Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Macro Level Trends – UK Film-Making – 'Exporting Britain' using the Car as Cultural Delivery Vehicle.

The very beginning of 2012 saw David Cameron visit Pinewood Studios in Middlesex, north-west of central London. He questioned how the British film industry might achieve a new economic renaissance. Whilst simultaneously achieving far greater financial accountability within the strictures UK film industry funding, a large portion of which comes from the UK's Lottery monies.

[NB it is the very complexity and so poor opacity of the film-making process, together with abundant stories failed film ventures, which deters much of the private sector investment, itself seeking low-risk, measurable and manageable returns].

Cameron's words appeared to infer that Britain must once again create a new golden age of film. Presumably, an era that can capture both the country's own popular imagination, so as to re-direct monies inward that have been previously flowing outward to foreign producers; and the world's popular imagination at large, so to bring-in external revenues (thus assisting the 'invisible' trade inflows) and attract FDI into the sector, and maintain a level of soft-power influence through cultural affiliation across the world.

In short, mimicking yet also re-orientating a prevailing US “Bang for the Buck” mentality of Hollywood, toward a “Punch for the Pound” ethos. The present problem - possibly more evident to those critical external eyes outside the film industry than those optimistic, idealised mindsets inside the industry – is the seeming large expenditure that takes place relative to box-office and other income stream returns.

The success stories 'Four Weddings & A Funeral', 'The Full Monty', 'Notting Hill', 'Slumdog Millionaire' and 'The Kings Speech' are lauded as recent pinnacles of the UK film sector, but those examples stretch back over nearly 20 years, and whilst other titles such as 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Harry Potter' are considered British, they are in fact Anglo-American creations; and as such, much of the box office return goes to American coffers.

These then the blockbuster titles amongst the UK's no doubt plethora of culturally worthy but financially miserable (ie loss-making) film output year on year. Hence the PM's over-due call for a changed business model given the scale of public funding previously injected into agencies like the BFI (British Film Institute) and UK's National Film Council.

Established in 2000, the NFC states that it has: “backed more than 900 films, shorts and features, which have won over 300 awards and entertained more than 200 million people around the world, generating £5 for every £1 of Lottery money it has invested”. Exactly how that figure was arrived at, and exactly where much of that £5 flows into the UK economy – presuming it was not a simple 'multiplier effect' sum - is no doubt debatable. Of those 900 films, it can only be the case that a limited number became engrained in the popular consciousness.

Britain is typically accused of producing little more than its historic 'stock output' of: period dramas, middle-class romantic comedies, working-class comedies, and latter-day dour 'kitchen-sink' genre.

These typically more culturally sensitive (realistically niche) films set against America's global distributional dominance and constant cinema feed of action-adventure, 'rom-coms' and wars films.

The surface difference between the UK and US is that the former has little distributional leverage and so focuses on what it knows can be internally digested or sell to TV related channels such as Film4 in the UK or similar elsewhere. Whilst the America seeks to feed the many thousands of (increasingly multiplex) cinemas and a worldwide audience of possibly near a billion viewers.

To partially feed that growing and insatiable global appetite, dipping into ones own filmic archive to re-produce past hits has become an industry staple, but over recent times Hollywood produced new versions of British classics such as 'Alfie' and 'The Italian Job'. Rodeo-Drive lunching executives recognising the innate draw of the originals and cross-play between US and UK audiences.

[NB The latter also heavily commercially driven by BMW's entry of the Mini into the US, made for a highly compelling business case].

If the previous simple delineation between 'inward micro' UK and 'outward macro' US output remained the case, then perhaps the UK's relatively small industry could continue indefinitely within its own micro-economy, the few big hit films such as The King's Speech providing the notional 'return on investment' to support the raft of financially floundered films.

But, critically it seems that Britain's own filmic and story-telling history, has and is, being subtly appropriated by others. The adaption of the book 'War Horse' to stage (on London's South Bank) appears a British undertaking, with the casting of (Harry Potter's) Daniel Radcliffe giving the production added mass appeal. Yet the film rights, directed by Steven Spielberg, were bought by a an American-Indian venture.

