Archive for January, 2012

A Future for (Scottish) Film?

A Future for British Film’ (Lord), Chris Smith’s Review of UK Film Policy, is packed with recommendations so inevitably commentaries have tended to focus on a selection  – production, exhibition, culture finance etc. and this one is no different.  The significance for filmmakers of suggested changes to the investment environment and recoupment, getting distributors into the financing process earlier etc have been well covered in the trades and elsewhere so let’s take a moment to ask what does it all mean specifically for Scotland?

Firstly this is an independent report setting out to the Westminster Government, the BFI and others recommendations which they may or may not choose to follow.  While the Scottish Government (and key bodies such as Creative Scotland or the NLS where the Scottish Film Archive now sits) have no formal obligation to pay it any heed, it nonetheless has great significance for film in Scotland, from education and training to production, exhibition and archive as it both sets out key issues and challenges and some of the means by which they might be addressed.  In doing so it has the potential to bolster the case made by various interest groups (not always entirely shared) – from educators to exhibitors – for funding and other interventions.

The Review has direct implications for how the BFI may relate in future to Creative Scotland and other Scottish bodies and, in passing, it prompts not a few questions abut how a future Independent, or at least fiscally independent, Scotland would manage some of the matters which are currently reserved to the UK such as tax breaks for film production, the treatment of co-productions and so on.  (Indeed what the role of the BFI might be post independence or devo-max is an interesting but so far entirely unexamined question.)  In its submission to the Review the Scottish Government, amongst other things, called for film lottery funding to be fully delegated to Scotland and suggested that the BFI could also be made accountable to the Scottish Parliament for its activities in Scotland.

Back to the report then and amidst the welter of recommendations on treatment of producer’s equity, piracy, integration of film education and closer working between producers and distributors (now where have we heard that before? Oh yes, in 1997 when the Lottery Film Franchises were established…or even further back in 1980… plus ca change)  there are some which have specific significance for Scotland, vis:

Recommendation 6. (“The Panel recommends that the BFI should co-ordinate a joined-up UK-wide film festival offer, to promote independent British and specialised film and maximise value for money, utilising a mix of public funding and private investment and sponsorship.”) though it doesn’t mention it by name,  implies the continuing  importance of the Edinburgh International Film Festival to the UK film festival ecology but stresses the need for more to be done ‘to understand the role of local festivals and their relationship to international festivals in the UK’.  Growing festivals like Glasgow’s may take heart from that whereas Edinburgh may need to consider what role it wants to play as Scotland‘s centre of excellence in festival programming, curation and so on outside of the few weeks of the Festival itself.

Several commentators have highlighted the Review’s veiled criticism of UK Broadcasters for not doing enough to support the film ecology it benefits from to the tune  of £1.2bn in ‘economic value’ and the fact that 80% of UK film’s audience is via television.  While it resists calling outright for the statutory quotas for film investment or output which are common in outher parts of Europe, it does dangle them as a plan B if a voluntary solution isn’t found: “the Government initiates immediate discussions with each of the major broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and BSkyB – with the aim of agreeing a Memorandum of Understanding with each broadcaster setting out its agreed commitments to support British film. Should this approach prove unproductive, then the Government should look at legislative solutions, including new film-related licence requirements to be implemented in the new Communications Act.

From a Scottish perspective the question is whether such voluntary or statutory arrangements can produce a commitment to diversity of material and/or a specific commitment to film investment/output in Scotland by the terrestrial broadcasters.  Given the current scale of opt-out programme budgets and available slots this might seem implausible but STV’s drive to opt out of the ITV network more and more, the declining ‘entry cost’ of (low budget) feature film production, wider partnership opportunities with domestic and overseas co-producers and the greater flexibility over release ‘windows’ all make it much easier to envisage Scottish broadcasters part-funding festures for theatrical and near to simultaneous TV release.  Indeed without them it is difficult to imagine a sustainable Scottish film ecology.

Alongside finance and distribution, skills and talent development are crucial to the ‘supply side’ of film-making.  Sustaining the critical mass of craft skills in Scotland needed to support incoming and indigenous filmmaking and nurturing new talent to the point where it can attract investment from near or far remain high priorities (or ought to).  The Smith Review Panel “recommends that the BFI, in partnership with Skillset and BIS, continues to deliver and strengthen a strategy for skills which represents a ‘gold standard’. Such a strategy will help ensure that skills across the sector remain one of the UK’s great strengths, that our skills base continues to act as a powerful incentive for inward investment, and that the indigenous film sector is able to maximise benefits to audiences.”

Our own research has recently uncovered a worrying downward trend in film skills investment in Scotland over the past five years both in absolute terms (due to the cuts in funding to UK skills body Skillset) but also in percentage terms as the ‘centre’ of the industry has been, relatively speaking, protected.

