Do you have permissions?

So, as I plan a month of doing sweet FA I have begun writing a new screenplay (to go with the other unfinished one never to see the light of day…) to occupy my time. This is not as challenging as it sounds however, I managed national poetry writing month and wrote almost all of my last novel in a month too – though I was unemployed at the time… aaaah, the good old days… – especially as screenplays are necessarily shorter and having Final Draft has made formatting a piece of piss. So along with my newly bought Ukulele which I ADORE, I got started but then I was given pause to think. To what end was I writing this? Well I never write for an audience or even with the idea of getting published I just write what I want to read/see but both of these screenplays are resolutely ‘British’ (imagine that word in eighty foot concrete letters) so it would help if they were both British made (again, not that they are getting made, it just helps to see how it would look in my head. Production values and so forth). Which in turn presents an interesting problem…

Now, a lot has been made of the closure of the UK Film Council, and rightly so I might add, and with Film Four barely treading water and BBC Films doing less and less yet pumping more and more into the Moffat-Machine of Dr Who and Sherlock Holmes there is little to give us hope for the Great British Film industry. BUT WAIT! Teeeeeeeechnically there is no British Film Industry. Allow me to elucidate before you all come riding at me on your high horses;

Let’s name a few recent ‘British Films’ shall we? Slumdog Millionaire and King’s Speech seem obvious as they both won Best Picture awards and were UK Film Council funded. How about Atonement and Hot Fuzz? Or Harry Potter? Maybe Quantum of Solace? Now before the nit-pickers start – Yes, they are all ‘British based’ films either having offices here, a cast from here, or crew from here BUT all of my examples are American funded. Slumdog is Warner ‘Independent’ funded, King’s Speech is the Weinstein Company, Working title is owned by Universal who made Atonement and Hot Fuzz, MGM made Bond and Harry Potter is Warner Bros proper. What this means is, that whilst any other part of a film may be multi-national and bi-lingual, the people with the purse strings are all American. Now, in the ‘Pro’ corner this is good as it brings a lot of work to Britain and our own back lots etc and a lot of that is a creative and industrious streak far removed from our Trans-Atlantic chums. However, in the ‘Cons’ corner is this –

Do you know what an ‘Executive Producer’ does? All films have them as well as a Producer. The Exec. is just that. A studio executive. He is the guy from the studio who signs the cheques. Without ever having met one, I hate these people. Hollywood (and make no mistake, it is only Hollywood. Whether Japan, Bangkok or Tunstall, Hollywood will have a controlling stake in whatever motion picture is being made if it is released in the west) and its studio that is paying for the film, will send the exec to oversee and report back on any decision made by the director. With such a large investment at stake they want a film that will sell to the widest demographic (I hate that word) possible so they need to run it by ‘marketing’ *spits* first. This is what people mean by ‘Designed by Committee’. “If it doesn’t play to the under 12’s, get rid of it”, etc. Execs will shadow the director and assert pressure on risky decisions not to be made and generally make the film industry a homogenous mess. Want a good example of one? Watch the beefy extras on the Lord of the Rings Special Edition. The weasely little guy you’ve never heard of expounding about how wonderful the whole experience was and sat just behind Peter Jackson or somewhere in shot whenever the camera cuts to the director, is him. Another good example of this is the top-notch making-of Documentary on the Blade Runner Ultimate DVD. The financial and political wranglings are fascinating.

This is a very ugly portrayal however, some execs do have a genuine interest in new and original works. Alan Ladd is notable for putting money where his mouth was and it paying dividends, namely with Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner and A Fish Called Wanda, all risky ventures at the time but making ridiculous returns on investment. Proof, if it were needed, it is risks we need to take no matter what the industry. Also, loathed as I am to say it these days, Spielberg has championed various brilliant ventures by getting them money; Gremlins, Poltergeist, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Letters from Iwo Jima, True Grit and *ahem* the Flintstones were all great films (except the Flintstones obviously) he put money into. This is unfortunately very rare in the film industry these days. Present a risky venture to a studio and you may as well be asking to burn their house down and rape their over privileged children.

