Archive for February, 2012

Putting creative producers at the centre of the picture

Fifty odd delegates from thirty-six film schools in twenty countries are arriving in Edinburgh this evening for Producing Creative Producers – two days of discussion and debate about the training of creative producers, the much overlooked but absolutely essential catalysts (and often originators) of the film and television that reaches our screens.  Whereas the role and significance of writers and directors is accepted and fairly well understood, the people who are often the first to recognize the value of an idea, a story or a talent, rarely receive the attention or accolades afforded to the perceived authors of film.  Yet without a Puttnam, a Weinstein or a (Andrew) MacDonald many if not most of the best and most successful films simply wouldn’t have got made.

Regular visitor to Scotland Producer and co-founder (with Ken Loach) of Sixteen Films, Rebecca O’Brien will kick off proceedings with a keynote on ‘Producing in the 21st Century – challenges for producers and for film schools’, acknowledging that the producer’s role doesn’t stand still either and new business models, technologies and markets demand new approaches alongside the established.

For film industries like Scotland’s and for film schools everywhere the question of whether, and if so how best, creative producers can be nurtured, trained and supported is crucial to the future health of cinema and television whether your uppermost concern is cultural or commercial.  For the key skill of a creative producer is precisely that of navigating the line between creative risk and commercial savvy.

Launched in 2004 the first postgraduate programme at Screen Academy Scotland, our one-year MA Screen Project Development, was also the first in the UK to focus entirely on the creative and business skills producers need to take a good idea or an existing property (e.g. book) to the point where it is an irresistible screen proposal, capable of attracting finance and reaching an audience.  In a fairly radical move the programme set aside the no less important but still separate skills of line producing and production management.  Why?  Because no matter how many great line producers or production managers we have, it’s the number and the level of skill of the producers who put the scripts and talent together with the money which determines what gets made.  Many great ‘producers’ working in , for example, TV, couldn’t develop a script or pitch a project to a financier if their life depended on it.  Equally many creative and entrepreneurial  producers couldn’t manage a shoot if their life depended on it.  The important difference is that the latter (once they’ve raised the finance) can (budget permitting!)  hire the expertise of the former, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

So the question members of GEECT (the European chapter of global film schools association CILECT) will be pondering this week is how to cultivate the creative producer in a context where it’s very difficult to replicate the structures of the real world.  The missing elements range from the absence of a real financing/commissioning/distribution structure to the fact that to be effective a producer really needs to have significantly more experience than the writer or director for the latter to benefit from the former’s involvement in everything from script editing to casting.

For some people it’s not worth film schools even trying – on this account producers can only learn ‘on the job’ and film schools should stick to teaching the basics – like copyright and the rudiments of film financing and the hands-on skills of (line) production. For others the skills and insights needed to work with a writer, to frame a pitch or package story, talent and other elements can be taught, or at least learned through ‘as close as you can get’ simulations.  Some schools have gone the whole hog and spun out a production company of their own to provide real feature production opportunities, garnering finance from TV and other sources along the way.  Several schools have launched graduate development programmes like our own ENGAGE or the London Film School led Low Budget Film Forum .

These questions and models have prompted this week’s Producing Creative Producers symposium so we’ll return later in March with a report on just how creative the delegates got …


A hundred years of investing in Scottish film

On Monday night ‘from an original idea by Mark Millar‘  the First Minister Alex Salmond and Culture Culture Fiona Hyslop and a crowd of potential film investors gathered in Glasgow to hear Claire Mundell and Peter Nichols explain the investment opportunities created by the new MacKendrick Fund.  I was asked to provide some context about the Scottish film industry so here are some excerpts:

“We’ve been making feature films in Scotland for almost exactly a hundred years now.  The first of six film versions of Rob Roy was made here in Glasgow in 1911 in a small studio in Rouken Glen. It was a hit not just at home but around the world. Sadly however the production company behind the 1911 Rob Roy filed for bankruptcy just a year or so later which is perhaps a salutary reminder that one hit doesn’t guarantee future success. 

In the intervening hundred years there have been several attempts to kick start a Scottish film industry, but it wasn’t until the 1980s, following Bill Forsyth’s success with Gregory’s Girlthat we saw a concerted effort to promote Scottish film with the creation of the Scottish Film Production Fund, launched with a very modest £80,000 budget and in the middle of a recession. … [W]e have seen growing levels of investment, both from public (thanks in particular to the National Lottery) and from film industry sources.  But the level of film investment isn’t yet quite enough to secure the real prize which is a critical mass of feature production and a sustainable, profitable, diversified screen industry. Yet that prize is within our grasp if we can achieve the right mix of locally produced films and incoming productions, a decent share of television drama production and, perhaps before too long, the means to offer tax and other incentives. 

So it’s a very important sign of the growing credibility of Scottish film, and of entrepreneurial producers like Claire [Mundell] and the partnership she has forged with Presience and with Creative Scotland, that the MacKendrick Fund has been established … Now of course that’s not to say there aren’t risks investing in film.  Far from it – films themselves are inherently high-risk, the majority of films are unprofitable, the majority of revenues and the vast majority of profits come from a minority of the titles released.  But as with other high risk investments, fortune favours the brave and the smart.  The key to success is spreading and sharing those risks, taking a long rather than a short term view, looking not just at individual films, but at baskets of films and at film businesses.

 In my view the biggest economic challenge facing Scottish film, and by extension prospective investors, is that we simply don’t make enough movies to ensure the hits come frequently enough to offset those that don’t quite hit the spot.

If you look at similar sized countries across Europe, compared to our yearly handful they produce between twelve and twenty five movies annually. As a result they see box office revenues alone ranging from 40 to 200 million pounds a year just in their domestic territories and a market share as high as 25%.  (And of course box office receipts typically account for less than a quarter of a film’s total revenues.)  But what’s equally important to note is that statistically their films are no more likely to be hits than ours.  The ratioof hits to misses is actually remarkably consistent in nearly every territory, regardless of the size of the industry. 

That said last year UK production investment actually dipped by 9% and the number of productions dropped by over a third.  Now while this is undoubtedly a concern it also presents a golden opportunity for producers and investors in Scotland.  Because if we can increase production levels here from the single figures typical of the past decade to something closer to the levels of other small countries, then we are much more likely to produce the hits that can attract audiences, generate real returns for investors, and deliver the sustainable industry that we all want to invest in.

Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise – the first crowd-funded film?

If you believe Wikipedia (which I sometimes do, but only once I’ve cross checked the sources) “Crowd funding in the film industry was pioneered by French entrepreneurs and producers Benjamin Pommeraud and Guillaume Colboc from company fr:Guyom Corp. when they launched a public Internet donation campaign in August 2004“.

Actually wily producers like Scotland’s own cigar-toting maverick David McWinnie were at it in the mid 1990s when he offered anyone who could stump up a grand or so a vanity credit and the generous offer of being an (unpaid!) extra.

But Jean Renoir was way ahead of the game back in 1938 when he used public subscription to finance La Marseillasie.  It seems (according to Bert Hogenkamp in his book Deadly Parallels): “A two franc share entitled the holder to a deduction of the same amount on the price of a ticket after the release of the film“.

So the moral of this tale is, as with so much else, don’t believe the hype about the ‘newness’ of the new.  The internet may make it faster, easier and more visible but original ideas are few and far between…

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