Boom Time for British Cinema?

05/03/2015 06:52 am ET | Updated May 03, 2016

Boom and bust: Whole economies go through the cycle. So too, it seems, do creative industries. But it's looking pretty boom and bust at the moment in the U.K. film industry.

There's nothing magical about the cycle. The narrative follows a classic structure: Success followed by irrational overreach halted by failure, then retrenchment. But this isn't a fate or a force of nature; it's a force of human frailty. No one has cast a shrewder eye over this particular story structure than Kate Leys, Britain's leading film development executive.

What we don't have here is a film infrastructure. There are no big film employers, which means that the British film industry is based on independent producers and freelance talent. It does pretty well, but nobody's paying an overhead.

The knock-on effect of this is that here everything is loaded towards production: Where there is any money, it's the money that comes together to shoot a film. So producers scramble to get into production as fast and as often as they can.

That sounds like a good thing, but when you're sitting in the audience it's not the quantity you value. Who goes to the movies to see a lot of films? What really counts is the quality.

And here's the catch: In the movies, you can't buy quality with cash. You think that's not true? You're thinking of the high-end quality movies you love. You're not thinking of the high-end terrible movies that you hated, or the ones you didn't even go to see.

Andrew Finding Nemo Stanton's horrible live-action flop John Carter, anyone?

Having worked developing films as diverse as Trainspotting, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Reader and a 2015 Sundance winner Slow West, I wondered what Leys felt was the real source of quality in movie making. She's done romance, horror, comedy, historical drama, cop shows and gangland thrillers -- was there any consistent ingredient that had made those projects successful?

"There aren't any guarantees -- nobody knows anything, remember?" she laughed. "But there are a couple of essential ingredients: talent and time." The UK film industry excels at talent. Writers, actors, producers, crews, technicians: British talent is everywhere but plenty of it is still at home, in Britain, generating offbeat ideas that have a knack of hitting big audiences right in the heart, from The Full Monty to The King's Speech, and crowd-pleasing stories that compete on a global stage in quirky ways, like Bond, or The Theory of Everything.

So talent isn't the problem. The problem is time. As Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, is fond of saying, "In the beginning, all our movies suck." It isn't just Pixar -- it's true of all ideas: In software, hardware, publishing, biotech. Neither great scripts not great ideas are born fully formed; that's a romantic fallacy. Both need love, attention, challenge, debate, dead ends and flashes of inspiration. This takes time and -- crucially -- it takes collaboration with other people who also care, but bring different perspectives. And all that development requires time that, in the UK, is rarely paid for adequately, if at all.

"In a film industry that lacks infrastructure, nobody's paying the R&D costs" says Leys.

It takes time to find a story, and time to get it really good. Screenwriting is difficult and development is all about trial and error: For every good idea a writer has, he or she will have ten weaker ideas, and for every great screenplay, there are at least 100 terrible ones.

Working with screenwriters, sifting ideas, rewriting and revising: it's development, stupid! But development is a big gamble in an industry underfunded and fraught with risk -- so nobody wants to pay for it. This is true even in Hollywood, but in the UK, only the broadcasters (Film4, BBC Films) and the government (the BFI) take that risk. It took Richard Curtis at least 20 drafts to write Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Theory of Everything, and they rewritten by Anthony McCarten over ten years. None of that work comes with any guarantees, but of course once one of these films is a success, others think: I can do that. They don't see the hidden (but very real) costs, the years and the failures. They just pile in.

"Every few years the UK has a run of offbeat hits and it looks like a good bet," Leys reflects. "Money rolls in: private investment, overseas finance, even Hollywood money. Needless to say, this isn't money that anyone wants to spend on infrastructure," -- nobody wants to pay those heating bills -- "and they aren't much interested in the long haul of development. These people want to make movies, fast." And they're quickly followed by the movie carpetbaggers only too keen to help them out: those nine weak ideas and the 99 terrible scripts are snatched up by bankers and advertising creatives and anyone who's read a how-to-write-a-screenplay book. Suddenly, everyone speaks their language: All over the film industry people start to say: "The hell with offbeat. Let's make movies -- right now!"

"And they do", says Leys.

One day it's spring, and everyone with a terrible script is shooting it next week It's buzzy, just like Hollywood. Nobody wants to hear 'no'; they want to make a movie, any movie, because they think it's going to make money and they think it's going to be easy.

So they do, and then their terrible films roll into cinemas and nobody goes to see them. They kill the market because there are only so many terrible films you can sit through and the risk starts to look especially high if the poster says 'British'. And so, slowly, the money sucks back out of the UK like the tide.

Within a year or two, the carpetbaggers are sucked away with it, blaming everyone except themselves. "The good times are over and it doesn't feel like Hollywood any more. And then, when it's all gone quiet," says Leys> "The people who really do work in the UK film industry go back to their desks and start calling up talent."

The irony here is that the upfront investment in development is the cheapest part of filmmaking. But it's also the least sexy, taking places in disheveled offices, coffee shops and front rooms. But done well, that development reduces risk. So thinking to be thrifty makes films more likely to fail; investing in the cheaper part could make them more likely to succeed.

We are used to thinking of infrastructure as buildings, plant and machinery. But in industries where the chief output is intellectual product, true infrastructure is time, talent, teams -- and patience. And that's what British film, as an industry, lacks. In some ways, you could say this is British short-termism at its worst. No one wants to invest in the long term, hard slog that real industries require -- whether that's in graphene, biotech or software. We like to think of ourselves as thrifty, but I wonder sometimes if that isn't a polite way of saying we're both cheap and risk averse. Big investments -- in infrastructure, in time, in teams of people who work well together -- are big risks that take a long time to pay off. Venture capitalists in the U.K. work on small scales and short timeframes and their film counterparts are just the same. The U.K. game tends to be: Take the money and run, not, take the money and dig in for the long term. Of course, there are exceptions, but for the most part, there's precious little commitment in Britain to the hard invisible work that takes nascent ideas and nurtures them over time so that they reproduce, time and again.

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