The first moving picture was shot in Leeds by Louis Le Prince in 1888 and the first moving pictures developed on celluloid film were made in Hyde Park, London in 1889 by British inventor William Friese Greene, who patented the process in 1890.
The first people to build and run a working 35 mm camera in Britain were Robert W. Paul and Birt Acres. They made the first British film Incident at Clovelly Cottage in February 1895, shortly before falling out over the camera's patent. Soon several British film companies had opened to meet the demand for new films, such as Mitchell and Kenyon in Blackburn.
Although the earliest British films were of everyday events, the early 20th century saw the appearance of narrative shorts, mainly comedies and melodramas. The early films were often melodramatic in tone, and there was a distinct preference for story lines already known to the audience, in particular, adaptations of Shakespeare plays and Dickens novels.
The Lumière brothers first brought their show to London in 1896. In 1898 American producer Charles Urban expanded the London-based Warwick Trading Company to produce British films, mostly documentary and news. In 1903 he formed his own Charles Urban Trading Company, which produced early color films using his patented Kinemacolor process, which was challenged in court by Greene, causing it to go out of business in 1915.
In 1898 Gaumont British Picture Corp. was founded as a subsidiary of the French Gaumont Film Company, constructing Lime Grove Studios in West London in 1915 in the first building built in Britain solely for film production. Also in 1898 Hepworth Studios was founded in Lambeth, South London by Cecil Hepworth, the Bamforths began producing films in Yorkshire, and William Haggar began producing films in Wales.
In 1902 Ealing Studios was founded by Will Barker, becoming the oldest continuously-operating film studio in the world.
In 1902 the earliest color film in the world was made; like other films made at the time, it is of everyday events. In 2012 it was found by the National Media Museum in Bradford after lying forgotten in an old tin for 110 years. The previous title for earliest color film, using the Kinemacolour process, was thought to date from 1909 and was actually an inferior method. The re-discovered films were made by pioneer Edward Raymond Turner from London who patented his process on 22 March 1899.
In 1903 Frank Mottershaw of Sheffield produced the film A Daring Daylight Robbery, which launched the chase genre.
In 1911 the Ideal Film Company was founded in Soho, London, distributing almost 400 films by 1934, and producing 80.
In 1913 stage director Maurice Elvey began directing British films, becoming Britain's most prolific film director, with almost 200 by 1957.
In 1914 Elstree Studios was founded, and acquired in 1928 by German-born Ludwig Blattner, who invented a magnetic steel tape recording system that was adopted by the BBC in 1930.
In 1920 Gaumont opened Islington Studios, where Alfred Hitchcock got his start, selling-out to Gainsborough Pictures in 1927. Also in 1920 Cricklewood Studios was founded by Sir Oswald Stoll, becoming Britain's largest film studio, known for Fu Manchu and Sherlock Holmes film series.
In 1920 the short-lived company Minerva Films was founded in London by the actor Leslie Howard (also producer and director) and his friend and story editor Adrian Brunel. Some of their early films include four written by A. A. Milne including The Bump, starring C. Aubrey Smith; Twice Two; Five Pound Reward; and Bookworms.
By the mid-1920s the British film industry was losing out to heavy competition from the United States, which was helped by its much larger home market — in 1914 25% of films shown in the UK were British, but by 1926 this had fallen to 5%. The Slump of 1924 caused many British film studios to close, resulting in the passage of the Cinematograph Films Act 1927 to boost local production, requiring that cinemas show a certain percentage of British films. The act was technically a success, with audiences for British films becoming larger than the quota required, but it had the effect of creating a market for poor quality, low cost films, made to satisfy the quota. The "quota quickies", as they became known, are often blamed by historians for holding back the development of the industry. However, some British film makers, such as Michael Powell, learnt their craft making such films.
Ironically, the biggest star of the silent era, English comedian Charlie Chaplin, was Hollywood-based.
Scottish solicitor John Maxwell founded British International Pictures (BIP) in 1927. Based at the former British National Studios in Elstree, the facilities original owners, including producer-director Herbert Wilcox, had run into financial difficulties. One of the company's early films, Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929), is often regarded as the first British sound feature. It was a part-talkie with a synchronized score and sound effects. Earlier in 1929, the first all-talking British feature, The Clue of the New Pin was released. It was based on a novel by Edgar Wallace, starring Donald Calthrop, Benita Home and Fred Raines, which was made by British Lion at their Beaconsfield Studios. John Maxwell's BIP became the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) in 1933. ABPC's studios in Elstree came to be known as the "porridge factory", according to Lou Alexander, "for reasons more likely to do with the quantity of films that the company turned out, than their quality". Elstree (strictly speaking almost all the studios were in neighboring Borehamwood) became the center of the British film industry, with six film complexes over the years all in close proximity to each other.
