Lock, Stock and Scraping the Barrel: Marketing British Films

Marketing Film Hebden PH

The debate about the health of the British film industry has, predictably, continued into the 21st century. Early in 2012, David Cameron made the idiotic pronouncement that British filmmakers should be more commercial, as if they hadn’t been trying!

The beginning of the century saw the demise of Film Four precipitated by a fall in advertising revenue for its parent Channel 4, caused by the advertising recession created by the bursting of the dotcom bubble. However, C4’s investment in the Hollywood film Death to Smoochy (US-UK-Ger, 2002) no doubt didn’t help; it made $8m at the North American box office, having cost $50m to make. Once again, a British production company had come a cropper trying to break the American market. The success of The King’s Speech (2010), a well-crafted, medium sized budget film with fairly wide appeal, illustrates how such occasional mega-hits is probably the best way forward for the UK industry.

The Arts Council, National Lottery funded, franchises turned out to be a disaster. Too many films were made because the money was available to make them and so poor scripts went into production and, surprise!, audiences didn’t like them. The successor, in UK Film Council, seemed to be making a decent job of funding films, and aiding distribution of non-mainstream material, before it was summarily axed by the Government in 2010.

Since this piece was written, Web 2.0 has burst upon us, and by us, changing the way we interact with film, and with how film is marketed. However, TV advertising, posters etc. are all still important aspects of marketing.

 *  *  *

It’s a commonplace that Hollywood dominates the world’s box office: a scan of the Screen International’s chart for the first weekend in May shows only the Nordic countries and Spain have a non-Hollywood movie as their number one. Although we share a common language, the British film industry has constantly failed to ‘break’ North America despite repeated big budget attempts such as Rank’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1948) and Goldcrest’s Revolution (1986). Unable to rely on N.American box office (it should be noted that Shakespeare in Love – currently nearing the $100m mark in N.America – is a Hollywood production) British films are dependent on the domestic market for most of their revenue. This basically rules out the big budget blockbuster movies that audiences seem to prefer. As a result, British films have even laboured to make an impact in this country; in 1998 only Sliding Doors and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels made the top ten of the year (7th and 8th respectively) and they were both US co-productions. Worse, it is estimated that only 26 out of 65 films completed in 1997 will get distributed. This isn’t necessarily because they are bad films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels had been waiting two years for distribution. This problem was addressed in the mini-studio franchises funded by the National Lottery via the Arts Council: all the films made by the franchises had to have guaranteed distribution. A good idea though it’s still not clear on how successful this scheme will be.

Distribution is the key to box office success whether a film has a blanket release – over 200 screens in UK/Ireland – or a platform release where a film has a restricted opening which is followed by an increasing number of screens over the next two or three weeks. The crucial element in distribution is the marketing and this is an area where British cinema really suffers. The most effective form of marketing (ignoring trailers in cinemas) is advertising on television, a medium that is usually beyond the budget of most British-financed films. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels benefited from an excellent and large (1500 site) poster campaign – costing something around £1.5 million — as had the same distributor’s Trainspotting. Lock, Stock was distributed by Polygram Filmed Entertainment (PFE) that – before Seagram swallowed it last year – had ambitions to be a mini-major studio; PFE could even afford to advertise Elizabeth on television (Channel 4). In all, Lock, Stock grossed over £11m and Elizabeth around £4m. Ironically, in N.America, their respective, grosses were under $3m and around $30m! It seems that ‘new world’ audiences expect art from ‘England’ and not ‘only entertainment’.

A good poster campaign won’t generate box office success on its own; if the film does not appeal to audiences then it will fail. For example, Swing had a relatively high-profile poster exposure and the presence of [pop star] Lisa Stansfield and ‘The Full Monty’s Hugo Speer’ offered some ‘star’ presence to interview. Despite this it only took £132,138 pounds in its opening three days on 138 sites.

Advertising, which is so prohibitively expensive, is only one element of the marketing mix. Distributors of British films, which have less box office ‘guarantee’ than Hollywood product, have to rely more upon publicity. Barry Norman’s television programme, Film, was the most influential factor in getting bums on seats; his replacement at the BBC, Jonathan Ross, will presumably assume Norman’s mantle by simply hosting the most watched programme.

In print, newspapers offer reviews, gossip, features, interviews and listings but the medium most dedicated to the film industry are the film consumer magazines. This is appropriate as the core cinema audience of 18 to 30 year olds are also inveterate magazine buyers. How influential these magazines are is debatable, the market leader’s, Empire, has a circulation of only around 166,000 though its readership is likely to be about five times this figure. Despite this, they do directly target the film-going public and could be a vehicle for persuading movie-goers to go and see British films. But the magazines’ audiences are the same people who voraciously consume Hollywood High Concept blockbusters and it is not surprising that Hollywood films are usually featured on their front covers. June ’99’s Empire featured a reader’s poll of the top movies of the decade; only Trainspotting challenged Hollywood’s hegemony. It also gave credence to the view that British audiences are among the most conservative in Europe, the other top ten films were, in chronological order: Silence of the Lambs, JFK, Reservoir Dogs, Schindler’s List, Speed, Leon, The Shawshank Redemption, The Usual Suspects and Toy Story. With such a limited taste, anything that does not have stars, special effects, and a big budget will find it difficult to reach any audience. For example, David Cronenburg’s latest opus, eXistenZ, a Canada/UK co-production, opened on 233 screens in France and averaged $6,809 per screen, taking $1,586,430 in three days for second place in the charts; in Britain and Ireland the film opened on 180 screens, averaging $3,246, taking $584,322 and fourth place in the charts (source Screen International).

