Posts Tagged 'BFI'

Sunshine on Leith and Filth zoom into all time Scottish top ten

The latest and, as ever, fascinating annual statistical handbook from the BFI allows the elves here at The Producer’s Cut to update the all-time top Scottish films at the UK Box office (NB Adjusted for inflation) with not one but two films making it into the list from 2013.  Not surprisingly perhaps Sunshine on Leith and Filth, having briefly occupied the number 2 and 3 spots at the UK box office in 2013 have quickly joined the all time Scottish top ten at number 4 and 6 respectively.  Trainspotting remains the undisputed top dog with 25% of the total box office garnered by the ten films and indeed all but one of the top five films are from the 1990s.  Inevitably the definition of ‘Scottish’ used here is subjective – both Rob Roy and Last King of Scotland could be ruled out on production origin terms (as could even Mrs Brown for that matter) but allowing for that caveat we can see that there’s no real pattern to the best-selling Scottish movies other than that from thrillers to a musical they managed to strike a chord with the film-going public.

 

UK Box Office £ (adjusted for inflation)
Trainspotting (1996) 12,331,224
The Last King of Scotland (2006) 5,680,951
Shallow Grave (1995) 5,101,342
Sunshine on Leith (2013) 4,600,000
Rob Roy (1995) 4,352,000
Filth (2013) 3,900,000
This Year’s Love (1999) 3,600,636
Mrs Brown (1997) 2,647,037
Magdalene Sisters (2002) 2,138,934
The Angels Share (2012) 1,928,376
Total 46,280,500

Independent Screens

(this is the slightly longer original version of the piece published today in The Sunday Herald http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/referendum-news/how-we-can-put-scottish-talent-into-a-starring-role.24235648)

There are many reasons why film and television in an independent Scotland could be bigger, better and benefit audiences, the economy and our wealth of creative talents much more than it currently does. For the best part of a century our screen culture and industry have depended on the resources and perspectives of London decision-makers. At times this relationship has indeed been beneficial but mainly it has been debilitating. It is true that at some key moments in our screen history, for want of a stronger domestic infrastructure, we have profited from enlightened regimes at the BBC, the British Film Institute (BFI) or Channel 4 who have given Scottish stories and talent support and screen time. Without them Bill Douglas, Bill Forsyth, John McKenzie, Lynne Ramsay or Paul Wright might never have reached our screens.

But we shouldn’t have to rely on those occasionally benign decisions which expose precisely the highly dependent nature of the relationship. Despite thirty-five years of effort since Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling burst onto the screen, we still lack the size and shape of screen industry that can consistently develop, employ and retain talent in front of or behind the camera without first looking to SoHo or W1A for approval.

As a result, unlike our literature, music or theatre we still import virtually all of our screen culture, more than any comparable western European country. Indeed it seems that we have almost lost the capacity to imagine any other arrangement, tending to assume that Scottish must mean pawky, parochial or poor quality. Lacking a sense of what a distinct Scottish audience might want, from say its screen dramatists, it’s little surprise that producers focus hard on meeting the expectations of financiers, distributors, BFI and TV executives for whom Scotland will always be small part of a bigger picture with no enduring claim on their time or resources.

The queue for film finance is so long and the local pot so limited that the average age of a first time feature director in Scotland remains stubbornly close to forty. It can take ten years to get a film like Sunset Song (even with Terrence Davies attached as Director) or a TV series like Katie Morag from development to production (both first supported with development finance by Scottish Screen in 2000).

Meantime Scotland’s share of network TV production has edged up from 3% by value in 2003 to just over 4% in 2012 – far from the 9% that our population share would suggest is a reasonable expectation of our public service broadcasters. Under pressure to deliver more for the ‘nations and regions’ valiant producers turn creative cartwheels to plausibly relocate a secondary school from Rochdale to Greenock while we wait patiently for a Scottish originated volume drama to be commissioned for the network – any network.

What would make things better in an independent Scotland?