Skillset Nations and regions spend

The Smith Review recognizes the ‘National and Regional Challenge’, noting that “Despite support for out-of-London film activities from National and Regional screen agencies, the UK film industry remains a London-centric business [which] presents challenges for the development of talent and on-screen representation of the UK’s Nations and Regions.”

In recommendation 44 Smith “recommends that the BFI works with and supports Creative England, the National Screen Agencies, Skillset and others to create a strategy to ensure diverse talent is found, supported and nurtured, outside of London. Ways should be found to help ensure that talented people can work, in a sustainable way, wherever they may wish to locate themselves in the UK.

Fine words though there is not much flesh on them in the report itself.  That said one of the concrete recommendations with a potential direct impact in Scotland (here I must declare an interest as Director of Screen Academy Scotland) relates to film schools:

“42. The Panel recommends that the BFI, together with Skillset, HEFCE and the Scottish Funding Council, undertakes a review of the three Skillset Film Academies, with the objective of establishing their readiness to be considered for the equivalent of ‘Conservatoire’ status for delivering world-class skills and training – similar to that enjoyed by leading music, drama and dance academies.”

Since we established Screen Academy Scotland in 2005, transforming the opportunities for film talent to pursue postgraduate, practice-based training in a well resourced, creative and risk-taking space, the goal of sustained funding at a per capita level commensurate with e.g, the National Film and Television School, has remain frustratingly close but just out of reach.  This recommendation by the Smith Review, if heeded, may finally help us close the gap and ensure that the nation’s film and television school does not have to live from hand to mouth, chasing funding on an annual basis.

All in all the Smith Review has much for filmmakers, educators, audiences and policymakers to welcome but of course the real test is what notice the Government(s) and BFI (whose own strategy is due out in a month or so) take of its recommendations and how much pressure is effectively brought to bear on them by the diverse (and largely disparate) interests that make up the audience for this report.

Scottish film in the 21st Century (Part 1) More women, more international but remaining stubbornly middle aged

As promised the statistical elves were hard at work over the winter holidays continuing to pour over three decades of feature filmmaking in Scotland to see what trends they could find in some of the less well explored but no less important aspects of our national cinema.  What they found is reassuring in some respects – more women directors, more international co-productions and more first time directors (just) – but less so in others – it’s still an agonisingly long wait to direct a first feature for example.

First up, three decades of concerted effort to nurture ‘new talent’ and expand production has certainly produced more debut features: three times as many in the 2000s as in the 1980s (though a distinct drop from the ‘high watermark’ decade of the 1990s).  But despite much talk of nurturing ‘young film-makers’, the average age of first time feature directors remains stubbornly above forty (although it did dip slightly in the 1990s) suggesting that it is no easier to acquire the credibility that unlocks investment now than it was twenty tears ago.

Gender-wise things have certainly improved since the 1980s (they couldn’t get any worse!) such that by the ‘noughties’ 30% of first time directors were women but that leaves plenty of room for improvement.  As for ethnicity, well suffice it to say that out of around 150 films only Nina’s Heavenly Delights (2006) can truly claim to have foregrounded an ethnic minority community in its narrative, one directed by Londoner Pratiba Parmar.

Total number of features Number of debut features (%) Median Age* No. (%) by women directors No (%) which are co-productions
1980s 19 11 (58%) 40 0     (0%) 0 (0%)
1990s 84 13 (15%) 38.5 3   (23%) 4 (5%)
2000s 52 32 (62%) 43 10 (31%) 19 (37%)

* – median age based on those directors for whom date of birth information was available.

However, the most dramatic change evident is the proportion of films which are co-productions, having risen from zero in the eighties to 37% in the noughties, (almost without exception all of these co-produced with other European countries).  This is consistent with the general trend towards co-production in Europe arising from the growth of soft-monies, location incentives, risk-exchange across territories. And it no doubt also reflects a greater level of international awareness and stronger networks amongst producers here and across the North and Irish Seas.  (Something which is now part of the aspiring producer’s curriculum at our very own Screen Academy Scotland for example).  Over the past decade Germany has been easily the most popular partner (10 films) followed by Ireland (4) and Denmark (3).

But the most worrying figure remains simply the total number of features being made. As we have pointed out at length elsewhere there is little to no chance of securing more critically or commercially successful films without an absolute increase in the volume of production.  Thus far the 21st century has seen a reversal of the decade on decade growth evident between the 1980s and the 1990s so we have some ground to make up even to simply match the output of the 1990s.  That will require sustained, increased investment and in part two of this series we look at what the record shows there.


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