed Westerner extras and you'd star in a Bollywood movie!!

    I think an important measure of the success of British film industry in the age of machines taking over (CGI Actors anyone: The horror!) is: Number and diversity of jobs and profits to make it sustainable.

    Hollywood as the biggest English language industry and world power probably keeps the British Film industry making home-grown movies in a commerically tight place: Everyone prefers to see the big Hollywood stuff except the odd British film that makes a small splash. That said British talent finds an easy way into Hollywood, so it's a feeder (bit like some football clubs being selling clubs not going for the title each season, but making a profit and playing some good football and developing the youth team).

    So Steve McQueen: Yup used to see him down the park as young lad, always was solid in goal, always used to practice an extra hour more than the other kids after training... Boy done good playing in the World Cup Final for the USA All Star Team.

    I'd say the odd successful British film (commerically, critically and cult) that's what you want to see from time to time. Subsidize vs Competition: Which would produce the best results or even what kind of results do we want to achieve... "And where the hell was I?"

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    Comment number 8.

    I don't consider 12 Years a British Film. There's far too much American blood running through it; money, financing, script. It's a great film, but I think we're imposing a lot by calling it a British Film. I wonder if American critics see it as a British triumph? Somehow, I have my doubts.

    But that's been the way of it for years. "You wouldn't be anything without our money!"; that is the argument in many circles, and ironically it's a core component of ownership; who OWNS the project? And if it is primarily owned by American studios, or financiers, it doesn't matter how much British talent is on show, does it? Because they wouldn't have a job without American money.

    It is a minor technicality; but it's little details like that which make it hard to quantify some British movies as anything remotely connected to our industry. We grow the talent; but it's exported and hired across the globe. We should be hugely proud of our homegrown talent, of course we should.

    I just sometimes wish we could keep more of it here. But as is so often the case, people go where the money is...

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    Comment number 9.

    Mark, I'm very excited about the short called The Voorman Problem which I saw at a tiny short film fest last year. I chatted to the makers who were very down to earth guys from Manchester (if I remember rightly). It's now been nominated for a BAFTA and an Oscar. Hugely exciting. Have you seen it?

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    Comment number 10.

    Mark - as ever, pithy and engaging blog. In response to some of the above comments...

    As a wannabe-screenwriter and (very) small independent producer, I am delighted to see the enthusiasm with which folk express the view that there would be bigger profits available for Brit investors, if only more home-based money was put into the British movie industry. Unfortunately life just isn't like that - in particular for the Movie Industry, which has its own rather peculiar accounting system, and where adherence to Golden Rule One ("Never reveal the actual P&L figures") leads to Golden Rule Two ("Any box-office figures revealed by the competition are not to be trusted").

    Since it is a simple fact that no-one in the industry - NO-ONE - really knows what movie will sell, the decision to invest in a movie - any movie - carries one of the highest adverse investment risks of any industry in the world. 75% of all new movies carry a loss, or produce zero return, after one year. You'd have better luck opening a restaurant (25% failure). And the brutal truth is that it isn't the cost of making the "tent-pole" spec movie which is the essential problem: it's the cost of marketing followed by the gouging margins of the typical distribution deal. You could spend a healthy but still relatively modest £3m and end up with a stunning movie - but no-one will see it, not unless (a) you spend at least half again pushing it to potential distributors, and then for an International release (b) you must spend at least another £3-5m on ads and marketing, all knowing that (c) the majority of box-office takings go into the pockets of those providing the screen, the seats and the popcorn. So if people don't arrive in droves for the opening weekend, as a general rule your movie is dead.

    There are no more old-style movie-making studios: they were all killed off by economic collapse, whether fast or slow. Majority stakeholders of the main companies in the business are primarily engaged with the industry for the sake of the useful "hop-skip-jump" available within movie accounts [got a loss here? stick it into that column over there...]. And if the movie actually does make a profit, everyone is grateful but no-one knows how or why.

