Films Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:08 pm on 25th April 1980.

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Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe 12:08 pm, 25th April 1980

The debate has brought out one interesting fact, namely, that the House of Commons—which is enormously interested in many aspects of the media—unfortunately regards the film industry as of little importance. It is tremendously helpful to have a spokesman such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), who claims a number of distinctions. He has made an enormous contribution to the work of the British film industry. He inspired the original Eady levy. It is important to remember that the industry does best when a certain degree of discipline is imposed from outside.

It may be slightly unkind to tell the Minister that although the Bill is welcome it is pretty poor. Given the extraordinary economic views of Her Majesty's Government, I had not expected a Bill. I had assumed that the film industry would be abandoned without a backward glance. I therefore pay an ungrudging, if perhaps mildly ungracious, tribute to the Minister for managing to bring a Bill before the House.

The industry is its own worst enemy. There is no co-operation between those responsible for exhibition, distribution and production. The changes that have come about in the Bill are largely negative. It is worrying that we seem to be saying " There are enormous changes taking place and we must have different things done for the industry, but we must not be too positive."

The changes that we bring forward are always negative. For example, if we want to do something about pre-production work, we do not say " Let us give more money for pre-production packages. Let us expand the work of the National Script Development Fund." Instead, we bring the existing operation inside the National Film Finance Corporation. That is our approach to solving the problem of the pre-production package.

I am sorry that the Minister has allowed himself to do away with the voluntary work of the National Script Development Fund, especially the work of script writers and producers who have given their help voluntarily. They had a high degree of expertise and they were able to exercise the sort of judgment that enabled a number of packages to go forward. I know that so far there has not been a great number of films made from the work that has been done. However, I think that we shall see development over the next 10 years. I should have liked the committee to be given more muscle rather than for it to be subsumed in the corporation in the way that the Bill proposes.

Why is it that we still have many of the old barring procedures operating in the industry? After all, the cinema industry is going downhill very fast. There are areas in Great Britain where it is not possible to go to the cinema. Hardware improves all the time, but the opportunities to see software disappear.

There are many who would like to open independent cinemas. There are municipalities which find themselves in charge of cinemas which would be capable of being run efficiently and usefully. The immediate problem that both groupings face is that when they go to the distributors they are told that there are barring problems. Sometimes those prob- lems apply to cinemas that no longer exist.

That is all the wrong way round. We cannot run an industry with a number of restrictive practices and not have someone to criticise the operation. British cinema could be developing by using all the new techniques. It could run smaller cinemas. By using mixed television and cinema techniques, it could provide many outlets for modern film producers. However, it is not doing anything to change the way in which it has operated since the 1940s, when there were literally hundreds of cinemas throughout Britain.

I hope that the Minister will take from the debate the suggestion that he should be examining the operation of the barring committees. I have always believed that there should be a totally outside committee to examine barring. I know that the present committee has an independent chairman, but industry people sit on the committee. They have an advisory role, but I should like to see a greater degree of independence in the barring decisions. That could be achieved by having a wider independent membership on the committee.

The Bill brings forward only a derisory sum. The Minister said with some justification that all films Bills have a life of about five years and that the figure that has been written into the Bill relates only to the normal passage of time for films legislation. That would be true if the sum in the Bill were so large that we could foresee a successful period of operation for the corporation over the next five years and if we could see it producing a programme of films, some of which would undoubtedly be successful. On the one hand, the Department has rightly said "We shall write off your debts and give you some assistance." On the other hand, it has limited the assistance and it is possible that the next five years will see the demise of the corporation.

If there is insufficient finance to make films, especially at a time when inflation and rising costs are doing away with the small budget film, we are, in effect, saying to the film industry "There is little likelihood of your being able to continue in the near future." The Minister should be giving urgent and careful attention to the sum that is to be provided by the Bill and seeking means of increasing the borrowing requirement so that it is not restricted to £5 million. He should be considering ways of allowing the corporation to go to even double that sum.

There is clear evidence that the corporation will be one of the few sources of finance open to any British film producer in the next five years. Bankers are not coming forward with the offer of finance. In America there has been an explosion of film-making and production. It is true that that has been mainly for television, but films are being made that may be shown on television and in the cinemas. They are supported by finance from ordinary banking circles.