With the advent of sound films, many foreign actors were in less demand, with English received pronunciation commonly used; for example, the voice of Czech actress Anny Ondra in Blackmail was substituted by an off-camera Joan Barry during Ondra's scenes.
Starting with John Grierson's Drifters (also 1929), the period saw the emergence of the school of realist Documentary Film Movement, from 1933 associated with the GPO Film Unit. It was Grierson who coined the term "documentary" to describe a non-fiction film, and he produced the movement's most celebrated early films, Night Mail (1936), written and directed by Basil Wright and Harry Watt, and incorporating the poem by W. H. Auden towards the end of the short.
Music halls also proved influential in comedy films of this period, and a number of popular personalities emerged, including George Formby, Gracie Fields, Jessie Matthews and Will Hay. These stars often made several films a year, and their productions remained important for morale purposes during World War II.
Many of the British films with larger budgets during the 1930s were produced by London Films, founded by Hungarian emigre Alexander Korda. The success of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), made at British and Dominion in Elstree, persuaded United Artists and The Prudential to invest in Korda's Denham Film Studios, which opened in May 1936, but both investors suffered losses as a result. Korda's films before the war included Things to Come, Rembrandt (both 1936) and Knight Without Armour (1937), as well as the early Technicolour films The Drum (1938) and The Four Feathers (1939). These had followed closely on from Wings of the Morning (1937), the UK's first three-strip Technicolour feature film, made by the local offshoot of 20th Century Fox. Although some of Korda's films indulged in "unrelenting pro-Empire flag waving", those featuring Sabu turned him into "a huge international star"; "for many years" he had the highest profile of any actor of Indian origin. Paul Robeson was also cast in leading roles when "there were hardly any opportunities" for African Americans "to play challenging roles" in their own country's productions.
Rising expenditure and over-optimistic expectations of expansion into the American market caused a financial crisis in 1937, after an all-time high of 192 films were released in 1936. Of the 640 British production companies registered between 1925 and 1936, only 20 were still active in 1937. Moreover, the 1927 Films Act was up for renewal. The replacement Cinematograph Films Act 1938 provided incentives, via a "quality test", for UK companies to make fewer films, but of higher quality, and to eliminate the "quota quickies". Influenced by world politics, it encouraged American investment and imports. One result was the creation of MGM-British, an English subsidiary of the largest American studio, which produced four films before the war, including Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939).
The new venture was initially based at Denham Studios. Korda himself lost control of the facility in 1939 to the Rank Organisation, whose own Pinewood Studios had opened at the end of September 1936. Circumstances forced Korda's The Thief of Bagdad (1940), a spectacular fantasy film, to be completed in California, where Korda continued his film career during the war.
By now contracted to Gaumont British, Alfred Hitchcock had settled on the thriller genre by the mid-1930s with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Lauded in Britain where he was dubbed "Alfred the Great" by Picturegoer magazine, Hitchcock's reputation was beginning to develop overseas, with a New York Times feature writer asserting; "Three unique and valuable institutions the British have that we in America have not. Magna Carta, the Tower Bridge and Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest director of screen melodramas in the world." Hitchcock was then signed up to a seven-year contract by Selznick and moved to Hollywood.
Humphrey Jennings began his career as a documentary film maker just before the war, in some cases working in collaboration with co-directors. London Can Take It (with Harry Wat, 1940) detailed the blitz while Listen to Britain (with Stewart McAllister, 1942) looked at the home front. The Crown Film Unit, part of the Ministry of Information took over the responsibilities of the GPO Film Unit in 1940. Paul Rotha and Alberto Cavalcanti were colleagues of Jennings. British films began to make use of documentary techniques; Cavalcanti joined Ealing for Went the Day Well? (1942),
Many other films helped to shape the popular image of the nation at war. Among the best known of these films are In Which We Serve (1942), We Dive at Dawn (1943), Millions Like Us (1943) and The Way Ahead (1944). The war years also saw the emergence of The Archers partnership between director Michael Powell and the Hungarian-born writer-producer Emeric Pressburger with films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and A Canterbury Tale (1944).
