HC Deb 12 November 1948 vol 457 cc1953-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. G. Wallace.]

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, King's Norton)

I confess that I have a small personal interest in a very modest independent film production. I wish today to raise the question of the condition of the British film industry, and if I speak rapidly I hope I shall be forgiven because there are others who wish to speak in the Debate. The principal reason why we are raising this matter is because Britain must have its own film industry, and not someone else's. It is well known that the majority of films shown in this country at the moment, and paid for at the box office, are foreign. What would we think if over half our morning newspapers were owned by people abroad, or over half of our broadcasting system was owned by people living abroad? We cannot accept with complacency the fact that the majority of films shown here are not British. Indeed, I think it is appalling. As I think independent investigation has amply shown, films have a much greater influence today on the minds of the young, and perhaps as a means of propaganda generally, than either the newspapers or the B.B.C.

What is wrong with our film industry? Why is it always in a state of crisis? It grew up here, and we largely invented films. We have excellent producers, composers, artists, actors and technicians. I suggest that the main reason is that those who produce films are financially starved while those who exhibit them are thriving. It is as if the oil-producing industry was failing while all the time the petrol stations were making money hand over fist. We must admit that the main reason for the failing of the British industry lies in two world wars. Before the recent war the industry had got very much on its feet again, thanks to the work of pioneers like Balcon, Wilcox, John Grierson, Korda, Maxwell and others, but because of the war, and for other reasons, the industry has been moving from crisis to crisis. I go further and say that the industry would largely disappear were it not for the policy laid down by the President of the Board of Trade in saying, first, that 45 per cent. of first feature films shown must be British and, second, in deciding to give some financial help to the industry.

It is overwhelmingly important that we should establish a prosperous and efficient film industry which can produce large numbers of good films relatively cheaply. It is important, first, because the influence of films on the public today, particularly the young, is so great that the films must be good. We have had a lot of bad films lately. Second, good films can be an excellent export, and can help, without being direct propaganda, to show foreign countries the priceless blessings of freedom as against the horrors of the police State. Thirdly, it is important because we cannot afford to pay any more than the 17 million dollars a year which was laid down under the Johnston-Wilson agreement. Nor can we afford to have huge American sterling balances piling up, as they are today, to an estimated 35 million dollars per annum. I believe that the House and the country would say, "If we have to choose between buying meat or more American films it will be meat, and not more American films."

Today, unfortunately, the British film industry faces a great and acute crisis, such as it has frequently faced in the past. I do not want to refer to matters which may be a little embarrassing to any particular company, but I would like to quote my hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien), who knows the industry so well. He has said that there is grave danger of the collapse of the whole industry, involving large-scale unemployment, because there is not enough finance available for production. Already some studios have closed—I have the list here—and 15 per cent. unemployment exists in the industry. More is undoubtedly threatened. 1, therefore, suggest that the President of the Board of Trade should form a comprehensive plan designed to re-establish confidence in the British film industry and showing that the Government will spare no effort in the task of making the British film industry, what it can be—the leader of Europe, if not of the world.

The President of the Board of Trade should say categorically that we must fulfil our 45 per cent. quota of British films—nothing lower. Our aim must be to raise that quota, but it must be fulfilled at all costs. It is not very much to ask. It still means that the majority of the films shown will be foreign films. In particular, I suggest that the President should state that if the quota is not met, we shall not import any American films to bridge the gap. This should make it clear to the American film companies now trying to ruin Rank and Korda by giving their films very bad showings that the continuation of these tactics cannot possibly benefit them in any way. Secondly, I suggest that the President of the Board of Trade should give a lead to the whole industry in the direction of reducing the costs of production. It is absolutely vital that costs of production in this industry should be brought down, and I suggest it should he done in three ways.

First of all, the President should get them together and ask them to accept a scheme designed to limit the fantastic sums which are paid to film stars and sometimes to management. I am able here to quote Mr. George Elvin, Secretary of the A.C.T., which although not such a large union as that of my hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham, nevertheless, includes skilled technicians at a very high level in this industry, and he is prepared—and he has written me a letter to say he is prepared—to join with the President of the Board of Trade on certain conditions in the appeal he has already made to bring the costs of production down. He says that of course we must bring down the fantastic sums paid to stars and management.