    For instance, Disney is primarily an investment vehicle listing holiday resorts and brand-name goods as its primary activities: the making of movies is sub-contracted out in return for sole rights in the only aspect of the business with a stable fiscal return - themed toys, games and accessories. Disney didn't buy "Star Wars" from George Lucas in order to make a string of great movies....

    In short, then, it's nothing to do with the lack of "cojones" amongst British investors - because any sane or relatively risk-averse investor ought to run screaming. So if you want a "tent-pole" spec made in this country, either it must carry good prospects of franchise after-sales (in which case the biggest of the Big Money will always come from abroad); or the very idea of the movie has provoked a huge, slightly insane and perhaps wholly unrealistic passion deep within the heart of whatever wild-haired and wonderful investor you have managed to find in that well-to-do private care home or hospital. And I wish you very well indeed.

    I love the very idea of making movies - but I wouldn't want to risk my own money doing it.

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    Comment number 11.

    The Selfish Giant was my favourite film of last year. Absolutely adored it. Even though it is a very bleak subject I thought the film was beautifully filmed and beautiful to look at. The two boys did really well in the acting roles. These types of films are always my favourites, I loved Fishtank when that came out and this is a similar type of film. I shall be buying the DVD.

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    Comment number 12.

    @jayfurneaux -world class British film composers? Clint Mansell, Jonny Greenwood are two that spring to mind immediately.

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    Comment number 13.

    @10 You've contradicted yourself in your final paragraph. Movie financing has everything to do with courage, because, as you yourself say (with William Goldman's line of "nobody knows anything"), there is no trusted formula to a movie's success.

    The Weinsteins are independent producers, they don't invest above $20m on any project and, yes, TWC has had its debt problems, but look at them now - second only in box office revenue to Universal, ahead of all the other big guns. Why? Because as Harvey Weinstein said on Kermie's show last year, 'it's all about great writing, if you've got that, you're onto something'. Harvey knows. He knows! And he has the balls to put his money where his mouth is.

    Movie producers must be brave, and it won't be an easy ride, but you must gamble or you'll never win.

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    Comment number 14.

    I too am very pleased indeed that The Selfish Giant is getting the recognition that it truly deserves. I paid a tenner to Curzon Cinema On-Demand last year and got a streaming rental of the movie for seven days - and watched it seven times! It's that good. 12 Years a Slave isn't bad either.

    On the sadder note, it was put to me years ago that, unless they're unlucky, people, no matter who they are, tend to die as they live - so be careful how you tread! Unfortunately, Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to have proved that point this week. For me Hoffman had a subtly to his work that American actors do not generally possess which made him stand apart from the crowd. He, and his talent, will be missed.

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    Comment number 15.

    @13: I do appreciate your point, but I think perhaps we are at cross-purposes here: a movie producer is normally the project-manager spending someone else's money - unlike a traditional theatrical producer, who does indeed write the cheques and carries the risk. Speaking for myself, my personal risk is limited to the modest fee which I pay for the exclusive and time-limited right to an original book or screenplay, which I will then try to package up so that I can sell the project (and run it) to the guys with the money.

    In this country we just don't have professional movie investors capable of competing effectively and consistently across the global market. Professional movie money comes from the USA, India, China and a mixed bag of consortia predominantly based in Continental Europe. They do not invest on the basis of bravery, or courage. They hire teams of number-crunchers employing theoretical 10-year projection models; who will recommend a project based on risk attrition. Their confidence in a project - call it "balls", if you like - has everything to do with the curvature of the projection graph, and virtually nothing to do with a cracking screenplay. Certainly the writer's name is considered relevant to the risk assessment, because past success might mean future profits - but otherwise most of us have found that the number-crunchers couldn't spot a good original spec screenplay if it wore a tuxedo and had an invitation.