British nationalists, stereotypically reflected as the readers of 'Horse & Hound' and 'Country Life' would be less than delighted to know that has been the outcome, and very probably the British masses (English, Welsh, Scottish & Northern Irish alike) would no doubt feel some tinge of regret were it widely known.

So the Prime Minister's visit to Pinewood Studios and the call for innate reform of the UK film industry so as to re-balance the cultural and commercial was timely indeed.

Given that a reported £4.2bn is absorbed annually there must be greater input versus output alignment.

The findings of Lord (Chris) Smith's film industry review – announced in May 2011 and released in mid January 2012 – sought that UK film-making become a far less volatile, more stable entity. Providing various recommendations intended to assist. In short to re-balance the application of industry's national lottery funding toward supporting independent pictures that have mainstream potential. Successful film companies would receive greater support, rather than large portions of funding given to unproven film-makers; very possibly using that money to raise their profile on experimental ventures that make their name, possibly win awards, but add are actually economically value destructive.

Thus far greater and very necessary finance provision criteria, general financial planning and oversight, with centralisation of management within the BFI; as the NFC becomes amalgamated.

Though at first sight it appears the system's reform is intended to only back projects intended for large scale commercial success, we are also told that monies will be provided for those promising individuals, companies and projects on the filmic fringe and those 'up and coming' who's fruits of commercial success can be “re-cycled” back into film ventures. This a much improved and logical path for assistance, instead of those fruits being automatically handed back to the general lottery pot, and the frustrations of film funding apportioning revisted.

Furthermore, the now more potent British Film Institute also expected to develop an export strategy.

Critics of course question whether any body – committee or single guru - can guess which films may go on to find big audiences, at home or across the globe, but at least an important issue has gained greater limelight and the question can be addressed with new formulae.

Although 'UK film' per se stretches back to the end the Victorian era and the adoption of the early celluloid process, the sector's glory days were undoubtedly the post-WW2 period, when 3 primary studios ran. Rank Organisation owned Ealing Studios offered 'Kind Hearts & Coronets', 'The Lavender Hill Mob' & 'Passport to Pimlico'. Shepperton Studios gave 'The Third Man', 'Guns of Navarone' & 'The Day of the Triffids'. Whilst Pinewood Studios presented 'Oliver Twist', 'Genevieve' and 'Carry on Nurse' (the 2nd of that successful series), it came into its own in the 1960s and 1970s with its James Bond films. Bond perhaps reflecting the only archetype of a stable and growth orientated film income stream up until Harry Potter, which now has built on such popularity with a 'studio lot' tourist facility in Leavesden, Hertfordshire.

The innate dynamics of the film industry - its complexity and associated cost structures of facilities, equipment, an army of on-set crew and off-set artisans, editors etc, all riding upon the insecure nature of public reception and revenues – make it the very definition of an “alternative asset class” through investors eyes.

That world of film funding then makes even the now castigated, poor performing hedge fund sector look positively 'alpha' in its overall returns with 'only' a 2% loss over recent years versus the FTSE's or S&P's 4-5% average gains.

As long as capitalism per se has been in existence, its fringes have been populated by what has come to be known as the 'alternative asset class'.

This then an arena which spans a varied spectrum of possibilities – initially far beyond the norms of regulated instruments such as government guilts, corporate bonds, company stocks, and often diametrically opposite the 'solidness' of physical entities such as land, natural resource rights, commodities, semi-manufactured goods and finished goods.

As economies and nations moved forward, from agricultural to to industrial toward post-industrial and increasingly knowledge-based, so innate perception of what constitutes 'value' has altered. And with it of course the development of commercial entities and the financial markets to cater for a much changed world, which itself operates within a 'man-made', technologically based and increasingly ethereal construct.

The creative and increasingly conceptually based aspect of 'media' is the apex of this construct, and within that sphere the art or craft or whatever of film-making then becomes ever harder to properly value, and even when successful increasingly hard to repeat on all but the most powerful of titles.

