U.K. spends record $1.6 bil at boxoffice

And strong production slate boosts inward investment levels

LONDON -- Hooray for Hollywood, Harry Potter and the British folk hero Robin Hood as U.S. studio-backed projects rose to 26 titles in 2009, up from 22 the previous year, according to stats Tuesday from the U.K. Film Council.

As the Council enters its second decade in existence by renewing its commitment to attracting activity here by the U.S. studios and other filmmakers, the last year of the noughties made for good reading to those assessing the health of the filmmaking economies.

Stats compiled by the Council indicate that inward investment levels by U.S. studio pictures hit £728.5 million ($1.2 billion) during 2009, rocketing from the previous writer's strike and economic downturn affected year's paltry £371.2 million ($606 million).

Ridley Scott's Russell Crowe starrer "Robin Hood," the final installment of the "Harry Potter" franchise -- which is filming together but will be split into "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II" for release by Warner Bros. -- and other big budget shoots including "Clash of the Titans" and "Gulliver's Travels" all contributed to a glittering year of production spend riches. Other eye-catching contributions came from "Inception," "The Special Relationship" and "Your Highness".

The Council described the impact of U.S. studio-backed titles as being "a significant minority," perhaps an understatement, given 26 out of the 125 titles in 2009 were bankrolled by the majors.

By the end of 2009, levels of filmmaking in the U.K. "continued to weather the global recession well," the Council said despite the collapse in the presales market, the drop in advertising budgets and faltering DVD sales.

Overall, 2009 saw 125 films with budgets of £500,000 ($817,000) or more go before the cameras in whole or part in the U.K., down one from 126 in 2008. Of those 125, 22 came to these shores as co-productions last year, the same as 2008 and 71 could call themselves British under the Council's definitions, down from 77.

British spend in 2008 hit £169.2 million ($276.3 million) in 2009, a fall from 2008's total of £207.2 million ($338.3 million).

The Council also noted U.K. cinema admissions hit 173.5 million in the U.K and Ireland, its highest levels since 2002 and topped a billion pounds ($1.6 billion) for the first time in history.

And U.K. independent movies also corralled a decade-long market share high, enticing 48.5% of U.K. boxoffice in 2009.

U.K. Film Council chief executive John Woodward said he feels the industry here is "weathering the recession well."

Said Woodward: "Taken together, boxoffice and inward investment numbers show how film in the U.K. has moved from the margins back to the mainstream, helping sustain jobs and promote the U.K.'s place on the international stage."

He said the cinema-going appetite for local fair also reinforced the "case for continued public support for film" suggesting it "has never being stronger."

The Council is one of the key voices in lobbying the government -- whatever shape that will take in this election year -- for public subsidy for film from the BBC Films and Film4 as well as its own mandate for doing just that.

"British cinema-goers are voting with their feet -- they want to see big event movies, many of which depend on outstanding British talent and are made in the U.K. thanks to our reliable film tax credit," Woodward said.

But there are clouds on the horizon, with probably one of the darkest being the end of the "Harry Potter" production and boxoffice gravy train that has been rolling here for almost a decade. At least the boxoffice will benefit for a further two years with the release of the final two installments "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" coming this year and next from Warner Bros.
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