Since no country’s screen industry has succeeded internationally without a strong and growing home audience we could work harder to grow domestic demand. Not by forcing audiences to watch home-grown movies through import tariffs or blocking Eastenders but rather by ensuring we have the capacity to offer real choice in the living room, in the cinema or on tablet PCs. That will take time. A Scottish Broadcasting Channel that, like most European public broadcasters, was mandated to support domestic film production (with investment and screening slots) alongside commissioned TV drama would be a powerful aid to growing production, jobs and facilities. Of course it would have to compete, as in Ireland, with UK networks – just as UK networks now have to compete with Netflix, Amazon and iTunes. But it would also be a crucial platform to develop Scottish talent and companies for whom these new distribution channels are real opportunities. In the same way people often overlook the fact that Grand Theft Auto originates in Scotland, not many people realize that international TV hit The Tudors was developed in Ireland, giving several new Irish directors their big break as well as employing legions of crew and facilities.

 

I’ve written elsewhere about how Scotland’s film success is patchy and stop-start compared to other countries because we operate well under the critical mass required to produce hits with any sort of consistency. If we invested the levels of public finance per head that other similar sized European countries do we could transform the environment for Scottish film and TV. Where we spend around one pound a year per person on funding film, Ireland spends two and Denmark ten, resulting in a far bigger share of the domestic market than Scotland has. Add control of tax reliefs and incentives and the full range of studio facilities to attract more inward productions like US series Outlander filming in Cumbernauld and we can see how Scotland could reach Irish levels of production and perhaps, in the longer term, Danish.

 

An independent Scotland in the EU would qualify for country of ‘smaller audiovisual capacity’ status which would bring the same advantage when applying for Creative Europe MEDIA funding as every other small country in the EU enjoys. And like those countries if we joined EURIMAGES, the European Cinema Support Fund, our producers would have access to coproduction funds which the UK, as a non-member, does not.

Fiscal and regulatory measures to stimulate production are only part of the picture. Alongside a commitment to grow production levels, investment in skills and talent development is crucial. For too long we have waved goodbye to talents in front of and behind the camera that, once established in London, New York or LA then have precious little opportunity to pay return visits. Conversely when high value productions arrive from elsewhere they quickly max out the available expertise or worse, because of unfamiliarity with our abundant talent and skills, bring up their favoured cast and crew anyway.

Our screen ecology suffers from a long term depression of demand. In contrast Denmark’s equivalent of BBC Scotland, home to The Killing and Borgen, employs 40 people in its Drama Department. Its Head of Drama Piv Bernth cites their close relationship with the Danish Film School as “one of the secrets of our success – With The Killing 3 for instance, we had five young student cinematographers for three weeks on the set.” A revitalised film and TV industry in Scotland could offer similar opportunities, providing many more rungs in the career ladder, not just the step up to a plane south but an open return ticket too.

None of this means severing our links with industry, institutions or audiences south of the border. Rather it means reframing those relationships so that we can enter into creative and commercial partnerships on a more equal basis, bringing more to the table and having more say on how audiences here are served and industry supported. For example the Irish Film Board gets along very well with the British Film Institute and they regularly co-finance films in much the same way that Creative Scotland and the BFI do.

Of course there are risks: for instance we might not grow our domestic TV production base fast enough to compensate for the loss of ‘lift and shift’ procurement that is currently propping up the BBC’s commissioning record in Scotland. There might be additional transaction costs that could work against co-production or co-investment. We might discover it’s too late, culturally, to reverse audience expectations of wall-to-wall imported screen content. Or we might just not bother to take our screen culture and industry seriously enough to give it the investment it requires. But none of these things are inevitable. As the recent Creative Scotland Film Sector Review shows, we have the potential, the talent and the skills to make a difference. If we have the will there is a way in an independent Scotland.

 

Scottish film directors – easier to get in, harder to get on?

In a Guardian Culture Professionals Network post film industry veteran Terry Illot observes that “According to British Film Institute (BFI) data, of the nearly 1,200 directors who made British feature films in the 20 years to 2008, 74% made one, 15% made two, just under 6% achieved three, and 2.4% made between five and nine. A mere six directors were able to put together 10 or more films.”

