UK film production and the world

In this post I use data from the UK Film Council Research and Statistics Unit to look at the types of films produced in the UK from 2003 to 2009, and the connections between UK film production and other parts of the world. Data was collected for a total of 996 films. Documentaries were excluded from the sample. Note also that this data only includes films with a budget of £500,000 or greater, and so only provides a partial picture of UK film production.

The UK Film Council groups films into five categories: co-productions (COP), incoming co-productions (ICP), domestic features (DOM), inward productions (INW), and films that come to the UK to source visual effects (VFX). Here I only use the first four categories because data for VFX has only been collected since 2007; and I combine COP and ICP into a single category, as the frequency of the latter is low for 2003 to 2006 and zero for 2007 to 2009. The percentage of each category of film is presented in Figure 1, which also includes the data table.

Figure 1 Film production in the UK by type of film, 2003 to 2009

From Figure 1 we can see that there are two clear trends. First, the percentage of co-productions has fallen by two-thirds from 60% to 20%. Second, the percentage of domestic productions has increased by a factor of three, from approximately 20% to 60%. This change occurs in two steps, with an initial step occuring at 2005, with the final change in 2007. This coincides with the initial proposal of the cultural test for British films in 2005 and its final implementation in 2007, and cannot therefore be attributed to the global financial downturn that began in 2007/2008. The percentage of inward features appears to be immune from this change, with the notable exception of 2005 which shows a small increase.

From looking at the actual counts in Table 1 It is clear from this data that there has been an increase in domestic productions with the introduction of the cultural test, but that this has not replaced the number of films lost from the decline of co-productions, and that overall the number of films produced in the UK has decreased. This data does not of course tell us anything about the level of production spending in the UK, and this is obviously a crucial factor in considering the health of the film industry in the UK.

Table 1 Frequency of British films produced by category, 2003 to 2009

Nonetheless, this data should give cause for concern because it indicates that film production in the UK has become increasingly one-dimensional. A healthy film industry is one that can absorb shocks to the system as patterns of production in the global film industry change – but if film production becomes too concentrated into a single class of films this increases the vulnerability of the industry to a crisis. We might say that the cultural test has been successful in stimulating the British film industry, but that this has come at the expense of the film industry in the UK. (Here I make a distinction between all film production activity that takes place in the UK – the UK film industry – and that part of this production activity that is defined as culturally British – in other words, the ‘British national cinema’). A sudden drop in funding for culturally British films would plunge the UK film industry into a crisis of production, which would not be able to make up the short fall from productions originating in other parts of the world. The tax incentives available for film production in the UK are therefore of great importance, and without them we would likely return to the low numbers of production last seen in the 1980s.

It is perhaps instructive to think of the cultural industries in ecological terms: they are a system in which the companies are subject to forces of competition, predation, and extinction, and a change in one part of the system can have very significant consequences throughout the system as a whole. Biodiversity is one of the measures of the health of an ecological system, and economic diversity should also be thought of as a measure of the health of the cultural industries. The above data suggests that the economic diversity of the UK film industry has declined over the past seven years, as film production has become over-dependent on a single class of films. Disrupting the delicate equilibrium of this system could have significant consequences.

  • If a government were to announce it was disbanding the government body responsible for developing and implementing film policy and for distributing funding for film production in the UK without announcing what would take its place, thereby reducing the ability of producers to attract funding because of the uncertainty such a decision would introduce, could also have a negative impact on the level of film production.
  • A determination to reduce immigration from non-EU countries, for example, would not only reduce the number of scientists coming to the UK but could also have a negative impact on the film industry as filmmakers from outside the UK decide to make their films in more welcoming countries.

The first of these has already happened, and threatens to disrupt levels of investment in film production in the UK. The second will be introduced next year, and may further reduce the diversity of film production in the UK. Either one of these could create problems, but both together indicate a lack of foresight on the part of the coalition government.

Part of the drop in co-productions has been attributed to the fact that some films that would previously have been classed as co-productions are now able to qualify as ‘British’ under the terms of the cultural test, and thereby enjoy the full benefit of being a ‘qualifying British film.’ This argument has been put forward by John Graydon, who was involved in structuring the UK’s film tax credit system, and who notes that this represents the success of incentivising film production in the UK (Mansfield 2009). While this may certainly be a fair assessment of the status of some films, it cannot account for the full-scale of the decline in co-productions and does not explain why there has been an overall decline in the total number of productions for each year.

