Jon Dudley compares Hollywood to the British film industry…
“…the American hegemony over cinema in Britain has frequently been blamed for preventing the development of an authentically indigenous cinema” – Tom Ryall
American films have dominated global cinema for many decades now. Such is the high number of Hollywood productions being shown in cinemas across the UK that this has perhaps proved a stumbling block for the progression of British film. But how can two industries that share the same language and ʻwesternisationsʼ as each other be so different?
“Film is capitalism in its [most] brutal form”. This quote made by Jeremy Dyson, creator of The League of Gentlemen sums up the Hollywood studio system. Although these huge studios, such as Warner Brothers and Universal, churn out hundreds of films per year, they are more than just producers of the moving image – they are some of the most successful money making machines in the world.
Films obviously rely on a strong story to get people interested in not only watching but investing in them. Hollywood studios have such vast amounts of money to spend that, to take a line from one of the most commercially successful film franchises of all time “with great power comes great responsibility”. This is something that Armando Iannucci, director of British political satire film In The Loop is not necessarily comfortable with. He is on record as saying “The bigger the budget, the more people have a say”. This is one of the reasons why he did not accept funding from the US for this film so as not to jeapordise his creative input.
Stuart Hazledine is a British screenwriter working in the Hollywood system. He talks about how if a writer goes to a production company with a spec script, and the producers like the idea but not the screenplay, they will simply buy the spec script from the writer and hire a proven screenwriter to develop a script based on the original idea. This is in complete contrast to the support given to British writers and directors.
The UK Film Council has a Development Fund which supports writers who are working on a feature film script that has great potential. Also, producers in Britain appear to be a lot more encouraging of first time writer/directors than their Hollywood counter parts. When I spoke to Daniel Jewel, a producer and Managing Director of Third Man Films, he said that he prefers to work with “emerging British talent and newcomers”. It is notoriously hard to break in to the film industry but the fact that newcomers are being actively encouraged in Britain by governing bodies and enthusiastic producers gives hope that fresh and original films by new talent will be made, whereas Hollywood is either too interested in remakes and adaptations or set on making money from the films made by established individuals. Of course Hollywood makes room for newcomers otherwise the industry would not move forward, however in Britain there seems to be more focus on bringing through talented film makers.
“Without knowing it, and ten years before the creation of the first American studio, Charles Pathé had laid the foundations of the system which would enable the Hollywood moguls to reign over the movie industry for decades to come” – David Puttnam
One of the key differences between the British and American film industries which is the catalyst of the significant financial success of Hollywood productions is the studio system. This is where a company invests money into a film and recoups the money it takes at the box office. This money is then invested into new projects and more often than not American films make a profit and the cycle continues.
This system is not a significant aspect of British film production and many British films are made on low budgets. I spoke to up and coming British writer/director David T. Lynch (no, not THAT David Lynch) about his thoughts. David and his brother have recently been awarded a £250,000 budget to make their first feature, Different Shades of Graham. David was very excited at the prospect of his project going into development, and rightly so, however £250,000 for a Hollywood production would probably not cover even a secondary character actors fee.
Although Britain has many production companies, they are not on the same scale as those in Hollywood. However, David T. Lynch said “Vertigo Films I think is the only company in Britain that takes the American production approach – they put money into films they know will make their money back and possibly a tidy profit”. Vertigo Films know their audience and produce films they feel will appeal to them. In America though, the globally dominating production companies can produce films of varying genres targeting different demographics and still be very commercially successful.
As well as higher production budgets than British films, Hollywood movies have significantly more money to spend on marketing and distribution. The way that the Hollywood studios throw a film at you makes it almost impossible to ignore. Not only are posters, billboards, newspaper and magazines advertisements and trailers more widely distributed, but some marketing techniques are more effective than those used in the UK. In his book The Undeclared War, David Puttnam says how Antoine Lumiére felt that “the key to the popularity of American goods in overseas markets was… their talent for boastful publicity”. This statement is perhaps most appropriate when applied to the American film industry.
David T. Lynch was in Florida, USA when Guy Ritchieʼs film Snatch was released on DVD in America. He says “On the front of the DVD they had Brad Pitt at the front in full colour, then all the other cast behind him in black and white”. Brad Pitt does not play the central protagonist in this film, however in order to sell more copies and appeal to a wider audience, he was key to getting people interested in this movie. It would be wrong to say that British films do not use popular actors to promote their films, as Harry Brown, released theatrically in the UK in late November 2009, featured a solitary image of Michael Caine on its official poster. But it seems American stars have a lot more box office potential, both in their homeland and abroad, than their British counterparts.
Maurice Phillips is a director who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic. I was very curious as to what his own personal experiences and insights into the differences between Hollywood and the British film industries were. “Hollywood is a movie town”, he said. “Film is it’s life-blood. Everywhere you look there is evidence of the movie business”. He then went on to talk about how young budding actors, actresses, directors and producers flock to Hollywood to “cash in on the ʻDream Machineʼ”.
What is interesting is that the whole town is dedicated purely to the movie business, and “there are glass towers devoted solely to talent agencies, and the classy restaurants are packed with people making film deals… the LAPD even has a special department devoted solely to facilitating film crews” according to Maurice. This I found intriguing, as not only is film taken more seriously as a form of business in America but it seems to raise the notion of a cultural difference as well – by this I mean that it almost feels like a way of life. People move to Hollywood with the solitary aim of making it in the industry. Of course if they do they will be financially stable for the rest of their lives, but the number of people that do not succeed must eclipse those that do by some margin.
Another very interesting point Maurice talks about is the desire of those that work in Hollywood to get to the top. He said “on a movie set, you will find grips, caterers, secretaries, truck drivers, and extras who all have a movie script they’ve written”. From this statement it appears that only the top is good enough for the people working in Hollywood and the determination they have is evident. This is in contrast to what John Costello talks about in his book Writing a Screenplay. Of the British industry he says “I make no apologies for holding a general antipathy towards the underachieving, unambitious culture of British films”. He then backs his own point up with a quote from James Wilson, Deputy Head of Production at Film Four. Wilson says “I despair of a film culture that canʼt think beyond the stylistic language of Eastenders”. It is clear from this section in Costelloʼs book that not only himself but other people within the British film industry feel that there is a lack of ambition. “Whoʼs got the balls?” Costello asks. It seems the Americans have.
Although in Britain there seems to be more encouragement for new comers to the industry, it appears that our American cousins have more talent. But maybe we only think like that because, like most of Hollywoodʼs productions, we canʼt help but take more notice.
Jon Dudley is a freelance film and television journalist and his 17-minute short film Justification was shown at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.