Ironically this has remained the ongoing 'variable constant' even over the last 2 decades were other realms once classified as 'alternative asset classes' have become increasingly mainstream. Even with the 1999 Tech Bubble, the success stories of Silicon Valley (ie Apple, Google, Facebook) have become responsible for injecting phrases like 'VC' and 'Bootstrap Financing' into the lexicon of teenage business students across not only Berkeley or Yale, but across Delhi, Beijing & Sao Paulo. Over a few decades, or even very few years, those and similar monolithic names have come to dominate the on-line world, which itself has now morphed seemlessly into the everyday real-world, creating a new era of virtual-physicality; this itself extended with trends such as near-point payment methods that require no actual physical contact.

We see the ultimate fusion of what post-modern philosophers call the 'subject' (the person) and the 'object' (the external); in which the IT device, software and network operator become the aligned information broker, and rational mankind – as some argue - steps ever closer toward becoming cybotic, and subsumed to the interplay of human emotional impulse and external machine prompting, unthinking reactors to possibly orchestrated external stimuli.

Whilst the sophistication of this merged-realm, merged-reality has undoubtedly increased over the last 20 years from mobile phone and personal notebook and e-tablet use, the origins of the subject-object inter-connect lay in the formation of film and television industries, which themselves have unarguably influenced 20th and 21st century collective and individual psychology, indeed psychosis.

Thus, over the last 100 years Film, TV (with now 'connected media') have irrevocably shaped - and at times controlled – western society, and in the last 50 years reached across the global society. Moving far beyond the influence of the previous influencer - a newspaper page - that expansive geographic 'horizontal' reach, now with the web and mobile devices, is supported by reach into the vertical depth of the individual's mind and being. Sci-Fi meets Science Fact.

As such the very essence of culture was molded by film, the the depiction of old culture juxtaposed to new culture and of course the early 20th century arrival of society-wide consumer culture.

Such social influence is then an immensely powerful theme for the global investment community. It's what makes the world turn.

To this end the socially influential aspect of film has undoubtedly been exploited, the prevalence of product placement having both assisted corporate PR ambitions whilst also simultaneously undermining the credibility of film as a socially reflective art-form.

Thus far this post has shown why the UK film arena should take heed of the Film Review's recommendations for the benefit of both the sector's credibility and a necessary stabilised income stream and to buoy UK finances. It has demonstrated how the culturally important stories about the British identity (true and fictional) have been and are being retold to global audiences by foreign film-makers, film companies and distributors. How the US vs UK differences are: distribution & value-chain 'demand' led by USA Inc, versus the more culturally nuanced narrow 'supply' led formula of UK Ltd. And how, even in an era of technology led cyborg-like fusion for the user, film exists in its own unique (effectively mid 20th century formed) bubble.

[NB Though of course Sony's purchase of Colombia & Tri-Star and other entities was effectively merged to create a broad-span interest that could unify 'top to tail' cinematic/video entertainment activities: creation through to consumption].

Recent years have seen an ongoing power exchange between the organised commercial film world, its internal operators and rising talent and indeed film watchers, as the availability of ever more affordable technical devices with near professional quality have empowered those 'independents' inside the industry and indeed outside to create their own films. To then post them on video-sharing websites, social networking sites, personal websites and dedicated amateur film-making websites.

Thus a new 'flip-side' has grown which, as with all similar creative arts from music to painting to publishing, has 'democratised' the process. Though of course the new “creativity enablers and brokers” could be said to be Google et al.

It should be no surprise then that the marginalisation of UK film has occurred, with the US not only effectively owning global cinema distribution but also, as inextricably linked with Japan's hardware heritage, able to reach both cinema auditoriums and home sofas.

As such contemporary commercial reality has eroding the UK's traditional position. Yet the government has recognised Britain's loss of soft-power influence, relative to the critical importance of global media power, and the key issue of UK and Western culture's dissemination within a much altered, new economically ordered, world.

