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US studio snaps up British tearjerker

Category: Dear Frankie News
Article Date: May 16, 2004 | Publication: Sunday Times (London) | Author: Richard Brooks Arts Editor, Cannes
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A GENTLE low-budget British film could be one of the surprise hits of the year after being seized by Miramax, the American movie giant, for initial screening in the United States rather than Britain.

It is extremely rare for a British film to be shown in America first: the two notable examples are Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Crying Game, both worldwide successes.

Miramax was so impressed with Dear Frankie that it bought it as the film was being completed and will spend heavily on promoting its launch in America next month.

The story of a single mother and her deaf child, Dear Frankie is the only British competitor at this week's Cannes film festival and will be screened on Tuesday.

Emily Mortimer plays Lizzie, the mother, who carries out an elaborate deceit to protect her son from the fact that they have run away from his father. She pretends that the father, played by Gerard Butler, is away at sea and she writes letters to the child purporting to be from him.

Miramax, which has been behind successes such as Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare in Love and Chicago, will distribute the film in Britain in the autumn.

The decision to snap up the film came from Harvey Weinstein, chairman of Miramax.

According to Colin Vaines, head of Miramax's London office, "he simply fell in love with the film" when he saw it earlier this year.

Made in Scotland, it is the first feature film by the 36-year-old director Shona Auerbach. Its target audience will be mainly women.

"It's an alternative to some of the summer blockbusters which are more male-oriented," said Vaines.

For Mortimer, daughter of the writer Sir John Mortimer, it will be her second Cannes in succession. Last year she played Ewan McGregor's girlfriend in Young Adam, which was also made in Scotland with support, like Dear Frankie, from Scottish Screen, the country's film financing body.

"What I loved about the script of Dear Frankie was that it shows the unconditional love of a mother for her son," said Mortimer, who was pregnant during the filming last summer.

"It is also a very visual film and I think that too often British movies are hampered by too much of a literary tradition."

The impact of British films is often limited by the fact that the cinema chains, which historically have close links to Hollywood, do not distribute and show them widely. Last year only three British-made films -Love Actually, Calendar Girls and Johnny English -took more than 20m at the box office in America.

These three were also the only home-produced films in last year's top 30 at the UK box office, which was dominated by blockbusters such as Finding Nemo, The Matrix Reloaded, The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean.

"What we've got to do in Britain is educate the cinemas to show different sorts of films," said Daniel Battsek, head of Buena Vista International, whose most recent big hit was Calendar Girls, starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters.

Calendar Girls was shown out of competition at Cannes last year before being launched four months later in Britain. The film opened at 300 cinemas, which is only slightly less than most Hollywood movies.

At Cannes last Wednesday the British actress Tilda Swinton, who is serving on the festival's jury, complained that it was difficult for smaller films, whether British or foreign, to get shown in the UK. "The multiplexes outnumber the art film cinemas by 10 to one," she said.

In fact, it is an even larger disparity. New Hollywood releases such as Van Helsing, Troy and The Day After Tomorrow will be seen on up to 400 screens, while a smaller film such as the now highly successful Touching the Void is usually seen at no more than 25 cinemas.

"The nationality of a film doesn't really matter," said Battsek. "People don't set out from their homes specifically to see a British or an American film. They set out to see one they've heard about or know is on locally."

Both the government and the Film Council are now trying hard to ensure that more small films are seen in Britain. Tomorrow the Film Council will announce that it is helping to set up a digital screen network.

This will mean that the big chains such as Odeon, UGC and UCI will in future show digital movies, which are cheaper than the traditional reels of film. It is hoped that smaller films, switched to digital format, will get a more widespread distribution.

Estelle Morris, the arts minister who is at Cannes this weekend, supports the idea. "More of our film money must be used to link distribution with production," she said.

"There must also be a time when we stop beating ourselves over the head about films here not being as big as the Americans'."

Morris, whose own favourite films include Whistle Down the Wind, Cry Freedom and Gandhi, wants Britain to make more films about today's social issues. "British movies must be more ambitious and aspirational and I feel very strongly that we should also reflect in our films what Britain is like today.

"In years to come we should be able to look back and see a film which was made today and find out what life was like then.

"It's not that I am against costume dramas, which can be nice escapism. But the teacher in me is very aware of the importance of coming out of a cinema having seen a film and then discussing some issue as a talking point.

Copyright 2004 Times Newspapers Limited

 


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