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What Price Glory?

5 November 2009
The header from British Film Academy Quarterly, 15 February 1952.BAFTA Archive

In an extract from the Academy's 1952 Quarterly publication, David Lean debates the cost of ‘Prestige Films’.

British Film Academy Quarterly
15 February 1952

Much like the BAFTA Learning & Events programme today, the British Film Academy held regular events for Members to discuss important issues affecting contemporary industries of the moving image.

In a 1952 debate chaired by J. H. Lawrie, directors Harry Watt and David Lean talked about the cost of so-called ‘Prestige Films’. It is a topic that still resonates in the British film industry now: almost every film maker or producer faces a balancing act between budget, potential audience share and financial risk.

In the debate Harry Watt – known as a Utility Director” who “must not spend more than £150,000 on a film” – argues that film industries are built on low-budget productions and that large budgets carry the risk of bankruptcy (even if they do score the odd “freak success”). “You try to crack the market, you end up on the bread line!” he says, advocating a strategy of “quick returns from a quick turnover.”

David Lean counters that film must try to grab the attention of a large public audience by breaking out of the dialogue-driven model set by Television: “The film was a medium for action. Dialogue was cheap, action expensive; but action was the only thing with which to compete against television.”

Finally, both Watt and Lean agree that “Prestige Film” may not necessarily depend on budget, referring instead to films that built up financial and artistic “credit” at home and abroad, ensuring a long life and increased earning potential.

It is interesting to note that David Lean went on to direct a number of large-scale productions including The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Critically acclaimed since their release, they are films whose ‘credit’ has undoubtedly increased through time.

The BFA Quarterly was first published in April 1948 and was discontinued in 1953, replaced by a larger format in 1954. These publications were distributed to Members, Patrons and kindred organisations at home and abroad and made available at special subscription rates to Associates and members of the general public by private subscription.