As Ken Loach’s latest film arrives in European cinemas, Huw D Jones examines why the veteran British director is more popular on the continent than in his own country.
Last week saw the release of I, Daniel Blake, the latest film by veteran British director Ken Loach.
Despite the intense publicity the film has attracted for its depiction of Britain’s benefits system, the Palme d’Or-winning drama is sure to be more popular in mainland Europe than the UK if Loaches previous films are anything to go by.
Loach’s films typically sell four times as many cinema tickets in France than the UK and twice as many in Italy (figure 1). Per capita population, his films are also seen by more cinemagoers in Denmark, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Iceland and Belgium.
Audience focus groups and interviews with industry figures involved in the production and distribution of Loach’s films highlight three main reasons why this might be the case.
Challenging British stereotypes
Firstly, Loach offers a view of Britain which continental Europeans rarely see.
Britain’s most successful film exports (such as The King’s Speech, Paddington and Bridget Jones) tend to focus on the lives of southern English upper and middle classes, with their big houses and affluent lifestyle.
Loach, by contrast, focuses his lens squarely on the working-class of central Scotland and the north of England and in particular the problems faced by the so-called ‘precariat’, the most deprived and excluded members of society.
While some Britons may find images of food banks and dole queues an uncomfortable reminder of their country’s deep-seated social divisions, continental Europeans seem to find it reassuring to see that even the world’s fifth richest economy has its fair share of problems.
As one Italian focus group respondent put it, “[He] challenges the stereotype of UK as a rich, happy place”.
As my research on the cultural and economic implications of UK/European co-production shows, UK/European co-productions average 14 times more admissions in mainland Europe than purely domestic UK features.
This is partly because co-production enables partners to pool financial resources and access subsidies from their partner’s territory, giving them more to spend on production and marketing.
Co-production can potentially lead to so-called ‘Europuddings’ – films which unsuccessfully blend elements from different countries in order to fulfil co-production agreements.
However, Loach has managed to avoid this fate by working with partners on a ‘finance-only’ basis, giving him the freedom to make high-quality films on his own terms without the creative interference co-production can sometimes entail.
MEDIA distribution support
Thirdly, Loach has been very successful at attracting support from the EU’s Creative Europe/MEDIA programme, which aims to encourage the cross-border circulation on European films.
In the period 2007-14, over €3.7 million was spent on supporting the release of six Loach films – an average of about €620,000 per film (figure 2).
No other British director has received more support from the EU scheme.
As I have demonstrated elsewhere, MEDIA distribution support can significantly boost the box office performance of British film exports, as it allows foreign distributors to spend more money on prints and advertising (P&A).
Loach partly has his co-production partners to thank for enabling access to MEDIA funding, according to his long-term producer Rebecca O’Brien.
Winning top prizes at Cannes, Berlin and other major film festivals has also made him a more attractive asset for European distributors.
Indeed, a further reason why Loach is more popular in mainland Europe than the UK is that countries like France, Italy and Belgium do more to champion of the work of critically-acclaimed auteurs by maintaining a stronger arthouse circuit.
For example, 7% of French cinema screens, 8% of Italian screens and 11% of Belgian screens belong to the Europa Cinema Network, a chain of MEDIA-funded cinemas which specialise in promoting quality European film, compared with only 3% of screens in the UK.
It’s important to note that Loach’s films are not successful in every part of Europe.
In Central and Eastern Europe, for example, his films are only seen in cinemas by 0.04% of the population, compared with 0.25% in Western Europe.
We also shouldn’t downplay his appeal in the UK – his third most successful territory in terms of average cinema admissions.
According to O’Brien, Loach’s films perform particularly well in the areas where they are made, as was the case with The Angel’s Share in Scotland and may well prove to be the case with I, Daniel Blake in the northeast of England.
Nevertheless, in both critical and commercial terms, Loach stands out as one of the few British directors whose appeal in mainland Europe is generally greater than in Britain itself.
It remains to be seen now that Brexit has put in doubt many of the key support structures for British film exports (e.g. MEDIA distribution support, UK/European co-productions and UK films qualifying for ‘European’ screen quotas) whether others can emulate this success.
Huw D Jones is a Post-doctoral Research Associate on the MeCETES project. His latest journal article UK/European Co-productions: The Case of Ken Loach is published in Journal of British Cinema and Television (Vol. 13, issue 3).