Media coverage (see e.g. The Independent, The Guardian , Televisual) of the latest statistical yearbook from the BFI has focussed on the apparent rude health of independent British film but does the detail back up the hype?
Well the answer is a qualified yes. There is a discernible upward trend in the share of the box office garnered by UK independents (i.e. not those notionally UK films backed by US studios which include the Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and X:men First Class franchises).
However while the headlines trumpeted the record 13% UK independents’ share, as regular readers will be aware it’s a truism of film box office patterns that almost all the the spoils go to a very few winners and in that respect independent film is no different. As Sean Perkins and his colleagues note in their report the annual figure is “dependent on a small number of high grossing titles”. Just how dependent can be seen in the graph below which shows what the market share of UK independent film over th past three years is with and without the top one, two and three titles.
What the figures also reveal is that just two films accounted for almost all the 2010-2011 year on year difference. Spool back a couple of years and 2009 was a pretty good year for UK independent film with the top twenty titles collectively taking £85m in ticket sales and Slumdog Millionaire taking over a third of that total at £31m. 2010 didn’t sustain that bump and saw the top 20 indie titles take only £50m with the number one UK indie film, StreetDance 3D, taking just under £12m of that. 2011 was another even bigger bumper year than 2009 with not one but two smash hits – The Inbetweeners and The King’s Speech each taking £45m to push the independent total to a record high of £144m.
And there’s the rub – take just two films out of the annual picture and the share of the box office changes by a much more modest +/- 1% point. Should we be concerned? Well no, not in the sense that as we know film is largely a ‘winner takes all’ business at every scale (though there are some encouraging signs that the inverted pyramid is getting a little less steep with the top 50 titles taking 74% of the box office in 2011 compared to 84% in 2001) . But should we treat the unprecedented success of 2011 as a further sign of an independent British film renaissance?
Well here the BFI have been scrutinising the longer term trends and conclude that while the average UK indie share of the UK box-office for the past decade has been 6% there is a discernible upward trend from a low of 3.4% in 2003.
Given that encouraging fact what might the reasons be? The simplest, almost axiomatic, explanation is that we must be making better films. But there’s a parallel fact that over the past decade we have also generally been making more films (NB the data used here counts only those films with a budget of £500k and above, but that’s OK as so far no sub-500K film has had a significant box office success). Has this growth in output had any effect on performance? Well on the face it no, as our graph below illustrates, over this ten-year period there seems to be no statistically significant relationship between production volume and market share. While the former has, until pretty recently, steadily increased the latter has fluctuated quite wildly.
That said it remains interesting that there is an upward trend in both sets of data, the coincidence of which may be entirely accidental or it may mean that higher levels of production are a necessary but not a sufficient condition of higher box office share. There is an argument that to produce more winners at the film casino your odds will improve, but are not guaranteed, if you make more bets. Clearly if production volumes were to continue to drop over time and box office share was sustained or increased then this suggested ‘ratchet effect’ would be disproved but it would seem worthwhile to at least keep an eye on this particular relationship as its often alluded to in film policy debates about ‘quantity versus quality’.