Two Cities Films, an independent production company releasing their films through a Rank subsidiary, also made some important films, including the Noël Coward and David Lean collaborations This Happy Breed (1944) and Blithe Spirit (1945) as well as Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944).By this time, Gainsborough Studios were releasing their series of critically derided but immensely popular period melodramas, including The Man in Grey (1943) and The Wicked Lady (1945). New stars, such as Margaret Lockwood and James Mason, emerged in the Gainsborough films.
Towards the end of the 1940s, the Rank Organisation, founded in 1937 by J. Arthur Rank, became the dominant force behind British film-making, having acquired a number of British studios and the Gaumont chain (in 1941) to add to its Odeon Cinemas. Rank's serious financial crisis in 1949, a substantial loss and debt, resulted in the contraction of its film production. In practice, Rank maintained an industry duopoly with ABPC (later absorbed by EMI) for many years.
For the moment, the industry hit new heights of creativity in the immediate post-war years. Among the most significant films produced during this period were David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945) and his Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), Carol Reed's thrillers Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949), and Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), the most commercially successful film of its year in the United States. Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (also 1948), was the first non-American film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Ealing Studios (financially backed by Rank) began to produce their most celebrated comedies, with three of the best remembered films, Whisky Galore (1948), Kind Hearts and Coronets and Passport to Pimlico (both 1949), being on release almost simultaneously. Their portmanteau horror film Dead of Night (1945) is also particularly highly regarded.
During the 1950s, the British industry began to concentrate on popular comedies and World War II dramas aimed more squarely at the domestic audience. The war films were often based on true stories and made in a similar low-key style to their wartime predecessors. They helped to make stars of actors like John Mills, Jack Hawkins and Kenneth More. Some of the most successful included The Cruel Sea (1953), The Dam Busters (1954), The Colditz Story (1955) and Reach for the Sky (1956).
The Rank Organisation produced some comedy successes, such as Genevieve (1953). The writer/director/producer team of twin brothers John and Roy Boulting also produced a series of successful satires on British life and institutions, beginning with Private's Progress (1956), and continuing with (among others) Brothers in Law (1957), Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1958), and I'm All Right Jack (1959).
Popular comedy series included the "Doctor" series, beginning with Doctor in the House (1954). The series originally starred Dirk Bogarde, probably the British industry's most popular star of the 1950s, though later films had Michael Craig and Leslie Phillips in leading roles. The Carry On series began in 1958 with regular instalments appearing for the next twenty years. The Italian director-producer Mario Zampi also made a number of successful black comedies, including Laughter in Paradise (1951), The Naked Truth (1957) and Too Many Crooks (1958). Ealing Studios had continued its run of successful comedies, including The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955), but the company ceased production in 1958, after the studios had already been bought by the BBC.
Less restrictive censorship towards the end of the 1950s encouraged B-film producer Hammer Films to embark on their series of commercially successful horror films. Beginning with adaptations of Nigel Kneale's BBC science fiction serials The Quatermass Experiment (1955) and Quatermass II (1957), Hammer quickly graduated to The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), both deceptively lavish and the first gothic horror films in colour. The studio turned out numerous sequels and variants, with English actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee being the most regular leads. Peeping Tom (1960), a now highly regarded thriller, with horror elements, set in the contemporary period, was badly received by the critics at the time, and effectively finished the career of Michael Powell, its director.
The British New Wave film makers attempted to produce social realist films (see also 'kitchen sink realism') attempted in commercial feature films released between around 1959 and 1963 to convey narratives about a wider spectrum of people in Britain than the country's earlier films had done. These individuals, principally Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson, were also involved in the short lived Oxford film journal Sequence and the "Free Cinema" documentary film movement. The 1956 statement of Free Cinema, the name was coined by Anderson, asserted: "No film can be too personal. The image speaks. Sounds amplifies and comments. Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude." Anderson, in particular, was dismissive of the commercial film industry. Their documentary films included Anderson's Every Day Except Christmas, among several sponsored by Ford of Britain, and Richardson's Momma Don't Allow. Another member of this group, John Schlesinger, made documentaries for the BBC's Monitor arts series.
Together with future James Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman, dramatist John Osborne and Tony Richardson established the company Woodfall Films to produce their early feature films. These included adaptations of Richardson's stage productions of Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1959), with Richard Burton, and The Entertainer (1960) with Laurence Olivier, both from Osborne's own screenplays. Such films as Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (also 1960), Richardson's A Taste of Honey (1961), Schlesinger's A Kind of Loving (1962) and Billy Liar (1963), and Anderson's This Sporting Life (1963) are often associated with a new openness about working-class life or previously taboo issues.
