Archive for November, 2010

Film Policy fun with Google hits

Google hits are no way to measure the impact of a country’s film policy but they are fun. The following table reveals that in an arbitrary selection of ten European countries the Danes are way ahead of the French and Germans with a massive 49,300 hits for “Danish film policy”. I thought Scotland looked bad at 9 until I discovered Italy, Wales and Finland languishing on zero! Though to be fair one should also try the home language as well (anyone who cares to try, let me know how you get on)
Denmark 49,300
France 15,800
Germany 8,490
Ireland 4,530
Norway 10
Scotland 9
Spain 8
Finland 0
Wales 0
Italy 0

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BFI latest: Back to the future

So Ed Vaizey has set out his “exciting new vision for the British Film industry” which was welcomed by BFI Chairman Greg Dyke “as a bold move to create a single body to champion film across the whole of the UK and provide a clear focus internationally.”  Hmm..wasn’t that just what the UKFC was set up to do?  Never mind, the increased Lottery funding for film and the BBC and Channel 4’s increased commitment to British movies are indeed ‘good news stories’ though there is precious little new thinking in anything the Minister has announced (though it was nice to see him ‘encourage’ Sky TV to think about investing in film…again.  Younger readers may be unaware of Sky Pictures,  the Murdoch behemoth’s previous foray into UK production helmed by Elisabeth M. which was not quite an unalloyed success.  Still there will be quite a few former UKFC staffers not transferred to the BFI who will be looking for a job shortly so it might be an opportune time to have another go).  Yes the BFI will assume most of the functions of the UKFC and the English Regional Screen Agencies have circled the wagons and formed themselves into three super-regions with a wider creative industries remit under the banner ‘Creative England’ (now where did they get that idea one wonders?). But that is all about structure not policy or priorities.  The one hint at the latter comes in the Minster’s enthusiastic references to PACTs proposals to amongst other things reform the equity position taken by public film funders and a passing reference to the ‘debate on exhibition and distribution’.

In essence today’s announcement is largely a rearrangement of the deck-chairs although the Lottery consultation Vaizey has announced and the reformation of the BFI’s Management and Board do represent a window of opportunity to influence the direction the ship takes in the future.   Sadly British film policy continues to lurch two steps forward, one step back, as it has done since the 1930s and, notwithstanding Ed Vaizey’s rhetorical attempt to deny, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the US film industry in the UK and the UK industry itself are in many ways at odds with each other doesn’t bode terribly well for an informed debate about its future course under this Government.

Putting the British back in the BFI

In today’s Ministerial Statement Ed Vaizey says the BFI will have a “remit to support the film industry in the Nations and the regions” which raises as many questions as it answers.  In a similar vein Film London will ” be entrusted with a UK wide remit to promote the UK as the best place to invest in film.”  Announcing a formal consultation “to consider how to build a more sustainable film industry and how to develop the distribution and exhibition of British films in the UK.”  It is imperative that Scotland’s distinctive needs and aspirations are fully heard in that process and that we retain the capacity to formulate Scotish solutions for Scottish problems.

Welcoming back the BFI to filmmaking in Scotland

If as expected Culture Minister Ed Vaizey announces tomorrow [he did – see comment below] that the British Film Institute (BFI) will take over most of the UK Film Council’s role in funding film production, will film in Scotland be any better or worse off?  Nobody can really know for sure but there are a few pointers from the past which may prove to be relevant. 

Whoever houses the new arrangements for investing in development and production (not to mention distribution, exhibition, education and a whole slew of other activities largely overlooked in the furore over the UKFC’s imminent demise) it is likely that many of the same people will, for the time being, be making the decisions.  But historically the BFI has had a somewhat different institutional take on film culture and film industry than the UKFC and it will be interesting to see if the Scottish dimension of that, a mixture of general neglect punctuated by occasional enlightened acts of benevolence, is revived.

In general terms the BFI always had a bit of a problem with Scotland – it was to all intents and purposes ‘other’ –  our cultural, educational and political administrative systems sufficiently distinct but insufficiently interesting to merit much dedicated officer time or attention.  By the same token Scotland’s emerging autonomous film institutions (Films of Scotland followed by the Scottish Film Council, technically a branch of the BFI to begin with, and then Scottish Screen) substantially let the BFI ‘off the hook’ when it came to being held to account for film developments north of the border, even though its title and charter were resolutely British.

 But at the same time and to its credit the BFI did play a critical role in fostering the first stirrings of narrative cinema in Scotland by championing the work of Bill Douglas, a film-maker whose filmic aspirations did not fit the mould of the then ‘Films of Scotland’.  Douglas stands out as Scotland’s most internationally recognised ‘auteur’ filmmaker (though the other Bill, Bill Forsyth deserves to be included in that category for those who choose to employ it) and, tellingly, practically the only one to be supported by the BFI Production board in its nearly fifty years of nurturing “An alternative British art cinema”. And it did latterly support the singular vision of Margaret Tait, co-funding her first feature Blue Black Permanent in 1992 (at the tender age of 72!) and Lynne Ramsay’s first professional short (Kill The Day, 1997) but on the whole the Production Board had by all accounts a fairly negative view of Scottish talent and Scottish stories.

WHAT ABOUT THE MONEY?

Since the UKFC was established in 2000, and as we’ve noted elsewhere , a fair amount of UK cash has come Scottish cinema’s way, in addition to the sums disbursed by Scottish Screen that is.  Given that Scottish film has been able to access both Scottish Screen (now Creative Scotland) and UKFC funds it would be easy to think (and easy for those smarting from the cuts to public arts funding in England to complain) that we Scots have been having our cake and eating it.  Well a little inspection of the facts suggests otherwise.  Though the calculation of what amounts to a ‘fair’ Scottish share of public expenditure has ever been and will no doubt remain a vexed question there is enough life left in the ‘Barnet formula’ to make it worth a shot. 

