In light of the British Government’s Film Industry Review and David Cameron’s comments about Britain’s need to compete with Hollywood by producing more mainstream films, it is interesting to consider the theatrical release of Steve McQueen’s Shame, the other key British filmic event of last week. Shame is not by definition a mainstream film, but it is one that has garnered significant interest from both the media and the public in the UK and the USA. The film has become something of a sensation, presumably for two reasons – firstly it’s taboo subject matter of sex addiction and secondly the quality of its execution.
Sex addiction is not a subject that springs to mind when talking about box office success, but Shame had a very successful debut weekend in the states taking $361,181 in just 10 screens. This was the third best limited debut for an NC-17 film ever (following Bad Education and Lust, Caution). This tells us that audiences (specifically American audiences) are happy to pay for British films if they offer something challenging and unique. It’s opening weekend in the UK saw it selling out screens across the capital, with numerous screens in art house cinemas and multiplexes.
Following David Cameron’s statement last Wednesday the Guardian reported how former culture secretary Lord Smith, who is head of a panel evaluating the British film industry, proposed to take a significantly more tactful approach to the industry. With the release of Shame this seems appropriate. The tactic was to market the British film as a brand of quality assurance. Veteran director Stephen Frears reacted to this notion saying: “This country has been making intelligent films, films that are different from American films, for some time… If Lord Smith is now to say we need to keep doing more of the same, rather than trying to recreate Hollywood over here, that sounds eminently sensible.”
Becoming a brand of quality assurance is something that seems natural for British film to achieve at this point in time. With recent films including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Kill List, Dreams of a Life, Senna, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The King’s Speech and of course Shame Britain is all set to put a stamp of individuality on the international film scene. It is a question of successfully marketing these projects to an audience outside Britain and developing the stamp of quality for years to come. With the talent currently emerging within the British film industry this seems achievable.
It is greatly encouraging to see the British government taking a serious interest in the film industry as part of the British economy. However, the notion that the British industry should attempt to emulate Hollywood by predicting what will earn the most money seems misguided. While The King’s Speech has been regularly discussed as a shining example of British box office success, it is important to remember that this was not a result of market research, but instead it was an independent film that captured the heart and minds of critics and cinema-goers.
As Shame shows us, British film has the capacity to tackle challenging human subjects with artistic and commercial credibility. Star of the film Michael Fassbender is now a significant Hollywood player, but it is important to remember where he came from. Shame director Steve McQueen’s previous film Hunger also starred Fassbender; this film is where Fassbender really made a name for himself. Britain must continue to provide talent like Fassbender the opportunity to shine in films like Hunger and Shame, because these films can make money and be more than a product of market research at the same time.