The President of the Board of Trade himself has said that this money does not really go to the film stars themselves. It goes almost directly into the pocket of the Treasury, and the industry cannot afford to subsidise the Treasury to this extent. Really, these sums are ruining the industry today. They are far greater than the productive side of the industry can afford to pay. I would like for a moment to interrupt my argument here to give a few figures. Of £110 million spent last year at the box offices the Government took nearly £40 million in tax. The exhibitors took £41 million, the renters' profits were £5 million, cost of prints £2 million, leaving a comparatively small sum-much less than £30 million—for the people who, in fact, produced the pictures. If you, Sir, pay 1s. at the box office less than a ld. of that 1s. goes to pay the cost of production and the people who pay for the films.

Secondly, I hope the President will have an inquiry into the conditions of this industry, in order to see, as between exhibitors, renters and producers, where the finance goes and whether it is fairly divided. Thirdly, I would ask him to recommend to the industry, and if necessary exhibit to them, the new methods for reducing the time taken in the studio.

At the moment there is one device which the President has announced—the Government Film Corporation, with £5 million. I think it is the general opinion of the industry that, subject to the cost of production being lowered, this is an entirely inadequate sum to enable the industry to get on its feet again and should be raised. This Corporation will advance money only if a renter sponsors the film and what is called a completion guarantee is given in respect of the film. In effect, this means that the Corporation will be of practically no assistance whatever to independent producers. So far, it has advanced practically no money to independent producers—a mere £20,000 to one and £1 million of which, of course, we know to British Lion.

I suggest that, as an administrative action and not a legislative action at all, the President of the Board of Trade should set up an expert panel to advise him on films by independent producers on the basis of synopsis, the budget and the general set-up and that in approved cases with very strict safeguards as to economy, which is so important, he should be willing to advance the money directly to independent producers, and, at least, give independent producers a chance. After all, the main justification for private enterprise is that it is competitive. This industry, owing to the semi-monopolistic conditions that obtain, is not sufficiently competitive. I ask the President of the Board of Trade to help this industry, and to try to give independent producers a chance. Even these measures may not be enough to rescue the production side of the industry. I hope that the progress of the industry will be studied with great anxiety and care in order to ensure that in character and importance it will become, as it can, the leader of the European film industry.

4.11 p.m.

Major Haughton (Antrim)

I, too, will speak rapidly, and declare my indirect interest, in that I am president of the Scientific Film Society in Northern Ireland. To give other hon. Members time to speak and the President of the Board of Trade the maximum time to reply, I will pinpoint just three things that appealed to me in the speech of the hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn). First, it is necessary to have a healthy and expanding British film industry. Second, we are told by those best capable of analysing the position and advising us that the industry is in one more crisis, or could almost be said to be in a state of continuous crisis. Third, I emphasise and back the appeal made to the President of the Board of Trade by the hon. Member that a panel should be set up to study and to advise on the films which are submitted or could be submitted.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. O'Brien (Nottingham, West)

In an Adjournment Debate of half an hour it is quite impracticable to deal even with the present position before the industry, quite apart from its history. I subscribe generally to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) who introduced the subject. There are one or two points on which I should have some difficulty in following him completely, but, on the whole, I think he has put a very strong case in a short space of time.

The main, fundamental trouble before the British film producing industry—and it has got to be faced by Government, industry and people—is the complete lack of confidence in it by the country. I have stated in this House and elsewhere that one cannot raise by any commercial method one farthing to make new films. Unless the President of the Board of Trade had come to the rescue, with an amount that many of us regard as completely inadequate, there would have been little hope at all for those independent producers who now remain. On the side of finance, the difficulty has been the big trusts.

Mr. Arthur Rank and the A.B.C. have their own method of financing themselves. I hope they will not freeze-up, but if by some chance the facilities of Mr. Arthur Rank and Sir Phillip Water were to dry up there would be an immediate collapse of the British film industry. Sam Goldwyn used to say, when spending millions of dollars for experts on audience reaction and pre-sales penetration, "Well, I have studied what you have written to me and what you have said. I hope no one ever finds an idea or plan by which he advises audiences to keep away from the cinemas at least more than once a week." That sums up the position in this country.