The team of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph, from an earlier generation, "probe[d] into the social issues that now confronted social stability and the establishment of the promised peacetime consensus". Pool of London (1950). and Sapphire (1959) were early attempts to create narratives about racial tensions and an emerging multi-cultural Britain. Dearden and Relph's Victim (1961), was about the blackmail of homosexuals. Influenced by the Wolfenden report of four years earlier, which advocated the decriminalising of homosexual sexual activity, this was "the first British film to deal explicitly with homosexuality". Unlike the New Wave film makers though, critical responses to Dearden's and Relph's work have not generally been positive.
As the 1960s progressed, American studios returned to financially supporting British films, especially those that capitalised on the "swinging London" image propagated by Time magazine in 1966. Films like Darling, The Knack ...and How to Get It (both 1965), Alfie and Georgy Girl (both 1966), all explored this phenomenon. Blowup (also 1966), and later Women in Love (1969), showed female and then male full-frontal nudity on screen in mainstream British films for the first time.
At the same time, film producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli combined sex with exotic locations, casual violence and self-referential humour in the phenomenally successful James Bond series with Sean Connery in the leading role. The first film Dr. No (1962) was a sleeper hit in the UK and the second, From Russia with Love (1963), a hit worldwide. By the time of the third film, Goldfinger (1964), the series had become a global phenomenon, reaching its commercial peak with Thunderball the following year. The series' success led to a spy film boom with many Bond imitations. Bond co-producer Saltzman also instigated a rival series of more realistic spy films based on the novels of Len Deighton. Michael Caine starred as bespectacled spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965), and two sequels in the next few years. Other more downbeat espionage films were adapted from John le Carré novels, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and The Deadly Affair (1966).
American directors were regularly working in London throughout the decade, but several became permanent residents in the UK. Blacklisted in America, Joseph Losey had a significant influence on British cinema in the 1960s, particularly with his collaborations with playwright Harold Pinter and leading man Dirk Bogarde, including The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967). Voluntary exiles Richard Lester and Stanley Kubrick were also active in the UK. Lester had major hits with The Beatles film A Hard Day's Night (1964) and The Knack ...and How to Get It (1965) while Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1963) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). While Kubrick settled in Hertfordshire in the early 1960s and would remain in England for the rest of his career, these two films retained a strong American influence. Other films of this era involved prominent filmmakers from elsewhere in Europe, Repulsion (1965) and Blowup (1966) were the first English language films of the Polish director Roman Polanski and the Italian Michelangelo Antonioni respectively.
Historical films as diverse as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Tom Jones (1963), and A Man for All Seasons (1966) benefited from the investment of American studios. Major films like Becket (1964), Khartoum (1966) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) were regularly mounted, while smaller-scale films, including Accident (1967), were big critical successes. Four of the decade's Academy Award winners for best picture were British productions, including six Oscars for the film musical Oliver! (1968), based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist.
After directing several contributions to the BBC's Wednesday Play anthology series, Ken Loach began his feature film career with the social realist Poor Cow (1967) and Kes (1969). Meanwhile, the controversy around Peter Watkins The War Game (1965), which won the Best Documentary Film Oscar in 1967, but had been suppressed by the BBC who had commissioned it, would ultimately lead Watkins to work exclusively outside Britain.
American studios cut back on British productions, and in many cases withdrew from financing them altogether. Films financed by American interests were still being made, including Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), but for a time funds became hard to come by.
More relaxed censorship also brought several controversial films, including Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance, Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) starring Malcolm McDowell as the leader of a gang of thugs in a dystopian future Britain.
Other films during the early 1970s included the Edwardian drama The Go-Between (1971), which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Nicolas Roeg's Venice-set supernatural thriller Don't Look Now (1973) and Mike Hodges' gangster drama Get Carter (1971) starring Michael Caine. Alfred Hitchcock returned to Britain to shoot Frenzy (1972), Other productions such as Richard Attenborough's Young Winston (1972) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) met with mixed commercial success. The British horror film cycle associated with Hammer Film Productions, Amicus and Tigon drew to a close, despite attempts by Hammer to spice up the formula with added nudity and gore. Although some attempts were made to broaden the range of British horror films, such as with The Wicker Man (1973), these films made little impact at the box office, In 1976, British Lion, who produced The Wicker Man, were finally absorbed into the film division of EMI, who had taken over ABPC in 1969. The duopoly in British cinema exhibition, via Rank and now EMI, continued.
