If the Hogwarts crew were to reunite for yet another sequel, it might be called 'Harry Potter and the Mixed Blessing Windfall.'
The windfall at issue here is the billions earned by the Potter film franchise, a jackpot that will expand one last time with the release of series capper 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2' this week. On the one hand, the franchise's success has been a boon to the British film industry, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the U.K. filmmaking community, showcasing Great Britain's wealth of acting talent, and making England more attractive as a film-shoot location for international productions. On the other hand, the influx of Hollywood money (even as homegrown funding sources are jeopardized) threatens to turn British movies into Hollywood clones, destroying the local flavor and character of a national cinema that was once idiosyncratic, groundbreaking and unique.
It may seem churlish to grumble about the impact J.K. Rowling's boy wizard has had on British cinema. After all, thanks to her insistence, the movies were all shot on English soil, with British crews and technicians (and even British special effects houses) and all-U.K. casts. For 10 years, the Potter films were to British actors what the 'Law & Order' TV franchise was to New York City actors: a reliable source of employment that gave a job to nearly every local with a SAG card. (Well, yes, there were a handful of prominent British thespians who never waved a wand at Hogwarts.)
And now that the series is done, it's not as if Warner Bros. is packing everything up and taking it all back to Burbank. In fact, the Hollywood studio purchased Leavesden, the studio where all eight movies were shot, and has pledged to invest another $100 million to expand the facility. American productions will be filming in England for some time to come. This year alone, such prominent non-Potter projects shot in England include 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,' Martin Scorsese's upcoming 'Hugo,' and this month's 'Captain America: The First Avenger.' (Insert ironic outsourcing joke here.)
But with all these Hollywood productions, where is the homegrown British cinema? If everyone in the British filmmaking community is working on American movies, who's minding the store?
One reason Hollywood likes filming in Britain is that the government offers generous tax credits to foreign companies shooting there as long as they put a sufficient percentage of Britons on the payroll. So those tax incentives (as well as the films' profits) represent money not being plowed back into the local economy.
Still making strictly British films are independent production companies like Working Title, but otherwise, there's no counterpart to the Hollywood studio system. As a result, only a few dozen British movies are made each year.
For a long time, there was government funding available for modest-budget movies. It was national lottery money, distributed by the U.K. Film Council. Throughout the first decade of this century, the council provided £160 million ($258 million) in seed money for 900 movies, including such hits as 'Bend It Like Beckham,' 'Gosford Park' and 'The King's Speech.' (Yes, 'Gosford Park' had an American director, but it had a British writer, a mostly British cast and decidedly British subject matter.) Last year, however, the British government (on its current austerity kick) disbanded the U.K. Film Council, prompting much protest in the local film industry.
The reason given for abolishing the council was its supposedly high overhead; in fact, the jeopardized lottery funds will still be made available to filmmakers via the supposedly more efficient British Film Institute. It's still not clear, however, whether the BFI will distribute money in the same pattern (that is, spreading out the risk by funding many low-budget films with an eye toward modest returns) or go for a more Hollywood model (funding a handful of big-budget spectacles in the hope that they'll attract a mass audience and blockbuster revenues).
Which approach will the BFI take? Prime Minister David Cameron seemed to suggest the latter in remarks last November. Citing the 'Potter' series as an example British filmmakers could learn from, he said, "We have got to make films that people want to watch and films which will benefit beyond themselves as they will also encourage people to come and visit our country."
Many in the filmmaking community took this to mean that the industry should focus on commercial, Hollywood-style films that serve as chamber-of-commerce infomercials for tourists. A more measured set of remarks came later that month from culture minister Ed Vaizey, who suggested that the imported and homegrown film industries have a relationship that's symbiotic, not antagonistic, and that they can both flourish without damaging each other.
Still, it seems a lot of British movies have already been following Cameron's advice. Over the past decade or so, it seems that the British movies that have become the biggest hits already have a lot of American DNA. The Guy Ritchie-style gangster movies would be unthinkable without the stylistic influence of Quentin Tarantino. Richard Curtis' romantic comedies (including 'Four Weddings and a Funeral,' 'Notting Hill,' and 'Love Actually') all depend on Anglo-American casts and all mine humor from the temperamental differences between Brits and Yanks. Even 'The King's Speech' seems less a British costume drama than a formula-fitting effort to make the kind of British drama that American audiences (trained by years of watching Miramax imports) would like. (There's the costumes, the World War II-era setting, Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter, and just a hint of naughtiness.)
British filmmakers didn't always look to Hollywood for inspiration. In the 1940s and '50s, the Ealing studio comedies ('Kind Hearts and Coronets,' 'The Ladykillers') were dark satires (darker than most American comedies) lampooning characteristically English personality types. The 1960s saw a revolution in British filmmaking that (along with British Invasion rock 'n' roll acts) made London the world epicenter of hipness - from the kitchen-sink realism of John Osborne's dramas to the sexually liberated young adults in movies like 'Alfie' and 'Darling,' to the gory yet elegant horror films made by the Hammer studio (usually starring dapper Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing), to the state-of-the-art spy thrillers (the James Bond movies, Michael Caine's 'Harry Palmer' series, John le Carré's 'The Spy Who Came in From the Cold').
British films began to slump in the '70s, a decade that also saw an increasing number of major Hollywood productions shoot in England (notably, the 'Star Wars' and 'Superman' movies). The '80s and early '90s saw something of a comeback, led by the Merchant/Ivory team (adapting classic English novels into crowd-pleasing costume dramas) and George Harrison's Handmade Films (quintessentially English comedies, like the Monty Python films and 'Withnail & I'). The '90s also saw maverick directors from England, Scotland, and Ireland (Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Danny Boyle, Neil Jordan, Jim Sheridan) break through to worldwide audiences despite their regional subject matter and thickly accented casts.
And then, along came Harry.
It's unlikely that there will ever be a franchise this huge again. Recent attempts to create new, kid-friendly, Potter-like franchises on British soil ('The Golden Compass,' 'Stormbreaker') have failed. The Narnia movies (three have been made so far out of a projected series of seven) haven't been as consistent in quality or box office appeal as the Potter pictures.
So 'Harry Potter' may not be the most viable model for the British cinema of the future. British filmmakers, bureaucrats, and even visitors from Hollywood might want to keep that in mind, rather than turning away from the quirky, eccentric, modestly-scaled, independent-minded movies at which British cinema has traditionally excelled.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.