Junk cinema

Children are reared on tacky Hollywood movies backed by multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns. It

These comments might sound ridiculous:

More children are going to the cinema than ever before.
The wonderful thing about J K Rowling is that she has made going to the cinema "cool" again for a whole generation of children.
It is worrying that there are far fewer boys going to the cinema than girls.

However, were you to insert "books" instead of "films" and "reading" instead of "going to the cinema", you would find them earnestly debated in the media with surprising regularity. It is strange that while we worry about literacy and the need to read, an entire generation is growing up in complete ignorance of a rich and varied part of its own cultural heritage. How many teens could name one film by David Lean, Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock or Michael Powell - or even explain, with any degree of accuracy, what their involvement with that film actually was?

"Kidlit" and "kidfilm" (if such a thing exists) are two very different worlds. For a start, the vast majority of films that your child will see - somewhere between 80-90 per cent - are American. They come across the Atlantic on a wave of publicity - the advertising alone will cost many times more than the entire budget of a British film - followed by a flood of tacky but expensive merchandising and unhealthy, fast-food meals. When Walkers Crisps tried to give away free books, all hell broke loose, but nobody seems to mind about Burger King's "Shrekburger". Bad-taste marketing is as much a part of the film experience as the vastly overpriced Odeon popcorn with the pick'n'mix seething with multicoloured bacteria.

Kids' films are made by cocaine addicts, former hairdressers, loud-mouthed vulgarians and Harvey Weinstein. Children's authors, by contrast, are dedicated and kindly, still given to working in sheds at the bottom of their gardens. Philip Pullman, Eoin Colfer, Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson were all teachers. None of them appears to be obscenely rich, and if they are, they're keeping quiet about it. Even J K Rowling has managed the tricky feat of being one of the wealthiest people in the world while still being ordinary and nice.

The quality of films varies wildly, however, unlike the consistently good work produced by such writers. The Matrix has to be paid for with The Matrix Reloaded, Francis Ford Coppola turns out the horror that was Jack only a few years down the line from The Godfather, and the cheerful Pirates of the Caribbean gave birth to its cynical, overblown sequel, Dead Man's Chest. Not that this seems to affect box-office takings: Dead Man's Chest made $1,058,543,455 at the box office. That's more than a billion dollars! The critics hated it. The teenagers I saw it with were bored. This was a film with no coherent story, with a mincing, self-mocking central performance, witless dialogue and fight scenes that seemed endless. And it is now the third-biggest grossing film in history. Nevertheless, I can't help thinking that the children who went to see it were, essentially, its victims.

These may not be "kidfilms", but they are the films that children want to see. They are also produced with children very much in their sights. In his entertaining book Blockbuster: how the Jaws and Jedi generation turned Hollywood into a boom-town, Tom Shone quotes George Lucas on Star Wars: "Kids are the audience." He describes how the writer David Koepp put together Jurassic Park with notes from children in elementary school. And he has no argument with this, taken from Variety, on the entire industry: "When the causes of the decline of western civilisation are finally writ, Hollywood will surely have to answer why it turned one of man's most significant art forms over to the gratification of high-schoolers."

As I discovered with the launch of Stormbreaker this summer, the film I adapted from my own novel, the sad truth is that it is almost impossible to compete with mainstream film-making from the US. Our box office, $14m taken in the UK, was respectable but it was a tiny pebble on the shore of Pirates. It may seem that my views about that film are therefore a little jaundiced. Not so. In all honesty, I wouldn't mind being trounced by the competition if it were any good. But much of it is no good at all, and that's what hurts. In Blockbuster, Shone lists a series of films and their box-office take: Wild Wild West ($217m), Waterworld ($255m), Last Action Hero ($121m). He then points out that they were "seen as catastrophic flops and globally reviled". He is prompted to ask: "How bad do these things have to be to properly fail any more?"

All over the country, children are being invited to deconstruct and criticise books. Authors visit schools every day of the week, and there are specialist children's book festivals - in Oxford, Edinburgh, Hay-on-Wye, Cheltenham, Bath. The Book Trust has active, excited reading groups all over the country, and of course there are the prizes, the best of them being judged by children.

Meanwhile, there is little or no mechanism in place for them to do the same with films. Where are the Saturday morning film clubs that I grew up with? I wonder if going to the cinema - as opposed to being taken there by parents - is even part of a young person's psyche. It's true that multiplexes offer better sound, vision and comfort than ever before. But there's something cold and utilitarian about them, too. While literature is happening on the street, film seems to me like the fat man, cruising past in his Rolls-Royce. Nobody wants to get in his way.

The issues are the same in television. It is nothing short of a scandal that ITV should have chosen this particular time to attempt to drop all home-grown children's drama from its schedules, relying instead on Disney and Nickelodeon to - cheaply - fill the gap. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas both grew out of their television-watching experiences. But any future talent in the UK is now wholly reliant on the BBC.

