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January 13, 2014

Are British films better than Hollywood films?

British filmsTowards the end of last year the BFI re-published numbers showing how poorly the average British film performs at the box office.  Overall only 7% made a profit, and that figure drops to 3.4% when you look at films costing under £500,000.  The figure was certainly headline-grabbing, but it wasn’t the whole picture.  Firstly, it doesn’t follow that the investors of the 93% of “non-profitable” films lost money.  Most UK films under £500,000 are operated via SEIS and EIS schemes which can protect as much as 78% of an investor’s money, meaning that a film can “under perform” at the box office and yet still allow the investor to recoup.  And secondly, the box office is only half the picture.  The worth of a film cannot be measured through its finances alone.

So to get a more rounded view, in today’s blog I am taking a look at the other side of film – the art.  As a producer I have to spend my time in both camps, worrying about pleasing audiences with powerful films and ensuring the investors’ interests are promoted within the production.  So how can we measure ‘art’?  It goes without saying that art is an intangible and subjective concept so I should declare up front that I’m not trying to quantify that.  But there is something we can measure – the scores given to films by audiences and critics.

I took a look at British films over the past 10 years and found:

  • The average critic’s score for Hollywood films is 5 out of 10
  • The average critic’s score for low budget British films is 6.5 out of 10.
  • Across all films, British films get higher audience ratings than American ones
  • Broadly, audiences and critics agree on the ‘quality’ of a film
  • British films that critics loved but audiences hated include The Deep Blue Sea (2011), Coriolanus (2011) and The Arbor (2010)
  • British films that audiences loved but critics hated include Tideland (2005), Revolver (2005) and The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

British films are better reviewed than Hollywood

The Metascore is calculated by Meta Critic and is a weighted average of reviews from top critics and publications.  It is a short-hand way for us to see what the critics thought of a particular film en masse.

The average Metascore for all Hollywood films between 2006 and 2010 was 50, whereas for British films made under £500,000 the figure was 65.  This is a significant difference and means that Hollywood films received “Mixed or Average Reviews” whereas the UK films garnered “Generally Favourable Reviews“.

What do audiences think of British films?

IMDb allows users to rate films out of 10 (apart from ‘Spinal Tap’, which is scored out of 11) and can serve as our quick way of judging what the global film-watching public thought of British films.

Do audiences and critics agree?

Broadly, yes they do.

When audiences and critics disagree…

Now that I had found the data from both audiences and critics I thought it would be fun to look at the films they disagreed about most.  I multiplied the IMDb audience rating by 10 to give us a comparable scale out of 100 and then looked to see which films had the biggest difference between the IMDb and Metascore ratings. The end result is a league table of the films that cause the biggest arguments between your average cinema-goer and film critic.

The British Films that Critics Preferred to Audiences

 Imdb ratingMetascoreDifference
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)6.68721
The Deep Blue Sea (2011)6.28220
Coriolanus (2011)6.17918
The Arbor (2010)7.08818
Lassie (2005)6.68418
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)6.38017
Hell and Back Again (2011)6.48117
The Queen (2006)7.49117
Fateless (2005)7.18716
Two Years at Sea (2011)6.37916
Leviathan (2012)6.58116
The Invisible Woman (2013)6.68115
My Summer of Love (2004)6.88214
United 93 (2006)7.69014
Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)7.08414
Ra.One (2011)4.66014
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)7.18514
Bright Star (2009)6.98112
In Fear (2013)5.56712

The British Films that Audiences Preferred to Critics 

 Imdb ratingMetascoreDifference
Modigliani (2004)7.125-46
Tideland (2005)6.426-38
Revolver (2005)6.325-38
If I Were You (2012)6.528-37
A Fantastic Fear of Everything (2012)5.622-34
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)7.240-32
Land of the Blind (2006)6.432-32
Dear Wendy (2004)6.533-32
How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (2008)6.535-30
Leap Year (2010)6.233-29
The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)6.638-28
Kick-Ass 2 (2013)6.841-27
Wild Target (2009)6.841-27
Bedtime Stories (2008)6.033-27
Manderlay (2005)7.346-27
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)7.448-26
Hannibal Rising (2007)6.135-26
The Jacket (2005)7.044-26
The Wedding Date (2005)5.832-26
AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)5.529-26

Why do British films get higher ratings?

Arguably, the quality of a movie is more important to British filmmakers than to American filmmakers. Before you start drafting hate emails, let me at least explain my theory. It comes down to two things – culture and business.

