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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