How the British Film Industry Became a Hollywood Backlot

When it comes to the business of film, it's hard to compete with Hollywood. The USA boasts the second most prolific film industry in the world, and the largest in terms of revenue and spending. The American film industry is so massive, in fact, that it can't be contained by a single country, and a substantial amount of spending on Hollywood productions has spilled across US borders and over the pond to the UK.

A 2013 report by THR found that 70% of a total sample of 108 major American films studied were primarily shot in the USA. A further 14% were shot in Canada, and in third place was the UK with 11% of the sample films (including Fast & Furious 6, Gravity and Thor: The Dark World) shot on the fair shores of Great Britain. The country is such a popular destination for Hollywood filmmakers, in fact, that next year it's getting the disaster movie treatment in action sequel London Has Fallen. Blowing up important cultural landmarks using expensive VFX is Hollywood's version of a love letter.

The omnipresence of American productions in UK locations is in no small part due to the introduction of a generous UK film tax relief scheme in 2007, which has brought major studios flocking to the country to produce some of the biggest blockbusters in recent memory. Disney alone has spent an estimated $2.3 billion on UK production since 2007, a pattern that seems set to continue with the return of the Star Wars franchise and Marvel Studios' love of shooting in the UK.

On paper, at least, it seems like the UK film industry is booming. Cinematographers, sound recordists, make-up artists, VFX artists and the many others who work within the industry are able to pay their mortgages and feed their families, which is arguably one of the most fundamental ways of measuring the health of an industry. But can the UK really boast about the 'great British film industry' when so much of the spending is done by Hollywood, and the box office profits return to American studios?

Some professionals have doubted whether Britain can actually lay claim to a film 'industry' at all. In the opinion of Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn, it can't. Speaking in an interview for BBC Radio 4 series The Business of Film, Vaughn had harsh words for the business he works in:

"In England, most people think it's an achievement to get a film made, which I think is crazy. If we could start talking about the British film industry, I am possibly the most hated man in it... Because we don't have a British film industry, and I'm bored of everyone saying we do have one, and I think it's crazy that we subsidize British movies with tax breaks but we don't get any of that money back. We're subsidizing Hollywood. We're service providers. We're not an industry."

Vaughn goes on to argue that if France or Italy started offering better tax breaks to Hollywood, the so-called British film industry would vanish overnight. While the BFI proudly boasts of £1.5 billion ($2.36 billion) being spent on UK film production in 2014, the majority of that spending came from American studios. An industry that relies almost entirely on investment from another country, with the profits going back to that country, can hardly be described as self-sustaining. If companies like Disney elected to stop shooting films in Britain, the effect on the country's largely freelance work force of film industry professionals would be devastating.

Harsh as Vaughn's words might sound, it's easy to see why he might be disillusioned. His most recent film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, featured a largely British cast and setting and was an homage to classic British spy films, but no one in the UK offered to foot the bill for it. The box office profits certainly won't be going directly back into the British film industry; Twentieth Century Fox lays claim to them.

Kingsman Secret Service mirror

Britain's film scene currently lacks a key element that would elevate it to the status of a viable industry: a home-grown distribution company with the resources to finance mid-to-high budget films and to distribute them globally. When Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling first began facing offers to buy the film rights to her beloved fantasy series, it quickly became clear that they would have to go to an American studio. There simply wasn't a British studio that was willing or able to cover the costs of making them.

At Rowling's insistence, the Harry Potter movies were shot in the UK and featured an almost entirely British cast, but the Harry Potter film rights are the property of Warner Bros. and the lion's share of the $7.7 billion worldwide gross for those movies has gone straight back into Warner Bros.' pockets. Can the Harry Potter movie franchise still be counted as the pride of Britain if it's owned by (and wouldn't exist without) an American company?

Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright has also expressed doubts about how healthy it is to have so many Hollywood blockbusters taking over studios like Pinewood and Shepperton, and soaking up the country's most talented crew members. Speaking in 2013, Wright had mixed feelings about the government's tax relief scheme.

"While the tax break is good for Hollywood films shooting here, it’s probably not that great for British films shooting in the UK. Some middle-to-low budget films are going to find themselves without crew because all the American films are shooting here."

Harry Potter returning in new play

There's an abundance of technical, creative and acting talent in the UK, and it's largely thanks to Hollywood that this British talent is being given a chance to shine. After directing low-budget sci-fi movie Monsters with British production company and distributor Vertigo Films, Gareth Edwards was quickly snapped up to direct Godzilla for Legendary Pictures and Star Wars: Rogue One for Disney. Moon director Duncan Jones, meanwhile, is currently hard at work in post-production on Legendary's video game adaptation Warcraft.

In the acting realm, many of the best-known British actors are famous primarily because of their roles in American films. The recent casting of Tom Holland means that a second consecutive iteration of Spider-Man will be played by a British actor, and next year's superhero movie titan Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice will once again star British actor Henry Cavill as Superman.

