Star Wars: Why The British Film Industry Is Feeling The Force

The European Premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, held in London on Tuesday night (December 12), welcomed a different caliber of celebrity from your average red carpet event.

Princes William and Harry were there, both of whom play cameos in the film (as stormtroopers; one of them pats Benicio Del Toro on the bottom, according to The Times.) Kensington Palace promoted the appearance, and the premiere is in aid of the princes' Royal Foundation charity.

Meanwhile, on December 4, the government launched an official commemorative note to help promote the film, available on Ebay to collectors worldwide.

So what gives? Why might Britain be keen to push the sci-fi series? Is there some deep state conspiracy committee that just really loves Star Wars? Nope (or maybe, I guess, but not that Newsweek is aware of.)

The sci-fi series, the new trilogy of which is shot at Pinewood studios located to the west of London, is just a really big deal for the British film industry, which in turn is a big deal for Britain.

"The U.K.'s film industry is one of the nation's greatest success stories and the Star Wars franchise has helped promote the U.K. as a great place to invest and do business," said Investment Minister Mark Garnier.

Prince Harry William Star Wars
Britain's Prince William (R) tries a light sabre against his brother Prince Harry during a visit to the Star Wars film set at Pinewood Studios near Iver Heath, west of London, Britain, April 19, 2016. Pool/Reuters

But Britain's close ties to the long-ago, far-away galaxy have been in place since the series' inception.

"The industrial context of the first Star Wars in '77 was a period of transition and change for the British film industry," said James Chapman, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester.

"British cinema had prospered on the back of American investment in the 60s—the Bond movies, Tom Jones, Zulu, A Hard Day's Night, etc—but the economic crisis in the U.S. film industry at the end of the decade had seen the large-scale withdrawal of American finance."

Star Wars' original trilogy, which was shot at Elstree studios in Borehamwood, came as the British film industry was finding new ways to prosper.

"The studios picked up after the middle of the decade," Chapman said, "as the U.S. film industry returned to Britain, but now making what might be described as American films made in Britain (there isn't very much British content-wise in Star Wars or Superman), rather than British films backed by American money."

"The transformation in the British film industry was from a British national cinema to a 'made-in-Britain' service industry."

Nowadays, that service industry is of major importance to the British economy. The Office for National Statistics released figures in July that showed an 8.2 percent surge in the second quarter of 2017 by the film, TV and music industries, most of which was driven by a film boom. That meant it was the second largest contributor to a bounce of 0.5 percent in services GDP (the retail industry came first.)

Star Wars is still a big part of that, said Amanda Nevill, chief executive of the BFI.

"The value... of Star Wars, I mean, it's huge really, isn't it?" Nevill said, "It's totemic in terms of a film that captures the hearts and minds of people across the world, and the fact that it's made within a sense of British sensibility, by British craftspeople, in Britain itself, speaks absolutely volumes." It works as a showcase for the U.K.'s behind-the-camera talent and onscreen stars—leading lights John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are already becoming major names.

But, said Nevill, having a major international production company like Lucasfilm set up shop in the U.K. can also help to grow new talent for the future. The BFI's Film Academy, which helps young Brits get into the film industry, worked with Lucasfilm and put 28 full-paid staff onto the set of Solo: A Star Wars Story, the standalone prequel film slated for release in 2018.

"I think it's hugely inspirational in terms of boosting that sense of ambition," Nevill said of Star Wars' British connection, "This isn't something that's made on the other side of the world... young people out there, they can aspire to be part of an industry that is exciting and booming but also has lots of practical opportunities."

Though, Nevill cautions, the industry's success will be dependent on the country remaining open to talent. "It's fairly high risk, it's mainly project based, and so the ease in which you can get people in and out and kit in and out is really quite critical." Overall, though, Nevill is "optimistic," she says, about the industry's future.

Or, as Garnier put it, in words that make one hope he has no plans to launch a career as a screenwriter: "I have no doubt that after The Last Jedi the force will remain with the U.K. film industry for years to come."