Culturally, the UK is a literary nation. Despite the fact that America has five times the population as the UK, they only publish twice the number of books. Right from the early days of British film there has been a sense that movies should continue to be works of “great literature,” civilising the nation.

Conversely, the American film industry grew from the principles of commerce and business. Hollywood was established by immigrants moving West to evade Edison’s patents and with the clear dream of making money. This is one of the (many) reasons by Hollywood is a dominant force in the business of film.

Cover of David Puttnam's  The Undeclared War a book about British filmsThe end result is that the British ideal is the moving drama whereas the American ideal is a spectacular blockbuster. (For more on this topic check out David Putnam’s fantastic book ‘The Undeclared War’).

Of course there are examples on both sides which show that this isn’t a universal rule; Vertigo Films are extremely market-driven as are Working Title (although Working Title is a subsidiary of Hollywood studio Universal). Across the pond, festivals such as Sundance, South by Southwest and Toronto consistently showcase films which seem to be driven by art over commerce.

My indecision is final

Successive governments in the UK have struggled with this topic: should they be funding ‘art’ (films that are about promoting culture) or ‘business’ (helping filmmakers make films which can return money)?

If you want it to support the ‘business’ side of the industry then you’re just funding films that private investors would otherwise fund. Whereas if you support only ‘art’ then you’ll be making films which won’t necessarily have wide appeal and which are unlikely to return money.

David Cameron’s opinion is more business than art. He said

David CameronOur role, and that of the BFI, should be to support the sector in becoming even more dynamic and entrepreneurial, helping UK producers to make commercially successful pictures that rival the quality and impact of the best international productions. Just as the British Film Commission has played a crucial role in attracting the biggest and best international studios to produce their films here, so we must incentive UK producers to chase new markets both here and overseas.- David Cameron, January 2012

Epilogue

The data for today’s post came from my list of British films 2003-13.  I’m still playing around with the data, finding new ways to analyse it. For larger films it’s quite easy to find data as they’re inherently more visible.  There is a great deal of low-to-no budget filmmaking currently going on in the UK and this proves a problem when trying to track and measure it.  Therefore, there will be a certain amount of bias in any results as the films which make it to be reviewed are either the biggest or best movies available to distributors and cinemas.  Appalling, tiny movies will disappear into obscurity and not therefore not be around to bring down the average for research such as today’s article.

The ratings systems I used are not perfect.  The Metascore applies a secret formula of weighting to give preference to more ‘influential’ voices.  Critics traditionally favour films which are dramatic and powerful over crowd-pleasing popcorn fare, which correlates with the types of films made in the UK (one in five films made in the UK is a drama).  The IMDb rating can be manipulated on a small scale by filmmakers asking their friends, family and Facebook friends to vote it up.  IMDb works to avoid this type of behaviour but it’s fair to assume that some of it sneaks through, which could account for some of the increase in scores with the decrease in budgets (smaller films have a higher chance of manipulation due to the smaller pool of voters).

Below is Alan Parker’s take on the choice between art and commerce in the film industry.  it comes from his book ‘Will Write And Direct For Food‘, which I highly recommend for anyone with an interest in film.

Alan Parker's choice

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22 Responses

  1. Jon Williams January 14, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    Unless they have been acquired for distribution by one of the Hollywood majors,it is impossible for an independent British film to get an sort of widespread theatrical distribution. The reason? Hollywood as already pre-booked most of the UK screens, months in advance, with films that have not even been seen by the bookers. Typically it’s a case of, “If you want our latest blockbuster then you have to show all this crud as well.”

    What I would suggest you do compare, Stephen, is the site averages. If you rank films by site average, rather than total box office, you’ll find that a very large number of British films are second only to the most successful blockbusters. But they can’t build on there popularity because all the screens have been contracted out by Hollywood. Hence exhibitors have to carry on screening Hollywood films for the duration of their pre-booked run; even if it means screening them to empty theatres.

    Keep up the good work – and try to get a bigger audience. Have you sent any pieces to the likes of The Guardian?

    • Stephen Follows January 14, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

      Thanks, Jon, good idea. It’s one of the factors I want to look at in the future as you’re right about the uphill struggle indies have against the majors.

  2. kanita June 20, 2014 at 1:52 am #

    Ra.One (2011), British film???
    which movie r u talking bout?
    Are you even sure of the statistics you provided there?

    • Stephen Follows June 23, 2014 at 8:29 am #

      It’s a UK/India co-production, which makes it British (as well as Indian, obviously).