Some British producers, including Hammer, turned to television for inspiration, and big screen versions of popular sitcoms like On the Buses (1971) and Steptoe and Son (1972) proved successful with domestic audiences, the former had greater domestic box office returns in its year than the Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. Low-budget British sex comedies included the Confessions of ... series starring Robin Askwith, beginning with Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974). More elevated comedy films came from the Monty Python team, also from television. Their two most successful films were Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), the latter a major commercial success, probably at least in part due to the controversy at the time surrounding its subject.
Some American productions did return to the major British studios in 1977–79, including the original Star Wars (1977) at Elstree Studios, Superman (1978) at Pinewood, and Alien (1979) at Shepperton. Successful adaptations were made in the decade of the Agatha Christie novels Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Death on the Nile (1978). The entry of Lew Grade's company ITC into film production in the latter half of the decade brought only a few box office successes and an unsustainable number of failures
In 1980 only 31 British films were made, a 50% decline from the previous year and the lowest number since 1914, and production fell again in 1981 to 24 films. The industry suffered further blows from falling cinema attendances, which reached a record low in 1984, and the elimination of the 1957 Eady Levy, a tax concession, in the same year. The concession had made it possible for an overseas based film company to write off a large amount of its production costs by filming in the UK — this was what attracted a succession of big-budget American productions to British studios in the 1970s. These factors led to significant changes in the industry, with the profitability of British films now "increasingly reliant on secondary markets such as video and television, and Channel 4 ... [became] a crucial part of the funding equation." The 1980s soon saw a renewed optimism, led by smaller independent production companies such as Goldcrest, HandMade Films and Merchant Ivory Productions.
Handmade Films, which was partly owned by George Harrison, was originally formed to take over the production of Monty Python's Life of Brian, after EMI's Bernard Delfont (Lew Grade's brother) had pulled out. Handmade also bought and released the gangster drama The Long Good Friday (1980), produced by a Lew Grade subsidiary, after its original backers became cautious. Members of the Python team were involved in other comedies during the decade, including Terry Gilliam's fantasy films Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985), and John Cleese's hit A Fish Called Wanda (1988), while Michael Palin starred in A Private Function (1984), from Alan Bennett's first screenplay for the cinema screen.
Goldcrest producer David Puttnam has been described as "the nearest thing to a mogul that British cinema has had in the last quarter of the 20th century." Under Puttnam, a generation of British directors emerged making popular films with international distribution. Some of the talent backed by Puttnam — Hugh Hudson, Ridley Scott, Alan Parker, and Adrian Lyne — had shot commercials; Puttnam himself had begun his career in the advertising industry. When Hudson's Chariots of Fire (1981) won 4 Academy Awards in 1982, including Best Picture, its writer Colin Welland declared "the British are coming!". When Gandhi (1982), another Goldcrest film, picked up a Best Picture Oscar, it looked as if he was right.
It prompted a cycle of period films – some with a large budget for a British film, such as David Lean's final film A Passage to India (1984), alongside the lower-budget Merchant Ivory adaptations of the works of E. M. Forster, such as A Room with a View (1986). But further attempts to make 'big' productions for the US market ended in failure, with Goldcrest losing its independence after Revolution (1985) and Absolute Beginners (1986) were commercial and critical flops. Another Goldcrest film, Roland Joffé's The Mission (also 1986), won the 1986 Palme d'Or, but did not go into profit either. Joffé's earlier The Killing Fields (1984) had been both a critical and financial success. These were Joffé's first two feature films and were amongst those produced by Puttnam.
Mainly outside the commercial sector, film makers from the new commonwealth countries had begun to emerge during the 1970s. Horace Ové's Pressure (1975) had been funded by the British Film Institute as was A Private Enterprise (1974), these being the first Black British and Asian British films respectively. The 1980s however saw a wave of new talent, with films such as Franco Rosso's Babylon (1980), Menelik Shabazz's Burning an Illusion (1981) and Po-Chih Leong's Ping Pong (1986; one of the first films about Britain's Chinese community). Many of these films were assisted by the newly formed Channel 4, which had an official remit to provide for "minority audiences." Commercial success was first achieved with My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). Dealing with racial and gay issues, it was developed from Hanif Kureishi's first film script. My Beautiful Laundrette features Daniel Day-Lewis in a leading role. Day-Lewis and other young British actors who were becoming stars, such as Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tim Roth and Rupert Everett, were dubbed the Brit Pack.
