Greed isn’t good
Those of you who know me, and the kind of films I like, should also know I like to think of myself as a realist of sorts. I love realism. All kinds – social, magic and even neo – and along with that comes a certain distrust of fantasy films. That's just me.
So with the risk of sounding just a bit hypocritical I have to say, and I know this will hurt some people, but Star Wars is not my kind of film. This is not meant as an attack on the brilliant crew and cast, nor the incredible cinematography, the brilliant production and post-production values, not even the content. After all some people obviously seem to like this kind of thing. What I object to is the way that British cinema is being used by US corporate franchises to distort our homegrown cinema.
It seems to me that there is a long running struggle between fantasy and truth. We live in an age where we no longer expect the truth. It's almost as if we have fallen out with reality and in love with fantasy. We elect politicians who we know will lie. We rebuild the crooked banks so that they can create new bubbles. We allow corporations to openly shape the world in their own image. We're told all will be fine, that it's actually in our best interest. But is it?
There was once an Age Of Enlightenment. Now there seems to be more an ‘Age Of Illusion’, and movies are no exception. This last decade has seen a huge growth in British film. We have had great success with brilliant cinematographers making great films. But still the major producers and distributors of cinema in the English language are undoubtedly the US studios. Universal, Sony, Paramount, Fox, Disney, etc.. At one time they could genuinely have be called “studios”, implying that they added creativity to the art of cinema. But not now. They are more accurately described as corporations and they have an agenda. Let's call it, "Give me the tax break and, while your at it, the best crews, in the coolest city.” All this and guaranteed profit. How do they do it?
It's simple. They come over to London, go into production with a remake, or a comic book hero movie, take zero risk, just cut-and-paste old ideas and, without a hint of irony, make the hero fight injustice and the faceless bad guys. Oh yeah, we get it.
And this is my point: can someone please tell me how it is possible to class Star Wars as a
British film? How can accountants classify culture by creating certain criteria, like how many local people they employ? Yet, by these means, it's possible to give Disney corporation, for example, a lucrative, George Osborne-style 20% tax break. This fiscal slight-of-hand allows US movies – that are already pre-funded by the franchising of merchandise deals, selling everything from toys to make-up, and are guaranteed billion-dollar returns at the box office – to use a system that ought to benefit genuine filmmakers. Why should they qualify for a little extra help? Perhaps something for George Lucas's pension fund?
I'm no accountant, but giving free money to corporations that then reap worldwide profits of billions of dollars, none of which comes back to encourage or develop our own talent, none of whose profits are shared with any of those who made the film, how can that be right? Self-attribution fallacy gone mad.
I realise that I'm sounding-off like Mr Angry of Hackney, and I really don't want to sound jingoistic. But this is not some mythical golden age of British cinema and although (according to the BFI’s latest release figures for British film production) £1.4 billion was spent on all British film production in 2014, less than a third was spent on genuine British films – 80 of which had budgets of less the £500,000.
Another way to look at this is to say that our industry accounts for less than 30% of production, and the vast majority of the £1.4 billion is actually US production. I guess you can say that at least the studios are full and people are working. But I have to ask how will new filmmakers get a chance to shoot and distribute original films? Where will the new cinematographers get the chance to show their talents? Distribution, other than the festival circuit, is practically out of the question. If and when these low-budget films succeed, reach larger audiences, and sometimes win the big prizes, then the talent gets drawn into the whirlpool of corporate movies.
My question to our industry is this: should we be seen to hand money over more in tax breaks to US corporations than we see being used to create our own films? At the moment we are seeing precious little payback for below-the-line crew, no residual payments and no backing for the future development of our filmmakers’ skills.
The trickle down economy is a myth. It won't support a long-term industry and it won't train-up the new wave of filmmakers necessary for future greatness. Greed is unsustainable. We need to
protect and provide for a new New Wave, for a New Free Cinema. We have created a multi-skilled, British-based film industry. I don't want to see that hidden under the shadow of giant myth-makers.
Let's keep it real. Understand what it is we do best, and make it our own.
Barry Ackroyd BSC
British Society Of Cinematographers