How then does this emergent picture relate to the automotive world, and its use by the UK? After all the title of this item is “ 'Exporting Britain' using the Car as Cultural Delivery Vehicle”.

The fact is that although the once culturally disparate world has become increasingly homogenised, because of the past and present global reach of US corporations such as Coca-Cola, GM, Ford, Microsoft, Starbucks, WallMart etc, and so the world's peoples increasingly Americanised, the still core truism is that English is the real 'lingua-franca'. Whilst the Dollar is the international reserve unit of currency, English (even in modified forms) is the common worldwide communicational currency.

Internationalisation has also brought with it western consumer values, attitudes and ambitions; none perhaps more so than that embedded in the car.

The car whilst enjoyed by many millions of new middle class in EM countries is still an aspirational dream for the billions across S.America, Africa, CIS region, India, SE Asia and China.

And the past is set to replay.

After years of experimentation in each respective field, the automobile and film-making industries were essentially technically perfected and popularised in parallel from the mid 1880s onward. This meant that the role of the car has been intrinsic to film-making ever since.

That role typically alternating between symbolism of a specific consumer age, associative connotations with specific character type (high flying versus down at heel), or simply as ever-changing 'street furniture' in the formal and entertainment recordings which collectively reflect social history.

For the 130 years or so of previous western economic superiority over the east, the car has been an essential signifier of personal aspiration and social progress. It literally opened-up people's own hopes, capabilities and worlds. Similarly today, it is performing that very task for those who were previously denied because of economic isolation, national stagnation and strangulated free markets.

This very obvious notion was described by investment-auto-motives in a previous web-log post:

It was relative to India's rise and the creation of poorly conceived TV programme that sought to soak in what seemed a western socio-political agenda, verses a very well conceived corporate advertisement. Unlike the crass TV programme, the advert centred upon the young man's desire to own a modern car, yet financially constrained, he resorted to the remodeling an old Indian vehicle into something apparently 'new' and impressive. That post sought to highlight the essential difference between a culturally sensitive advert, and an insensitive, seemingly agenda driven TV programme.

Relative to this, it should be noted that Britain's cinematic relationship with the car is very different to that of its American cousin.

Since the 1920s the US has exploited the commercial synergies of Hollywood and Detroit, marrying the fantasy-world of weekend cinema-going with Alfred Sloane's GM business model. To 'crank the handle' of general human dissatisfaction overcome by consumer culture. – purchase of a better brand car or new model year vehicle. All the while unfortunate comedy characters such as Laurel & Hardy and the Keystone Cops travelled in old Ford Model T-like jalopies, so psychologically pushing the Average Joe out of the purely functional and into the cosmetic and futuristic. This theme prime in the 1939 and 1964 World Fairs in which GM showcased its Futurama display.

And in the economically slowed 1960s and 1970s a mix of personalised 'hot rods', 'muscle cars' and 'chopper-bikes' took on an affectational parallel the then endemic counter-culture. This seen in 'Two Lane Blacktop' and 'Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry' and many other films, aswell as production vehicle graphics such as the decals for the 'Judge' GTO or Plymouth 'Road-Runner' Superbird. Albeit this was little more than the 'drop-out' zeitgeist re-attuned for consumers, Car showrooms stocked “fully loaded” Corvettes, Mustangs, Ramblers etc, simultaneously (and paradoxically) playing the intendedly ironic 'Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin.

So cinema along with TV and easy terms credit were fundamental driving forces which drove US cars sales for 90 years; nearly always associated with the US staple of fantasy suburbia, the counter-culture road movie and macho action movie.

[NB Only really in The Karati Kid (1984) and Gran Torino (2008) did American film coalesce the massive social regard for the car together with that of a positive male values system, as passed down from generation to generation: using it as a motivational reward to defy high school bullying and community gangs].

Thus in the US, cars on film have been not just product placement items, but central to forming the consumer mentality and so previous wealth generation.