    Their predicted annual spend is fixed by reference to an actuarial profile of anticipated loss balanced by the chance of "striking it rich"; a profile spread across a basket of productions in which it is accepted that three-quarters of them may well bomb. TWC is not really a movie investor, so much as an Executive Production company which can offer an extra positive element for the investor's risk assessment because the Weinsteins are prepared to put up some of their own (borrowed) money. Big investors currently love to subcontract investment decisions to project-managers with "skin in the game" - whether money or talent. Hence the clout of TWC, as well as Playtone (Tom Hanks in a release deal with Sony and HBO), Plan B Entertainment (Brad Pitt in bed with Paramount, Warner and 20th Century Fox) and Bad Robot (JJ Abrams in bed with Disney - but don't ask me who is shagging who in that deal).

    And certainly, Harvey Weinstein CBE is a big personality and he loves his movies - but even he does not have a crystal ball. Apparently TWC came close to collapse in 2011 (no-one ever knows how close a Hollywood company comes until the Chapter 11 application gets filed in court) - allegedly having to restructure all of its library and borrowings in order to keep going. All this because the typical operating profile requires that, for every money spinning Oscar-winner [e.g. "The Artist"], you have to be prepared to pump out six or seven flat duds ["Hoodwinked Too"; "Scary Movie 5", and the lead-lined bomb that was "Butter"].

    There should be the equivalent of "Fantasy British Movie Project" (how about that as a blog series, Mr Kermode?), where we concoct our ideal combination for that perfect big-budget all-British tent-pole summer blockbuster. Trouble is, I'm betting a majority of the cinema-goers of this island nation couldn't agree on the identity of the "opening name", let alone what kind of movie would be so good that it would kill worldwide.

    And isn't that just a wonderful thing?

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    Comment number 16.

    robert Paulson#12

    Mansell’s Lux Aeterna from Requiem for a Dream is very fine piece of music indeed. I also liked his score from The Fountain. Have to say I found his scores for the Wrestler (I liked the film a lot) & Black Swan much less memorable.

    Jonny Greenwood’s work on There Will Be Blood was also very fine.

    We could add John Powell, David Holmes, Dave Arnold, Harry Gregson-Williams, Rachel Portman and Craig Armstrong amongst others.

    It’s probably just me, but compared with say John Barry (an impossibly hard act to follow I’ll be the first to admit) today’s British composers aren’t producing classic score after classic score in the way Barry (and for a while at least Malcolm Arnold, Ron Goodwin, Ron Grainer, George Fenton, Roy Budd or John Harris) did.

    Possibly it’s a lack of opportunity, possibly studios like to play safe – ‘call Hans Zimmer’ (he’s vastly, vastly over-rated IMO)!

    I’ll concede the point; Britain does have composers capable of competing with Hollywood’s finest.

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    Comment number 17.

    @15 I know what a producer does, just as I know it can also be an arbitrary title as in "associate" or "co-". But as an executive producer, Harvey Weinstein is still a producer who invests TWC's money (or the bank's, however you wish to look at it [how many businesses aren't in debt to the banks?]) into independent projects he believes in, through the quality of the screenplay over any scientific number-crunching formula (taking the belief that awards can boost box office better than double-decker bus advertising can). And however you downgrade TWC's status in the industry, they do invest (naturally some duds as well as hits) and they do make money back - around $150m profit from The King's Speech alone. Of course, they bring in co-investors, hence my comment on their strict $20m ceiling, but at least they invest their own money and it's now paying off in droves, and this makes them a success in my eye, for which I wish we had an alternative here in the UK.

    In fact, your second paragraph says all that's wrong with the industry. Too many people paying too much attention to box office receipts rather than on the quality of the project that can bring in those receipts. There's no point planning a beautiful home with a beautiful interior if you don't know how to lay bricks.

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    Comment number 18.

    Somewhat off topic but…..

    for lovers of classic, quality cinema, news just in that the BFI have remastered Werner Herzog films coming to blu ray in May this year. I can't wait to get my hands on Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and the beautifully stylish, emotionally haunting Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). Christmas has come early this year!

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    Comment number 19.

    Critics in London unanimously agree that Britain produces the best films. Well everything's alright then!


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Outspoken, opinionated and never lost for words, Mark is the UK's leading film critic.

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