With the involvement of Channel 4 in film production, talents from television moved into feature films with Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette) and Mike Newell with Dance with a Stranger (1985). John Boorman, who had been working in the US, was encouraged back to the UK to make Hope and Glory (1987). Channel Four also became a major sponsor of the British Film Institute's Production Board, which backed three of Britain's most critically acclaimed filmmakers: Derek Jarman (The Last of England, 1987), Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives, 1988), and Peter Greenaway; the latter of whom gained surprising commercial success with The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). Stephen Woolley's company Palace Pictures also produced some successful films, including Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) and Mona Lisa (1986), before collapsing amid a series of unsuccessful films. Amongst the other British films of the decade were Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983), Lewis Gilbert's Educating Rita (1983), Peter Yates' The Dresser (1983) and Kenneth Branagh's directorial debut, Henry V (1989).
Compared to the 1980s, investment in film production rose dramatically. In 1989, annual investment was a meagre £104 million. By 1996, this figure had soared to £741 million. Nevertheless, the dependence on finance from television broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4 meant that budgets were often low and indigenous production was very fragmented: the film industry mostly relied on Hollywood inward investment. According to critic Neil Watson, it was hoped that the £90 million apportioned by the new National Lottery into three franchises (The Film Consortium, Pathe Pictures, and DNA) would fill the gap, but "corporate and equity finance for the UK film production industry continues to be thin on the ground and most production companies operating in the sector remain hopelessly under-capitalised."
These problems were mostly compensated by PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, a film studio whose British subsidiary Working Title Films released a Richard Curtis-scripted comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). It grossed $244 million worldwide and introduced Hugh Grant to global fame, led to renewed interest and investment in British films, and set a pattern for British-set romantic comedies, including Sliding Doors (1998) and Notting Hill (1999). Other Working Titles films included Bean (1997), Elizabeth (1998) and Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001). PFE was eventually sold and merged with Universal Pictures in 1999, the hopes and expectations of "building a British-based company which could compete with Hollywood in its home market [had] eventually collapsed."
Tax incentives allowed American producers to increasingly invest in UK-based film production throughout the 1990s, including films such as Interview with the Vampire (1994), Mission: Impossible (1996), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) and The Mummy (1999). Miramax also distributed Neil Jordan's acclaimed thriller The Crying Game (1992), which was generally ignored on its initial release in the UK, but was a considerable success in the United States. The same company also enjoyed some success releasing the BBC period drama Enchanted April (1992) and The Wings of the Dove (1997).
Among the more successful British films were the Merchant Ivory productions Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993), Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands (1993), and Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare adaptations. The Madness of King George (1994) proved there was still a market for British costume dramas, and other period films followed, including Sense and Sensibility (1995), Restoration (1995), Emma (1996), Mrs. Brown (1997), Basil (1998), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Topsy-Turvy (1999).
After a six-year hiatus for legal reasons the James Bond films returned to production with the 17th Bond film, GoldenEye. With their traditional home Pinewood Studios fully booked, a new studio was created for the film in a former Rolls-Royce aero-engine factory at Leavesden in Hertfordshire.
Mike Leigh emerged as a significant figure in British cinema in the 1990s, with a series of films financed by Channel 4 about working and middle class life in modern England, including Life Is Sweet (1991), Naked (1993) and his biggest hit Secrets & Lies (1996), which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes.
Other new talents to emerge during the decade included the writer-director-producer team of John Hodge, Danny Boyle and Andrew Macdonald responsible for Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996). The latter film generated interested in other "regional" productions, including the Scottish films Small Faces (1996), Ratcatcher (1999) and My Name Is Joe (1998).
The first decade of the 21st century was a relatively successful one for the British film industry. Many British films found a wide international audience due to funding from BBC Films, Film 4 and the UK Film Council, and some independent production companies, such as Working Title, secured financing and distribution deals with major American studios. Working Title scored three major international successes, all starring Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, with the romantic comedies Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), which grossed $254 million worldwide; the sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which earned $228 million; and Richard Curtis's directorial debut Love Actually (2003), which grossed $239 million. Most successful of all, Phyllida Lloyd's Mamma Mia! (2008), which grossed $601 million.
The new decade saw a major new film series in the US-backed but British-made Harry Potter films, beginning with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in 2001. David Heyman's company Heyday Films has produced seven sequels, with the final title released in two parts – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 in 2010 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 in 2011. All were filmed at Leavesden Studios in England.
