Britain wants to decline film attendance

In a year when blockbusters went bust in the United States and films fizzled in Europe, Britons flocked to the cinema, to see a teenage wizard, a magical wardrobe and a psychedelic chocolate factory. The U.S. box office slumped to its lowest level in almost a decade in 2005, dragged down by a slew of underperforming action films and lackluster sequels. Ticket sales are also fell across much of Europe. But while a strong pound and an uncertain tax climate have fueled fears for the future of British filmmaking, British filmgoing is in robust health. Last year, audiences were drawn to "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

"British movies had a very strong year, and British audiences responded," said Mark Batey, chief executive of the Film Distributors' Association. "Obviously everybody in the world had the same range of international movies, whether it was `War of the Worlds' or `Star Wars.' What the U.K. had was a golden run of homegrown stories by British writers `Harry Potter,' `Narnia,' `Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,' `Pride & Prejudice,' `The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."'

According to Nielsen EDI figures released by the U.K. Film Council, Britons spent 840 million pounds (US$1.5 billion, Ђ1.2 billion), a 1 percent increase from the year before. Increasingly, British audiences are eschewing imported films in favor of local stories. British-made films accounted for 34 percent of domestic box-office revenue in 2005, the highest percentage in 10 years.

Even smaller British films are enjoying success. On a recent Saturday night in central London, a large audience laughed along warmly at "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story." Michael Winterbottom's film opened last week on 131 screens, a wide release for a low-budget British film.

In contrast, Germany's box office fell 18 percent last year, according to the Film Council figures. In Spain they were down 9 percent and in Italy 8 percent. In the United States, movie theaters sold 1.41 billion tickets, the lowest level since 1997, with domestic revenues of US$8.9 billion (Ђ7.2 billion), down 5.2 percent from 2004 and the first time since 2001 that total grosses dipped below US$9 billion (Ђ7.3 billion).

Americans still attend movies more often than Britons, however, about five times a year per capita, compared to three times a year in Britain. British film attendance bottomed out at the start of the video era in the 1980s. Since then, revenue has climbed steadily, thanks largely to a shift from run-down inner-city cinemas to suburban multiplexes offering comfortable seats, state-of-the-art sound and a wide range of drinks and snacks. Seventy percent of Britain's 3,486 movie screens are now in multiplexes.

Justin Smith, a University of Portsmouth academic who has studied British moviegoing patterns, says the development of suburban multiscreen cinemas starting in the 1980s years later than in the United States, had "reinvented cinema-going as an attractive thing to do." "That model offered a range of leisure and consumption choices, shopping, going for a meal, 10-pin bowling," he said.

The strong box-office figures come despite a widely perceived crisis in British film production. Changes to the tax breaks government gives investors caused confusion, while a strong pound drove several Hollywood productions to seek cheaper locations, notably in Eastern Europe. The amount of money spent on film production in Britain fell by 31 percent last year, to 560 million pounds (US$1 billion, Ђ814 million). Overseas investment plummeted from almost 550 million pounds (US$980 million, Ђ800 million) in 2004 to just over 312 million pounds (US$556 million, Ђ450 million) in 2005.

Even the quintessentially English story "Chronicles of Narnia", the year's second-highest grossing film, does not qualify as a British film under Film Council rules. It was made with U.S. money and shot in Prague and New Zealand.

Film Council chief Steve Norris acknowledged that "the global marketplace for film productions is more competitive than ever before," but said that with a new tax credit system now in place, Britain remained in a strong position to attract investment, reports the AP. N.U.

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