Stars are usually the most important element of film publicity, they can be interviewed and provide gossip for the press and magazines. Once again Hollywood wins: how many British stars are there (remembering that Sean Connery is Scottish)? How many British films can afford American stars? Gone are the days when Hollywood stars past their ‘sell-by date’, like Dana Andrews in Night of the Demon (1957), would take the lead in British pictures. There isn’t even much mileage in trying to cast ‘up-and-coming’ Americans before they get too expensive. The (dreadful) British ‘mini-hit’ of late 1997, Shooting Fish, was graced by American Dan Futterman; it flopped in N.America.

To be fair to the magazines, they have tried to develop a sense in their audience that the British film industry is in fact alive. Total Film’s June 1999 issue – The Brit Issue – featured 30 pages of ‘Reel Britannia ’99 which consisted of ‘thumbnail’ sketches of actors, directors, producers, administrators and even the odd critic (Mark Kermode). A similar exercise in November ’97’s Empire has yielded only one Brit who could be considered to potentially have made a breakthrough: Little Voice’s Jane Horrocks. March ’99’s Empire cover featured Kate Winslet promoting Hideous Kinky, hardly an ‘Empire reader’ film; despite this the movie died at the box office. The magazines are acknowledging that it is in their interests to have a boom in Brit film and have joined in – what appears to be part of Blair’s ‘third way’ – to brand Britain as Cool Britannia. Maybe it’s working and British movie-goers are being put off Hollywood: the first four months of this year showed a 16% drop in cinema admissions. Added to the fact that the expansion in the number of screens in this country is continuing at a massive rate, we have all the ingredients of a bust.

Europe, too, has been attempting to give credence to its commercial cinema with the introduction of the ‘European Oscars’. This backfired somewhat with the audience’s vote for Godzilla as the best film of 1998, legitimised by the fact that the producer and director are of German extraction.

Distribution is also a headache for European filmmakers. After years of speculation it appears that the European Commission will renew United International Picture’s (UIP’s) licence to distribute films in the continent. This venture consists of MGM, Paramount and Universal Pictures and has been accused of dominating distribution to the detriment of local product; the domination, it appears, will continue.

The economies of scale that is the N.American entertainment market mean all non-USA homegrown film producers, in the West, will struggle to compete with Hollywood product. Does this matter in the days of the so-called global market? After all the British press were eager to salivate over Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow as the ‘English rose’, despite it being a Miramax production. The film had a British star, (‘oh all right, actor’), a British script and the quintessential English bard. The profits may have gone to Hollywood but some money does come back, the first Star Wars prequel was filmed here (the other two have gone to Australia) and features the British – or is he Scottish? – Ewen McGregor.

It is difficult to see how British films can compete on the equal terms with Hollywood so they have to be distinctive. However, in a multiplex film culture the distinctive disappears; this is even becoming true of British television. The number of foreign films broadcast is scandalously few; even Film Four’s dedicated channel has an American bias, albeit toward their independent sector. The consumer magazines have a role in educating the Brit cinemagoer to accept films with subtitles and acknowledge there is a history before Star Wars; this is not altruism, a bigger audience interested in film means a bigger, potential, circulation. Although it almost wholly eschews non-English language product, Empire does often mention films that are generally regarded as canonic; last year its top 50 horror movies included Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari from 1920! Until movie audiences become more sophisticated, in the sense they are open to a wider range of films, I think British films will struggle for a scrap of box office revenue; that said, what are the odds on Notting Hill being a blockbuster?

The recently published British Film Institute’s report into film culture will make interesting reading. Let’s hope they come up with ideas that work and in a decade’s time the local multiplex will offer blockbusters, a repertoire screen, the latest exciting movies from Europe and the rest of the world, and British films. Of course, by then the multiplex may be dead and we’ll watch all our movies beamed directly to us at home via satellite. How will the British film industry cope with that?

Andrew Pulver ‘Bard to worse at the multiplex’ The Guardian 5/2/99
Nick Roddick ‘Shotguns and Weddings’ (Mediawatch ’99) (Sight and Sound 3/99)
Kate Stables, ‘Information Overload’ (Mediawatch ’99) (Sight and Sound 3/99)

First published in ‘in the picture’ (1999); reissued as ‘In the Rear View Mirror: Writings from ‘in the picture’ 1996-2006′