Do you want to know a great independent British film of the last few years? Kick-Ass. You know, that film set in America with everyone speaking in American accents, with American actors based on American comic book archetypes. Yet the director is English, the guy who wrote the comic book is Scottish, the two leads – Aaron Johnson and Mark Strong – are both English actors and the screenplay was by Jane Goldman who is also English. The film was distributed by Universal but not made by it, it was self funded by Vaughn. Do you want to know an easy way of telling an independent movie? What rating is it? Studios get twitchy about non-genre films being above a 12A Certificate, as if you go above that you wipe out a massive audience share for anyone younger than 15. Unfortunately this means you get films that squeeze past certification on technicalities. Now I am no prude but Hanna should have been at least a 15, with the man bled upside down, pierced by arrows not to mention a young girl murdering people with her bare hands. It was a 12. As a twelve-year-old I would not have understood the subtleties of that film but instead been thoroughly disturbed by the tone and menace in it. Same with Dark Knight. That should have been rated higher but because studios want the biggest possible audience they will bribe or cajole the Certification Board into getting a 12A. I blame Tim Burton. Batman was a 15 certificate but he argued the board down (rightly) to create a new certificate – the 12 – to get the target market. Me *ahem*. Kick Ass made no such submissions by having gratuitous violence and a 11-year-old girl who says “Cunt”, something a studio exec would (and did) point-blank refuse. It paid off. The net gross in the USA was $48 million plus a further $47 million worldwide. For a film costing £28 million, that ain’t bad.

Another tell-tale is when Hollywood remakes something. The Grudge, the Ring, Let The Right One In, Edge of Darkness and State of Play are all ‘foreign’ films (or popular television serials) remade for the American market as it was proved to have sold well and they want the money off that. They can’t buy the original so they buy the rights and make their own. This is when you see the watering down and hamstrung production values rear their head. Sure they look glossy and expensive but never in the right places…

The point I am trying laboriously to get to is that the ‘thriving British Film Industry’ was not dealt a death-blow by the closure of the UK Film Council, merely a severe wound. The British Film Industry however IS crippled by ‘Permissions’. Permissions are what we are allowed to show in cinemas. Again Hollywood has a controlling stake in most cinemas and as such only grants permission for its films to be shown in them. Actual British Films are classed as foreign films by the cinemas, believe it or not and Odeon and other chain cinemas are required to show something ridiculous like 90% Hollywood or studio funded films. Whilst I admit I am not an economics expert and not too sure on the exact financial/political ins and outs of this, does that not seem weird? We need permission to show our own films? That seems a little backwards, especially considering we used to have the Behemoth of The Rank Organisation on our shores.

Admittedly, These quote unquote British films do bring a lot of work here and are still British in the sense we populate the production but the net gain of return on investment? Very little. If we were to remove permissions this would free up cinemas to show a far more diverse field of films from all over the world but we like Hollywood’s money (understandably) so why not kill off The UKFC and save some money there and let Hollywood keep pumping money into much-loved ‘quaint’ British productions?

BECAUSE THAT’S STUPID! We used to make idiosyncratic and normally boundary pushing films, now we don’t because the men with the purse strings don’t want to take the risk. If (somehow) I were to get one of my scripts picked up by anyone, I would have a hard time selling them. One is an almost silent spy thriller about Mathematics and the other is a horror about the downfall of society. I think they would be worthwhile movies but they won’t sell. So in short; Who am I writing for? Me or The Market?

I’m not. I’m writing because I think the story should be told.

Which is the attitude most men in suits used to have. Taking a risk and aiming for the stars is something mankind has always done and I believe whole heartedly film as an artistic medium is suffering badly because no one is allowing for this and therefore there is no growth. Inception is one of my favourite films but that film would NOT get made were it by anyone else. A plot that dense with themes that complex does not get picked up by studios. Nolan got a free ride because Dark Knight made more money than God. Again, it paid off. $823 million that film made. Nolan apparently had the idea for that film when he first started out as a director/writer but KNEW no one would buy it. This is sad. I would love one of my scripts to be made (mainly by me) but, without wishing to sound immodest, my scripts assume people don’t want to watch a robot tearing up Chicago for 3 hours. I love films with subtlety and pacing as well as big explosions and chase scenes and these are what I write. Hopefully.

Anyway, I’ve rambled long enough. My point is, we really do need to support the more adventurous films and filmmakers out there or we’ll be getting ‘Hotel for Dogs’ till eyes start to bleed and we all start dragging our knuckles to the cinema with our forehead keeping the rain off our feet.

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