Claudia Leisinger


Do British film magazines really help promote British film? And should they have to? Leigh Singer tries to read between the lines.

It’s not a battle that a superhero would normally expect to fight. Or lose. Forget the Green Goblin. Spiderman, Marvel Comics’ famous web-slinging, soon-to-be-screen icon is about to be taken out by… Hugh Grant.

A few qualifications. You’re not about to see last minute reshoots with Spidey’s nemesis recast as a floppy-haired, stammering Brit. And don’t expect a potential blockbuster franchise with the might of Sony and Columbia Pictures behind it to be torpedoed at the box-office by Grant’s domestic drama, ‘About a Boy’, the screen adaptation of the latest Nick Hornby best-seller. You will, however, see Grant on the cover of an upcoming ‘Empire’ film magazine, at the expense of the wall-crawling superhero. In the general scheme of cinema, this may not be such earth-shattering news. Yet it was not a decision taken lightly by Emma Cochrane, ‘Empire’ editor.

‘I was having a fight with [About a Boy’s producer] Eric Fellner at Working Title about this. He said “You’re a British film magazine, you should support a British film.” But when it’s a toss-up between that and Spiderman, which we know will sell, a British film might not sell as much.’

It’s the eternal dilemma for ‘Empire’ and the other UK film magazines like ‘Total Film’, ‘Hotdog’ and even the more highbrow ‘Sight and Sound’. We share a common language with the US, whose movies are pumped relentlessly into our multiplexes week in, week out. We share next to nothing with a country like France, whose film industry is state-subsidised, fiercely protected and promoted as culturally significant. ‘Our readers are people who view movies as entertainment rather than art,’ says Cochrane. ‘A huge proportion of people who go to the cinema, about a third, go not knowing what to see. They’ll go for the safe choice, something they’ve seen advertised on TV.’

In terms of this hype, no one can compete with the Americans. It’s an uneven playing field, and theirs is the only game in town – often literally, if the only venue near you is a UCI 10-screener. Hollywood isn’t just playing with itself, but given the quality of most of their output, apparently jerking off most moviegoers too. And we seem to like it. As Alex Godfrey from ‘Hotdog’ sighs, ‘People will go and see a Tom Cruise film whether it’s bad or not.’

Yet surely those who provide the information, the recommendations, have the power to break this cycle? Isn’t there an obligation to bang the drum and direct us towards homegrown efforts? Are these ‘British film magazines’ or simply film magazines based in Britain?

‘If it’s British and it’s good then we try to sort of get behind it and champion it,’ explains Matt Mueller, editor of ‘Total Film. Likewise, ‘Hotdog’ claims that if they come across a decent British film, ‘we’ll jump on it and perhaps lean more heavily towards it’. Again and again, however, two key factors are cited as reasons why attempts to promote UK movies usually result in running up the white flag rather than flying the Union Jack: You can’t see them, and you probably wouldn’t want to anyway.

There are around 100 new films currently made in the UK each year but most of them are sneaked around the country on a handful of prints as if on some covert operation. ‘We’re generally not really geared up for the publicity thing,’ says Cochrane. ‘Take a film like Memento. A week before the release was scheduled they showed it to us, and we were like, “And now, how do we cover it?” We would have done loads on it if we were given it upfront.’

‘Sight and Sound’ helmer Nick James spells out the more serious complaint. ‘We don’t cover that many British films in the feature pages recently because there haven’t been that many that have been worth the attention. I can’t really think of a British independent film in the past year that blew me away.’ It’s quantity without quality. Based on recent releases, could you honestly say you’d pay to see two new British movies a week? And, if not, would you really then expect the film mags to fly off the racks if their front covers featured the likes of Rancid Aluminium, Sorted or Love, Honour and Obey?

You could pass James’ statement off as the easy commercial cop-out, but given that his magazine is affiliated to the British Film Institute and only has to break even, it’s clear that artistic aspirations as just as serious grounds as financial ones. ‘Sometimes you do slightly groan when you get an invite to a British film, because you just think it’s not going to be very good,’ admits Mueller. ‘They can surprise you but it’s so rare that I think I’ll discover a hidden gem.’ ‘I’ve stopped thinking in terms of a raft of good British films because it just doesn’t work like that,’ concurs Emma Cochrane. Or maybe a ‘raft’ is exactly the way to picture it: a flotilla of tiny, underdeveloped vessels cast out to sea, bobbing around in the wake of the Titanic (pre-iceberg) or picked off from above by Hollywood’s Top Gun fighters.

