Change is in the air

The producer’s cut has been rather quiet of late which is in no small part due to my impending move to Shetland to take up the new UHIChair in Creative Industries with the University of the Highlands and Islands. After thirteen years at Edinburgh Napier, ten of them as Director of Screen Academy Scotland our national film school, come August I’ll be possibly the country’s most northerly professor. Meantime I’m off shortly to the Philippines to take part in Digitaldigital divide Divide and aim to at least tweet and maybe post some longer reflections here.

The crisis in Scottish film is older than most people who work in it

This is the original (slightly longer) version of my comment piece in today’s (12/3/15) Scotsman.

In recent months the words ‘Scottish film’ and ‘crisis’ have been seen and heard together increasingly frequently, especially in evidence to the Scottish Parliament Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee’s Enquiry into ‘how Scotland ‘can grow sustainable TV, and film and games industries’. A feeling of crisis is nothing new however. As far back as 1958 Scotland’s Sir Alexander King then Scotland’s film exhibition baron (when we could boast such a figure) quipped that ‘For the last few months we have been having our annual crisis.’ (Glasgow Herald, 22/11/58). As then the barriers to growing Scottish film today are deep rooted and intertwined with both commercial pressures and public policy.

The UK film financing, production and distribution industry has for the better part of a century concentrated in and around London , inhibiting the representation of the rest of the UK on screen, in jobs and in business. Only grim determination by filmmakers aided by sporadic public policy saw the beginnings of an industry in Scotland with sponsored documentaries in the 1950s leading to the first tentative public investment in feature film in the 1980s. In 1995 the introduction of £3-4m Lottery funding annually boosted output to half a dozen home grown features a year. It may surprise readers to know that statistically a similar proportion of those turned out to be hits as in much bigger film nations – from Shallow Grave and Trainspotting to Sunshine on Leith and Filth. BUT at just six films a year the hits come on average only once every three to four years. And six films is not enough to build a production sector or support even a single distributor. Not enough work to keep actors and crew employed. Not enough business to sustain specialist suppliers from lighting-hire and props-makers to special effects and sound dubbing studios.

The problem is, as the experience of every other European country confirms, that you cannot increase either quality (measured by awards, critical reception, long term impact) or commercial returns without increasing output. That requires investment directly into the films, in the companies that produce them and, as importantly, into the people who conceive and execute them.

Of course there television drama like Shetland and incoming productions like World War Z or Skyfall are critical to maintaining the ecology of the sector. Except we don’t see much, and determine almost none, of the former as broadcasters’ taste, commissioning power and crucial professional relationships remain overwhelmingly London-centric. And while in the wake of increased UK tax incentives for film and high end TV we have benefited hugely from the recent arrival of e.g. Sony/Starz’ TV epic Outlander (more or less doubling production spend in Scotland for two years), we still have little in the way of local incentives to reliably attract other high-spending series or films beyond our natural assets and skilled crews. Here the long standing absence of a suitable sized studio continues to loom large.

Indeed the Scotsman first called for a Scottish film studio back in 1935 (5/3/35) and it’s as true now as then that a studio could generate a great deal more work for cast, crew and related businesses. But local producers will see little of that benefit unless we are able to offer location incentives dependent on both spend requirements and the involvement of a local co-producer. This would give Scottish companies crucial leverage in hiring and spending decisions, helping to extract more value from incoming productions, create opportunities for local talent, build expertise and relationships at all levels and raise the profile of Scottish companies internationally.

However that in turn would require Scottish producers to have the kind of stability which depends on consistent levels of domestic production, both in feature film and high-end TV drama. So until we address the equally deep-seated problem of UK broadcasters’ marginalization of Scotland as primarily a source of net license fee income or advertising revenue without a corresponding requirement to source the full range and value of production locally, our film companies will continue to struggle for survival. They will remain locked out of high value commissions leaving them to big, London based companies like e.g. Left Bank pictures (Sony/Starz UK partner on Outlander).

