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Friday, 30 March, 2001, 09:37 GMT 10:37 UK
The NFT's Adrian Wootton quizzed

Ridley Scott's epic Gladiator may have won best film at the Oscars, but he failed to pick up the best director award on a night which was disappointing for the British.

Gladiator, which was partly filmed in the UK using British technicians, had been the bookies' favourite to take the best film award. Scott had also been tipped for best director but missed out to Steven Soderbergh, who directed Traffic.

Julie Walters and Jamie Bell for Billy Elliot and Dame Judi Dench for her role in Chocolat failed to excite the Academy this year.

Adrian Wootton is the British Film Institute head of exhibition and director of the London Film Festival. He has carried out extensive research into crime fiction and has recently revamped the programming policy at the NFT.

So why did the Brits do so badly? How can the British film industry be improved? What is the British fascination with gangster movies?

Adrian Wootton took your questions in a live forum on Wednesday.

To listen to coverage of the forum, select the link below:



Rebecca, London, UK:

What does the British Film Institute do?

Adrian Wootton:

The British Film Institute is a body that has been around for nearly 70 years. The BFI runs the national film archive - the largest film archive in the world - preserving British and other films from all over the world and making them accessible in cinemas, on television and on video. It runs the BFI national library which is the largest print book library on film in the UK and one of the largest in the world. It runs the National Film Theatre and the London Film Festival and has it's own publishing operation as well.


So it has a wide range of responsibilities and duties. Do you hand out money to film-makers?

Adrian Wootton:

No we don't have a production responsibility. We used to have but all that responsibility for production money is now handled by the new body that we report to which is the Film Council.

Juliette, Richmond, UK:

Is it right that we determine the success of the British Film Industry by how many Oscars we win?

Adrian Wootton:

I think on an annual basis that would be foolish because there are good film-making years and bad film-making years. I think that if you look at the history of the Oscars - certainly over the last 30 years - then British film-makers, British actors, British directors have done incredibly well out of the Academy Awards.

If you look at it by a long-term criterion then the British film industry has been very, very successful but you can't look at it just on a one-year basis because some years you will have some good films and some years you won't.

Dave Wright, Oxford, UK:

Should we be competing with Hollywood and trying to make the films that they make so successfully at the box-office?

Adrian Wootton:

I think it would be wrong to talk about competing with Hollywood in terms of the world market. Hollywood is the biggest film industry in the world - it has billions of dollars at it's disposal and it has cornered the world market. However, on a title-by-title basis, certainly in the UK and in other parts of the world, we can make high quality British films that can do as well as American films. But we shouldn't just be saying that we can have an industry as big as Hollywood because that wouldn't work. It would be foolish for us to spend the kind of money that Hollywood does on an average blockbuster as we could make five or six really interesting movies instead.

Martin Stephenson, Oxford, UK:

Why are there so many awful British films made?

Adrian Wootton:

I think that is a very good question. The answer is that we don't have a worse strike ratio in terms of production than America. It just so happens that America makes many more films - so it actually it makes many more bad films - and out of the many more films that it does make, you get a few good ones. The average ratio is about 1:10 - out of every ten films that is made only one is going to be successful at the box-office and the other nine are going to fail.

It is true that over the last few years, it has not been particularly good in terms of the way in which public money has been used to fund films. I think that is due to the lack of experience of producers and scriptwriters and the lack of money that has been invested in development. So basically, young film-makers go into the marketplace, make their first feature when they are no ready to do so. Then what happens is you get films which are poorly scripted and poorly directed and then it damages that young film-maker's opportunity to then go on and have a career.

We have to look at what happened with the Lottery and what has happened with film production companies and say we have got to do this better because otherwise our film industry will be in jeopardy in the future.

Naoko Fader, London, UK:

Why are the Arts Council and the Lottery not doing the right job in picking the right films when they back them?

Adrian Wootton:

It is difficult - lottery is a very good word! Film making is a lottery and you will always have a very high failure rate. Film is an industry in terms of the way in which it is a product that is produced for the marketplace. But it is also an art form and the old adage about nobody knowing anything is true. If you could bottle what makes a successful film then Hollywood would have done it a long time ago.

However, I think it is true that there have been mistakes made in terms of the funding and selection of films and I think the process that the Lottery and the Art Council originally set up had a lot of flaws in it. But this is precisely why the Film Council was set up to take all of that money and to restructure the whole operation and to try and make sure that the money was spent far more effectively on films which audiences would want to go and see and which would do well at the box-office.

Darren, England:

How do you rate the Film Council's plans to revive the film industry in the UK?

Adrian Wootton:

If is obviously far too early to say whether they will work. The Film Council has only been with us for about a year. It is only in the last few days on it's web site that announced it first slate of films that it is going to fund. I certainly think that the plans they have put into place are very sensible and they aren't just funding commercial films. They have been very wise in setting up a variety of different funds so that there is a new cinema fund for experimental work and for young film-makers to make shorts and digital films and there is a premier fund for bigger budgeted films. But there is also very importantly a development fund and a training fund so that young film-makers can get access to money to develop their scripts and to actually train - I think that is absolutely critical. So I think the blueprint that the Film Council has outlined is sensible and is the right way to go.

David Varela, London, UK:

Do you feel that British screenwriters are too strongly influenced by soap operas, where many of them learn their skills?

Adrian Wootton:

I think that it may be true that a lot more scriptwriters should have a television grounding. In fact some of our best scriptwriters and some of our best film-makers - Mike Leigh, Ken Loach - all came out of television. It may be true to say that not enough young scriptwriters have had experience in working for television before they have penned their first script and persuaded somebody to direct it. So no, I don't think they are too influenced by soap operas. I think that young scriptwriters in Britain have not necessarily had the training or the investment in developing their skills that is required for them to actually make really good things that people will want to film.

