Posts Tagged 'cinema'

Growing Scotland’s film and television – yes please Minister(s)

Though some practitioners are expressing ‘consultation fatigue’ (following the Creative Scotland Film Sector review (which I chaired) and subsequent consultation on its Film Strategy 2014-17, the Scottish Parliament Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee’s enquiryto consider how Scotland can grow sustainable TV and film and video games industries” it is an important opportunity to set out the potential for growth as well as the obstacles facing our screen practitioners and businesses and encourage Parliament to press the Scottish Government  to seriously up its support for the sector if it really wants to see the culture, economic and social benefits from the moving image that other European countries have achieved through concerted action.  My tuppence worth is available along with the other eighteen [since posting the number has risen to 40] written evidence submissions (though one of them seems to have wandered in by mistake!) here. The committee will be taking further evidence from a variety of practitioners and agencies during January starting with Games on the 14th, TV and film on the 21st, public agencies on the 28th and Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs on the 4th of February. Given the concern for the economic impact of the creative industries it is curious that the Committee, so far at least, doesn’t plan to take evidence from the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, John Swinney.  He’s the person who really holds the key to investment in the sector…having read and heard the evidence from all the above perhaps the committee will then have some questions for him.

UPDATE 4/2/15 in recent days John Swinney’s name has appeared on the agenda alongside Fiona Hyslop to appear in front of the committee today which suggests that the committee members/those giving evidence have successfully upped the ante..

Try to be crazy! Wu Wenguang – Founding figure of Chinese Independent Documentary

Last week I had the chance to interview renowned documentary filmmaker and founder of the Caochangdi Workstation in Beijing, Wu Wenguan, while he was in Edinburgh screening work by new filmmakers associated with the Village and Memory projects.  Our hour long conversation ranged over his accidental entry into the world of documentary, losing his way in it and finding a route out through his work with emerging filmmakers – of whom he simply asks “try to be crazy”

Norwegian film another Nordic screen success story

Scots have been looking enviously at Denmark’s film industry for some time.  A recent Scotsman comment piece was just the latest in a long line (dating back to 1938- see earlier post) of unfavourable comparisons between the Danes’ generous and joined up support for film and Scotland’s historically piecemeal and underfunded attempts to get more Scottish films on our and everyone else’s screens.

But Denmark isn’t the only Nordic country that takes film as seriously as the Danes.  Across the North Sea in Norway (population 4.7m) they don’t just have a national film fund (established in 2001)  they have six (yes SIX) regional film funds which add up to a cool €60m euro annual investment in film, tv, games and animation.  That goes some way to explaining the 25 films (average over 2007-12) they release each year (so that doesn’t even count those made but not distributed) and the 20% average market share they have enjoyed over the past five years.  So not quite as good as the Danes at 25% but compared to Ireland at just under 2% or Scotland at less than 1% it’s certainly enough to give us something to think about.  (While we’re at it European films’ share of the overall European market is on the rise and reached its high point last year, in no small part due to Skyfall it has to be said but also, more interestingly, the success of France’s Untouchable, the most successful non-English production of all time.)

With numbers like those above to build on, the Norwegian Film Institute weren’t indulging in boosterism or wishful thinking when they set out to ‘internationalise’ their industry in their 2012-15 plan.  This year they allocated around €1.5m in support to marketing of Norwegian films including €400K earmarked specifically to support presence at international markets and festivals.  Indeed back in 2000 an influential Government Green Paper concluded that:

Norway’s cinema system worked well as precisely a mixture of commercial and cultural interests, but underlined that a stronger, more directed national cinema policy was needed to secure the operations of this system.”  (quoted in Caroline Strutz Skei fascinating  Thesis Hollywood In Norway ).

Astute readers may object at this point that with a GDP 2.5 times Scotland’s its easy for the Norwegians to throw money at film and anything else they fancy.  Perhaps so but the fact remains that like most other European countries, at 0.012% they choose to spend a considerably higher % of GDP than we do at either a UK (0.0033%) or even more so a Scottish (0.003%) level.  (Denmark, whose GDP is only 50% higher than Scotland’s, spends 0.02% of GDP on film i.e. 6.6x as much), indeed they spend more in absolute terms than the Norwegians, despite a considerably lower GDP.

All well very well you might think but beyond their home turf are Norwegian films making any head way with audiences and critics abroad?  Oh yes they are.  Following last year’s Palm Springs win and Best Foreign Film Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Kon Tiki (Norway’s most expensive film to date), so far this year twelve films have been selected for A list festivals including Venice, Toronto and San Sebastian with five in official selection at Berlin alone.

Meanwhile at the UK box office Headhunters, a Norwegian/German co-production was the second highest grossing foreign language film in the UK after Untouchable, taking a respectable £1.44m (which put in perspective equals or exceed the UK Box office for The Imposter, The Wedding Video or Coriolanus).

Regular readers will be well aware that one hit doesn’t mean we’re about to experience a Viking film invasion along the lines of the current Nordic TV expeditionary force however their consistent investment and support to grow a domestic film industry is making raiding expeditions on the international market easier and more likely to pay off.  The growing success of Norwegian film at home and abroad is a salutary reminder that there is no recorded instance of a small (or indeed a large) country securing a consistent share of the international audience (on  big, small or portable screens) that hasn’t first built its own domestic share.  More on that anon.

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’.

Veteran British Film Institute launches New Horizons for Film

Film support agencies come and they go but at 79 years young the British Film Institute (est. 1933) endures like no other, having last year absorbed its short-lived patron the UKFC (2000 – 2010) .  Its nearest rival in longevity, the Scottish Film Council (established 1934) lasted sixty-four years before it (and three other bodies – Scottish Screen Locations, Scottish Film and Broadcast Training and the Scottish Film Archive – which later became part of the National Libraries of Scotland) gave way in 1997 to Scottish Screen. The latter survived a mere ten years before it too was swept away (with the Scottish Arts Council which began life in 1967) and replaced by Creative Scotland in 2010.

This week week saw the BFI publish its much anticipated future plan ‘New Horizons for UK Film‘ which is open for consultation until 10 June.  Different sections of the industry and the wider film ‘interested parties’ are either smiling, looking anxious or groaning at perceived wins/losses and will be prepping their submissions as I write.  Its not a simple task to unpick the proposed funding allocations and compare them against the UKFC’s budget.  But there are some immediate stand out comparisons such as Festivals, down 500k to £1m from the UKFC’s £1.5m, and ‘Skills & Business’, which at an indicative £4.5m a year is £0.9m (20%) less than the comparable UKFC Film Skills fund of £5.4m.  However the devil is in the detail and the headline figures may or may not be an accurate reflection of where the money will go as, for example, the ‘Talent’ category of £2m may be picking up some of what was covered by the Film Skills Fund.  These and many other questions will doubtless get asked (and one hopes answered) at the regional roadshows the BFI have organised over the next couple of weeks and if the consultation is a genuine one there may be changes ahead.  Watch this space!

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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