The President of the Board of Trade, when he reported to this House on the agreement he had reached with Mr. Eric Johnston, was attacked on all sides of the House on the ground that the agreement was one-sided, with the Americans getting away with it. One of the features of that was an attack, by those people in the industry who are doing the most squealing, that the agreement provided for complete domination of British film studios and British film production by American capital—that is, the dollars frozen under the terms of the agreement. But what do we find? The situation today completely vindicates the Minister. The present British film production position completely vindicates the policy adopted by my right hon. Friend at the time, because hardly a dollar is being spent in this country on film production today by the American people. If this situation continues we may have to go on our hands and knees and ask the American movie magnates to come over here, use our studios and make films in this country in order to save the technicians, the labour, the artists and the organisation we have so laboriously built up in the course of the years.

I, therefore, support my hon. Friend in his plea for a panel of experts, and I ask the Minister further to consider encouraging the setting up of, not only a national film council but an international film council between the American industry and our own to try to solve these problems as they arise.

4.17 p.m.

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Harold Wilson)

Like my hon. Friends, I must speak quickly in order to cover the points which have been raised. Of course, it is within the knowledge of the House that many of the points raised this afternoon have been well traversed in previous Debates, and if I were to go into all the questions which have been asked about the provision of financial capital for independent producers, I should very quickly get out of Order by anticipating the legislation which I hope to introduce in the very near future.

But I will say this in answer to my hon. Friends. When I announced the scheme in July, I did say that, in addition to providing finance through existing organisations which are there for the purpose of distributing and financing independent productions it would be my idea, with the help of the new organising committee, to work out methods for financial help—on a strict repayment basis, of course—for direct production. I am sure my hon. Friends will realise how careful one has to be in working out these arrangements.

This is an industry with many attractive qualities; but it is also an industry with certain vices, of which extravagance is the greatest, and anyone lending money has to be extremely careful to ensure that there is an adequate check on the method of expenditure by the producers, and also that the film being financed is likely to get an adequate return when it gets to the cinema. As I say, any organisation providing finance has to be careful; but when the organisation providing the finance is doing so with money voted by this House, that organisation has to be doubly careful in working out the checks and balances necessary. However, we shall be doing this before very long; but I think I am right in saying that if we had not announced this scheme in July of this year there would have been a complete drying up of a very large sector of independent production in this country.

My hon. Friend stressed, and asked me to agree with his stressing, the need to have an independent, strong and soundly based British film industry. If I need to stress that again, I will certainly do so this afternoon. It is the Government's policy, and has been the policy of previous Governments, to ensure that British film production is soundly established and soundly based in this country. This was made clear at every stage of the negotiations with the Hollywood re- presentatives last March. It was made clear to them then that, although we always want to see the best American films in this country, and on as large a scale as possible, they cannot expect to have the same proportion of our British screen time in future years as they had in the concluding war years or in the early peace-time years.

The Cinematograph Films Act, which went through this House in the early months of this year, was based on the principle that there should be a guaranteed showing to all films of reasonable quality which our own film industry was capable of producing. The Cinematograph Films Act was in strict accordance with what I said to the American representatives, and the quota of 45 per cent—and I agree this is a most powerful instrument in building up this industry—was fully consistent with everything said and discussed with the representatives of Hollywood, and was exactly what this House had in mind when the Measure went through.

My hon. Friend mentioned the balance between the various shares of box office revenue received by production, on the one hand, and distribution and exhibition, on the other. He quoted some figures in support of his point, although, if I were to go into details, I think I should want to criticise one or two of them. I have announced to this House that it is my intention to appoint a powerful and well-staffed committee to inquire into distribution and exhibition of cinematograph films, and to study this system of exhibition and distribution against the background of the economics of the film industry as a whole. I have sent letters to a number of eminent people to serve on this committee, and I hope that it will be getting to work fairly quickly. My hon. Friend said that the Government gave no evidence of a comprehensive plan for the development of British film production. I think I can claim that all the actions of the Government during the past year have been part of a carefully conceived and worked out plan for the development of British film production. There is the Films Act, the Agreement in March, which not only greatly reduced the outflow of dollars from this country, but also played a part in removing the unsettlement holding back independent production, the establishment of the Film Production Coun- cil, with the special emphasis which has been laid on the costs of production, the fixation of quotas and finally the special arrangements made for film finance, which, together with the other measures I have announced, make up a concerted and fully conceived plan for the development of British film production.