Trevor, London, Uk:

Why do UK producers have weak relationships with UK distributors?

Adrian Wootton:

I think it is an erratic relationship. Historically in every film industry in the world there is a tension between production and distribution in terms of where the money gets spent. I think it is true to say that production and distribution hasn't worked effectively together as well as it might do in terms of the history of British cinema. However, I think that that situation is beginning to change because the most successful producers in the UK - Andrew MacDonald and Duncan Kenworthy - they do have deals which have very major relationships with American studios where they get the money to bankroll their productions in Europe and also where they disseminate their work in a very wide way. I do think that that situation is changing but I still think there is a long way to go before the production industry and the distribution industry reconcile themselves to an ideal relationship.


If we do have that ideal relationship, what can we realistically expect from the British Film industry?

Adrian Wootton:

What we really should be expecting from the British Industry - and I think one has to be realistic about it - is that we should be to make a range of movies both the experimental young exciting type - whether it be digital short film making and medium range film-making in the 5 to 10 million range of budget which can compete with the best quality film-making that is available in Europe and the rest of the world. I think this is what we should strive for - we have got to strive to create quality British cinema - I am not talking about our tasks or specialists cinema - I am talking about quality cinema that appeals to a wide range of audience. I think this is what we should be aiming for - not to make just experimental films and not just trying to make blockbusters which we don't have the money for. I believe if we focus on making quality films that can find a niche in the marketplace around the world then we have a chance of creating a thriving film industry.

John, Bristol, UK:

Why are the British so obsessed with gangster movies at the moment?

Adrian Wootton:

I think it is a unfortunate that there has been this sub-genre that has come out because it has obscured the qualities of some rather good films and has meant that everything has been tarred with the same brush. For example, "Sexy Beast" - a rather wonderful film that was released earlier in the year - was unfairly characterised as just another gangster movie which it wasn't. I don't think it is just the film industry but everybody is obsessed - there was an interview on the television the other night about the last interview that Reggie Kray gave. I think we are obsessed in the UK by the myth of the East End, London gangsters and I don't know that it is particularly healthy for cinema and I am hoping that we will be having a break from it.


I have to ask you about the Oscars. Who would you have picked for best director and best picture?

Adrian Wootton:

In the London Film Festival we premiered in the UK, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Almost Famous". I was pleased that "Almost Famous" got a best screenplay Oscar and I was pleased that "Crouching Tiger" got four Oscars. I would liked Ang Lee to have got the best director award because I think the film is absolutely phenomenal but I can't really complain because "Traffic" was also a great film. In terms of best picture, I was pretty happy with "Gladiator" winning best picture. I think Ridley Scott did a great job. In year that pretty "blockbuster light" in terms of quality action films, "Gladiator" was by far the best of the bunch.

Fabian, Bristol, UK:

How with the forthcoming strikes in Hollywood - from the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America - affect us over here in terms of production and exhibition?

Adrian Wootton:

It is potentially rather very worrying. It is not clear at the moment how it is going to affect British actors and British talent - either American actors working over here or British actors and directors working over there. I think at the very least it is going to be very confused and going to create problems for the European film industry.

In terms of exhibition, again it might be that there is an opportunity because more European films being made will get screen availability but I think it will be frustrating for lots of people because there is a lot of potentially very exciting films being produced in America and they won't necessarily be able to be released and they won't be able to be released with the stars supporting them. So for audiences who like commercial American entertainment they may find themselves getting starved of it if the strike goes on for any length of time.


If it does go on and we are not getting American films over here, should the big multiplexes be grabbing this opportunity by screening more British and foreign films?

Adrian Wootton:

Absolutely. If the American product does start to become less available - the British Film Institute has been working with multiplexes over the past year or two to show a wider range of films - I would certainly like to see multiplexes taking more chances and grabbing that opportunity as it comes along to expose audiences to non-English language films and to more British films.

Oliver, London, UK:

Why have the facilities and staff at the British Film Theatre declined so dramatically in the past year or so?


What about staffing levels are they the same as they were eighteen months ago?

Adrian Wootton:

I would say that they haven't. I would like to know a bit more what the questioner means? We have been recording record attendances over the last four or five months. We have been doing things on our building to try and improve it - we are doing work in putting in different facilities into the NFT and we are getting more members and more audiences. I am sorry that the questioner feels that way and I would be happy to him or for him to write to me and tell me exactly what he thinks we aren't doing and that we should be doing and I will give him a personal reply.


What about staffing levels are they the same as they were eighteen months ago?

Adrian Wootton:


Parit Patel, London, England:

I've always been interested in films, especially directing. What opportunities are there for someone like myself, who has no media training, to make films?

Adrian Wootton:

He has got to get some training - it is as simple as that. I am not talking about necessarily about going to college or university but he has got to get some basic skills training to do that. If he is based in London, he can come down to the BFI library and look at the information we have got on all the kinds of courses that are available. The BFI library is in Stephen Street and he can get a reader's pass and go in and look up that information. Also our BFI book called Media Courses UK which is available from all good bookshops - that lists all the courses that are available in the country. Or he can ring a big training organisation called Skill Set and they manage a whole series of training programmes around the country - Tel: 020 75345300.

He needs to get some training and he needs to get to a point where he can make a calling card i.e. a short - it doesn't matter whether it is on film or whether it is on video, digitally shot - he needs to get that experience and then start to look at the opportunities. It is tough - it is very competitive - being a film director is one of the most difficult and sought after jobs in the world but if he is dedicated enough, gets some training, if he can make a short then he has a chance and I wish him very good luck.

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See also:

26 Mar 01 | Film
Brits miss out at Oscars
31 Oct 00 | Entertainment
Q&A: Adrian Wootton
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