The deplorable in pursuit of the unwatchable
Apparently one of David Cameron’s favourite films: Lindsay Anderson and David Sherwin’s IF… made under the Eady Levy, a scheme to promote British cinema which was abolished by Margaret Thatcher.
So, our glorious leader David Cameron (“He’s a CUNT!” shouts Fiona whenever his bulging-sausage face besmirches our cathode rays) wants the National Lottery to support “commercially successful pictures that rival the quality and impact of the best international productions.”
Of course, anyone caught making a film which supersedes the quality and impact of the best international films will become an immediate pariah and have all funding withdrawn. Nothing like aiming for the middle.
And also of course, by “impact” Cameron means box office. There IS a debate to be had about whether film should be funded purely as a profit-making concern, or at least partly for artistic, cultural reasons like every other art form supported by the Lottery…
(On the principle that politics is showbusiness for ugly people, who would play Cameron in the film of his life? If Thatcher can have a hagiography like THE IRON LADY, why shouldn’t Cameron get his own, THE TAPIOCA LUNGFISH? I see a 40’s era Ray Milland — more attractive than Cameron, which is the way movies do it, but smarmy and just a little too chubby to be trustworthy. Of course, you’d have to CGI-erase the charm, self-awareness and humour.)
Cameron points to THE KING’S SPEECH as the kind of blockbuster we should be seeking to make more of. As the producers of that movie could tell you, it nearly didn’t see the light of day because none of the potential funders saw it as a blockbuster. It did eventually receive support from The Film Council, which Cameron abolished.
Since nobody, apparently, can predict what will be a hit, Cameron’s battle cry is a bit like saying “Can everybody please buy more WINNING lottery tickets.” In fact, it’s exactly like that.
There are, in fact, ways to increase your chances of box office success. I will list them —
(1) Pick a subject already known by, and interesting to, the public. Screenwriter Terry Rossio (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) calls this “staking out a piece of mental real estate.” The easy way is to acquire a hot property like Harry Potter or Warhorse, but that takes money. But Robin Hood, the Loch Ness monster and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are copyright-free. And, as Warners in the ’30s knew well, any topic which sells tabloid papers can sell movies — as long as you add the magic ingredients of story and sex appeal. This takes talent, of course, an imponderable quality often, apparently, hard for executives to recognize.
(2) Use a familiar genre and/or clear tone so that the public can clearly grasp the kind of pleasure on offer. Convey this in the title, poster and trailer. (Note: if your title is LESBIAN VAMPIRE KILLERS and your film is NOT about lesbians who kill vampires, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.)
(3) The above depends on the filmmakers actually knowing the kind of pleasure on offer. In the days of British Screen, I could never work out if anyone involved in HOUSE OF AMERICA or THE LOW DOWN actually had a clear idea what form of pleasure they were attempting to provide.
(4) And that’s about it. Stars, and a massive publicity campaign could help, but those cost money. Controversy is free, but the mechanisms of the funding process exist to prevent genuinely divisive films ever happening.
If Cameron had actually proposed something like the above, I might have semi-agreed with him. But following the above plan wouldn’t result in all our films being successful, or even defensible. SEX LIVES OF THE POTATO MEN, which became, perhaps unfairly, the whipping boy for those who wanted to bash the Film Council, had two hot TV stars and a clear genre and tone, though it was clearly following the gross-out comedy trend at rather an extreme historical distance. And it actually aroused some controversy, although not a very helpful kind: it was all, “this film is dire, horrible and unfunny, how did it ever get made?” Not all publicity, it seems, is good publicity.
The fear is that everybody would end up making movies patterned after the Hollywood majors’ rather limiting set of cookie-cutter patterns. But this certainly needn’t be the case. Would following the ideas above limit the kind of work we made? Not if it were accompanied by an understanding that a successful industry should make the biggest possible range of product. Trends change so fast in cinema that an attempt to concentrate on one particular genre, budgetary scale or group of stars will result in almost instant obsolescence.
Ken Loach has put forward the radical notion that we should try funding a wide variety of films, some of which would find commercial success. He’s actually right. I usually get the impression that Loach despises everything that isn’t his kind of dreary social realism, but at least he admits the need for more than one flavour to be on offer. An American producer at Edinburgh Film Fest in the 90s said “You only make about four kinds of film in the UK. You have your Merchant-Ivory period dramas. You have your boysie gangster films. You have Ken Loach social realism, and you have what I call “social realism lite” — the BILLY ELLIOT kind of films.”
Since then, not much has changed except the options have shrunk. In the wake of LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, everyone who had a naff gangster script decaying in their slush pile hastened to vomit it up onto the screen, alienating the audiences who had been starving for a bit of GET CARTER type energy (the empty but stylish GANGSTER NO 1 and the rather more interesting SEXY BEAST arrived just too late, after all the goodwill was gone). The Ivory Merchants and their heritage cinema withered owing to galloping sciatica (with THE KING’S SPEECH scoring a hit partly because it was a kind of entertainment we hadn’t seen for a while). And social realism in both its sterile forms seems to lack the ambition to actually tackle the major political themes of the day.
In addition, we’ve seen some attempts to reinvigorate the moribund British horror film and the British comedy — the colossal success of THE IN-BETWEENERS MOVIE on UK screens harkens back to the days of George Formby, or Hammer’s big screen versions of popular sitcoms — a small film can be a big hit in a purely local way by pitching at an audience it knows to exist. Meanwhile, Optimum and Ealing are raping their back catalogues and remaking everything that used to work, on the basis that if they flip the coin enough times it’ll come up heads — but they haven’t grasped that this is one of those polyhedronic dice used in Dungeons & Dragons and heads is only one of about a thousand facets.
What’s largely missing, except in a minority of the horror and a few non-generic exceptions, is any actual ambition to do anything good. The remake guys may fool themselves into thinking that by recycling something that once had vigour and passion and blood in its veins, they’re continuing a tradition of quality, but that’s true only in the sense that chinless, twelve-toed products of in-breeding represent a continuation of their once-proud race. By remaking something that was perfectly good to begin with, you are (a) setting yourself up to fail (b) confessing your lack of imagination (c) staining the memory of the original and (d) hitching your wagon to something which was heading in the right direction forty years ago but is no longer a reliable indicator of the current zeitgeist.
In their largely brainless way, the remake whores have latched on to point (1) — mental real estate. Except they really are kidding themselves if they think the title BRIGHTON ROCK has any hold upon the film-going public of this country today. Instead of traducing the best stuff in their back catalogue, they should be looking for promising ideas that were fumbled the first time — movies where the bad choice made decades ago can help you locate the right approach, where the topic or the name of the author or the title or the genre gives you a commercial hook but you’re actually seeking to improve something rather than copy it. And the good news, if you take that approach, is that the Canal+ library and the other back catalogues contain far more unsuccessful films than they do classics. You’ll be spoilt for choice!
Or, you could emulate the best films of the past by refusing to emulate, and striking out into fresh territory.