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Films get money for British accents

Stephen Beard Feb 22, 2008
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Kai Ryssdal: Having been saved from the writers strike, the Oscars will go ahead as scheduled on Sunday. One of the Best Picture nominees this year is the British World War II romance “Atonement.”

Defining what makes a film British isn’t always easy, but Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports now from London, sometimes a little bit goes a long way.


Stephen Beard: “The Bourne Ultimatum:” looks like an American movie. Made by a Hollywood studio, it stars Matt Damon as a CIA man on the run. But as far as the U.K. taxman is concerned, this is a British film:

[clip from “The Bourne Ultimatum”]: Waterloo Station. South Entrance. 30 minutes. Come alone.

And there you have it. One of the scenes is set in London’s Waterloo station. And a British journalist is assassinated. That helped make this movie sufficiently British to qualify for a generous tax break.

Alison Small of the U.K. Film Council says “The Bourne Ultimatum” passed the British Culture Test:

Alison Small: That includes points for things like whether the story is set in the U.K., whether the characters — not the actors, but the characters — are British and whether the subject matter or underlying material is British for example.

[clip from “The Dark Knight”]: Hit me!

Here’s an even more bizarre example of a “British movie:”

[clip from “The Dark Knight”]: Let’s put a smile on that face…

The Dark Knight — the latest Batman film — was also deemed sufficiently British to attract tax relief. Large chunks of it were shot in the U.K., London masquerading as Gotham City.

Passing the cultural test for the tax break is pretty easy. Ben Fenton of the Financial Times says that’s because it’s really designed to boost the British film industry:

Ben Fenton: It contributes just under $8 billion to the U.K. economy every year. There are more than 35,000 people employed directly or indirectly in the film industry, so there’s a sensible reason for giving this kind of support to it.

Cynics suggest that the “culturally british” test is a fig leaf, hiding the fact that this is just another subsidy. The big American studios are the main beneficiaries. They make by far the most expensive movies in Britain, says Terry Illot of the Film Business Academy:

Terry Illot: Most big American films, the majority of big budget American films, especially those with a large special effects element and high level production design and high level production value are made in the U.K.

He says movies are never quite what they seem especially when it comes to British and American films. The British and American movie industries are so entwined, it can be difficult to say whether some movies are British or American. This art film “Becoming Jane” seemed 100 percent British, telling the story of that quintessentially English writer Jane Austen.

[clip from “Becoming Jane”]: A ball is an indispensable blessing to the juvenile part of the neighborhood. Everything agreeable in the way of talking and sitting down together all managed with the utmost decorum.

The actress playing Jane? American Anne Hathaway.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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