Copyright 2002

[ January 21st 2002 ]

This year will be disastrous for the British film industry unless actors and producers settle a vicious dispute that has halted productions, the British film commissioner has warned.

The commissioner, Steve Norris, a former film producer, said Hollywood film -makers were refusing to bring work to Britain while there was a risk of strike action, which meant the UK was, potentially, losing hundreds of millions of pounds. The dispute involving the actors' union, Equity, follows a similar rift between American studios, actors and writers that delayed many films last year, including some that would have been made in Britain.

The strike contributed to a 57 per cent drop in outside investment in British film production for 2001, down from pounds 539m in 2000 to pounds 230m. Total expenditure on film production fell from a record pounds 750m in 2000 to pounds 410m, according to figures to be released by the British Film Council this week. The council was usually involved in talks on up to a dozen international film projects at this time of year but the stand-off meant there were no serious talks, Mr Norris said.

British producers and actors are in deadlock over the actors' demand that they share in the profits of films that are successful on video, DVD or television, in the same way as their American counterparts. Threats of a strike by actors and writers in the United States encouraged studios there to complete all productions before the end of June, when existing agreements were due to run out. Britain had virtually no American work after June.

Mr Norris said: "The situation is extremely grave. Right now, a wide number of countries are actively and aggressively courting Hollywood and, if people go to film elsewhere and have good experiences, they may not return," he said. "I predict a catastrophic year ahead in terms of inward investment because, apart from Harry Potter and the new James Bond, we have no other US-funded films expected."

Films including the next in the Tomb Raider series were to have been filmed in Britain this summer but could be lost if the dispute is not settled and stability restored. Equity has forged individual agreements with some production firms to enable certain films - including Harry Potter - to go ahead. The next James Bond has also been saved by such a deal although some insiders believe Eon Productions had no option but to agree because of a tight production schedule. But Equity has otherwise ordered members not to sign up for new projects.

Mr Norris, who worked on films including The Killing Fields and The Mission before becoming the film commissioner in 1997, said the uncertainty was destroying an industry that had grown by 800 per cent in the past nine years.

Britain was not the cheapest place to film but it usually offered stability, quality and efficiency, he said. "The moment we start to pick away those pieces, we will lose business." A spokesman for the Producers' Alliance for Cinema and Television (Pact) said they were extremely concerned. "We know US studios are already scrubbing out productions they would usually send to the UK," he said.

Pact had met 90 per cent of Equity's demands but American studios had made clear that they would find any more concessions unacceptable and would refuse to come. He said: "This is an amazingly price-sensitive business." But an Equity spokesman said the actors' claim would account for less than 0.5 per cent of the profits from video and television sales on a reasonably successful big-budget film. The demand, if met, would still leave British actors with a worse deal than the Americans, he said. "We simply don't believe that's make-or-break."

The British Film Council will go to Hollywood in February to try to bring business to Britain, with a delegation including staff from the Pinewood and Shepperton studios, visual effects experts and media accountants. The council will also go to the American Film Market, which hosts Miramax and smaller independent film-makers. But Mr Norris said: "It will be worthless us going to persuade them to come to a place they evidently can't make films in."

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