Even British screen darlings Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are about to be drawn into the Marvel machine, with Cumberbatch playing Doctor Strange and Freeman appearing in an as-yet undisclosed role in Captain America: Civil War. For British film talent, it seems as though going up in the world is becoming synonymous with going west in the world.

Henry Cavill Superman

In the UK, the native film industry and the independent film scene are more or less one and the same thing. The largest amount of spending on film production doesn't come from film studios, but directly from the government in the form of tax breaks. Producer Ben Mortimer, who is currently facing the considerable challenges of attracting financing for smaller British movies, disagrees with Vaughn's claim that Britain doesn't have a film industry at all, but acknowledges that the success of its industry is pretty debatable.

"There are hundreds of small production companies making tiny-budget movies that do well on DVD and VoD services, and sustainably so. It’s true that these films don’t receive theatrical distribution, and certainly don’t get released abroad, but they are providing a return for investors, and allowing the production companies to continue to make films. It’s also true that most of these films are horror or crime films, with a limited audience appeal, but at least they’re making money.

"Beyond these films, there are producers making films with a broader appeal, and with a hope of international distribution - movies like 'Moon' and 'Monsters' are good examples of this - but they’re few and far between."

Two of the biggest sources of funding for independent British films are FilmFour and the lottery-funded British Film Institute, who both contributed a near-record investment of £2 million ($3.13 million) each to the production of Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi horror Under the Skin. More often, however, British indie movies are financed by individual investors. Speaking from "brutal and bitter experience," Mortimer explains why this investment is so difficult to acquire.

"Because film is considered a high-risk investment, producers are only allowed to offer investment to 'high net worth individuals or self-certificating sophisticated investors'. Specifically, we can only approach people who earn £100,000 [approx. $157,400] per year, or with savings of at least £200,000 [approx. $314,700]. And even then, we can only approach them if they've made an approach to us based on marketing materials. The upshot of this is that unless you've got rich friends, it’s nearly impossible to directly approach potential investors."

Scarlett Johansson Under the Skin

Vaughn may have 'made it' in Hollywood now, but like many other British filmmakers he first had to do his time in the sparsely financed scrublands of Britain's native film industry. In the late 1990s he produced Guy Ritchie's comedy crime film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which found distribution through Polygram shortly before the company folded. Kick-Ass, meanwhile, was originally headed for direct-to-DVD release before the audience reaction at San Diego Comic-Con sparked a bidding war among distributors. Prior to this success, there were times when Vaughn nearly gave up.

"After screening 'Lock, Stock' and being told no, no one wants it, and it's going to go - back then - straight to VHS, was the best deal we had. And then 'Kick-Ass', the same thing, nobody wanted it, and I got told to go straight to DVD. Each time I then vowed I would retire."

The box office success of Kingsman: The Secret Service has helped to further secure Vaughn's place in the industry, but his recollections do raise the question of how many other British directors and producers haven't had the same good fortune, and have chosen or been forced to give up on the industry entirely. For the moment the UK film industry is enjoying the benefits of Hollywood interest, but it would be short-sighted to assume that this will last forever.

Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

The abundance of Hollywood films being shot in the UK also begs the question of what exactly makes a film 'British'. In order to qualify for tax relief, productions must pass a cultural test of Britishness that incentivizes things like hiring British actors and British crew, but studios can achieve a third of the required points simply by having English dialogue. It's also hard to argue that the big-budget movies produced in the UK have a primarily British audience in mind; many Londoners were baffled by a scene in Thor: The Dark World in which Thor gets on an Underground train at Charing Cross and is told that Greenwich is just three stops away (it really, really isn't).

It's clear that there's no shortage of talented film professionals and actors in the UK, and although offering tax breaks to entice American studios is a stop-gap measure that has proven to be of great benefit to the UK, it's neither culturally nor economically as powerful as having a stable native industry that can finance and distribute mid-to-high budget films without relying on foreign companies. Despite apparently being the most hated man in the British film industry, Vaugn says he still has hope for it.

"I'd love for the industry to grow, to be more self-sufficient. If Hollywood doesn't come here, what's left? The rules are changing pretty quickly, and I don't want to be like the guys running the record business and suddenly seeing Steve Jobs has stolen it, because Hollywood's like a bunch of pigs in a trough, not realizing that food is running out and just eating it as quickly as possible... We make the best movies in the world - commercially and artistically, look at the Oscars - so why are we not building an industry around this absolute talent we have?"

As for the other end of the production line - what ends up on screens in the UK - my local cinema is currently showing Jurassic World, Minions, Spy, Entourage, The Longest Ride and Pitch Perfect 2 - not a single British movie on offer. The media we consume is a key part of what defines our culture, and right now the UK is culturally saturated with American movies and TV shows. If the British film industry doesn't grow on its own terms, it could end up being absorbed entirely.


Disclosure: Ben Mortimer is a friend and I've previously worked on films he has produced.

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