      For verfication you can see that it apears on the offical BFI lists of offical UK productions and if you check the company credits (https://pro-labs.imdb.com/title/tt1562871/companycredits) you can see many UK companies invloved with the production.

      It’s one of those films which doesn’t feel culturally British but which was still able to access British tax benefits as enough of it was made over here. Other examples include films like Pirates of the Caribbean on Strangers Tide and Total Recall (the new one).

  3. Jennifer Takasugi August 2, 2014 at 5:36 am #

    hm. don’t know if I agree with this. The movies that most people agree are the greatest films of all time are all American. And I mean ALL. Not one british, french, German, etc. the godfather. scarface. apocalypse now. Pulp Fiction. Psycho. Star Wars. Shawshank Redemption. Gone With The Wind. Casablanca. Citizen Kane. Wizard of Oz. The Dark Knight. Back to the Future. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indiana Jones. Schindler’s List. The Shining, and the list is ten miles long. the only reason you get more cheesy blockbusters out of America is simply because America is HUGE and therefore produces a HUGE number of films. American films also have far more variety. Many of the best auteurs (filmmakers who have a distinct style and a strong personal vision, or at least this is the definition my college film studies professor gave us) are American, Italian, and French, but more recently, American. I have yet to find a British Wes Anderson, or Marty Scorsese, or Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, Francis Ford Coppola, Coen Brothers, Clint Eastwood, Hitchcock repatriated and that’s not even half of them!

    Best wishes,
    Jenn
    Augusta, Maine USA 🙂

    • Stephen Follows August 4, 2014 at 9:48 am #

      Jenn,

      Thanks for the comment. It’s certainly not an issue which can be ‘solved’ overnight. I would suggest that you are largely right in the comments you made, but that you are also highlighting a few of the issues with looking at the nationality of a film.

      Of the films you suggest, one is British. The Dark Knight is officially a British film and as such benefited from a UK government tax rebate. It has a significant number of British people in the key creative roles, the vast majority of the cast and crew were British and it was shot largely in Britain. Obviously there are good reasons why one might feel it’s not (setting of the films, Warner Bros money backing it, etc). Judging a film from the outside means that film audiences often make errors in working out which films are British. Another case in point is ‘Gravity’, which is 98% British and yet doesn’t feel as such to many people.

      Secondly, as you say yourself – the vast majority of films are American. That means that the vast majority of ‘best films’ will also be American. By the same token so will be the ‘worst films’, ‘comedies’, ‘films with a leading character called Steve’, etc. My research was looking at the sum total of films and seeking to measure their overall ‘quality’. This means that outliners on either end are not important.

      Stephen

    • W November 18, 2014 at 9:19 am #

      Trust an american to try and sound smart but prove the opposite instead. You keep going on about variety and style and list names but you dont prove your point at all. Your post is just the typical case of an american not being able to take criticism (which isnt cute anymore, considering how americans have a lot to be critiqued about.

      Ultimately, as already presented, most of those were pre-dominantly British or non-american directors.

      That said, objectively speaking, american films tend to be on the whole shallow and predictable.

      • Scarlett Z January 9, 2015 at 6:24 pm #

        Let’s be serious here though, most films will be preidctable. Whether they’re American, British, hell even if they’re made in a remote corner of the world. People like happy endings, so it is predictable to have good or semi-good endings. Saying that our films are shallow and predictable is irrelevant because a lot of films are. Trust a Brit to assume all Americans are ignorant.

    • David May 7, 2017 at 10:16 pm #

      You do college film studies and you don’t think any british directors have a personal style? Are you serious? Nolan, Hitchcock, David Lean, Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle, Guy Ritchie… Oh and that little known fella Chaplin! Do you know how many Americans have been influenced by Lean’s style on Lawrence Of Arabia? Or Scott’s style on Blade Runner?

      Most of the ones you mentioned.

    • karen July 22, 2017 at 5:16 am #

      2001 and The Shining? Ha. British /American. Don’t you know anything about Kubrick? He lived in the UK for nearly 40 years and used UK funds too. And Clint Eastwood? I’d get a refund on the college studies because he doesn’t come close to the likes of David Lean, Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott in style. You’re not doing well for the dumb American stereotype with that post.

