LONDON, JUNE 15 -- Sir Richard Attenborough, David Puttnam and John Boorman today led a determined troupe of British movie producers, directors and actors to Downing Street where they made a fervent plea for more money and tax breaks to rescue this country's beleaguered film industry.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave them the time of day -- five hours of her undivided attention -- along with a pledge of about $8 million in government funds during the next three years and a commitment for a government study to determine how to provide more incentives for private investment in British films.
Though it was far less money than they sought, it was a concession of sorts from a conservative prime minister who usually believes failing businesses have no one to blame but themselves. But it was nowhere near enough to give much hope to an industry that increasingly has come to depend for its survival on crumbs from Hollywood, which looks upon British film as a charming, eccentric and slightly annoying colonial appendage of its own vast empire.
Every year, it seems, the British manage to come up with at least one good film that is distinctly their own, yet captures large audiences abroad and sometimes a few Oscars as well. Two years ago it was "A Fish Called Wanda," last year "My Left Foot" and "Shirley Valentine."
But those noteworthy successes cannot conceal the industry's slow dissolve into oblivion. Last year only 38 full-length feature films were made in Britain, 18 fewer than in 1988. This year the figure is expected to fall below 25. Private investment in new films, which three years ago exceeded $100 million, is down below $50 million this year.
"Things are grimmer than I can remember in the 20 years I've been in the business," Puttnam told reporters before today's session.
That's a major humiliation for an industry that boasts a glorious though erratic past. The sly and mischievous comedies of the 1950s and the Angry Young Man cycle of films in the '60s were distinctly British products, yet traveled well, as did the stars who were featured in them, such as Peter Sellers, Albert Finney, Richard Burton, Laurence Harvey and Richard Harris.
The '70s were more of a roller-coaster ride. British money financed such big hits as "The Deer Hunter" and "Death on the Nile" and fiascoes such as "Raise the Titanic" (Lord Grade, its financier, was heard to mutter that it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic).
The last great British film invasion came in the early '80s when Goldcrest, a local finance and production company, won big profits and a fistful of Oscars first for "Chariots of Fire," then for "Gandhi" and "The Killing Fields."
The cry then was "The British are coming!" and, indeed, Puttnam, who produced "Chariots" and "Fields," became chairman of Columbia Pictures for a brief spell. Puttnam, a charming and aggressive man with lots of friends and even more enemies, thought he knew more about making quality, profitable films than Hollywood, and Hollywood set out to show he didn't. It won -- within a year he was back in London.
By 1987 Goldcrest was finished as well, following the three-shot disaster at the box office of "Revolution," "The Mission" and "Absolute Beginners." The problem, analysts said, was that Goldcrest was simply too small to allow for failure. While Paramount has a huge financial cushion and can afford to ride out five or 10 losers while it waits for one "Beverly Hills Cop," Goldcrest needed winners every time out.
When Goldcrest folded, British funding for home-grown product virtually dried up. The local scene became, in the words of film director Chris Petit, "large table, small cake, no crumbs."
The irony here is that more Britons are going to the movies than ever -- 88 million last year compared with 78 million in 1988 -- while the home video industry has gone from nothing to $1.3 billion per year in sales and rentals in less than a decade. But customers are generally opting for the same American-made blockbusters that are pulling in audiences around the world -- films like "Batman," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "Lethal Weapon II" -- rather than home-grown products.
Some of those blockbusters were at least partly made in Britain. Two major U.S. studios, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, recently opened offices in this country to serve as bases for European production and 20th Century Fox is making "Aliens 3" at the renowned Pinewood Studios here.
But the decisions these companies make on where to make their movies often depend on the vagaries of the foreign exchange and labor markets. Warner Bros. filmed most of the first "Batman" at Pinewood. Now that the British pound is strong and inflation is running close to 10 percent, Warners is reportedly considering pulling up its lavish Gotham City set and moving "Batman II" to Mexico, where labor and production costs are dramatically cheaper.
Similarly, "Licenced to Kill," the latest in the long series of James Bond movies traditionally filmed at Pinewood, was made in Mexico instead.
Countries such as Italy, France, Germany, Sweden and Australia provide substantial sums of public funding for their film industries, partly out of national pride. Until 1985 Britain also provided support in the range of $6 million to $8 million per year through a tax on movie tickets. Since then, it has provided far smaller amounts through various grants, many of which expired this year.
Attenborough, Puttnam & Co. went to Thatcher for a larger handout, but also to see what they could do about a tax structure that tends to offer few rewards for those prepared to risk money in the film business. They got a warm reception from Thatcher, who praised the industry's "proud record of excellence" and agreed that a healthy film industry could bring in a lot of foreign investment and profits.
"This is an industry in which Britain cannot just compete -- we can excel," she said.
Attenborough, whose politics are far to the left of Thatcher's, was on his best behavior today, saying he was encouraged by her interest. But he said after the meeting that the $8 million she pledged "doesn't bear any relationship to the major subsidies that exist in Europe. What we want is 25 or 50 or 100 million to put ourselves on a level playing field with the Europeans." With that kind of money, he said, Britain could take the lead in co-producing films for the burgeoning European market.
Attenborough said Thatcher was "very upbeat" and knowledgeable about the film business. At the end of the session, he said, she asked him "why I had not come to discuss the problems 10 years ago. I said, 'Because I was not invited, darling.' "