Here in Edinburgh Napier’s Screen Media Research Centre we’ve been monitoring the equivalent data for Scotland for some time (see our 2010 post on the topic here) and looking at the latest there is some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that looking at the most recent 5 year period that we can track forward five years (that is 2004-2008) 24% of first time directors in Scotland went on to make a second film and 12% to make a third.  this is significantly better than the UK rate.

The bad news is that the when you go back and look at the five year periods from 1979 onwards the rate of progression from a first to a second feature has been steadily dropping as follows:

5 year grouping of transition from 1st to second film IN SCOTLAND
1sts who 2nd who 3rd % 2nd % 3rd
79-83 5 3 1 60% 20%
84-88 3 1 0 33% 0%
89-93 7 3 1 43% 14%
94-98 6 3 0 50% 0%
99-03 16 6 2 38% 13%
04–08 17 4 2 24% 12%

So we can see clearly see  that while its got ‘easier’ in some respects to make a first feature its got harder to make a second and subsequent film.  That reflects in part the Lottery fueled expansion of film funding in the 90s but also the reality that the size of the market has not changed significantly so with more talents on show with a substantially publicly subsidized first feature the competition to secure market finance for the all important second film is that much more intense.  You could argue that is as it should be i.e. more risk upfront and a winnowing out of the talent subsequently.

BFI and Government get ‘could do better’ progress report from Smith film policy review team

Follow up reports to Government commissioned reviews can often be rather bland and self-congratulatory but Chris Smith’s Film Policy  Review two year update has rather more teeth and doesn’t hold back from expressing frustration with the BFI, Government and industry’s lack of progress in a number of areas. (The original report can be found here and our 2012 post on it here)

Careful to acknowledge the funding cuts imposed on it by the UK Government and broadly positive about overall progress to date, Smith’s report nonetheless takes the BFI to task on the central plank of its BFI’s ‘Film Forever’ strategy, developing the audience for film and in particular for ‘specialized’ (i.e. UK independent and foreign language) cinema.  Its criticism is directed in part at the rather ‘top down’ way the BFI is working with partners in exhibition and lack of engagement with commercial distributors. The review expresses this is diplomatic terms ‘recognizing’ “the importance for the BFI of capturing and building on the experience and local knowledge in the regions and nations, as well as that of established organisations like the Independent Cinema Office, both in terms of avoiding duplication and spreading best practice” which is code for ‘consult more, command less’.

In relation to Film Education, another key aim of the Film Policy Review and the BFI’s strategy, the review update notes that, compared to England, the other nations and regions seem to have a more-joined up approach and that the designated delivery body, In To Film (until recently known as Film Nation UK or FNUK) on the one hands needs more room (from the BFI) to get on with the job but on the other recommends it “urgently engages with  schools and teachers to achieve capacity and scale for film education  interventions. The Panel stresses the related need for FNUK to engage more  fully with the government, and the Department for Education in particular, in  order to enable this

Although a seemingly arcane subject to most people outside film distribution the mechanics of the Virtual Print Fee mechanism, used to recover the cost of digitalising Britain’s cinemas, are of great significance for low budget filmmakers, distributors and smaller exhibitors.  The review update endorses a proposed alteration to the system which amongst other things would introduce a fee waiver for films released on 99 ‘prints’ or fewer, a considerable saving for distributors and thus venues and thus a help to the indie film-maker in getting their work to audiences.

The review update is pretty positive about the BFI’s roll out of its Development, Production and Distribution responsibilities which it acquired following the demise of the UK Film Council.  However Smith and co. are clearly frustrated at slow progress towards the Joint Venture Initiative between talent, producers and distributors heralded in the original recommendations, implying that PACT, DUK and WGGB are the principal source of the delay.

However the review update reserves its strongest admonition for the Government and its failure to make headway in getting the Broadcasters to do more to support the industry, expressing disappointment that “there has been no progress on the Film Policy Review recommendations concerning Memoranda of Understanding between broadcasters and an investigation into the UK film acquisition market”  and rather archly ‘reminding’ Maria Miller and co “that it accepted and agreed these recommendations, and strongly urges the government to prioritise their implementation as a key strategic component of an effective UK national film policy.”