  4. Julie February 7, 2015 at 3:56 pm #

    I enjoyed reading your article. As an American, I find that British films elude quality, culture, and professional acting. I smiled when I read your article because you repeated something that I told my daughter. She wanted to know the difference between Hollywood films and British films. I told her that British actors seem to focus entirely on the art of acting..refining it. Professional acting is taken more seriously. American films focus on feeding garbage to the masses….selling anything and everything for a dollar. I was reared on quality films and have also shown my children quality films. It is very easy for them to see the difference between a meaningless, tasteless film with mediocre actors and a quality British performance. American films were at their heyday during the early years of Hollywood…the Golden Age. Those films are the exception to the rule…when acting was an art form.

    • Julie February 7, 2015 at 4:05 pm #

      I should have read some of the earlier comments. Early films in Hollywood were comprised of many British actors: Viven Leigh (Gone with the Wind), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights), Leslie Howard (The Scarlett Pimpernel), and countless others. I think that many British actors are navigating to Hollywood and doing quite well. And, yes, many Americans incorrectly classify movies American when in fact they are largely British productions and actors. A great film, regardless of locale, will possess quality acting, great plot, and great scenery/costumes. It just seems that many American actors today sadly lack the depth that many early Hollywood actors could so easily express with their body language, eyes, and speech. Many of the early greats came to America from other European countries such as Greta Garbo and Paul Henried.

      • Ami June 9, 2015 at 12:36 am #

        British actors tend to study theatre in depth, where American actor just walk in with their bleached teeth.

  5. gennaro June 8, 2015 at 1:44 am #

    I often travel as much as 60 miles rt to see foreign films. Americans are too involved with drug sex and violence..little left to the imagination. True ART involves the ability to make the viewed use their imagination. The American ratings (such as PG -13) are far too explicit for young viewers. American film makers seem yo insist on making a movie that SELL A MESSAGE! Well I dont need movies for that. And of course most foreign films have highly skilled actors and technicians. Americans have yet been about to adjust the DOUND level in a scene. Quiet dialogue is OVERWHELMED by background music or sound. Hey, and thanks for listening.

  6. lili February 23, 2017 at 3:18 am #

    I totally agree with this… I am constantly preferring British shows and films.. the quality for the acting and story lines exceed the American variety by far… the only I will say is I still very enjoy animation. Kids animations have so much colour, creativity, and humour.

    Hollywood actors are plastic people who play the same roles..most British actors take different roles and become the role where it takes u awhile to recognize the actor. There are always exceptions but just saying for the majority.

  7. Stephen Boesch September 10, 2017 at 5:37 am #

    My impression is that Brits do more with less. The original Star Wars was largely a Brit product. And with a grand total of $7M USD- not all that much even in mid70’s money. After the second one they were all largely American – and mostly bad to terrible. You can dig up some gems that were done with limited funds e.g. Time Bandits and Chariots of Fire. Also they tend towards a bit more witty. But i’m not sure how many are actually done anymore: most of the ones that come to mind are older. (SB from Mountain View California)

  8. Mrinal Singh September 11, 2017 at 4:28 pm #

    Can you advise which would be a better country to study Filmmaking ? My daughter is debating between the UK & US and frankly I am also confused as the rankings of film schools only list US film schools.

  9. TODD July 27, 2018 at 4:29 am #

    Interesting comments here, to me it doesn’t matter who anybody thinks makes the best films, it’s more important that there are great films made, most people have a favorite movie, it’s interesting and beautiful too.
    I believe the film world is about to explode, as the audience has become very savvy and sophisticated in modern times, the special effect films will drop to the roadside, and complex stories with art powered surrealism will most definitely take a lead in future movies, the understanding of visual language in regards to sophisticated global comedy, we may be seeing some modern British repackaged saucy styled scripts in the future, I would not get into a wasted debate in regards to who makes the best films.

    British comedy is saucy, deadly serious, laugh later combined with a unique class of high eyebrow wit at it’s best even under a strain of low budget enterprise, with world-class trained actors, I kid you not.

    American style is more upbeat with satirical dry dynamics mixed with the teenage pop-corn American dream scene sequences, a little dreamy which is very positive in film, slightly predictable but cool iconic cinematic characters displayed.

    To me, a film is the origin of the screenwriter, the film cast origin or where it was shot has no effect, to me, the screenwriter is the film, he is the cast sat at the Wurlitzer theater organ teleporting from the universal mind.

    The power of a great story is still an amazing thing, they take years to design and cost millions to make, you could build a skyscraper with the monies involved, now that some serious art form, reaching beyond the sky and when they are good, we are changed forever.

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