David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has come under some criticism for saying that the British film industry should use the subsidies provided by the National Lottery to make films with "commercial appeal."
He's being called every sort of Philistine, and it's only a matter of time before one of the smart set calls it "censorship," which it isn't, but like it or loathe it, he has every right do it.
You see Cameron is the man with hands on the purse. He who pays the piper calls the tune. What he's asking for is not censorship, because he's not using the force of law from keeping people from making or exhibiting films, he's just saying that if you want the government's money, you should have at least a chance of getting a return on their investment.
Now Ken Loach, the dean of British social-realist "Damn You Margaret Thatcher" school of film-making has joined the chorus. He declared to the BBC that no one knows if a film is going to be a hit or not, and that this decision would make British films cheap imitations of the crassest product plopped out of the Hollywood studios.
And he, and the other critics, have a point.
But they're also incredibly wrong about the whole thing.
While it's a scientifically proven fact* that no one person, or formula can guarantee that any given project will be a hit, it's also a scientifically proven fact that one cannot predict if any given project will become a great work of art that will be remembered forever.
Remember William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens?
They are considered two of the greatest writers of the English language. Did they do it with no expectation of reward beyond a stipend provided to them by bureaucrats?
No. They wrote what they wrote because they believed that there was an audience out there that would enjoy their work, and pay them money to make more.
Was it all a gamble?
Yes, all creative endeavors are gambles. Like I said no one can predict the tastes of the public, or whether or not any work of art will enter the cultural zeitgeist.
However, there is basically a smell test one can give a film that says whether or not it has at least a slim chance of winning an audience.
Now a lot of the critics of the decision say that the Oscar winning, $400+ million dollar selling film The King's Speech would never be made under these guidelines. They said a period costume drama about royals and stuttering would never get a greenlight.
Then let's look at the facts of the case.
1. British television costume dramas sell all over the world, scoring big ratings, especially in the USA, who can't seem to get enough of them.
2. It's a story about a little known facet of well known, and beloved historical figures, especially the Queen Mother, with loads of human interest and drama, as it deals with the stress of overcoming problems and becoming a leader during a time of war.
3. It can be done cheap in comparison to the big Hollywood studio films with a $15 million production budget.
4. It fills a gap in the market place by appealing to adults with disposable income who are being ignored by the Hollywood studios who prefer teens and kids.
What do these cold, businesslike, calculations say?
Even if it doesn't sell out in theaters, you can at the very least break even, if not profit, with television sales. (Being a period piece, sans dated fashions, with good production values it could be re-sold almost into perpetuity.)
As it turns out the movie made $400 million internationally. Which is pretty damn sweet return on investment.
Do you see how they got it all backwards?
You see the big cautionary tale is Canada's film industry, or to be more exact, the Canadian English language film industry. It is even more dependent on government handouts than the British industry, because you can't get Canadians to pay to see an English Canadian film.
Because long ago the audience was taken out of the equation. Whether or not a film gets made has little or nothing to do with the commercial appeal of the film, or the merits of the project, but on who has the deepest connections with the ruling funding bureaucracy.
The bureaucrats have their little fiefdoms, populated with their favorite filmmakers, and woe betide any interloper who tries to enter these sacred circles without some sort of blessing from the in-crowd.
These filmmakers take taxpayer's money, make their little films, they get a nice screenings and parties at some film festivals, all taxpayer funded, and then film is never seen again.
And if an English Canadian filmmaker actually wants to make a film with broad commercial appeal, they are hampered by the industry's inability to sell it, and the stigma of English Canadian films being a "no audience required" art form.
Now it's not all hopelessness in Canadian film. French language Quebec cinema is a model of robustness compared to its Anglo brother. They've found a model that works very well for them, making films with broad commercial appeal to help get the more art house projects made.
How does that work?
1. Quebecois buy tickets, DVDs and even related merchandise. A good chunk of these profits are plowed right back into making more movies.
2. Quebec actually has their equivalent of "stars" among their actors and filmmakers. Audiences trust them to the point where they will give a more "artsy" film a chance.
Inside Quebec their domestic films often out-perform the big Hollywood pictures. They also export their films to other francophone countries, often to critical and commercial acclaim.
That's the model the British should look at, and not just when it comes to audience/artistic balance, but also production. The Quebec production system is legendarily efficient, allowing them to make films quicker, and cheaper than anywhere else.
Plus, the British have the advantage of a massive English language market, crawling with anglophiles, that they can exploit. If they play their cards right, they can build an industry that no longer government funding, and then they can make any damn film, any damn way they feel like with their own damn money.
Do you get my point?
*All scientifically proven facts proven scientifically by the Furious D Institute For The Advancement Of Smug Know-It-Allism & The Lifestyle Of Furious D.