Despite such derision, an almost Churchillian stance of defiance in certain magazines has been in evidence. ‘Total Film’ was running a section entitled ‘Reel Screen’, which focused on independent cinema from around the world, often highlighting work from readers themselves. Matt Mueller describes it as ‘giving us a USP that made us different from other movie magazines out there and let us put things back, if you like, into the UK moviemaking world.’ ‘Hotdog’ has recently established a similar department they call ‘Going Underground’, again with the aim of featuring ‘new filmmakers, short films, bizarre things’. As section editor Tom Hawker explains, ‘It’s a chance for us to plug lesser-known filmmakers, British in particular. If people have any interest in making films there are a lot of interesting things to read about.’

It’s a big If, as Mueller discovered. The curtains fell on ‘Reel Screen’ a few months back. ‘We do a lot of readers’ surveys and found that 60-70% never even looked at the section. The people who did, loved it. But increasingly the stuff at the back was seeming more like a ghetto for independent film.’ Additionally, as you would expect, commercial yield from these pages was non-existent and somewhat inevitably the entire segment was replaced with an extended DVD arena, the advertising revenue of which fuels the entire magazine. ‘It was a pure business decision,’ sighs Mueller. ‘I think [‘Reel Screen’] got us a lot of kudos in the industry and it was good while it lasted, but you need to respond to what the audience wants.’ Emma Cochrane is in even less doubt about her audience’s desires. ‘The majority of people who read ‘Empire’ have moved on from the stages where they say “we’re going to be filmmakers” and now they’re just happy to watch the movies. They want to know about film rather than how to get involved. We’re just not that sort of magazine.’

As of yet, ‘Hotdog’ haven’t been ‘Going Underground’ long enough to feel any negative backlash to the section. Perhaps it ties in well with the mag that’s probably put most emphasis on Brit pics in the recent past (including features on Gangster No.1, Mean Machine and Ray Winstone) though it would be harsh indeed to attribute this to the publication’s somewhat shaky-looking future. Maintaining a solid readership doesn’t necessitate an absence of quirky or unusual films. Matt Mueller now favours a stealthy approach at ‘Total Film’, where they can ‘still champion low-budget stuff but incorporate it into the body of the magazine’. Such tactics will undoubtedly decrease the number of pages devoted to indie flicks, but does mean more readers might happen across a less high-profile film when it’s layered between the features on Tom Cruise and another Star Wars sequel.

Clamour for more coverage of British cinema is valid, but to lay the blame at the magazines’ doors does feel like shooting the messenger for delivering – or downplaying - the bad news. ‘After Trainspotting, for about a year and a half there was a real hunger for British films to be good,’ remarks Nick James. ‘And we blew it.’ Unsurprisingly the magazine chiefs aren’t stuck for ideas as to why British films just don’t cut it right now: a ‘herd mentality’ that jumps on the back of the latest trend; a ‘debut culture’, where almost every film released is somebody’s first, rarely ever somebody’s second; an ‘uncooperative industry’ who don’t even make the most of the little they have; the ‘Primrose Hill crowd’ (‘to imagine you can make a good movie just by getting a bunch of mates together and shooting it, it’s a criminal idea’); even the good old British weather - ‘there’s a reason the studios are in California’.

While you can certainly argue for more creativity from the magazines in general – this month three out of the four all feature Ocean’s Eleven on the front cover – Mueller returns to what his remit is: ‘to get people excited about movies.’ If British cinema isn’t turning you on, it’s hardly a surprise that you’ll switch to the pulling power of the Hollywood elite. Should Hugh Grant get his front cover, don’t think Spiderman will be tucked away alongside the classifieds. This isn’t About A Boy; this is about an entire industry shot through with a long term, strangely British disease from the viewer to the reviewer to the producer. As for a cure, well, it may be that we need some real-life filmmaking superheroes of our own.

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