On Skills and Talent development the update observes that despite considerable new investment and progress on many fronts the BFI isn’t listening to or working in quite as joined up a way as it might with the variety of delivery and strategic bodies across the length and breadth of the UK. Smith recommends that “the BFI, Creative England and Creative Skillset work more collaboratively … and that the BFI facilitates ongoing discussions with leading delivery agencies in UK skills and talent development across the UK’s regions and nations, to enable a more cohesive strategy for the sector. The Panel suggests this could be done most effectively via a steering group,  made up of strategic partners and led by the BFI.”

Summing up the progress of the BFI as Lead Agency for Film the review update reprises its core motif of ‘doing well, could do better, especially by being more collaborative’ and, noting that the BFI is due for a Triennial Review this year concludes:  “As it matures in its role as lead agency for film in the UK, we would encourage it to find an optimum balance between providing strong industry leadership and truly collaborative partnership working that allows partners the necessary licence to deliver against their remit.”

Given the considerable disquiet  in the exhibition and education sector about the BFI’s tendency to be somewhat over-directive in its approach to partnership working one suspects there will be not a few people saying ‘amen’ to that.

Another sunrise for Scottish film?

Some 64 years since a member of parliament first raised the issue of a film studio in Scotland, Angus and Mearns MSP Nigel Don will move a motion in the Scottish Parliament tomorrow noting the imminent arrival of Terrence Davis to shoot his adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s masterpiece Sunset Song.  As it happens this was a project I first recommended for funding when I was in charge of development at Scottish Screen exactly 10 years ago, evidence (if any more were needed) of the patience and determination required of filmmakers in raising the money to get from page to screen. (See this earlier post for an analysis of what happened to the Scottish Screen Development slate ‘class of 2001’)

Don’s motion focuses on the absence of ‘proper’ studio facilities in Scotland, one of several factors which has over the years limited the number of incoming feature films that Scotland can attract and the amount that they can spend while they are here.  The absence of a full-scale sound stage and associated facilities has also, arguably, limited the ambition and possibilities of what Scottish-based filmmakers, and indeed television drama producers, can achieve on their own turf.

It has to be said that Scotland has seen the sun rise – and set –  on a studio or at least studio proposals many times since the end of World War 2. Beginning with Scottish National Film Studios (1946-47) through Blackcat (1984 – 1991), a veritable blizzard of competing proposals and sites in the early nougties (from  Gleneagles to Inverness) and most recently the sustained effort led by the redoubtable Gillian Berrie of Film City in Glasgow, the ambition to raise the roof on a studio rarely stays dormant for long.

Enhanced studio facilities alone, however, cannot solve all the problems facing Scotland’s filmmakers, both those trying to get projects of the ground here and those whose livelihoods depend as much if not more on incoming productions and the work they generate for technicians, facilities and service companies (from lighting and transportation to hotels and to catering).  However thanks to its Titanic Studios a single TV series, Game of Thrones, brings  £20m per series to the Northern Ireland economy, which combined with a single feature, Universal’s “Your Highness”, meant that last year N Ireland attracted £30m of spend, significantly more than Scotland’s typical £20 to £25m a year.

In the highly competitive world of mobile film production, and notwithstanding the fantastic work done by our screen locations and film commission staff, the highly-prized skills of our crews and the attractiveness of our diverse locations, cold hard cash plays a very large part in where producers choose to shoot their films.  Location incentives, tax breaks and ‘soft’ financing are the levers nations and regions use to lure productions their way and while Scotland benefits from the UK film tax credit we lack the direct incentives to clinch the deal that more and more countries from familiar players Canada, and Germany to assertive new kids on the block like South Africa, Belgium and individual American States.

Even as differential tax breaks and incentives for non EU productions are currently under scrutiny by the European Commission, Northern Ireland is looking at how it can develop its own tax break which offers producers and policy makers in Scotland some food for thought.

