Beyond the box office

A special panel examines the cultural influence of the British Film Industry.

by James Benefield

Beyond the Box Office, a seminar event at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, attempted to answer the question of how one measures the cultural impact of film. The seminar was kicked off by a presentation of a June 2009 report overseen by the UK Film Council. The council asked a consortium comprised of Narval Media, the BFI and Birkbeck College and Media Consulting Group to conduct a study of the cultural impact of UK film in the period 1946 to 2006. The event's aim was to gauge industry and press reaction to the report, in order to develop and engage the debate for a second round.

Two of the report's writers, Professor Ian Christie from Birkbeck and Bertrand Moullier from Narval Media, were on hand to summarise their findings and explain the report. The event was overseen by polymath (he makes films! He organises events! He is an academic! And he hangs around with Tilda Swinton!) Mark Cousins. They began by defining their terms. Their definition of culture came from anthropologist Clifford Geertz - culture is 'stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves'. It all seemed pretty clear. But what was less clear was their definition of a British film.

Being in Edinburgh, the discussion focused primarily on Scottish films. We all know Trainspotting is a Scottish film, but is Braveheart? It was up for discussion, with members of the audience disagreeing. The question was expanded to ask whether films like those in the Harry Potter series - primarily financed by American money, although featuring an almost exclusively British cast - could also count as British. Does the film have to engage with British values and identity to be British? Can it even be set outside of Britain?

It was agreed that largely, on the international film festival circuit, the Brits are famous for a certain type of film. We're good at social realism; think Ken Loach or, recently, Andrea Arnold. We're also good at rueful comedies. Mike Leigh was brought up in this context. Whether these expectations were a help or hindrance for new and existing filmmakers also came up.

It was one of many questions in this problematic event. In fact, we barely got on to the report (which, most audience members admitted, they hadn't yet read). The report helped to compile a database of around 5,000 British films of the designated period. Again, issues of a film canon were raised. The fact that IMDB was used a serious tool of research was scrutinised. Even the term 'cultural impact' was debated. How different is it from 'cultural impact'? More questions, more damn questions.

Yet this initial presentation was designed to take, and encouraged, many questions and amendments. The consortium certainly have their work cut out. Let's hope they listen, as it seemed, from the reaction of the audience, there is a lot they have thus far failed to cover.

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