Hollywood muscle pumps Brit pix blitz

LONDON — On the face of it, Peter Cattaneo’s “The Full Monty” and John Madden’s “Mrs. Brown” represent the twin stereotypes of low-budget British filmmaking.

One is about a bunch of unemployed steelworkers struggling for self-esteem in the grimy landscape of post-industrial Sheffield; the other a decorous period drama about repressed passion, drenched in imperial nostalgia and boasting a peerless perf from Judi Dench, a grande dame of the London stage.

Yet their U.K. openings, on Aug. 29 and Sept. 5, respectively, could mark a turning-point in the British film industry’s battle to reclaim its screens from the almost unchallenged dominance of American blockbusters.

Major H’wood distribbers

That’s because both are being released here by major Hollywood distributors — “Full Monty” by Fox and “Mrs. Brown” by Buena Vista — who see them as potential multiplex hits and are giving them the full studio treatment, with 150 to 200 prints each on their first weekends.

Normally these are the kind of films that British filmgoers would have to drive 50 miles to their nearest arthouse cinema to see in a one-week-only booking — or, more likely, wait a couple of years for the TV premiere. But these two films are getting the chance to see whether a quality British movie can attract a large British audience if it is given all the marketing advantages of a Hollywood movie.

At a time when production is booming, the stubbornly low market share of British movies in their home territory is widely regarded as the film industry’s most persistent structural weakness. For all the critical kudos and overseas success of small British pics in the past few years, they still claim less than 10% of their domestic box office — which is no better than their share in Scandinavia or Spain.

One specific goal

Doubling that figure to 20% is the one specific goal, amid more general homilies about improving training and attracting more foreign filmmakers to shoot in the U.K., that the new Labor government has spelled out in its current review of film policy, which is being carried out by a committee of industry experts.

There’s a growing opinion in influential quarters that this might be best achieved by encouraging the U.K. distribution arms of the Hollywood studios to handle more local movies. Brits have noticed how the market share of German pics in Germany has boomed in the past couple of years after the major distribs got involved in local production and distribution.

The irony, as one British distrib points out, is that by the time the government’s policy recommendations are published some time early next year, there’s a chance the 20% market share target will already have been reached. That’s because there’s a purple patch of British films with genuine mass-market prospects heading for release in the next six months.

This started Aug. 8 with Polygram’s “Bean,” continues with Fox’s “The Full Monty” and Buena Vista’s “Mrs. Brown” in the next few weeks, and then keeps up the pace with “Shooting Fish” from Entertainment, several more Polygram pics including “The Borrowers,” “Wilde” and the Spice Girls’ movie and the Bond pic “Tomorrow Never Dies” from UIP (Bond has always been classified as British).

What all these films have in common is that they are being released by deep-pocketed distribs, whether American or British, whose slates include Hollywood blockbusters, and all of whom, except Entertainment, are backed by multinational muscle.

British filmmakers have long been arguing that the poor market share of their movies is a distribution problem (the movies don’t get a chance to reach a wide audience) rather than a creative one (the movies aren’t entertaining enough to attract a mass audience).

They say that British pics get squeezed off screens and out of the public consciousness by second-string Hollywood product that benefits from the marketing money and booking muscle of the major distribs.

If you can’t beat them, the reasoning increasingly goes, you have to join them. Theater owners may like “The Full Monty” in its own right, but their willingness to support it is undoubtedly improved by their desire to keep sweet with the distrib that will be bringing them “Titanic” later in the year.

“Distribution, distribution, distribution — that’s the issue,” argues Uberto Pasolini, producer of “The Full Monty,” which was financed by Fox Searchlight. “The whole business of people saying to European producers that you just need to make films audiences want to see is complete crap. There are American movies that should not be in 100 theaters, ghastly movies with terrible reviews that no one cares about, but because a major has the muscle, they get them onto those screens.

“If you have good distribution, you can turn bad movies into moneymakers,” he said. “If you do not have good distribution, then you sometimes cannot turn good movies into moneymakers. And when the studios feel they have a moneymaker on their hands, they spend money to make sure that happens.”

