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Brit crit in snit over U.K. pic subsidies

LONDON — There have been a number of articles written in the last few years about the declining influence and importance of film critics. But in the U.K., there’s at least one critic who a substantial number of film pros wish were a lot less visible. One senior Film Council official has described him privately as “the most dangerous man in the British film industry.”

What troubles the critics of critic Alexander Walker of the Evening Standard, London’s local paper, is not so much what he says about what’s on the screen, but the almost religious fervor with which he uses his platform to attack the public financial support for U.K. film production.

Indeed, Walker seems to spend as much time reviewing the financing as the films themselves.

Two high-profile British releases of the last few weeks invoked Walker’s wrath. Mel Smith’s “High Heels and Low Lifes” was fully financed by Disney. But because the producer has since received lottery coin for its development slate, Walker wrote: “Our new Film Council, set up by the sacked Culture Secretary Chris Smith, has [paid] over £1.26 million ($1.82 million) of public money from the Lottery to six British filmmakers, one of them Fragile Films, the company that produced ‘High Heels.’ I hope it applies its soft loan to developing worthier projects.”

On “The Parole Officer,” the recently premiered Steve Coogan comedy from lottery franchise DNA Films, Walker mused “The total production cost of ‘Parole’ was listed… as £5,998,955, of which public subsidy via the lottery came to a cool £2 million… We have more pressing uses for the lottery, like health and education, than funding commercial filmmakers to this generous extent.”

The very mention of Walker’s name can make otherwise reserved execs boil with rage. They know Walker, who has been with the Standard for 42 years, speaks directly to the London audience, whose tastes can make or a break a movie before it gets a chance in the rest of the country.

They also know that outside the inner sanctum of British film production, Walker has many readers who wish him long life and more ink.

Richard Holmes, managing director of Civilian Content, the publicly-quoted company which owns lotto franchise the Film Consortium, is not one of them. He is, however, one of the very few execs willing to critique Walker in public. Walker made a big deal of personally purchasing 50 shares of Civilian (estimated value: $30), a scheme that he undertook in order to obtain shareholder info and to generally make the firm’s execs more miserable.

Holmes questions the probity of the stunt: “I don’t think a major journalist who owns 50 shares should use his shareholding to undermine the interests of the majority of shareholders.”

The demarcation line between Walker fan and Walker foe is simple and central to an understanding of the current U.K. film scene.

Foes believe in the work of the Film Council, and its use of lottery coin to build a better film industry. Walker fans relish the fact that he takes the industry to the woodshed. He confirms their suspicion that producers are pampered fat cats, living high on the public pound and giving little in return. One top entertainment attorney told me, “Walker is absolutely right. Those on the inside keep washing each other’s hands while those on the outside can only dream of getting any financial support.”

Over lunch in Covent Garden, I ask the veteran film critic why almost all of the attacks on him are in private. “Silence is the best defense when you’re guilty,” says Walker with a chuckle. Of course, it may also have something to do with the reluctance of filmmakers to speak out against an influential critic, for fear of how their next movie will be reviewed.

But Walker notes, “The producers have eaten well and the financial services sector, the tax experts, the accountants, the lawyers have all eaten well. But not the actual film artists.” He claims there is no shortage of supporters loudly urging him to “Press on!”

Walker also takes pains to clarify what is perceived by his non-fans as a quasi-moralistic stance against public funding of cinema. Over, appropriately, crab cakes, Walker meticulously details the history of public financing and tax schemes, pausing along the way to muse on the significance of key Brit film biz events of decades ago.

“In the ’80s,” recalls Walker, “there was a levy on tickets that was very troubling to fellows like Jack Valenti and Lew Wasserman. Wasserman came over and visited with Maggie Thatcher several times and the levies were lifted, just as the multiplexes began popping up. I have always suspected a quid pro quo because the Hollywood studios benefited by the lifting of the levies and the U.K. tax coffers increased from the business of the multiplexes. But none of my questions about the meetings of Thatcher and Wasserman were ever answered.” He’s probably the only critic practising in the U.K. or elsewhere who can and will recount the long-ago quagmire of deals between Thorn-EMI, Cannon and Pathe.

Contrary to popular belief, Walker says he does support some efforts to encourage film production in the U.K., such as the work of the British Film Commission. He even thinks the government missed a chance to help the film industry. “They should have bought cinemas,” argues Walker, “because they’re acting as if producing the film is the end of the story. You have to have screens that will show the movies.”

He also laments the folding of British Screen, which he sees as an example of “public funding that was correctly proportioned. Simon Perry spent about £4 million ($6 million) per year and I believe the return on investment was in the neighborhood of 50%, which is more than respectable in the film business.”

So why is Walker so damned opposed to the current set-up? “What I’m against” he explains, “is the exorbitant scale and the uncontrolled subsidies. Public money should to go to culture, education, national heritage. This money was never intended to become an industrial subsidy.”

Over £100 million has been spent on single projects and lottery franchises. Walker’s barbs may focus on financial machinations, but the reality is that many other British film critics are extremely tough on the artistic quality of current U.K. filmmakers. Duncan Kenworthy and Andrew Macdonald of DNA Films have even chosen to premiere two of their first four pics in America, which they believe is more sympathetic to Brit arthouse pics than the hometown crowd.

Isn’t it enough to crucify the local filmmakers on creative grounds? Why doesn’t Walker leave the finance side of the pictures to the business page of the Evening Standard? “I am just saying to my readers, ‘It’s your money.’ I know my readers are irritated and angry by the system. As long as there is one pound of public money in a film I’m reviewing, my readers will know it.”

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