"How much does it matter to you to see your own culture reflected back at you when you're a kid? That is the key issue," says Elaine Sperber, who spent six years as head of children's drama at the BBC. She acknowledges that children are likely to be watching EastEnders in the same numbers as Tracy Beaker or Kerching, the first black sitcom for kids, which she helped create. "It's important to give children a healthier alternative, a context. A teenage pregnancy will be treated very differently in EastEnders from how it is in Grange Hill. On an entertainment level, children should be able to watch people like themselves."

This is the thinking behind the London Children's Film Festival (LCFF), which takes place at 16 cinemas across London this month. At first glance, some of the content may not seem promising: Bonkers, a Dutch film about a nine-year-old girl living with a manic depressive mother; Children of the Moon, from Germany, about a boy creating a fantasy world to cope with his serious illness. Not quite as enticing as Spiderman 3. But not so formulaic either, and more likely to surprise than to disappoint. "I think it's very important that our films are based on narrative," says Jillian Barker, co-artistic director of the LCFF. "If you deconstruct a Hollywood blockbuster, it's all about effects. There is some merit in these films, but they don't give a broad idea of what cinema is about. We want to show children what film can bring."

The films are deliberately chosen from around the world, reflecting the fact that London is now the most multicultural city on the planet. They are screened not just in the West End but in Kilburn and Brixton, reaching out to as wide an audience as possible (7,000 children attended last year). Actors, directors, writers and prod ucers give talks. And there are screenings of short films made by children, with digital technology allowing a possible hit-and-run on studio supremacy. Above all, the festival reflects, as Barker puts it, "the complex situations that children all over the world are living in".

This is where books and film at last come together. I asked Marc Samuelson, the producer of Stormbreaker with his brother, Peter, why he had wanted to make the film. He replied: "I liked the story. And that's what film is all about. It's the purest form of entertainment - a story." Like Barker, he is not opposed to American cinema and sees an opportunity for education in the most unlikely places, referring to the class struggle which is the sub-plot of the most successful film of all time, Titanic. "If you're eleven, you may not have understood about social injustice. But it's there. Discreet but totally effective in getting the message across."

Story-telling is at the heart of what I, and other children's authors, do. I often think it is what actually defines children's writing, separating it from adult books that can chase their own tale for a hundred pages without going anywhere. And films can tell stories in a way that even children's books can't, because - at a time when children's lives are fragmenting; when everyone is in their own little room doing their own thing - the cinema brings us all together. "It provides genuine cultural value," Samuelson asserts. "Children understand complicated and subtle emotional truths and begin to realise what their peers share or don't share." When you read, you are on your own. But who will forget the moment when the little boy cycled across the moon, when the head rolled out of the submerged boat, when Indy pulled out his gun and shot the guy with the two swords? I don't need to tell you the names of the movies. They are engraved on our collective consciousness.

It is perfectly reasonable to enjoy the guilty pleasure of a bad film - providing that we have the critical facilities to differentiate it from a good one. But at the same time, we need to keep a handle on our own culture and the culture of those around us. It would help to recognise that the world does not conform to the view of a handful of executives in downtown Los Angeles. One of the most successful directors of all time, Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings, King Kong) recently signed a deal with Microsoft to create a series of interactive games for its Xbox console. "I do not have to keep delivering stories as movies," he was quoted as saying. "I'm getting a little bored of film." The danger is that if we continue to feed our kids on a big-budget diet, we might all too soon feel the same.

The London Children's Film Festival takes place in various venues from 18 November. For details see www.barbican.org.uk/lcff

Kids' classics: the top five
By Ryan Gilbey

Spirited Away (2001)

Hayao Miyazaki's tender and imaginative animated features leave audiences of any age spellbound. Spirited Away, which won the 2003 Oscar for Best Animated Film, is his masterpiece. This outlandish fable about Chihiro, who finds work in a bath-house frequented by gods, after her parents are turned into pigs, makes Alice in Wonderland look like documentary realism.

The White Balloon (1995)

Children have no prejudices about foreign films - if they can read, they relish the novelty of combining it with cinema. This simple but resonant tale of a young Iranian girl desperate to buy a goldfish boasts easygoing performances, unexpected suspense and some gentle tugs at the heartstrings.

Toy Story (1996) / Toy Story 2 (2000)

Sceptics baulked at the idea that computer animation could engage the heart and mind as well as the eye. But with these Pixar-Disney collaborations about toys that spring to life when their owners aren't looking, you get more witty gags, complex emotions and pure pleasure in five minutes than in the entirety of most "grown-up" films.

ET - The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

An obvious choice, and an indispensable one. Steven Spielberg may have put away childish things now, but this tale of a boy's friendship with an alien stranded in suburban California may be his most mature film. It understands that childhood is permeated with loss and sadness as much as with joy - and doesn't pretend otherwise.

Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1986)

Tim Burton's debut, full of genuine anarchy and subversion, follows the child-man Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) as he searches for his stolen bicycle. On the way, he dresses in drag, encounters the fearsome Large Marge, dances for his life in a crowd of Hell's Angels and becomes a Hollywood star.