Aardman Animations' Nick Park, the creator of Wallace and Gromit and the Creature Comforts series, produced his first feature-length film, Chicken Run in 2000. Co-directed with Peter Lord, the film was a major success worldwide and one of the most successful British films of its year. Park's follow up, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was another worldwide hit: it grossed $56 million at the US box office and £32 million in the UK. It also won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
However it was usually through domestically funded features throughout the decade that British directors and films won awards at the top international film festivals. In 2003, Michael Winterbottom won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for In This World. In 2004, Mike Leigh directed Vera Drake, an account of a housewife who leads a double life as an abortionist in 1950s London. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. In 2006 Stephen Frears directed The Queen based on the events surrounding the death of Princess Diana, which won the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival and Academy Awards and the BAFTA for Best Film. In 2006, Ken Loach won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival with his account of the struggle for Irish Independence in The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Joe Wright's adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel Atonement was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Film and won the Golden Globe and BAFTA for Best Film. Slumdog Millionaire was filmed entirely in Mumbai with a mostly Indian cast, though with a British director (Danny Boyle), producer (Christian Colson), screenwriter (Simon Beaufoy) and star (Dev Patel)—the film was all-British financed via Film4 and Celador. It has received worldwide critical acclaim. It has won four Golden Globes, seven BAFTA Awards and eight Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Film. The King's Speech, which tells the story of King George VI's attempts to overcome his speech impediment, was directed by Tom Hooper and filmed almost entirely in London. It received four Academy Awards (including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay) in 2011.
The start of the 21st century saw Asian British cinema assert itself at the box office, starting with East Is East (1999) and continuing with Bend It Like Beckham (2002). Other notable British Asian films from this period include My Son the Fanatic (1997), Ae Fond Kiss... (2004), Mischief Night (2006), Yasmin (2004) and Four Lions (2010). Some argue it has brought more flexible attitudes towards casting Black and Asian British actors, with Robbie Gee and Naomie Harris take leading roles in Underworld and 28 Days Later respectively. The year 2005 saw the emergence of The British Urban Film Festival, a timely addition to the film festival calendar, which recognised the influence of Kidulthood on UK audiences and consequently began to showcase a growing profile of films in a genre previously not otherwise regularly seen in the capital's cinemas. Then in 2005 Kidulthood, a film centring on inner-city London youth had a limited release. This was successfully followed up with a sequel Adulthood (2008) that was written and directed by actor Noel Clarke. Several other films dealing with inner city issues and Black Britons were released in the 2000s such as Bullet Boy (2004), Life and Lyrics (2006) and Rollin' with the Nines (2009).
Like the 1960s, this decade saw plenty of British films directed by imported talent. The American Woody Allen shot Match Point (2005) and three later films in London. The Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón helmed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Children of Men (2006); New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion made Bright Star (2009), a film set in 19th century London; Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn made Bronson (2008), a biopic about the English criminal Michael Gordon Peterson; the Spanish filmmaker Juan Carlos Fresnadillo directed 28 Weeks Later (2007), a sequel to a British horror film; and two John le Carré adaptations were also directed by foreigners—The Constant Gardener by the Brazilian Fernando Meirelles and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by the Swedish Tomas Alfredson. The decade also saw English actor Daniel Craig became the new James Bond with Casino Royale, the 21st entry in the official Eon Productions series.
Despite increasing competition from film studios in Australia and Eastern Europe, British studios such as Pinewood, Shepperton and Leavesden remained successful in hosting major productions, including Finding Neverland, Closer, Batman Begins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, United 93, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Robin Hood, X-Men: First Class, Hugo and War Horse.
In November 2010, Warner Bros. completed the acquisition of Leavesden Film Studios, becoming the first Hollywood studio since the 1940s to have a permanent base in the UK, and announced plans to invest £100 million in the site.
A study by the British Film Institute published in December 2013 found that of the 613 tracked British films released between 2003 and 2010 only 7% made a profit. Films with low budgets, those that cost below £500,000 to produce, were even less likely to gain a return on outlay. Of these films, only 3.1% went into the black. At the top end of budgets for the British industry, under a fifth of films that cost £10million went into profit.
On 26 July 2010 it was announced that the UK Film Council, which was the main body responsible for the development of promotion of British cinema during the 2000s, would be abolished, with many of the abolished body's functions being taken over by the British Film Institute. Actors and professionals, including James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Pete Postlethwaite, Damian Lewis, Timothy Spall, Daniel Barber and Ian Holm, campaigned against the Council's abolition. The move also led American actor and director Clint Eastwood (who had filmed Hereafter in London) to write to the British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in August 2010 to protest the decision to close the Council. Eastwood warned Osborne that the closure could result in fewer foreign production companies choosing to work in the UK. A grass-roots online campaign was launched and a petition established by supporters of the Council.
Countering this, a few professionals, including Michael Winner and Julian Fellowes, supported the Government's decision. A number of other organisations responded positively.