Yet the opportunities for growth in Scottish film and TV are considerable. UK filmed entertainment revenues are forecast to rise at a compound annual growth rate of 3.4% annually between 2014 and 2018. In Scotland Channel 4’s new ten year licence requires it to increase its ‘nations and regions’ production from 3% of volume and spend to 9% by 2020 and it has made additional voluntary commitments to see this as a base and to do more to develop the skills and genre expertise that will aid growth. UK film and Video production revenues and exports more than doubled between 2002 and 2012.

One catch is that historically much of our enterprise and innovation strategy have been focussed on targeting support to individual ‘high growth’ companies and not webs of interconnected small companies. Yet the potential aggregate growth in employment, revenues and other impacts are comparable. The interconnected ‘ecology’ of film, tv and games with each other and with other creative businesses (e.g. music, theatre, design, audio, publishing) requires a different approach to that historically adopted in traditional sectors, one which can address both their commonalities (e.g. talent, skills) and differences (e.g. the speculative high risk/reward overwhelmingly one-off film nature of production vs. the commissioner-driven, series-orientated TV production).

The deep and complex ecology of the entire creative industries sector needs to be understood much better so that both investment and returns are seen holistically – investment in expressive arts education or professional writing and drama talent are part of the mix. Investment in e.g. studio infrastructure without parallel investment in skills development and talent retention would be a serious mistake. Our national film school, Screen Academy Scotland, is one small but significant part of that mix. We train some of the key talent – writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, editors – and provide a wide range of Continuing Professional Development opportunities to industry. However too many of our graduates leave Scotland to pursue their careers because too little effort has gone into understanding and growing what could be a much larger sector if only we join forces and work together to make it so.   Better coordination between Higher Education and Industry is of course essential but without a concerted programme of investment, incentives and broadcasting reform to remove the structural obstacles to sustainable growth we may continue to hear talk of the ‘crisis’ for years to come.

 

 

Mixed news for Scotland’s creative and high tech industries

The latest analysis of the UK’s creative and high-tech economy by NESTA (‘The Geography of the UK’s creative and high tech economies’ ) aims, amongst other things, to apply a more rigorous set of definitions to creative occupations/industries and to develop the distinction set out in their earlier report between the jobs and value added of the creative industries (those industries which have high proportion of creative jobs and e.g deliver creative content directly to the public) and the wider creative economy (which contains lots of creative jobs in non-creative industries). As importantly the report looks at the geographical trends in the creative economy and it’s here where warning signs for Scotland emerge.  As we’ve noted before (see june 2014 post) Scotland’s level of creative employment is in the mid range (6.4% of Scotland total employment) of  the UK’s nations and regions,  above Wales (5.7%) and Northern Ireland (5.3%) but below the South West (7.6%) and Eastern (8.4%) regions and of course London (15.5%) and the South East (10.7%).

The real issue however is that  creative employment is, if these figures are accurate, declining in Scotland while it is growing nearly everywhere else, both in the wider creative economy (down 1% in Scotland, up 4.3% across the UK 2011-13) and in the specifically creative industries (down 0.8 % in Scotland while up 5.0% across the UK). And this isn’t, for once, due to the ‘London effect’.  The highest growth rates are not in London but  in the Eastern (9.3% in Creative Economy, 11.5% in Creative Industries) , West Midlands (8.2% and 11.8% ) and North East regions (56% and 9.8%).

There’s better news from the high-tech economy where Scotland is leading growth at 5.1% compared to the UK average of 2.1% and ahead of even London (4.5%).  The NESTA study goes on to look at the intersection of the creative with the high tech economy and the analysis reinforces the  divergence of Scotland from the rest of the UK.  Whereas in the rest of the UK creative industries are growing faster (4.3%) than high-tech industries (2.1%) in Scotland the opposite is true. At the ‘sub-regional’ level (in Scottish terms = ‘regional’) it comes as no surprise that Glasgow and Edinburgh have higher levels of employment in the creative economy relative to other kinds of jobs.  The ‘Location Quotient’ ( the relative proportion of creative jobs in the region where 1.0 would be no different  to the national proportion) gives Glasgow and Edinburgh more than 1.2 and the rest of the country less than 1.0 and mostly less than 0.8.  (Edinburgh comes out particularly highly (7th in the UK) when creative and high-tech jobs are taken together.)