It starts with the audience

But making films and encouraging the making of films isn’t, or certainly shouldn’t just be about helping filmmakers or the economy.  From a public policy perspective the audience matters as much if not more; it deserves to have easy access to the best of the world’s cinema, the best that Scotland’s film makers can provide and the smallest gap between the two.  A key player in that regard is the British Film Institute.  With £98m to spend across the UK on film education, distribution production, talent and heritage it holds most of the purse strings and strategic oversight for a very large part of the UK’s film ecology including, at least for the time being, Scotland.  Following a period of policy reviews (to which the Sottish Goverment contributed) the BFI’s future plan, charmingly titled ‘Film Forever’  was launched a few weeks ago and its senior executives are currently on a tour of Britain, hosting Q&As with ‘stakeholders’, with the (not terribly well attended) Scottish event taking place last week in Glasgow.

The first of the BFI’s three ‘strategic priorities’ is “Expanding education and learning opportunities and boosting audience choice across the UK ” and central to the delivery of that part of the strategy is “A new education offer delivered by a new partner aimed at inspiring young people from 5-19 to watch, understand and make films”.

In practice what this means is a single agency for the UK charged with giving every school the opportunity to establish a ‘film club’; a new online platform; and a youth Film Academy (available in England only in year one).  In pursuing these objectives the BFI has stated its commitment to work with the nations and regions and existing expertise in further and higher education and to play a leading ‘advocacy’ role in, for example, making “the case to Government in Westminster and in the devolved UK administrations for film education to be more firmly embedded in curricula. We will advocate policies which build on pioneering work in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and on the forthcoming national plan for Cultural Education.

Over the horizon…

So far so good and it seems most practitioners, policy-types and concerned politicians welcome the new strategy, even if they may argue the merits of individual budget priorities.  However the key challenge for Scotland is to make sure that the distinctive  legislative and administrative context and structures of education, training, exhibition, audience development etc. are understood, respected and engaged with in the development of truly ‘Scottish solutions for Scottish needs’.  So far the signs are broadly positive both in terms of the BFI’s engagement with the various sectors in Scotland and acknowledgement of the distinct Scottish context by e.g. some of the potential bidders to run the ‘5-19 education offer’.  More importantly, perhaps, the leading players involved in audience development, film education/skills and ‘ specialized’ exhibition in Scotland (organisations like GFT, Filmhouse/CMI, DCA, Regional Screen Scotland, access centres and the film and media academies) are showing real signs of a joined-up approach to making the full range of film, film understanding and film skills as widely available as possible.  At the same time Creative Scotland has embarked on a review of film in Scotland to “inform [its] future priorities for investment and partnership working in and beyond Scotland”.  Ten years have elapsed since the Scottish Executive’s Review of Scottish Screen and nine since the last published study of the economic aspects of film in Scotland (the ‘Audit of the Screen Industries in Scotland’ ) and while recent research on the cultural value of film has touched briefly on Scotland (such as the fascinating BFI report ‘Opening Our Eyes: how film contributes to the culture of the UK’)  there is still some work to be done to show just how important the moving image, and cinema in particular, to our sense of identity (or identities), our ability to make sense of the world around us and to help shape it.  As with a studio, illuminating what we have, don’t have and what we could have on the screen is a potentially important step forward and now is a very good time to let some more light in.

The difference a film (or two) makes – British film bouncing back at the box office

Media coverage (see e.g. The Independent, The Guardian , Televisual) of the latest statistical yearbook from the BFI has focussed on the apparent rude health of independent British film but does the detail back up the hype?

Well the answer is a qualified yes.  There is a discernible upward trend in the share of the box office garnered by UK independents (i.e. not those notionally UK films backed by US studios which include the Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and X:men First Class franchises).

However while the headlines trumpeted the record 13% UK independents’ share, as regular readers will be aware it’s a truism of film box office patterns that almost all the the spoils go to a very few winners and in that respect independent film is no different.  As Sean Perkins and his colleagues note in their report the annual figure is “dependent on a small number of high grossing titles”.  Just how dependent can be seen in the graph below which shows what the market share of UK independent film over th past three years is with and without the top one, two and three titles.