At the closure of the UK Film Council on 31 March 2011, The Guardian reported that "The UKFC's entire annual budget was a reported £3m, while the cost of closing it down and restructuring is estimated to have been almost four times that amount." One of the UKFC's last films, The King's Speech, is estimated to have cost $15m to make and grossed $235m, besides winning several Academy Awards. UKFC invested $1.6m for a 34% share of net profits, a valuable stake that will pass to the British Film Institute.
In April 2011, The Peel Group acquired a controlling 71% interest in The Pinewood Studios Group (the owner of Pinewood Studios and Shepperton Studios) for £96 million. In June 2012, Warner opened the re-developed Leavesden studio for business. The most commercially successful British directors in recent years are Paul Greengrass, Mike Newell, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott and David Yates.
In January 2012, at Pinewood Studios to visit film-related businesses, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that his government had bold ambitions for the film industry: "Our role, and that of the BFI, should be to support the sector in becoming even more dynamic and entrepreneurial, helping UK producers to make commercially successful pictures that rival the quality and impact of the best international productions. Just as the British Film Commission has played a crucial role in attracting the biggest and best international studios to produce their films here, so we must incentivise UK producers to chase new markets both here and overseas."
The film industry remains an important earner for the British economy. According to a UK Film Council press release of 20 January 2011, £1.115 billion was spent on UK film production during 2010. A 2014 survey suggested that British-made films were generally more highly rated than Hollywood productions, especially when considering low-budget UK productions.
Although it had been funding British experimental films as early as 1952, the British Film Institute's foundation of a production board in 1964—and a substantial increase in public funding from 1971 onwards—enabled it to become a dominant force in developing British art cinema in the 1970s and 80s: from the first of Bill Douglas's Trilogy My Childhood (1972), and of Terence Davies' Trilogy Childhood (1978), via Peter Greenaway's earliest films (including the surprising commercial success of The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)) and Derek Jarman's championing of the New Queer Cinema. The first full-length feature produced under the BFI's new scheme was Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's Winstanley (1975), while others included Moon Over the Alley (1975), Requiem for a Village (1975), the openly avant-garde Central Bazaar (1973), Pressure (1975) and A Private Enterprise (1974) -- the last two being, respectively, the first British Black and Asian features.
The release of Derek Jarman's Jubilee (1978) marked the beginning of a successful period of UK art cinema, continuing into the 1980s with filmmakers like Sally Potter. Unlike the previous generation of British film makers who had broken into directing and production after careers in the theatre or on television, the Art Cinema Directors were mostly the products of Art Schools. Many of these filmmakers were championed in their early career by the London Film Makers Cooperative and their work was the subject of detailed theoretical analysis in the journal Screen Education. Peter Greenaway was an early pioneer of the use of computer generated imagery blended with filmed footage and was also one of the first directors to film entirely on high definition video for a cinema release.
With the launch of Channel 4 and its Film on Four commissioning strand, Art Cinema was promoted to a wider audience. However the Channel had a sharp change in its commissioning policy in the early 1990s and Greenaway and others were forced to seek European co-production financing.
In the 1970s and 1980s, British studios established a reputation for great special effects in films such as Superman (1978), Alien (1979), and Batman (1989). Some of this reputation was founded on the core of talent brought together for the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) who subsequently worked together on series and feature films for Gerry Anderson. Thanks to the Bristol-based Aardman Animations, the UK is still recognised as a world leader in the use of stop-motion animation.
British special effects technicians and production designers are known for creating visual effects at a far lower cost than their counterparts in the US, as seen in Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985). This reputation has continued through the 1990s and into the 21st century with films such as the James Bond series, Gladiator (2000) and the Harry Potter franchise.
From the 1990s to the present day, there has been a progressive movement from traditional film opticals to an integrated digital film environment, with special effects, cutting, colour grading, and other post-production tasks all sharing the same all-digital infrastructure. The award winning London-based visual effects company Framestore, with Tim Webber the visual effects supervisor, have worked on some of the most technically and artistically challenging projects, including, The Dark Knight (2008) and Gravity (2013), with the groundbreaking techniques involved in Gravity realized by Webber and the Framestore team taking three years to complete.
The availability of high-speed Internet Protocol networks has made the British film industry capable of working closely with U.S. studios as part of globally distributed productions. As of 2005, this trend is expected to continue with moves towards (currently experimental) digital distribution and projection as mainstream technologies. The British film This is Not a Love Song (2003) was the first to be streamed live on the Internet at the same time as its cinema premiere.