My hon. Friend referred to the present crisis in the film studios, and here I entirely agree with my hon. Briend the Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) that the present difficulties in our studios entirely give the lie to those critics of the Johnston Agreement of last March. At that time, as he said, newspapers, from the "Financial Times" to the "Daily Worker"—this is one of the occasions when the two papers were in agreement—were saying that the main effect of the Agreement would be to lead to a mass invasion of our studios by Hollywood producers, with the result that our own producers would be unable to get facilities for production. "Mr. Wilson," said the "Financial Times," could hardly have opened a more capacious door to American domination of the British film industry. They went on week after week on that same point, and that eminent critic, Mr. Randolph Churchill, wrote in the "Daily Mail": All the great American motion-picture companies are now moving into London as fast as aeroplanes can bring them here. They are busy buying up all the studios and equipment they can lay their hands on. As the Americans move in the value of the studios will soar and the genuine British producer will almost certainly succumb to the temptation to sell out to his American competitors for a fancy price. We all envisaged that there would be some American production in this country, but, as my hon. Friend has said, the difficulties in many studios are due to the fact that the American film production is falling far short of the figures we expected and the figures mentioned at the time of the discussions with the Americans.

The other difficulty responsible for part of the present problem in the studios arises from the unsettlement of finance, which undoubtedly beset. the industry in the spring and summer, and partly owing to the American troubles before the agreement and to our inability, until our announcement in July, to find a measure of finance available to support indepen- dent production. There is certainly no shortage of studios. I would certainly be prepared at any time to take steps to see that British producers can have access to unused American studios, if they need them. The difficulty at the present time is that there are not enough projects, not enough stories, and not enough films ready to put on the floor with finance behind them, to take even the available British studios. Now that some financial settlement has been found for the film industry—and I shall have more to say about this in the forthcoming Debate—I have confidence that we shall see British producers working out far more schemes and projects ready to put on the floor.

Mr. Wyatt (Birmingham, Aston)

Is it not a fact that one of the reasons why so many British studios are empty is that they are enormously costly to producers who wish to hire them, partly because they are out-of-date and partly because the people who own them charge excessively?

Mr. Wilson

That will no doubt be one factor into which my committee will inquire, in relation to the economics of the film industry. I have recently had a committee looking into the question of a State-owned studio. Its report has been received and will shortly be published. I have received a communication from my hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham and also from the secretary of the other union. I propose to call a conference between them and the appropriate sections of the industry in order to discuss the situation.

Mr. O'Brien

Very good.

Mr. Wilson

My own Film Production Council has been devoting much of its time to going into the question of film production costs. It has not met for some months while we have been awaiting the collection of information upon which to form a judgment. I agree most sincerely with what my hon. Friend has said about the importance of getting costs down. It is not only a question of salaries of technicians and stars or the lavish traditions which the industry has caught by infection from Hollywood; it is more a question of proper planning for production so that it can get the cheapest possible costs when the film is actually being shot in the studio. It is also—and I said this at much greater length when I addressed one of the organisations recently—to some extent a question of the removal of restrictive practices on both sides of the industry.

Many people who have considered the problems of the industry will agree that one of the most important things is to get some system of pre-shooting so that costs can be reduced when the film is actually shot. The Government, together with many people in the industry, are only too anxious to give any assistance that is possible to new methods of shooting which are being suggested in various quarters. Any help that we can give to try out these methods, even to the extent of assisting in regard to studio building, we shall certainly give to the very limit of our powers.

The final point is that which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham. He said that he thinks there would be great value in starting an international film council. That is a job for the film industry, rather than for the Government.

Mr. O'Brien

I said "encouragement."

Mr. Wilson

I would certainly give the idea my warmest encouragement. I have already expressed my encouragement for an exchange of views between all sections of the British industry and of the American industry. Undoubtedly there is in America at the present time misunderstanding in certain sections—I am not sure that it is not wilful misunderstanding—of what we are trying to do in the British film industry. The quota which we announced seems to have caused heartburning on the other side of the Atlantic. I have said that if the Americans would guarantee us 45 per cent. of their exhibition we would not grumble. After all, 45 per cent. is not an extraordinary proportion in relation to what our exhibitors give them or in relation to what our cinema-goers would like to see on the British screen. I am sure that only good can come from an exchange of views between our industry and that of the Americans on all questions, not only of dispute, but of common interest.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Four o'Clock.