Archive for January, 2010

Starless starless night

In the 21st century will anyone know anything? N0 fewer than three of the ten people Sight and Sound (February issue) asked to review the cinema of the noughties are former or the current Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival – testament, if any were needed, to their insight, wisdom and erudition.

Premature as it may be to draw major conclusions about the last ten years they were undoubtedly a time of significant change in the technology and business of film making and film viewing, e.g. finally ushering in the third dimension as a core rather than novelty attribute of a signficant film sub-sector (animation) and showing promise in live action.

Most recent ex-EIFF director Shane Danielson always was a deft chronicler of cinematic trade winds and in his piece on the politics of national cinema takes issue with the ‘pressure produces dimonds’ explanation of the rise and fall of e.g. Iran, Romania and South Korea in the global attention stakes. As he points out the socio-economic context of the latter is markedly different from the former so we must look for more complex explanations of what drives creativity and innovation. Luck, he suggests, plays as big a part as any other factor:

 “In the end it boils down to something ineffable,and more random: a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of a number of talented individuals and the enrichment of ideas through discussion and debate. If the entwined histories of cinema and terrorism have taught us anything, its that shouldn’t underestimate the potential of a few, smart ambitious men and women sitting around in small rooms talking eagerly about how they want to remake the world.”


 In his contribution the ever-passionate, prolific and thoughtful Mark Cousins opines that the advent of the 21st century has embodied a shift from Cinema as a supply economy to a demand economy in which “the new question is not how to see but how to choose“.  He suggests that this is what makes cinema a knowledge economy and that this is a new thing. Here I have to disagree, and strongly.  Pretty much since the Paramount decrees loosened up the restrictive practices that could keep sub-standard fare on the screen past any real appetite for it,  ‘information cascades’ (as the cultural economists term it) have been critical to the success and failure of movies from opening night onwards. This has been expertly, comprehensively but in some respects incomprehensibly (i.e. the underlying maths as far as the lay-person is concerned) demonstrated by the Hollywood economist Arthur De Vany and others. Their work has provided empirical verification for William Goldman’s oft-quoted quip ‘nobody knows anything’.  What Mark sees as a new phenomenon is anything but – what has changed is the means (web, text, twitter etc) and speed by which ‘word of mouth’ is cascaded from first weekend audiences to the potential further audience.  Mark’s concluding thoughts on the problem of why choose anything when media ‘snacking’ can quickly sate our appetite is, I feel, more to the point. The context of cinema consumption in a media-saturated world is what has changed most, the multiple modes of consumption of movies (as I write someone down the train carriage from me is grazing downloaded film or tv on an ipod; I could slot a dvd into the laptop after I post this and check or check out the latest trailers on my phone). 

Our third and current EIFF director Hannah MacGill turns her gaze to the stars and their seemingly waning influence over what we watch. Citing recent star-less hits from Saw to District 9 and Star Trek, she concurs with the popular view that there is an underlying shift in the elements that pull audiences in and more scope for alternative marketing approaches to hook, hold and grow the audience for any given movie. There’s a lot of truth in the latter assertion but thereceived wisdom that stars have until recently had a predictable effect on film success is itself erroneous.  (Anyone who doubts this really should gird their mathematical loins and dive into Mr De Vany’s detailed research and read for themselves how unsubstantiated by the evidence this belief really is. 

 Despite being reverently subscribed to by every major studio exec, the numbers show quite clearly that excluding other variables, stars themselves don’t produce statistically significant gains in box office. They do, however, make financing a blockbuster movie easier, attract the better scripts (sometimes!) and like black holes draw many other propitious elements into a movie’s mix. But come opening night, all other things being equal (which they rarely are) a flop is more likely than a hit with or without a star.

So what the studios may have finally woken up to, then, is not a new phenomenon but one that, like undiscovered planets, was always there only they couldn’t see it because the stars were shining too brightly. The recession, inflated talent costs and the success of star-less movies may have helped them see beyond the marquee but the truth was out there all along.

Avatar’s other 3rd dimension

We finally made it to Avatar last night and had a thoroughly enjoyable cinematic experience, if not a life changing one. Cameron deserves credit for the massive undertaking that the movie undoubtedly was but has it changed the face of cinema? Not as profoundly as many think.

What surprised and interested me in equal measure was how little the 3D added to the visual impact of the film, apart from dodging a stray explosive charge that appeared to be heading for the row behind me the visual depth didn’t really amplify the immersive experience all that much – much less so than than the 3D Imax documentary ‘Under the sea’ we saw last summer (as it happens in the world’s lo-logo Futuroscope, mercifully free of film studio branding and offering an intelligent take on the moving image).

