U.K. Creative Industries Must Avoid Complacency, Executives Say

Josh Berger

Continuing to fight against piracy and embracing China as a global force are also important if Britain is to remain competitive and successful, entertainment industry heavyweights said at a Tuesday conference in London.

LONDON -- Avoiding complacency, the ongoing fight against piracy and embracing China as a global force are the key drivers the U.K. creative industries should focus on to remain competitive and successful, executives said at a London conference Tuesday.

The conference featured a group of industry heavyweights from film, TV and publishing who had gathered to support the publication of a report by Enders Analysis trumpeting the output of the U.K.'s creative economies.

The report follows high-profile recent successes such as Oscar wins by Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity; the global appetite for British TV hits such as Sherlock, Doctor Who and formats including Masterchef and Simon Cowell’s The X Factor;  box-office franchises from James Bond to Harry Potter; and the consumer appetite for books, music and other content from the sector.

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WPP chief executive Martin Sorrell said that while it was certain the U.K. currently finds itself in a golden era, he noted that “pride can come before a fall,” warning against anyone getting too comfortable with perceived success.

Sorrell also pointed out that China “is coming” and that, as the territory’s gatekeepers begin to put in place rules introducing copyright protection for local and international content, the prospects of the country looking to do business with the U.K. and beyond will be certain.

“Copyright laws may not be high on the agenda now, but believe me that will not be the future; China is coming,” Sorrell said during the lunchtime event’s only contentious moment.

Just before Sorrell’s comments on China, Enders Analysis founder and event organizer Claire Enders had suggested that because China did not respect copyright controls -- for either home-grown or international content -- the territory could not possibly build a serious market on that basis.

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But the industry-heavy conference audience also listened to a panel united on the need for an ongoing fight against piracy, something all of the members of the panel agreed undermines the health of the industry and the ability to reinvest in future content at a grassroots level.

Josh Berger president and managing director of Warner Bros. U.K., Ireland and Spain, noted that, “after a bit or research,” he had discovered that the U.K. first introduced legislation into the court of Queen Anne in 1710 to protect copyright.

“By continuing to protect copyright, there is no reason why Britain can’t be at the heart of the next creative revolution,” Berger said.

Citing the fact that Gravity won a host of Oscars and BAFTAs -- including a best British film award despite being directed by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron and starring two of Hollywood’s biggest actors in Sandra Bullock and George Clooney -- and the legacy of the Harry Potter franchise, which led to a massive boost in the visual effects sector here, Berger said “there is no question that the U.K. sits alongside Hollywood as the best place to make movies.”

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Shine Group CEO Alex Mahon, who runs Elisabeth Murdoch’s U.K.-based TV empire, noted that the global success of shows such as Sherlock, Downton Abbey and Broadchurch as well as formats such as Simon Cowell's The X Factor and Masterchef owes much to the U.K. being a TV shop window for the world. Mahon said three factors will ensure the “flight to quality” that fuels U.K. success continues. “Invest more in training; invest in bringing diverse voices into the industry; and increase copyright protection,” Mahon suggested. She also pointed out that Britain is the "No. 1 exporter of television formats … 13 times better than the U.S. when adjusted for scale."

The short-format conference, squeezing a day's discussion into an hour and a half, was chaired by former Endemol chief Peter Bazalgette and featured U.K. Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Minister Ed Vaizey, Penguin Random House CEO Gail Rebuck and BBC director of strategy and digital James Purnell.

Rebuck highlighted the importance of publishing and reading in her 10-minute slot -- all panelists got that time frame except Vaizey, who was only given five minutes -- by pointing to the fact that three of the four biggest box-office franchises of all time were based on British book series: Harry Potter, James Bond and The Lord of the Rings. She also noted that the U.K. book market was worth £5 billion ($8 billion) in 2012 and remains a "major contributor of source material to the other creative industries."

Purnell, a former government minister himself, said the BBC would be listening to the industry as it formulates a plan for how it will operate ahead of its charter review in just over two years' time.

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He noted that the launch of the public broadcaster’s catch-up on-demand service, BBC iPlayer was unique and highlighted the changes the digital age brought to TV services.

The Enders report points out that the number of creative businesses in the U.K. has grown by 17 percent to 222,000 since 2010, which is quite large compared to the 3 percent rise in all registered businesses.

Vaizey noted that the creative sector accounts for 5.2 percent of gross value added and 1.7 million jobs, "growing faster than the economy as a whole since 2010."