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Archive for April, 2010

Last week, HandMade Films, a struggling – and quintessentially British – film production company announced it had received a possible takeover approach by a mysterious company known as Almorah Services. Now, HandMade, which was set up by George Harrison, who, so the story goes, remortgaged his home to fund the Life of Brian in 1978, has so far refused to reveal just who or what this Almorah is. (It seems unlikely to be Almorah, the industrial services provider based in Merseyside, but who knows?) But the real question is: where is it from? The UK? Or overseas?

The British film industry has struggled for years with an identity crisis, unable to sustain itself without accepting foreign cash, forced to adapt for foreign (usually American) audiences when it does. What’s more, big profits from films made in the UK often end up elsewhere.

Why? Partly because Britain offers tax breaks on any film of which 25 per cent of the production cost is spent on UK soil. That’s right – to be a British film you only have to spend 25 per cent of your budget within the UK, on anything from set costs to Kate Winslet’s bagel. Which obviously makes it rather attractive to US studios.

The film does also have to pass a “cultural test” (you can see the test’s points system for yourself here)  or be part of a co-production that benefits from a treaty with the UK.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean that there are no successful British films, or that no one’s managing to capture Britishness. Shane Meadows, Ken Loach and Danny Boyle have done a pretty good job in recent years. Slumdog Millionaire, highly lauded as the great British success of recent years and Boyle’s tour de force, made $377 million (£245 million) on a budget of just $15 million, and won eight Oscars.

But Slumdog was funded by a combination  of UK production companies, European grants and US distributors – and a large proportion of its profits have gone straight back into Fox’s pocket.

Similarly, Harry Potter, the most successful film franchise of all time was distributed by Warner Bros – who benefit from the tax breaks but don’t feed their portion of the takings back into the UK.

There’s another issue at play here too, and one that’s perhaps more worrying: the Americanisation of the  films themselves. A lack of distributors (who actually get the films into the cinemas, as well as often providing finance) is a really big problem in the UK (one of our most successful distributors, Redbus, named fastest growing private UK company in 2004, was bought by US giant Lionsgate in 2005).

Producers have to work really hard to persuade American distributors that their films are worth showing. Last year, Creation, the Paul Bettany film about Darwin’s loss of faith failed for a long time to find a distributor Stateside because it was believed to be too controversial in a country where just 39 per cent of the population reportedly believes in evolution (seriously).

Far too many British films take on American stars to draw American audiences (Bridget Jones, Shakespeare in Love, Emma, Becoming Jane etc) and films/books are often transported across the Atlantic to make them more palatable to American audiences: take Nick Hornby (a British author if ever there was one) whose High Fidelity and Fever Pitch were both set in the US for the big screen. Or  P.S. I Love you, which was originally a novel set in Ireland, not New York.

These are just a few examples of a problem that has persisted for a long time. The UK Film council continues to search for solutions  but with a funding pot that’s small anyway and currently being squeezed by the expanding Olympics budget, the whole thing seems doomed to an eternal balancing act: trying to attract American money without losing too much of the UK’s sense of identity – or all the profits.

If only there were more friendly Beatles to stump up all the cash.

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Titanic disappointment

A brief update on Clash of the Titans. Despite my high hopes, as outlined in the entry below, I can now report that its 3D moments are both infrequent and noticeably amateur in comparison with Avatar. It seems James Cameron was right: eleventh hour makeovers do not enhance films shot in 2D, and may in fact damage the new technology’s reputation.

Particularly when eager fans are asked to pay extra to watch “the 3D version”, only to find that most of the film looks the same with the glasses off.

The Kraken is awesome though.

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Hold the front page: Snoop Dogg has admitted that he doesn’t like films in 3D. Defying the latest Hollywood trend, the rapper told MTV: “I’m way too up in the sky to watch a movie in 3D”. He explained: “I don’t want that stuff coming right in my face. The last movie I saw in 3D, I’m gonna be honest with ya, is Friday the 13th Part III. Jason threw that spear, man. That spear hit me right in the eye.”

Now, Snoop may not have seen the latest developments in three-dimensional cinema (Friday the 13th Part III was released in 1982), but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a point. That stuff does hit you right in the eye, whether it’s a giant, flying Toruk from Pandora or a grinning cat from Alice in Wonderland.  

3D is everywhere. This week, Clash of the Titans and How to Train Your Dragon, both in 3D, are opening in UK cinemas. The former looks extraordinary, with a gargantuan Kraken (Perseus’s oceanic adversary) and electrifying action sequences that seem ideal for the format.

The final two Harry Potter films are also set for a 3D release and their predecessors mooted to be in line for a 3D makeover. In fact, ninety-nine films are expected to be released in 3D before 2012, including Batman, Tintin and Superman. This weekend Sky will even release its new channel, Sky 3D, with live coverage of the Premiere League clash between Chelsea and Manchester United.

But is it all worth it? I went to see Alice in Wonderland a few days ago. I’m not a massive Tim Burton fan generally, but I actually rather liked the film itself. It’s a bit more measured (odd, given the fantastical subject matter) than some of Burton’s previous efforts. Perhaps because the question of whether it’s all a dream or not is regularly addressed, the off-the-wall stuff doesn’t feel quite as silly or self-indulgent as it does in, say, Batman.

But the 3D effects I did not like. I quite enjoyed them at the IMAX, where I saw my first 3D film, Avatar, a few months ago. But at the IMAX the screen is so monstrously large that you almost feel like you are actually in the film yourself. Watching Alice at a regular cinema from ten rows back, the effort of trying to perceive an artificial sense of depth from a distance just made me dizzy.

I suspect the type of film also had something to do with it. In Avatar, the 3D allows you to better appreciate the size of the landscapes and the textures of the flora and fauna of the new world, whereas in Alice, the technology isn’t used as effectively. Sure, there are curious plants and creatures in Wonderland, but sometimes Burton seems in such a rush to get us through the story he doesn’t linger the way James Cameron does.

But 3D seems here to stay, in part because it is so lucrative. A 3D conversion may cost studios an extra $5 million (£3.3 million), but with DVD sales still plummeting, many would do anything to make a bit of extra cash – and, as well as 3D having a novelty effect that lures bigger audiences back to theatres, it can also be used to charge more at the box office. My Alice ticket cost an extra £2 at the Clapham Picturehouse in London, although I did get to keep the glasses.

3D has actually been around since the 19th century in one form or another and went through a couple of so-called “golden eras” in the fifties and later the eighties, as technology – and appetite – improved. Jaws III, for instance, was originally released in 3D . But the bulky cameras, the expensive technology, and shoddy production that sometimes failed to properly sinc two images, leaving the audience with a headache, prevented many studios – and viewers – from taking the movement seriously (there’s a great little potted history of 3D here).

There are still issues, such as concerns about inferior conversions (Cameron has criticsied the conversion of Clash of the Titans, which was done in a couple of months, compared with Avatar, which was done over several years). But this time it seems as if 3D is here to stay, with many in the industry calling it as big a development as when sound came along and wiped out silent movies. From May, you will even be able to buy 3D TV sets for your home.

I must admit I feel resistant to the change. While I thought Avatar was truly awsome, I actually like watching a flat screen – there’s something soothing and other wordly about it. But then, I’m sure there were luddites just like me and Snoop Dogg who claimed “the talkies” gave them a headache when they first arrived. Soon, 3D could be so ubiquitous and advanced that 2D will seem as old-fashioned as casette tapes. And as Snoop himself once said: “If the ride is more fly, then you must buy.” For shizzle.

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