What intrigued me much more about Avatar, which efficiently synthesizes every culture-clash mythopoetic dystopian sci-fi trope going, was the other 3rd dimension – height. There’s an enduring fascination in our culture – from ancient myth or 19th century fairytales to 20th century science fiction and the flying function in Second Life – with discarding our gravity-induced shackling to the earth. You can see the power of ‘the above’ in more symbolic form in The Red Balloon and whether in Up, Howl’s Moving Castle or Tarzan, the urge to be able to effortlessly inhabit a three dimensional world regularly manifests itself in the movies and to that end Cameron cleverly deploys 3D as much if not more in the vertical plane than  in the horizontal. This is perhaps a reflection of the limited scope for impact in the horizontal plane when not in ‘shoot em up’ mode. In the latter, where spacecraft, missiles, flames and debris winging by your ears are motivated by the script, a director can exploit 3D for dramatic impact but in other modes e.g. the pastoral which is such a key feature of Avatar, there are only so many reaons to have flora or fauna float out into the auditorium. But the vertical world of the Na’vi opens up a whole palate of perspective shots where vertiginous waterfalls, floating mountains and swooping Ikran-rides allow the 3D toolkit to be deployed to the max. Whether the verticallity of Pandora came first and 3D helped give it life or conversely the need to design a world which could exploit 3D when not in game mode led to the floating mountains isn’t clear but what Avatar clearly does is take our desire to get off the ground and give it an additional cinematic dimension.

Welsh film-making time travels into the future

Like the Tardis a surprising amount of filmmaking went on in Wales last year considering its size (population 2.9 million not including Time Lords).  Reviewing the production statistics for 2009 (as reported in the now defunct Screen Finance) the standout fact is that compared to Scottish Screen’s investment in one majority-UK feature (Peter Mullan’s Neds), one equal UK/international co-production (Outcast, produced by Eddie Dick of Makar) and one minority UK co-production (David Mackenzie’s The Last Word, a Zentrop/Sigma co-pro), the Welsh had money in five films, all of which were majority UK productions.  This may reflect the fact that Welsh filmmakers have two local pots of money to approach (the Film Agency for Wales’ £1m investment fund and the £10 million Wales Creative IP Fund) plus of course (like Scots) access to UK Film Council funding as well (although interestingly the UKFC were involved in only one of the five features). The result of this surge in locally financed production was over £25m of production compared to Scotland’s locally supported £11m.  Having built up a healthy indigenous production capacity and facilities infrastructure thanks to the ringfencing provided by S4C, the boost provided by substantial BBC investment, spearheaded by the relocation of Dr Who, and the enlightened enterprise agency approach to the creative industries, the Welsh seem to be forging ahead while Scotland’s film and TV drama production remains in the doldrums, some way from achieving critical mass.  Sadly the fudge that is the Creative Scotland Framework Agreement and the continuing myopia of Scottish Enterprise when it comes to the creative content that supplies their beloved digital markets doesn’t raise one’s hopes that we will be able to match the joined-up Welsh advance any time soon.  But I truly hope I’m wrong about that.

Scotsman wins BAFTA blether award for first time

Announcement of the BAFTA shortlist always provides our friends in the press an opportunity for a spot of patriotic cheerleading or handringing (and sometimes both at the same time) concerning the current fortunes of Scottish film. This year is no exception and that handy aphorism ‘success has many fathers but failure is an orphan’ comes readily to mind.

Under the headline “Scots produced movie shortlisted for Bafta” the Herald’s Phil Miller leads with “A Scottish produced movie about the early life of John Lennon is in the running…” Well yes Douglas Rae of Ecosse films is Scottish but he and his company have been based in London for most of the past 22 years and apart from his personal Scottish connection I’m not aware of any of ‘Nowhere Boy’ being shot or post-produced in Scotland, nor does it appear to have any finance from Scotland.  Since Douglas executive produces all of his company’s output should we also count Brideshead Revisted, Mistresses as Scottish? 

One shouldn’t begrudge writer or sub the need to find a Scottish angle in a ubiquitous UK story, but this kind of ‘any connection will do’ attribution of Scottishness to movies is not particularly helpful to the cause of greater understanding of the state of the sector, regardless of whether your interest is mainly cultural, economic or both.

The Scotsman is on much firmer ground with its David v Goliath angle “Never mind £200 million Avatar, how will £400 Happy Duckling fare at the Baftas?” which neatly manages to draw on the most popular theme of Scottish moviemaking coverage, how great success can be achieved with almost no money (and without the help of Scottish Screen) and see off the big boys (not that the two films are in the same category if one wants to be pedantic). Though the director is an established Israeli animator, producer Bob Last (declaration of interest – he sits on the Screen Academy advisory board) and his animation company Digital Ink are Dundee based (not that the Dundee Courier seems to have noticed) and the hands-on animation was undertaken by students at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art so there’s no questioning the legitimacy of this one. However The Scotsman also succumbs to the Ecosse connection in claiming Nowhere Boy’s four nominations for the homeland, stretching the parentage factor even further with the observation that “Even the Edinburgh festivals could claim a helping hand. In 2004, Christian McKay drew rave reviews playing Orson Welles in the one-man play Rosebud.”

Our friends in the north at the Press and Journal were reduced (lack of staff?) to playing the wire copy straight as they clearly couldn’t unearth a north east connection to ‘localise’ the story.  Likewise the Daily Record which runs pretty much the same copy and unlike The Scotsman or The Herald doesn’t bother to point up the Scottish angle provided by Peter Capaldi’s performance in In the Loop.

