This summer will see the re-release of the iconic British film, Chariots of Fire. Its release comes as Britain hosts the 30th Olympiad, 88 years after Liddell and Abrahams, the heroes of the film, ran to achieve gold for Britain.
Chariots of Fire is emblematic of the Olympic spirit and serves as a reminder of the high and low points of the British film industry.
It has been a long journey for British cinema, but one that now sees UK film commanding centre-stage, both at home and abroad. It is a position that will only be sustained if the government acts quickly and guarantees effective implementation of Lord Smith’s film policy report.
The sustained success of UK film is reliant upon a new generation of talent learning the skills that are necessary to make great movies. Our current skillset is world class. Lord Smith is right, however, to highlight the need for government to preserve and expand film education and training for the next generation of talent.
Central to his recommendations was an emphasis on improving film education in schools. At a time when the Conservative-led government is seemingly determined to cut culture and creativity from the curriculum, this will be a challenge for Ed Vaizey, the minister for film, to persuade his colleagues across Whitehall, that this matters.
In the current climate, Labour believes that the economic argument for properly supporting the UK film industry is compelling. The government has finally supported the industry by extending Labour’s successful film tax credit into animation, computer gaming and high-value TV production.
The next step for Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey to address is access to finance. Banks are reluctant lenders to creative projects that have a degree of risk to their return. The issue for film, like all of the creative industries, is that risk is a crucial element to innovation – if it had been done before, there would be no need to do it again.
Chariots of Fire’s re-release coincides with what should be the dawn of a new era for British film. Following the government’s controversial plan to abolish the UK Film Council, and place its functions with the British Film Institute, the future of our British cinema successes is far from guaranteed.
There are rightly major concerns over piracy and intellectual property rights. Lord Smith was right to suggest that the government must ramp up its attack on piracy. Heeding the advice of Lord Smith and implementing his recommendations would be a good starting point.
In fact, the government’s film ‘strategy’, to date, has been incoherent. The King’s Speech became the highest grossing independent British film of all time, with The Inbetweeners coming a close second. The final chapter of Harry Potter earned more than any other 2011 release, and there were numerous and diverse British film success stories including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Johnny English Reborn, Senna and We Need to Talk about Kevin.
But sustained government leadership and support for UK film is a prerequisite for the investment and infrastructure to complement each other, and to thrive.
Harriet Harman and I recognise that despite recent successes there is still untapped potential for British film. We would produce a comprehensive strategy to ensure our young people are able to learn the skills needed to succeed. We would harness our ability to attract inward investment to the UK so that British film can continue to act as a major driver for the UK’s economy. Finally, we would nurture, not neglect, our creative talent, so that we are able to deliver innovative cinematography, from across the country, to an increasingly diverse and global audience.
The government talks complacently about the success of British film, but is doing little to support its expansion and sustained growth.
Lord Smith’s recommendation of a ‘British Brand’ is also an important next step for UK film but effective delivery of this will be challenging. Cinemagoers don’t set out from their homes to see ‘British’ films, they set out to see ‘great’ films. Therefore the primary objective must be to encourage more great British films.
As Lord Smith identified, one of the key issues is technology. In three years most commercial cinemas will have been digitised and celluloid will largely be consigned to history. Digital projectors now provide almost limitless flexibility for film programmers as content is streamed into cinemas by satellite or loaded onto servers at very low cost.
These advancements provide huge opportunities but creating a strategy for total digitisation of not-for-profit and arthouse venues is a challenge for the government, and as yet we have seen no plans from Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey to address this.
In fact, the proposed Digital Cinema Innovation Fund that was to have been set up two years ago has been scrapped – at a time when it was needed more than ever.
Clearly the time is right to develop a plan to sustain our existing, but often struggling, specialised film venues. This would be part of the transformation process that moves our national cinema into a new era, and encourages new ways of bringing local communities together.
Thirty years ago, when Colin Welland accepted his Oscar for Chariots of Fire, he told the audience that ‘the British are coming’. Three decades later, despite some tough times, the British excel on the big and little screen. It is a success story built on a vision of what British film could achieve. It is essential, for our sustained global success and economic growth, that the government now show us their vision, for the next chapter in British film history.