As the 65th (and my 32nd )Edinburgh International Film Festival slips into its final weekend it’s an appropriate time to reflect, not on the merits of this year’s festival (in that regard there are plenty of people scrubbed up and well into their coroner’s reports before the body is even cold) but on some of the themes and issues upon which the industry conference and other events attempted to shine a light.
One of the billed tentpole events of this year’s festival, ‘What is the state of the British Film Nation?’, aimed to “address new sources of financing and revenue and look to the future of the British film industry”. A perennial question which a well-qualified range of speakers set out to address, if not answer.
Conscious of the considerable angst and scepticism which surrounded the British Film Institute’s assumption of the summarily abolished UK Film Council’s responsibilities, the BFI’s head Amanda Neville adopted a resolutely upbeat tone, attempting to draw a line under the debate over the merits of the change and instead focus attention on the Institute’s future role in sustaining and developing film industry and culture in the UK, a subject to which we will no doubt return in future posts.
Television’s part in that future was the focus of the first session in which, despite a tendency to undervalue just how much ‘cinematic’ television drama there was, even before Film Four and BBC Films became central to the ecology, Ruby Films’ Paul Trijbits and Stephen Garret of Kudos Pictures helped challenge the somewhat artificial divide between film and tv talent, business and creative/production value. The TV holy grail of high value returning drama series on the scale of The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, The Tudors or Mad Men increasingly requires much the same creative nous and business acumen as feature film does, particularly as television business models have converged with the multi-party, multi-territory, multi-platform/window model that features have had for the past thirty years.
The fact that companies such as Kudos and Ruby operate across both TV and theatrical film demonstrates what is possible – whether its necessary for all feature producers to embrace both to be economically viable in the UK context is a key question. Clearly there are some companies which can operate solely in the film ‘space’ either because they have sufficient volume of films to have a sustainable business or conversely they operate on such a low overhead that a film every two or three of years can keep them in the game. In between these two ends of the spectrum the ability to operate in both markets is possibly the soundest business proposition but requires a critical mass which can sustain the specialist development skills, commissioner/financier relationships (and credibility) and management capacity to be a ‘player’ in two games simultaneously.
Looking beyond the UK was the theme of two sessions, one on European co-production and the other on the UK’s complex relationship to Hollywood, which like that other ‘special’ relationship is decidedly asymmetric. Though not explicitly stated this session picked up on the film/tv split as the trans-Atlantic traffic of television formats and talents is beginning to look like the driver of UK TV companies’ growth while growing European co-production remains critical to the sustainability of UK feature production (re-joining EURIMAGE would be a help, as promised but like so much else not delivered by the Blair administration). In either direction understanding what works for audiences beyond your immediate experience is clearly an asset, even if the fact that the British films that work best in the US seem to stubbornly remain, like The King’s Speech, skewed towards an older audience more easily won over by ‘ye olde worlde’ UK charms. Whether British film is destined to be confined to a cultural division of labour which only rewards literary adaptations, posh folks in frocks or romantic comedies set in a deracinated (if no longer swinging) London remains moot.
A couple of days later in the (Scottish) Directors’ Forum, resident helmer Morag McKinnon and ex-pats Gilles MacKinnon and Paul McGuigan shared their thoughts on the long road to directorial career security, if such a thing exists. All three reprised the importance of television in fostering their career development and, in Paul McQuigan’s case, embracing it now (in the form of Sherlock) as offering more creative freedom than a US studio system where the phalanxes of executive and associate producers added to the weight of commercial expectation can crush the bones of even the most assertive director. Casting their eyes homewards messers MacKinnon (G) and McGuigan were less well briefed on what is and isn’t happening domestically e.g. in terms of the amount of Lottery film finance going into UK film or the continuing support of film by Creative Scotland. Nonetheless they were right to point out the need for more television drama production to let directors and all the other talents cut their teeth. Inevitably the comparative richness of Denmark’s filmmaking ecology cropped up (as it has for many years, the first instance of many I’m aware of being in 1938: “Why don’t you make your own films in Scotland?”Thus the film people in reply to our protests. Smaller countries than Scotland so so. Denmark and Norway maintain a steady production, and Sweden has a widely known and respected film tradition.” ‘A Stevenson travesty, Kidnapped from Hollywood’ The Scotsman 28 Jun 1938) and, as in the Film Conference’s session on co-production, the established pairing of Sigma Films with Zentropa stands out as an example of small countries producers’ helping each other out of mutual interest (even if also a little asymmetrically).
What stands out from all these discussions, despite the ritual nod to ‘new digital distribution and financing models’ is just how repetitive discussion of UK film’s prospects is – the same questions being asked with the same degree of uncertainty about what the future holds, other than it ‘not being like it is now’. Reaffirming the continuing need for public subsidy, whether national or European, to protect a commercially unviable sector whose justification is primarily cultural and which is chronically at risk of losing audience attention to a Hollywood centric system which, whatever its problems, is much more secure than any UK based entity ever could be, is a cry that could be heard at any similar event for the past 65 years – not by any coincidence the age of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. No doubt they will remain talking points for a good time to come.
Speaking of anniversaries, next year marks thirty years since the seminal EIFF event ‘Scotch Reels’ (and will also be the official Year of Creative Scotland) – time perhaps to reflect on three decades of sustained (if still insufficient) investment in Scottish film making from the Scottish Film Production Fund onwards. Hopefully EIFF wont miss the opportunity to mark it, perhaps by bringing back some of its key protagonists – like Colin MacArthur, John Caughie and Murray Grigor – to engage with a new generation of cinephiles, digital entrepreneurs and cultural decision makers – now that might set the heather alight!