This analysis of the problem is supported by the Minister of Culture Chris Smith. “The classic example is ‘Secrets & Lies,’ ” Smith said. “There are many parts of Britain where no one who wanted to see ‘Secrets & Lies’ was able to because it wasn’t being shown. Where it was being shown, it was playing to packed houses, getting rave reviews. People loved it. There must be something wrong with a situation where you have really good quality movies being made in this country and there are large parts of the country where people can’t actually get access to see them.”

But distribs and exhibs, whatever their nationality, are more skeptical about this rose-tinted view that the British audience is being thwarted in its desire for Mike Leigh. They have always argued that if a local pic shows genuine popular appeal, then it will have no difficulty getting the screens and marketing it needs. The problem, they say, is that such films have been few and far between in recent years. The brute reality is that Leigh is a specialized taste, and Film Four was ecstatic to pull in more than $3 million for the pic.

Smith met with reps from the major studios at Cannes to discuss the issue, and said he detected some enthusiasm for the rising commercial potential of British movies. “I indicated the direction in which my thinking was going on this and my concern about the problem, and I have to say that I got a remarkably positive response,” he reported.

The major distribs privately concede that handling a few more local pics may have a political advantage that justifies the gamble on risky commercial prospects, if only to avert the threat of more draconian coercion. “It may be worth it to be seen to be doing it,” said one exec.

“In Germany, the majors have lost money on a couple of German movies and made a bit on a couple, but it means we are seen to be a player there.”

Ultimately, politics can be only a marginal influence resulting in token involvement. The only thing that will consistently attract the big distribs is that belief that there’s money to be made. Daniel Battsek, managing director of Buena Vista (U.K.) and a member of the government’s film advisory committee, said, “We can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The film has to have potential. If it does, hopefully we are experienced enough or smart enough to make it pay off.”

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. There are signs of a growing enthusiasm from British audiences for well-crafted Brit pics, and matching signs that the production boom is bringing with it a greater populism among British filmmakers. That in turn is sparking the interest of the majors, which helps to maximize the reach of the movies, building the audience and further encouraging British filmmakers out of their arthouse mindset.

UIP recently picked up Antonia Bird’s gritty “Face,” its first British acquisition since “Ladybird Ladybird” three years ago. “The more consistently the audience is brought in for this kind of movie, the more interested they will be in the next one,” said Battsek, who has pioneered the crossover market with a string of hits from “Muriel’s Wedding” to “Emma,” “Shine” and “The English Patient.”

“The more success we have with these films, the more confidence the market will have in them, both consumers and exhibitors. But the most important thing is that it creates confidence in filmmakers. They can see that there’s no barrier to British movies becoming successful.”

The British film industry is not going to double its domestic market share by producing more of the same, but by broadening its range. Polygram has already demonstrated how a major global player with a commitment to British production can nurture the latent populism of local filmmakers, showing the way to its Hollywood rivals.

“The Full Monty,” financed as well as distributed by Fox, is an advertisement for the way the support of a major studio can encourage more popular British filmmaking without sacrificing cultural integrity.

The film is a crowd-pleaser that nonetheless springs without compromise from the great British school of working-class realism.

“Mrs. Brown” was made as a modest BBC telepic, but its career path was transformed when Miramax snapped up worldwide rights and pushed the boat out at Cannes. Far from imposing a big release on a small film, BVI execs say their decision to go for 150 prints in the U.K. was simply a response to demand.Douglas Rae, the film’s producer, believes that whatever the strengths of his movie, the backing from Miramax and BVI has significantly improved its prospects of breaking through in its home market. “The fact that we went to Cannes, then opened in New York means that there is quite a spillover in PR, a perception here that the film is a movie of international status, giving it a momentum that a British distributor would be hard to match,” said Rae.

Pasolini is delighted by Fox’s support for his movie, but he warned against the dangers for British producers of seeing the American distribs as the answer to their prayers. Pasolini served a stint as a studio exec, and knows the whims of the system. He argued that there’s no substitute for building strong Euro distribs. “Without a distribution mechanism that is geared to distribute European movies, then we are always dependent on the good mood of American distributors,” he said.

“In the long term you, can’t build a business that relies upon the decision-making that takes place in Hollywood.”

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