In stark contrast, the UK film industry has historically seemingly held higher artistic ideals, this a result of a far smaller and 'older' country with arguably a more deeply entrenched socio-cultural background. As such Screenwriters and Directors have more typically used the car as more of a supporting role to main characters and plot lines. Frequently the car used as visual short-hand to convey associative traits.

Undeniably, UK film-makers have of course been an advocate of product placement (see 007's list of cars and much else) with also a periodic fondness of car chase sequences in the right plot setting. Yet the possibility of a more astute - perhaps cynical UK audience – has meant that obvious product placement has generally been avoided and the visual impact of a car chase often far less dramatic on narrow British roads than the scope enabled by broader American Main Streets and highways.

The key British element is that the car has acted as a believable supporting prop often as part of plot and character development; and not an obvious focal point as seems the case in US film.

Those yesteryear classic films which even expounded the car's name in the film's title - 'Genevieve' and 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' – maintained them as meaningful and believable, almost anthropomorphic, items. The trials and tribulations of the leading characters shown in direct relation to their cars, and plain to see. Whether it was Alan Kim's constant fixing of his antiquated Darracq on the London-Brighton Run, or Caractacus Pott's DIY rebuild of a dilapidated racer into something magical with the aid of children's story-telling.

As the antithesis to the underlying American economic agenda, the British portrayal of cars has typically been far warmer and very much character driven'. Just a few examples being: the past its best Bentley in 'The Fast Lady' which feeds an underdogs dreams, the acrobatic Minis in The Italian Job, John Cleese's exasperations with an Austin 1100 in Clockwise, the truly abominably 'patinated' Jaguar in 'Witnail & I', the use of well worn Mini, Land Rover and Volvo in Four Weddings, Harry Potter's sky-blue Ford Anglia and of course the oddity of the triple-decker 'Knight Bus' echoing (Sir) Cliff Richard's double decker in 'Summer Holiday'.

In short 'British' films portray vehicles that are anything but brand new, vehicles which engender both innate modesty and, for the most part, resilience.

Often less than perfect (such as Chitty's unique engine sound which adds eccentricity and its name), often battered and dented, and often in need of an overhaul.

Some might argue very much like the UK film sector itself.

Yet at a time when even the previously super-charged EM economies are feeling the economic pinch of global contraction, and at a time when more of the world's population than ever before see within practicable reach a better tomorrow – itself ultimately represented by small, basic car ownership – the UK should look to the subtle yet appealing success stories of its past to instill the now much needed 'can do' spirit into the hearts of millions at home and abroad.

The UK may no longer have a mainstream indigenous auto-industry, but it has a plethora of niche auto-companies which in themselves reflect the small but tenacious virtues of the UK film industry.

The past should never be a last resort creative crutch for the future, but contemporary culturally sensitive re-telling of classic tales and fables for a new global audiences seems to make sense.

This however undertaken with acute 'quantity surveyor' type accountability throughout the film-making process - as opposed to perhaps the theoretical actuary - to ensure all expenditure is transparent and that expensive props like classic and new vehicles, or furniture, clothing or jewelery etc (and attendant paperwork) does not end-up 'lost' off-set. And ultimately 'curiously' hidden away in the Director's or Producer's country house garage.

And whilst the BFI itself quite possibly requires a new round of financial pragmatism itself, given the size of its South Bank located facility, the oversight of Lottery sourced project finance should be given to a truly independent and proven cost-conscious agency, well away from what seems to have historically been the film-makers closed shop.

The creative film-making cues of yesteryear can be mixed into the current zeitgeist, providing a philosophical platform for progressive work.

Yet relative to the East, it should not be a Tarantino-esque tone of self-reference and self-indulgence. The best of UK film-making has and is exemplified by those brilliant global minds of those that trod between David Lean and Danny Boyle.

Britain's various productions then have massive export potential, spanning many genres and illustrated by the BBC's wonderful "Bleak Shop of Old Stuff". However the UK must also ensure its film industry fully opens its doors inwardly and externally so as not to become “The Bleak Closed Shop of Old Stuff”.