That is difficult to achieve in Britain. The average finance house regards the financing of films as exceedingly risky, which, of course, it is. However, were there a greater injection of Government finance as an anchor, the corporation would be able to turn its finance to some account. It will have to make a programme of films. Even though it has lost money during its existence, that has been a gentle process and it has contributed to the continuance of a British film industry.

I should like to see a change in the corporation's terms of reference. I should like it to be told " If we are to have a British film industry, you are the only peole who can assure it." I should like it to be told " Use the money which you have to make films which have a particularly British flavour." The Minister will remember that we were most successful when we were making moderate budget films that reflected aspects of British life. I do not believe that the British have become so boring that there is no subject matter than can be turned into a successful film.

The attitude of distributors, the need to cover the negative costs in the home base and the number of other factors cause producers to look increasingly for mid-Atlantic subjects and mid-Atlantic scripts. They think that that is the only way in which they will make a profit.

I hope that the Minister will bear in mind all that has been said about the Children's Film Foundation. I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens) had such an intelligent family. I am only sorry that he did not manage to achieve the intellectual standards of his father. However, he has a strong point when he says that the work of the foundation is of such a calibre that we should be tremendously proud of it.

The films that have been made by the foundation, especially with Henry Geddes at the helm, have represented all that is best in the British tradition. The films are funny, clever and moving. They make a point without being propaganda. They encourage participation in an audience. One feature that I find rather worrying about television programmes for tiny children is the wholly passive relationship. Some children's programmes encourage the child to participate in art and in story writnig, but the foundation was always the initiator of something more than simply a film. It was the basis for a children's film club that brought in children on a Saturday morning. It made them part of a larger participatory exercise. That enabled the cinema to become a recognisable centre of entertainment. The industry has been extremely shortsighted in the attitude that it has taken to the foundation.

The CFF was created in the first instance because the industry understood that, unless new audiences were created, that entertainment medium would die out. The fact that the industry is not prepared to alter its procedures enough to allow the CFF to benefit from new audiences and new times of showing is a condemnation of the industry. It will have cause to rue that inflexibility before long.

It is not an accident that Henry Geddes and his team have received tributes from America, Russia and many other countries for the quality of the work they have done, with the strong co-operation of the unions. If we lose that quality we shall never replace it; it is unique, and we should be prepared to defend it.

I am worried about the change included in clause 8. I understand that the method of calculation of labour costs has to be looked at again, but I am worried that, in an industry with a high level of unemployment amongst skilled personnel, if we widen the terms of the clause we shall make it more difficult for British technicians to find employment. I am, therefore, slightly anxious about the clause.

I hope that the Department is looking closely at the means of protecting copyright. The late Hugh Orr in his capacity as the chairman of the Association of Independent Cinema Exhibitors—an international organisation—did a tremendous amount of work on copyright because he believed, rightly, that as people were able to lease or buy machinery to enable them to record film easily, inevitably the producer would find himself in considerable difficulty if there were no levy on that operation. The conclusions reached by the Union Internationale des Exploitants du Cinéma was that a levy at the point of sale was the only way to get any justifiable contribution to production costs. That also will have to be discussed in Committee.

The cinema industry in this country will be wiped out unless it is prepared to be much more flexible and realistic and to stop thinking only in terms of the next film, which is its normal horizon. It must start thinking about whether there can be any justification for operating an industry that will not protect itself.

Unless the producers, exhibitors and distributors get together, unless the big duopoly is prepared to be far more flexible in the way it deals with the independent cinema owners, unless there is a much more radical approach to the times and places of showing, unless a specific fund is created to enable cinema owners to upgrade and improve the standard of their operations, within a short time the mass cinema audience which some of us can remember will be a thing of the distant past. The film industry is in danger of becoming a minority interest, at a time when more people are looking at more films than ever before.

It is easier now to look at films in our own homes, in cinemas, and elsewhere. They can be shown with greater facility than ever before, but the speed of the industry's response to these developments is frighteningly slow. It leads me to believe that only by Government intervention, by the creation of the British Film Authority and by the joining together of the BFI and the various interests in the commercial world shall we get any new thought in this important branch of the media. I hope that that tiny light on the horizon will be capable of expansion, but I believe, sadly, that we may be at the beginning of the end of British film making.