We can also evaluate the diversity of the UK film industry by looking at how the UK is connected to the rest of the world. In Table 2, we have the number of films that have a connection to one or more other countries that were produced in the UK, and we see the same pattern of decline noted above. This table includes films from all the UK Film Council categories.

Table 2 Films produced int he UK connected to at least one other country, 2003 to 2009

These 642 films account for a total of 870 connections to 49 different countries. The number of connections exceeds the number of films because a film may have connections to more than one country. (No film has more than five non-UK co-production partners listed, and most films are productions that involve a UK producer and a producer from one other country). A year by year breakdown by country is presented in Table 3 (NB: this table is quite large).

Table 3 Number of connections to co-producing countries for films produced in the UK, 2003 to 2009

The USA is consistently the most important source of connections to the UK with France a distant second, but where the US has remained at the top of the pile the frequency of connections to France has fallen sharply. Interestingly, India is listed as the third largest source of connections beating Germany into fourth place. ike France, Germany has gone from being a major production to partner to an occasional source of connections after 2004. This is also true of Canada, which has no connections listed for 2009 at all, as well as Spain, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, and Denmark. The category ‘Europe’ is not defined by the UK Film Council.

If we look at the diversity of countries connected to the UK in this way and the number of connections, we find that European countries are the most numerous at 33, accounting for a total of 528 connections (I include Turkey as a European country here). North america accounts for only 3 countries but the USA accounts for 173 connections and Canada 60 so clearly. Next comes ASia, which accounts for only four countries but a total of 75 connections. It should be noted, however, that almost all of these are accounted for by India. Notable absentees from the list of co-production partners in Table 3 are China, Japan, and South Korea. Africa is represented by four countries totalling 15 connections, of which South Africa account for two-thirds. Oceania is represented by Australia and New Zealand, providing a total of 15 connections; while the only South American countries included are Argentina and Brazil, accounting for only 3 films. Figures 2 and 3 make this information somewhat easier to appreciate.

Figure 2 Countries with connections to UK film production by region, 2003 to 2009

Figure 3 Number of connections to countries sorted by region, 2003 to 2009

Often when we talk about globalisation in the film industry we imply something that happens all over the world, but this is clearly not the case for connections between the UK film industry and elsewhere. The places to which film production in the UK is connected can be sorted into three major groups: first, there are the countries geographically closest to the UK – i.e. Europe; second, there are the countries that are historically closest to the UK – i.e. former colonies such as India, Canada, Australia, and South Africa; and, third, there is the United States, which is the dominant global power in the film industry. We can therefore say that some of the ways in which the UK film industry is globalised are through proximity, legacy, and domination by a superior market. When we turn our attention to countries that are far from the UK, that do not have a close historical/cultural relationship, and which are not major world cinema powers – in other words South America and the Far East – we find there are very few connections, if any. In this respect the UK is not that different from Poland, Malaysia, Chile, or Morocco that I have looked at elsewhere on this blog (see here and here).

Given that it is countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China that are tipped to become major global economies in the 21st century, it is imperative that the diversity of feature film production in the UK can be expanded to include links to these countries. India aside, one of the greatest challenges facing policy makers in the UK is how to go about establishing connections to these distant places in the absence of a strong historical relationship. It is difficult to see how this will be achieved whilst restricting immigration from non-EU countries.

The proposed reduction in immigration will hit Indian and American filmmakers hardest, and yet beyond Europe these are the only significant sources of inward investment and co-production partnerships for the UK film industry. Without them, the UK will become increasingly more dependent upon the EU. And yet, as I made clear above, the introduction of the cultural test for British films has dramatically reduced the number of co-productions between UK producers and their European counterparts. A further loss of diversity will only increase the vulnerability of the UK film industry to crises it has been historically ill-prepared to deal with.


Mansfield M 2009 A Report on the British Film Industry for Shadow DCMS. This report can be accessed here.

About Nick Redfern

I am an independent academic with over 15 years experience teaching film in higher education in the UK. I have taught film analysis, film industries, film theories, film history, science fiction at Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Central Lancashire, and Leeds Trinity University, where I was programme leader for film from 2016 to 2020. My research interests include computational film analysis, horror cinema, sound design, science fiction, film trailers, British cinema, and regional film cultures.

Posted on November 4, 2010, in British Cinema, Film Industry, Film Policy, Film Studies, Motion Picture Production, UK Film Council, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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