The great box office gamble

David Cameron may want Lottery cash to fund more ‘commercial’ films, but how is it possible to pick them in an industry where costs are high and each movie is a risk, asks Stephen McGinty

ORSON Welles said a poet needs a pen, a painter a brush and a filmmaker an army. Anyone who has watched the latest production diary released by Peter Jackson on the internet about the filming of The Hobbit, his two-part prequel to the phenomenally successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, will understand what was meant by the director of Citizen Kane.

The battalions of trucks, squadrons of planes and helicopters required to transport a cast and crew of thousands around New Zealand for the location filming of “Middle Earth” is simply astounding. One location manager interviewed in the diary estimated that it was the largest logistical operation in the history of cinema.

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Films, it appears, are also now larger than ever, as audiences at the new Imax screen at Cineworld in Edinburgh will readily attest. The vast screen is like the north face of the Eiger and the clarity of those giant images is astonishing. By December, when The Hobbit will open here, we will be able to see if Peter Jackson and his army will emerge victorious, but the prequel to a trilogy that earned £4 billion at the box office and in DVD sales should be considered a sure thing, even if it costs hundreds of millions to make.

But when David Cameron says, as he did this week, that the lottery funding of films in Britain should be directed towards more “commercial” projects what does that actually mean?

Well, the Prime Minister was probably thinking of films such as The King’s Speech, which cost £8 million, and has grossed more than £250m worldwide, not to mention gathering up a clutch of Oscars including Best Picture. Or Slumdog Millionaire, which cost £10m and earned back £200m, as well as Oscars including best director for Danny Boyle. But the fact is both films could only be described as “commercial” after their release and subsequent success.

The producer of The King’s Speech may have pitched the film as a version of Rocky with speech impediments instead of boxing gloves, but c’mon: a film whose happy ending is a man announcing the outbreak of The Second World War? Would you have bet your income tax on it? BBC Films, which was offered a chance to invest in the production, certainly didn’t think so.

So, lets turn our attention to Slumdog Millionaire, a movie about poverty in India with a cast of unknown actors, whose distributor was so convinced of its box office failure that at one point it considered releasing it straight to video. The irony is that Danny Boyle’s previous film, Sunshine, an epic science fiction movie, would appeared to have been the more commercial project but it failed to set the box office alight.

For the fact remains that when it comes to predicting whether a movie will be a success, the words of William Goldman, the screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Marathon Man remain astute: “nobody knows anything”.

The irony of David Cameron’s comments is that they come at a time when Working Title, Britain’s most successful film production company, announced in a recent interview in the Financial Times to mark its 20th anniversary that it would be scaling back on the size of some of its productions.

The company had, in effect, taken on Hollywood’s scale with films such as Green Zone, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Matt Damon– the pair behind the last two Bourne movies, and which cost more than £90m – and The Boat That Rocked, by Richard Curtis, the creator of Love Actually, which was about the early days of pirate radio.

Both films performed poorly at the box office. If David Cameron had £10m to invest in movies which ones do you think he would have invested in? A Hollywood action movie from the men behind The Bourne movies and a new British comedy from the creator of Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral, or Indian poverty porn and the tale of a toff with a stutter?

Well, a glance at the shelves in his apartment above Number 10, spotted in a recent photograph revealed such titles as Kill Bill; a box set of Star Wars movies; Armageddon, in which Bruce Willis saved the world from a giant asteroid; The Departed; the horror movie Scream; and the British gangster thriller starring Daniel Craig, Layer Cake. So clearly he is a fan of mainstream Hollywood fare. He may have been tempted by The Inbetweeners, produced by Chris Young, who lives on Skye, but could he have imagined that a film-spin off from a E4 comedy would earn £44m at the British box office? No. No-one could.

It is unlikely, however, given his position as Prime Minister, that Mr Cameron would have invested in a comedy about suicide bombers but he would also have been prudent to do so. Four Lions, by the comedian Chris Morris, made £3m at the box office, was a huge success in Germany and France and in terms of DVD sales in Britain is matching many big studio movies.

Yet the fact is, there was no public money in Four Lions, as the British Film Council and the British Film Institute felt just the same way as many experienced funders that, as the film’s producer Mark Herbert, chief executive of Warp Films, said: “Nobody will go and watch this film.”

Loyalty to his party’s former leader would have prevented him investing in The Iron Lady but again, it would have been a smart move. Did anyone else imagine that a film about Margaret Thatcher would have people queuing around the block and cinemas posting “sold out” signs?

For the fact remains that the film business is brutal. The overwhelming majority of films made each year never recoup their costs, never mind make a profit. (Just as in the publishing industry or the recording industry, it’s just that films cost so much more to make than a paperback or CD.)

It is the monster hits, such as Avatar or Lord of the Rings or The Harry Potter series that pay for all those other movies that are released, enjoyed by the public but don’t turn a pound of profit. Then again the complexities of “Hollywood accounting”, the byzantine system of drowning a successful film in obscure “overheads” so as to eradicate the profits due to others can be a factor. (One British director noted that, among his overheads was $1.06 cents for painting his name on the back of his canvas chair.) The figures quoted for profitable films runs between 5 to 15 per cent.

In many ways it is right that the funding the British Government gives to the film industry comes from the National Lottery. The public gambles £1 in the full knowledge of the giant odds against success and then these single pounds are bundled up into tens and hundreds of thousands of pounds, even, occasionally, millions of pounds and gambled on a single film which, again, has giant odds against success.

The wise move, as I see it, is to invest in giving those young people with talent a leg up and a chance to display what they are capable of, as well as supporting those with a track record of skill, competence and success on a project-by-project basis. Investment also needs to be in a wide variety of films. Think of it like an investment portfolio, with established film-makers as blue chip companies but with the investor aware that it can be a wildcard that can occasionally generate the largest return.

The paradox is that today films have never been so big and so small. The Hobbit, will in its two parts, cost around £400m to make. In comparison Monsters was made for less than £300,000 using software and cameras purchased in a high street store. In the past, if you wanted to be a film-maker the cost was prohibitive. It was like Prince Charles wondering why more people didn’t play polo. You literally could not practice your craft without being given a large sum of money. Film-makers must have enviously looked on at writers and painters working each day at their vocation for want of a HB pencil and oil and canvas.

Today, cameras have plummeted in price and many film-makers use Apple’s Final Cut Pro X software system (£199) to edit their films. So what is to stop the next Scottish Steven Spielberg writing their own script, offering “resting actors” payment from future profits and shooting his or her own movies? An army of one should remember that great art is born of restraint and dies of excess.