Hollywood in the UK: The Battle for British Screens

This past summer I spent a little over two weeks in the UK, mostly in London. Aside from the usual touristy destinations like the Tower and Westminster Abbey and the more high-brow environs of the British Museum and the Tate Britain, I also had my sights set on London’s film culture – not just the obvious wealth of the National Film Theatre but also the city’s general exhibition trends.

As I expected, the offerings were as diverse as what I would find in New York or San Francisco. Admittedly, some of the appeal for me was to get a jump on openings in the U.S., so I took in Pedro Almadóvar’s newest release, Bad Education (not coming to the States until November) and a little film from a first-time Moroccan director, A Thousand Months (still without a U.S. distributor).

Then, too, London was awash with film revivals. At the NFT alone, there were overlapping series on The Golden Age of French Cinema, Gangster films before Scarface, and the Marx Brothers, playing just during the two weeks I was there. I also couldn’t resist the opening film of a Godard retrospective at the Institut Francais, introduced by Godard’s long-time cinematographer, Raoul Coutard. Other revivals were scattered around the city – including Nicolas Roeg’s Performance and separate series for Bunuel and Mizoguchi.

Given all of that, you might ask, what could I possibly have had to complain about? I certainly didn’t mind hurtling through the Underground to these art-house venues. But I was dismayed at having to walk past the local multiplex every day on my way to the tube station. There, the best I could have hoped for was Shrek 2 (on multiple screens, of course), with the theater’s five other screens similarly occupied by Hollywood. And the U.S. invasion didn’t stop there: during my stay, the top five box-office films in the UK were all American – raking in British pounds for Warner Brothers, Twentieth-Century Fox, Paramount, and Buena Vista. The only consolation was the surprise appreciation for The Cooler, from independent-minded Lions Gate.

Except for Love Actually and Calendar Girls, the British film industry has offered little box-office competition to Hollywood this year. For my money, though, the best film to come out of England last year was Stephen Frear’s political thriller Dirty Pretty Things. And, of course, Scottish cinema continues to earn international notice, if not the grosses of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. During my visit, aside from some fine British revivals, just three current UK films were in London theaters, and only one of these seemed of much merit: One for the Road, a grim comedy about drunk drivers in rehab, boozing and scoring business deals. Better months are ahead, though, as Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss (set in Scotland) and Shona Auerbach’s Dear Frankie (also from Scotland) come due for release.

This battle for British screens is nothing new of course: the UK has been losing the contest for decades, though the imbalance has actually improved since the lows of the early 90s, when the U.S. was grabbing more than 90% of Britain’s box office. According to the UK Film Council, in 2003 British earnings grew to 16%, but most of that figure represents revenues from U.S. and European co-productions. Of the 119 feature films produced or co-produced by British companies in 2003, just 44 were domestic! And none of the domestic features were among the top twenty films in their own market. It’s quite clear that home-grown British cinema continues to be underappreciated and underfinanced in its own country. More’s the pity.