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U.K. pic policy leaves British filmmakers cold

The British film industry gave a lukewarm response June 6 to the Conservative government’s first major statement of film policy in more than a decade.

Producers welcomed the central pledge that more than £ 80 million ($130 million) of national lottery money would be in vested in the production and distribution of British films in the next five years.

But they pointed out that the decision to spend lottery money on filmmaking had actually been made by the Arts Council, not the government. Some suggested that the government was using this lottery windfall as a substitute for developing a coherent film policy of its own.

National Heritage Secretary Stephen Dorrell made the lottery initiative the centerpiece of his announcement, describing the rest of his proposals as “little things” by comparison.

These “little things” include:

* A commitment to provide seed finance for a London Film Commission, which will be launched this summer.

* The creation of an advisory committee involving financial institutions and producers to improve filmmakers’ access to capital markets.

* A feasibility study for the establishment of a showcase cinema in London’s West End dedicated to British movies.

* A promise of $280,000 to support next year’s cinema centenary celebrations.

But, as expected, Dorrell did not give his support for new tax breaks on production costs, or for reducing the burden of with holding tax on foreign actors making films in Britain.

Both of these measures were proposed by the all-party National Heritage Select Committee report on the film industry published two months ago. Dorrell’s statement was a response to that report.

Producer Jeremy Thomas, who is also chairman of the British Film Institute, said, “It is difficult to see precisely what this first policy statement since 1984 is going to achieve in real terms.

“I suspect that if the British car industry and U.K. defense manufacturers were told that their future depended on applying to the Arts Council for a share of the national lottery, and on the establishment of a committee to examine their financing needs, they would be rather concerned,” he said.

Tax reform

BFI director Wilf Stevenson said, “It is very much to be regretted that today’s statement is silent on the Select Committee’s call for major changes in the way film is treated in the U.K. tax code – something which the industry is firmly united on as being a vital and necessary condition for growth.”

Chris Smith, the opposition Labor Party’s National Heritage spokesman, stole a famous line from “Casablanca” to describe the government’s policy as not amounting to “a hill of beans.”

The Conservative government has become notorious over the years for its indifference to the pleas for support from the British film industry. In 1990 then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was suddenly converted to the cause, but was ousted from power before much significant progress could be made.

Policy goals

The main aim of his policy, Dorrell said, was to enable the British film industry to build on its recent successes, like “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “The Madness of King George.”

He pointed out that it was not in his power to change tax law to favor the film industry. That decision is up to the Treasury in its fall budget, but Dorrell would not say whether he would be campaigning for the idea.

As well as earmarking at least $113.7 million for production until the year 2000, the Arts Council expects to spend at least $16.25 million to pay for more prints and better marketing of British films, and to help refurbish independent cinemas.

Peter Gummer, chairman of the Arts Council Lottery Board, said that in reality the combined figure of $130 million could easily rise as high as $162.5 million or even more, depending on lottery revenues.

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