We should be so lucky

Film - Philip Kerr on why American films dominate world cinema: big bucks

In April 1894, the world's first Kinetoscope Parlor opened at 1155 Broadway, in New York City. The Kinetoscope was a peephole machine that showed a short film strip, processed at the Edison Laboratories in New Jersey. The major limitation of the Kinetoscope was that it could be viewed by only one person at a time and it would be another two years before the Lumiere Brothers made the first motion-picture projector a commercial reality. Edison did not give up entirely, but it was the portability of the Lumiere camera that enabled it to film all around the world.

For a long time, movies were used as novelty items in vaudeville theatres and, before long, the novelty wore off, so much so that movies were actually used as a way of clearing people out of theatres before the next live show. As an exclusive diet of newsreels gave way to dramas and comedies, however, the nature and scope of the film industry as a whole changed dramatically. And between 1900 and 1907, the number of five cent "Nickelodeon" theatres increased from 300 to 3,500. This is how films got started in America.

You'd think a country that didn't have much history to speak of would make more of its pioneering role in cinema, but not a bit of it. Today, 1155 Broadway is the site not of an American Museum of the Moving Image (it's located across the East River, in Queens), but of the Broadway Plaza Hotel. Indeed, apart from the museum in Queens, there is very little in the whole of America that exists to celebrate the history of cinema. Not even in Los Angeles. There's the stupid Hollywood sign on Mount Lee in Griffith Park, first seen in 1923, and beloved of intellectually bankrupt BBC documentary-makers, and that's about it. Here in the UK, we have a Museum of the Moving Image, but no film industry to speak of. In America, it's the other way round.

Because I do mean an industry. Drive around Los Angeles, as I did a few weeks ago, and you will soon perceive how it is that American films dominate world cinema, for the film studios are enormous factories of film-making. Think of the largest car plant that ever operated in this country - Longbridge or Luton - and you will have some idea of the size of any one of the big six: Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Universal, MGM or Sony.

By contrast, talk of a British film industry looks nothing short of fanciful - and the truth is that we could no more compete with Hollywood than the Morgan Motor Company could take on General Motors. Now and again, we can come up with a hit movie, a Four Weddings or a Full Monty, but there is not the vaguest likelihood that Hollywood will ever lose its dominant position, or find itself being competed with noticeably.

Even the House of Commons has woken up to the parochial nature of British film. The culture, media and sport select committee of the House of Commons, in its report on the British Film Industry published on 18 September, recognised that British film production was "an under-capitalised 'cottage' industry based around entrepreneurial individuals driving single-project vehicles. The industry has concentrated on production with insufficient emphasis on distribution. In this scenario, rights are often pre-sold in order to get the film made in the first place; therefore, any unexpected success does not reap proportionate rewards to fund future production or support less lucrative but worthwhile output."

I couldn't have put it better myself.

So, just as often it's the Americans who buy the rights and who make the money when a "British" film does good business. Yes. But it's worth remembering that it's the Americans who lose the money when the film doesn't do good business. A lot of money. All investment is a double-edged sword and film is one of the riskiest investments there is. Most films lose money and from where I sit, here in London, it seems preferable that Americans should carry these substantial risks rather than British companies. But for the delusion that we can "take on the Yanks" at their own game, FilmFour, which lost £20m on Charlotte Gray and Lucky Break, might still exist. That is not an exaggeration. I know two of the producers involved in one of these pictures, and they genuinely believed their film could compete alongside product from the big studios.

They were wrong and they were right because, in the end, making a successful film is entirely a matter of luck. Americans recognise this and try to keep the unpredictable element of fluke to a minimum, but they still take enormous losses, much bigger than we could ever hope to sustain.

For the rest of the film-making world, it's very difficult to base an economic margin on luck. So if you're about to invest in a British film, you've got to ask yourself a question: do I feel lucky? Well, do ya?