GRAPH (pdf)  impact of top three films on indie box office share

What the figures also reveal is that just two films accounted for almost all the 2010-2011 year on year difference.  Spool back a couple of years and 2009 was a pretty good year for UK independent  film with the top twenty titles collectively taking £85m in ticket sales and Slumdog Millionaire taking over  a third of that total at £31m.  2010 didn’t sustain that bump and saw the top 20 indie titles take only £50m with the number one UK indie film, StreetDance 3D, taking just under £12m of that. 2011 was another even bigger bumper year than 2009 with not one but two smash hits – The Inbetweeners and The King’s Speech each taking £45m to push the independent total to a record high of £144m.

And there’s the rub – take just two films out of the annual picture and the share of the box office changes by a much more modest +/- 1% point.  Should we be concerned?  Well no, not in the sense that as we know film is largely a ‘winner takes all’ business at every scale (though there are some encouraging signs that the inverted pyramid is getting a little less steep with the top 50 titles taking 74% of the box office in 2011 compared to 84% in 2001) .  But should we treat the unprecedented success of 2011 as a further sign of an independent British film renaissance?

Well here the BFI have been scrutinising the longer term trends and conclude that while the average UK indie share of the UK box-office for the past decade has been 6% there is a discernible upward trend from a low of 3.4% in 2003.

Given that encouraging fact what might the reasons be?  The simplest, almost axiomatic, explanation is that we must be making better films.  But there’s a parallel fact that over the past decade we have also generally been making more films (NB the data used here counts only those films with a budget of £500k and above, but that’s OK as so far no sub-500K film has had a significant box office success).  Has this growth in output had any effect on performance?  Well on the face it no, as our graph below illustrates, over this ten-year period there seems to be no statistically significant relationship between production volume and market share.  While the former has, until pretty recently, steadily increased the latter has fluctuated quite wildly.

GRAPH (pdf) comparison of indie volume and share over ten years

That said it remains interesting that there is an upward trend in both sets of data, the coincidence of which may be entirely accidental or it may mean that higher levels of production are a necessary but not a sufficient condition of higher box office share.  There is an argument that to produce more winners at the film casino your odds will improve, but are not guaranteed, if you make more bets. Clearly if production volumes were to continue to drop over time and box office share was sustained or increased then this suggested ‘ratchet effect’ would be disproved but it would seem worthwhile to at least keep an eye on this particular relationship as its often alluded to in film policy debates about ‘quantity versus quality’.

Film skills and training – who cares, who pays, who benefits?

Film skills strategy is a topic that tends to come round at five year intervals in line with the UK policy cycle which dictates that strategies should run for around five years and film bodies should get merged or abolished every ten years or so (see last post).  With the BFI resurgent as film policy top dog and Skillset re-emerging from an enforced period of silence on its future plans due to their logical dependence on the outcome of the DCMS/Lord Smith film policy review and the BFI’s strategic review, we are entering into a renewed period of deliberation on priorities and purse-strings – hence the EIFF panel session ‘What does the future hold for Skills Training and Development?‘ I’m moderating on Monday at Midday.

Since the era-defining publication of A Bigger Picture in 1998 which put training and skills very firmly in the centre of UK film policy, a lot of time and money has been spent on all kinds of training and education from individual bursaires to a significant (if declining) investment in the UK Screen (now Film) Academies [interest delcared, I’m director of one of them, Screen Academy Scotland].  From construction skills to cinematography and screenwriting to SFX, few aspects of film-making have not been addressed by schemes, short courses, seminars and subsidies.  Has it helped the UK turn a corner in terms of responding to the concern expressed by the British Film Commission that “increasing levels of investment in the training of filmmakers and technicians in other territories, along with improved fiscal incentives, will provide stiffer competition for future UK inward investment”?  Has it consolidated at least the first few rungs of ‘the ladder of opportunity that the Smith Review wants to see extended  “to address the needs of those working on their second or third feature film   and the BFI feels is not yet there when it highlights the need to “Ensure that future skills strategies provide a ladder of opportunity through effective alignment and integration with policies focusing on the development and education of young people “?  These are some of the questions which a panel including the BFI’s Eddie Berg, Creative Skillset’s Dan Simmons, First Light’s  Leigh Thomas and David Pope of Advance Films will be chewing over at Monday’s session.  Hope to see you there and we’ll return with some of the highlights in a later post.


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