What does it all mean and why does it matter?  Well given employment in the UK creative economy is growing at 4.3% per annum, 3.6 times faster than the UK workforce as a whole (1.2% per annum) Scotland is losing out on almost all of these new jobs, compensated for by doing very well in the high-tech sector (5.1% p.a.) which across the UK is growing at a more modest 2.1%.  If we could secure even half the high-tech sector level growth in Scotland’s creative industries – say 2.5% we could add around 4,000 jobs a year.

Growing Scotland’s film and television – yes please Minister(s)

Though some practitioners are expressing ‘consultation fatigue’ (following the Creative Scotland Film Sector review (which I chaired) and subsequent consultation on its Film Strategy 2014-17, the Scottish Parliament Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee’s enquiryto consider how Scotland can grow sustainable TV and film and video games industries” it is an important opportunity to set out the potential for growth as well as the obstacles facing our screen practitioners and businesses and encourage Parliament to press the Scottish Government  to seriously up its support for the sector if it really wants to see the culture, economic and social benefits from the moving image that other European countries have achieved through concerted action.  My tuppence worth is available along with the other eighteen [since posting the number has risen to 40] written evidence submissions (though one of them seems to have wandered in by mistake!) here. The committee will be taking further evidence from a variety of practitioners and agencies during January starting with Games on the 14th, TV and film on the 21st, public agencies on the 28th and Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs on the 4th of February. Given the concern for the economic impact of the creative industries it is curious that the Committee, so far at least, doesn’t plan to take evidence from the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, John Swinney.  He’s the person who really holds the key to investment in the sector…having read and heard the evidence from all the above perhaps the committee will then have some questions for him.

UPDATE 4/2/15 in recent days John Swinney’s name has appeared on the agenda alongside Fiona Hyslop to appear in front of the committee today which suggests that the committee members/those giving evidence have successfully upped the ante..

Try to be crazy! Wu Wenguang – Founding figure of Chinese Independent Documentary

Last week I had the chance to interview renowned documentary filmmaker and founder of the Caochangdi Workstation in Beijing, Wu Wenguan, while he was in Edinburgh screening work by new filmmakers associated with the Village and Memory projects.  Our hour long conversation ranged over his accidental entry into the world of documentary, losing his way in it and finding a route out through his work with emerging filmmakers – of whom he simply asks “try to be crazy”

We’re smart enough and have the resources to run our own TV

(Originally published on the Guardian Website Tuesday 16th September)

Claire Enders (What would a Scottish yes mean for democracy, 14 September) claims that “Scotland simply isn’t big enough to support strong independent media”.

She suggests the substitution of a Scottish Broadcasting Service for the BBC in Scotland would reduce media plurality. However, since 1957 Scotland has had an independent commercial station, STV, with a vibrant news and current affairs output, which would continue to offer strong competition to any licence-fee/state-funded broadcaster. Not since the 1980s has Channel 4 had any Scottish current affairs or political output, so the level of plurality would remain unchanged.

She suggests Scotland could not secure a free-to-air deal with the BBC. The licence fee (or post-independence equivalent) in Scotland raises £300m; the pro-rata share of network BBC television is £75m, while BBC Scotland costs £86m. Even if the BBC secured £100m for supplying its services to Scotland (considerably more than Ireland currently pays for the same privilege), that would still leave £200m to fund SBS, radio and online services.

After independence the Scottish parliament and whichever government the people of Scotland elect would shape Scotland’s media regulation. Holyrood, elected on a proportional representation basis, and with much greater cross-party pre–legislative scrutiny, is considerably more democratic than Westminster.

The scanner has been working overtime this week digitising some pre-web documentation of Scotland’s film history and this delightful epistle from Bill Forsyth in the 1986 Edinburgh International Film Festival Programme is just one example

Bill Forsyth letter on That Sinking Feeling EIFF Programme 1986


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