So a mixed performance this year in the ‘milking the Scottish angle’ awards but the BAFTA Blether award for most tenuous supporting angle (thus far) must go to Tim Cornwell and the Scotsman for the Christian McKay connection.  Well done Tim, a fairytale ending indeed, even if the competition wasnt quite so stiff this year as it might have been.

Reasons to be cheerful part 4

2009 was a bumper year for UK cinema with the box office the biggest it has been since 2002 (see UK Film Council website) and the second highest since 1971.   Nothing like a recession and some blockbusters to make us beat a path to popcorn alley!   As the Herald’s Phil Miller notes, no Scottish film made it into the top 20 or indeed the top 20 UK films and none of the latter received any funding from Scottish Screen, a topic we will return to in future posts (and in particular the split between studio backed and indie films). 

But trying to stay positive, what hasnt been picked up by commentators is the sterling performance of UK independent film.  Behind the headline figures for gross box office, the overall UK share of the market at 16.5% in 2009 is rather  disappointing given that the mean share over the past decade has been 23%.  But the independents share (that is films produced without major US studio backing)  has doubled since 2000 to an impressive 8.5%. (compared to a mean for the decade of 5.4%).  That’s very good news for British film as it means less revenue being exported to LA and gives filmmakers more evidence of the upside when trying to persuade investors to back their projects.

The question we will return to (once we have the data, made more difficult by the demise of Screen Finance which published its last issue in December) is how Scots (and Scottish Screen)  fared in the independent stakes – a more appropriate  comparison.

Knowledge resistance unmasked

My former research supervisor Prof. Philip Schlesinger scores another direct hit with his observations on resistance to evidence by policy makers, judging by his lecture remarks reported recently in the Times Higher Education Supplement.  His comments on how Creative Scotland’s board was apparently disinclined to accept his team’s analysis of the tensions inherent between the culture/industry value systems echo that wonderful, pithy remark of John Maynard Keynes:

“There is nothing a government hates more than to be well informed; for it makes the process of arriving at decisions much more complicated and difficult.”

The evidence base for Scottish cultural/creative industries policy is, to say the least, impoverished and the role of disinterested analysis of how policy is formulated and applied (not the same thing!) and whether it produces the intended outcomes (or indeed if the outcomes we get are a result of policies or despite them) is poorly understood and valued even less.  You will find scant evidence thus far of a commitment to engaging with policy research expertise in Creative Scotland’s plans or pronouncements, nor in the advisory groups/board composition.  Expect a continuous flow of convenient consultants’ reports saying what is expected of them and finding out that ‘by gosh, overall everything we do does what we thought it would and all is right with the world – keep up the good work’.

Well perhaps that’s a little jaundiced – let’s give CS the benefit of the doubt and look forward with anticipation to a healthy and long overdue engagement with the idea of evidence-based policy which, while now almost old hat in many sectors, is very much a new kid on the block when it comes to Scotland’s cultural and creative industries NDPBs.  So lets end on a more positive note with another Kenyes quote:

“It would not be foolish to contemplate the possibility of a far greater progress still.”

Room at the top

The sad news that Ginnie Atkinson is leaving Edinburgh International Film Festival after fifteen years was followed quickly by the announcement that Sir John Tusa is to play a key role in selecting the first CEO of Creative Scotland. The first is a big blow to EIFF/Filmhouse as Ginnie has played an enormously important role in shepherding succesive festival directors and overseeing the delicate process of bringing EIFF and Filmouse together into one organisation, a process not unfamiliar to Richard Holloway and the SAC/Scottish Screen staff pursuing a similar objective. 

John Tusa’s appointment as an external assessor in the CS CEO jobsearch is, in my view, a positive development. I recently took part in a seminar he led on arts leadership and found his comments and analysis to be intelligent, balanced, pragmatic but still principled – not a combination you always find at the top of the culture tree.   Leadership is a tricky business, a delicate balance between doing the right thing and doing things right. 

However much Creative Scotland is the sum of its parts and a crucible for the creativity of the whole sector, at the risk of sounding vacuous the appointment of the woman or man charged with bringing its disparate elements together and charting a clear trajectory in policy and practice is a critical appointment.  Get it right and our great expectations of something genuinely refreshing and dynamic being added to the policy and administration of public culture funding might actually materialise, get it wrong and the whole exercise could come to be seen as an exercise in futility.  Of course whomever is appointed will quickly have to embark on an expectation-limitation exercise – a difficult task as lower them too much and people will rightly question what the point of the change is, raise them too much and the gap between expectation and reality becomes readily apparent. 

Inevitably there will be a lot of talk of ‘bedding in’ ‘dont expect short term results’ and ‘the real wins will be three/five/seven years down the line’.  But artists, companies, pundits and analysts will be looking for some early symbols of meaningful change (they will also be looking for signs of continuity, particularly when it comes to their funding) and if these are not forthcoming the new CEO’s honeymoon period (if they get one at all) may be uncomfortably short.  The journey from room at the top to blood on the floor may be a short one…

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