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What Creation’s US deal means for the future of British cinema

25 September 2009

So Americans will get a chance to see the Darwin biopic Creation after all. But not many of them at first. The film will be released by Newmarket in only five cinemas this December, in the hope of catching the eye of Oscar voters.

Producer Jeremy Thomas whipped up a media squall at the Toronto film festival by suggesting that US distributors were too afraid of religious controversy to take a risk on his film. Maybe so. Thomas certainly ended up with a far smaller deal than he was hoping for. But at least he got one.

Creation actually sold relatively quickly. Many other British films that travelled to Toronto seeking that all-important US deal, such as Harry Brown, Glorious 39, Dorian Gray, The Bunny and the Bull, The Unloved and The Disappearance of Alice Creed, are still waiting.

Harry Brown, which stars Michael Caine as a geriatric vigilante, is juggling offers as we speak. But the sad truth is that the value of the US market has shrunk dramatically for British movies of all stripes, independent movies in particular.

On Indiewire, the website devoted to such matters, columnist Anne Thompson described Toronto as an "indie bloodbath". The beleaguered Hollywood studios have pulled back from what they call the specialised sector, leaving mostly niche distributors offering little cash and limited releases. Increasingly, indie producers who haven't managed to attract a rare US deal at script stage are having to give their films away for next to nothing and even bring their own marketing money.

"The days of those all-night, multimillion-dollar bidding wars are over," says Arianna Bocco of IFC Films. She's currently the most prolific US buyer of British movies, recently acquiring such films as Fish Tank and Valhalla Rising – but for much less money than the studios. "Why shouldn't buyers be cautious and take a week or two to work out deals? When films travel to the US, people have to realise it's not the same as it was, they have to adjust their expectations. In the Loop was a huge hit for us, it made $2.5m (£1.5m), and for a film about British politics that's really good."

That could all have profound implications for the future of UK cinema. Our film-makers will have to adjust to regarding an American release as a bonus rather than a necessity. Some might regard that as a good thing, even though it means lower budgets and fewer films getting made. The British film industry and its key public funder the UK Film Council have sometimes been criticised for being too US-oriented. Perhaps a correction is in order.

After all, the rest of the world is a much more receptive market. Even the biggest British films tend to do proportionately less well in America than elsewhere. Those Working Title comedies which were blockbusters in France, Italy and Australia were only modest hits in the States. From Ken Loach to Andrea Arnold, our auteurs are treated like royalty in Europe, while American audiences barely know them.

Yet America can still set the tone for other countries. Creation's Thomas took the Newmarket deal because it included a significant financial commitment to fund an Oscar campaign which could help the film's international profile.

Thomas certainly knows which way the wind is blowing. He's now working on several projects in Japan and the rest of Asia, where they still buy each others' movies.

Source: Guardian Online