Taking the financial year 2008-9 as our example, and with the aid of the UKFC Research and Statistical Unit’s extremely useful Annual Statistical Handbook, we find that the total ‘public sector selective investment’ in film comes to around £256m (including Tax Relief, film investment by the BBC and Film 4, EU funds and so on).

Now if we strip out the tax relief, broadcaster and EU funds that drops to direct UK public expenditure of around £116m.  The Scottish share of that (totting up Grant-in-Aid from the Scottish Government, the average allocation of Lottery film funding to Scotland of around £2.7m AND the average UKFC investment in Scotland of £1.4m) comes to around £8.4 m i.e. 7%.  The Barnett formula for calculating Scotland’s share of any change to UK funding is generally based on 9.77% of the equivalent spending in England and Wales which in this case would come to £11.38m or in other words a gap, in 2009-09, of approximately £3m.

Even with the swinging cuts to many of the areas of expenditure making up the UK total at this point it seem very unlikely (but we will examine it in future posts) that in the coming years Scotland’s share of film-related expenditure will catch up, proportionately, with the rest of the UK. (And even if it did it wouldn’t remove the historical disparity).

Meantime we look forward to seeing how the new custodians of the UKFC’s film investment funds see Scotland’s contribution to British cinema’s future and hope that they adopt a less metro-centric perspective than in the past.

Catalonian innovators Escandalo are far from scandalous

Like the Pope (but with considerably less ceremony) your correspondent was in Barcelona last week, in this case to attend the biennial congress of CILECT, the global association of film and television schools of which Screen Academy Scotland is a member.  Aside from the usual exchange of teaching practices, commiserating over the ever greater financial challenges of delivering high quality practice based education and the cooking up of ingenious international collaborations (our own ENGAGE project, now thanks to the EU MEDIA Programme about to enter its fourth year emerged out of one such encounter at the 2004 congress) one of the most interesting aspects of the event was the opportunity to find out more about a Catalan cinematic success story.

 ESCANDALO (not as you might think a magazine devoted to the latest revelations about Barcelona FC’s footballers’ lives) is a film production company which was set up ten years ago, has produced over 200 short, seven features and won more than 400 awards including at Sundance and the student Oscars.  A good track record but not in itself that remarkable you might think.  But what is truly unique about the outfit is that it’s a spin-out from the Catalan film school ESCAC and only employs its graduates in the key creative roles.  Inspired by the Latin American ‘Opera Prima’ approach where film schools support the production of debut features by new directors, ESCANDALO exclusively promotes  first time feature directors and thus fas has declined to produce second and subsequent movies in order to maintain their focus on helping new voices break into the market.

As you might imagine the initiative has not been all plain sailing and delegates, yours truly included, were keen to hear how ESCANDALO navigated issues raised by other producers, trade unions and guilds about how such a scheme might impact on working practices, undercut pay rates and so on.  There is a long and rather mixed history of efforts in the UK (the ACTT Workshops Agreement; British Film Partnership etc) to reconcile maintenance of decent, sustainable and fair terms and conditions of employment, pay scales and so on with the equally legitimate aspiration (and need) to maximise the opportunities for new talent and new (but not exploitative) working methods to emerge.  In ESCANDALO’s case some of these concerns have been addressed simply by the fact that the talent they have nurtured and the films they have made (including commercials, animation and music videos as well as shorts and features) have grown the outfit’s reputation such that it now can raise finance and operate at budget levels up to €7 million  – securing employment and opportunity for the Catalan industry alongside other more ‘conventional’ producers and reducing (though not entirely eliminating) the disquiet expressed by other parts of the industry.

For the film school delegates at CILECT one of the most interesting aspects of ESCANDALO was its relationship with ESCAC, the school.  While there are very clear ‘constitutional’ boundaries between what is expected by and delivered to students as an educational/training experience and what those  who progress to working with ESCANDALO experience as a director or HOD in a professional relationship, in practice there is a lot of cross over of personnel and activity. ESCANDALO personnel teach at ESCAC and ESCAC students have close access to ESCANDOLO personnel and industry ‘intelligence’/networks.

In the marketplace as in the film school results are the ultimate measure of success and ESCANDALO’s track record thus far is very impressive.  But then again Catalonia as a whole is investing heavily in film and television production.  With a population not much larger (6m) than Scotland’s, this ‘stateless nation’ is producing upwards of 35 feature and TV films a year. 

Naturally language plays a significant role in fuelling demand with the rising tide of public support for Catalan and thus a growing audience together with a thriving TV sector investing heavily in feature-length drama and financial incentives which favour Catalan productions over Castilia.  In this kind of environment producers can both raise finance and find a sizeable audience within Catalonia itself.

So another thought-provoking international comparison for Scotland’s film producers, policy makers and politicians.  Of course there is much that is specific to the Catalan situation that can’t or wont be replicated here, particularly the scale of public investment ($29m in 2009) and the growing appetite for Catalan language films, TV, books etc.  For example as appetising as the notion that the proposed Scottish Digital Network could promote a step change in film production is, the likely levels of additional investment are unlikely to usher in a boom for drama production.  On the other hand the success of an enterprise like ESCANDALO suggests there may be interventions that can make a genuine difference to the opportunities for new talent, especially bearing in mind that the average age of a first time feature film director in Scotland is 42.  M0rag Mckinon, a graduate of both Edinburgh College of Art and Edinburgh Napier University’s film courses had to wait ten years to see her (excellent) first feature Donkeys made.  If you’re quick yu can still catch it in some Cineworld as well as independent cinemas.  If only a Scottish equivalent of Escandalo had existed ten years go we and she might not have had to wait so long.  Time to do something about that…


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