The evolution of the UK film industry

The evolution of the UK film industry

film camera equipment

The evolution of the UK film industry

You don’t have to cross the Atlantic to find a thriving movie scene. The UK film industry contributes around £6 billion a year to the national economy, and the industry has tripled in size since 2014 without signs of slowing down.

This is partially due to big budget franchises such as Star Wars and Harry Potter being made in the UK, and also due to the greater demand for movies on a number of streaming platforms. But how did the UK get a thriving film industry that rivals many of the bigger players?

While the digital age has made it easier than ever to invest in movies, the fact is, it can be an area of investment that’s just as complex as stocks and shares or property. So, if you’re thinking of making this kind of investment, should you go it alone or work with a film investment group like Films4U?

When did the UK film industry start?

The UK is arguably where film was born, with the world’s first moving picture shot in 1888, and for the next couple of decades, film making equipment was perfected in the UK. The first ever British film came as early as 1895: Incident at Clovelly Cottage, a silent movie that’s sadly been lost. Many types of film equipment and shooting techniques were developed in the UK, and many of the early pioneers of film were British.

In the early 20th century, many short, silent films were released that were often adaptations of classic plays or well-known stories. Perhaps the first major investment in film in the UK was the construction of Lime Grove Studios in 1915, the first building in the UK that was purpose-built for film production. Ealing Studios may not have been purpose-built for film production, but as it started work in 1902 and is still going now, it remains the world’s oldest continuously working studio.

Even in the earliest days of the UK film industry, some classic movies were made, from the first adaption of Alice in Wonderland to the first adaption of Sherlock Holmes. Britain had a silent movie industry that was booming, but most films stayed on British shores and were made for local audiences. It wasn’t until 1932 and the release of Rome Express that the UK had an international hit and film financiers became more interested in the UK film industry.

One thing that might draw you to investing in movies is that it can be a lot of fun! Some investors get their name in the end credits or get perks like premier tickets or visits to the set. If you’ve always loved movies, this might be a dream come true for you. 

Another reason people choose to invest in films in the UK is that they’ve seen the growth of the industry and its potential. While there have been challenges to the movie industry, such as COVID-19, there has been a boom in the streaming market and there’s a huge demand for content.

Film investment opportunities aren’t just coming from big blockbusters, but also more niche growth markets that have opened up due to streaming. In an uncertain economy, lots of investments are looking risky right now, but the film industry is standing steady thanks to the current demand for in-home entertainment. While any investment carries risk, film tends to be one of the less risky ways to invest your cash, and can potentially offer great returns.

The evolution of the UK film industry

Much like Hollywood, once the UK started to invest in movies with sound, the industry changed. 

In 1929, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail was released, which is considered the first British sound film, and the movie still makes top 100 lists among those in the industry. Unfortunately, despite some notable films of this era, the 20s were a tough time for British films due to many American imports. At one point, in the mid-20s, only 5% of movies shown in cinemas had been made in the UK.

The Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 tried to boost the industry by requiring that cinemas show a certain percentage of films that were made in Britain, which would encourage people to invest in films in the UK. This would only apply to movies made by British producers and shot in the Britain.

Unfortunately, this strategy led to a lot of poor-quality movies being made around this time just to fill quotas. These budget films were often melodramatic and quickly churned-out, which gave the industry a bad image for a while.

Around this time, a film investor bought a large plot of land in Borehamwood and built two large film stages, and Elstree Studios was born. By the late 30s, more American companies found film investment opportunities on British soil. World War II interrupted the industry to an extent – film studios turned their hand to producing documentaries about the war and also movies with a patriotic feel.

In the post-war era, Britain created many classics such as Brief Encounter in 1945 and Oliver Twist in 1948.  In the 50s, WWII dramas and popular comedies became some of the most popular industry exports, and the relaxation of censorship laws led to Hammer Films creating many well-known horror films. While Hammer is best known for horror, they also created sci-fi, thrillers, film noir and more, all genres that have become synonymous with the UK film industry.

The 1960s saw British pop culture take over the world and led to Americans investing in movies that portrayed the swinging 60s and youth culture. It was also the time when the first James Bond film, Dr No was released, and while it wasn’t a huge commercial success at first, it became a sleeper hit. By the time the second and third Bond films were released, the franchise was a global success, and is still among the most well-known British film series.

Further relaxation of censorship laws meant that many British films of the 70s were challenging and controversial, from A Clockwork Orange to The Wicker Man. While many movies from this era weren’t box office successes, they have become cult movies over time and still remain high on many best movie lists. While the 80s saw a slump in the number of British movies being made, it wasn’t long until investment in the sector picked up, with home video and TV screenings meaning there was now a much wider audience for movies outside of the cinema.

British films were again in fashion in the 90s, when Cool Britannia saw a worldwide obsession with British culture. This time around, the focus was mostly on romantic comedies and dramas such as Notting Hill and Sliding Doors, but there were also some big productions such as the Star Wars prequels and Saving Private Ryan which helped showcase the UK industry.

Streaming has also helped boost the industry in the last decade or so, and while it meant that home video declined, it allowed smaller, niche British films to gain an audience worldwide. Netflix started streaming in the mid-00s, and since then, it has been a popular way to distribute movies. Some films even skip the box office and go straight to streaming, which will no doubt have an impact on the UK movie industry in the long-term.

In the last few decades, the UK film industry has certainly had its ups and downs, but with many solid franchises, world-class studios and many sources of investment, it seems to have a bright future.

UK market and the international market

Early British films tended to be made for the domestic market, but over time, they became more successful in the worldwide market. In the early 30s, British movies started to have more commercial success overseas, and by the 40s, there was a ‘golden age’ of British cinema.

While Britain is often known for smaller, independent films, many large blockbusters and some of the industry’s highest grossing movies were made in Britain. Movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Paddington and The King’s Speech appealed to both domestic and international markets, while the great studio facilities in the UK have meant lots of blockbusters are considered British movies. The success of franchises such as Star Wars, Avengers and Harry Potter means that British films are seen and loved all over the world, and they are great assets to the industry.

UK film financing through the years

American companies started investing in films in the UK as far back as the late 30s, with studios such as MGM-British, and Rank, who opened Pinewood Studios. Another period of major investment from overseas was the 1960s, where the swinging 60s and ‘Brit invasion’ led to Americans falling in love with the country. Around this time, a lot of blacklisted American directors were also moving to the UK, so there was movie investment in bigger, more commercial projects.

One thing that attracted American film finance companies was the Eady Levy, which used to allow overseas companies to write-off large amounts of their production costs when they filmed in the UK. Once this was removed in the 80s, the UK film industry attracted less investment and 1980 saw just 31 British films made in the entire year.

Between 1989 and 1986, investment in film production in the UK rose from £104 million to £741 million, with much of the funding coming from the BBC and Channel 4. The new National Lottery also gave the industry a much-needed boost, creating production companies for British films and allowing many small, independent films to get made and find an audience.

Nowadays, film finance for the industry, in part, comes from arts agencies like the BFI – British Film Institute. However, those who make movies usually look for film finance companies to fund their projects. Schemes such as the film EIS – the Enterprise Investment Scheme – have also helped the UK film industry to thrive. This allows a film investor to get tax relief but can only be done through a film finance company who follows the strict EIS rules.

Films 4U are experts in the UK film industry, from investment to distribution and production. If you’re interested in investing with us, contact our team today and we’ll be happy to talk through our investment opportunities and more.


One Response

  1. Paul Houze says:

    I finally got a chance to read through your films 4 biographies its very interesting it’s a thriving company successful aswel I love it

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