In 1993 I was invited to become chairman of PACT, the body that represents every film and television producer in the UK. Although my experience was limited to the small screen, I had to write to the membership setting out a strategy for helping both sides of the production spectrum.
TV was easy: as someone who’d left the north east after school and spent his entire career in London, I wanted to help my colleagues who’d remained in the regions. So we started a campaign that led directly to the BBC and Channel 4 quotas for programmes produced outside the M25: they exist to this day, and have resulted in thousands of hours of regional production.
Film policy was tougher to get my head around, because I knew nothing about the politics of the industry. I asked the chief executive of PACT, John Woodward, what British cinema needed most. He said simply, “More British films”. Apparently more than 95% of all films shown in UK cinemas were American. “What we need are tax incentives to bring money into UK film production”.
“Well, that’s easy”, I said naively, “all our MPs will find it appalling that we’re feeding our children a diet of American movies. It’s a cultural argument.”
John shook his head. It wasn’t as simple as it looked. The Conservatives had never looked kindly on film luvvies: many of our stars names were openly left of centre and frequently showed up at Labour fund-raising events. And the cultural argument was a non-starter: one only had to look at the isolationist French film industry, producing esoteric films at a huge cost in public subsidy. Nor could we use anti-American sentiment: our cinemas were controlled by the American distributors, so we had to carry Hollywood with us.
This needed to be a commercial, not cultural, argument. There were huge financial benefits to the economy from film production, and we had to convince the government that our industry was capable of making big profitable blockbusters as well as art house classics.
So one morning in 1994 John and I hosted a press conference in the Savoy Hotel, with Michael Winner on one side, Tim Bevan of Working Title on the other, and men in ties from Warner Brothers and Paramount nodding tacit approval; together we launched a campaign for tax breaks for British films.
It was the first time the entire film industry had come together with a united voice. But it took many years of lobbying and a change of government before the campaign succeeded. To persuade Gordon Brown, we produced a complex financial model that showed the economic benefits that would derive from a relatively modest tax concession.
We got our sums right. Since the breaks were brought in, the proportion of UK films shown in our cinemas has more than tripled to 17% and British films now contribute £4.3 billion a year to our economy.
So it’s not surprising there’s been such a universal outcry to the knee-jerk decision of the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to axe the body set up to make the whole thing work: the UK Film Council. Run by the very same John Woodward who masterminded our original PACT campaign, the organisation was set up in 2000 as the cornerstone of the revitalised industry. Since then box office takings have increased by 60%, and, more importantly, over 8% of that revenue has been spent on British “indie” films. Currently 44,000 people are directly employed in film, with a further 95,000 working on ancillary services. It’s a multi-billion industry that’s the envy of the rest of the world.
Now, thanks to one ill-judged government announcement, the future of British film is in jeopardy. It’s no wonder that stars, technicians and film-lovers everywhere are up in arms.