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.

Getting film researchers and industry into the same room proves productive

Around 60 researchers, policy makers, consultants and others too multi-faceted to categorise but all  sharing an active interest in film policy gathered at NESTA’s London HQ on Wednesday (26th October), courtesy of sponsors the University of Hertfordshire.  Titled ‘Research and policy making for film’ the symposium’s objective was captured in an early session title: ‘Opportunities and challenges of collaboration’.  Setting the scene, the BFI’s head of strategic development Carol Comely observed that in recent times Governments (of various hues) had developed and implemented policy on the basis of a ‘sub-optimal’ research and evidence base.  This was so despite the recommendations of the 2008 “Creative Britain” review.  Declaring the BFI’s aim to be seen as a ‘knowledgeable organisation’ whose expertise ought to extend way beyond ‘film as text’ she acknowledged that it still had “some way to go”.

One  might add that the BFI is not alone in that regard, the evidence base for film policy in Scotland has been scanty to say the least, indeed there hasn’t been any systematic research into the impacts or options for film policy here for over a decade. The closest we’ve got being the 2001 Scottish Executive Review of Scottish Screen and David Graham Associates ‘Audit of the Screen Industries in Scotland’ but as in other domains (see below) these tend to studiously ignore reviewing previous policy success or failure and are thus apt to neither learn from nor avoid repeating the same (mis)judegments.  There have of course been occasional and useful contributions to an otherwise largely absent ‘serious’ debate as distinct from under-informed invective.  These ranging in time and place from e.g. Mark Cousins writing in Vertigo and (then backbencher) Mike Russell reporting to Parliament  to contributions from the more academically inclined such as Duncan Petrie’s significant corpus of work on Scottish ciema which often touches on policy questions and myself (though I leave the usefulness of the latter for others to judge).

Back to the present and Jim Barret from Bigger Picture Research identified a key challenge to greater academic influence on the policy process – the disparity in timescales between policy formation, often measurable in months (or, in the case of the UKFC’s demise what appeared to be weeks) and securing funding for and completing academic research, which is more often measured in years.  Royal Holloway’s John Hill characterised the position of academic researchers as lying on a continuum ranging from ‘hired hand’ to ‘critical public agent’ – the latter ensuring that researchers maintained sufficient distance and disinterest to both ask and answer questions that might not always be the ones Government or public agencies want asked.

A little surprisingly, during the course of the day few seemed to feel that policy evaluation, as distinct from original research which might inform new policy areas, was a significant area of potential.  Compared to other fields such as health, criminal justice and so on, which are awash with evaluation projects, the results of successive film policies seems to go unchallenged.  To be fair John Hill did point out that every successive Government film policy seemed to adopt an ‘ab initio’ position, blithely ignoring the previous regime’s efforts.

NESTA’s creative industries director and former Lehman Brothers economist Hasan Bakhshi was less interested in what had or hadn’t worked in the past, preferring to focus on what he suggested were as yet largely unexplored methodological avenues.  ‘Experimental’ and ‘action research’ approaches could, he argued, yield more useful research outcomes, citing the example of NESTA’s work with the National Theatre on cinema broadcast relay of theatre performances.  He suggested there are insights not being brought to researching the film industry: “as an economist I’m particularly concerned at the lack of engagement of economics researchers with the film industry.”

One might challenge this assertion as there has certainly been quite a lot of work going on nationally and internationally, usefully summarised in Sydney University researcher Jordi McKenzie’s recent literature survey.  That said a contributor from the floor rightly observed that applied film industry research doesn’t tend to get you published in the mainstream international journals and thus gain the attendant quality ranking when exercises such as the Research Excellence Framework are conducted.  These are major concerns for up and coming as well as established academics.  As a potential corrective Bakhshi supported the idea of dedicated funding streams to support academic-film business research collaborations.

Turning in the next session to examples of successful collaborations, veteran film historian, curator and researcher Ian Christie, a leading light in 2009’s groundbreaking study ‘Stories we tell ourselves…’  gave a thoughtful and cogent summary of the ways in which his work has engaged with real world concerns. He gently berated the film studies research community for failing to properly engage with empirical methods which could generate the kind of evidence base to inform cultural as much as industrial policy debates, declaring “we’ve had too little quantitative and too much qualitative” work.

Screenwriter and former Hollywood exec Susan Rogers reflected on her work into the experience of women and other underrepresented screenwriters – how they had found a way into the industry and how they managed to stay in.  Echoing other contributions she noted how prone to believing in its own mythology the film industry is.  Far too many people, for example, appeared to believe that the dearth of women screenwriters was because they didn’t write ‘the kind of material that applied to 16-24 year old boys’ commonly believed, erroneously, to be the dominant demographic (as a quick check of the BFI statistical yearbook will confirm).

The first afternoon session zeroed in on film industry data – what exists, what doesn’t, who collects it and owns it and how far they are prepared to share it with researchers or place it in the public domain.  Earlier in the day Ian Christie noted that the large dataset of British film that had to be created for ‘Stories’ because it simply didn’t exist previously, hasn’t as yet been adopted for further development by anyone else – a major omission which he hoped would soon be put right.  Sean Perkins, Acting Head of former UKFC and now BFI Research and Statistics Unit (whose existence within the BFI finally seems, after a concerted industry lobby, to be secure) declared his hope that more of the large volume of data collated and held by the Unit could be made available to other researchers in academia or industry, the better to facilitate analysis in directions or to depths beyond the limited capacity of the Unit’s staffing base.  At the same time he noted that there were significant obstacles to accessing increasingly important data on e.g. non-theatrical audiences and revenues for Video On Demand, with the UK’s biggest operator believed to be working strenuously to withhold such information.

Manchester Business School’s Richard Philips was rather more sceptical of the benefits of ‘data mining’, suggesting that more ‘what if’ based approaches would be of more help to industry (rather overlooking the point that benefit to the industry is not the only criterion for conducting film industry research).  By ‘what if’ he meant drilling into the film value chain to unpick what the decision making, evaluation and risk management process are at each stage of the film lifecycle from development to exploitation, the better to  understand how risk is/can be minimised by investors.

While such ‘operational’ focussed research has an important role to play in informing business improvement, and may well have wider policy implications, it shouldn’t eclipse the equally valid, and at least as strategically significant importance of, aggregate data about patterns and factors in the economic, cultural and social performance of films and filmmaking and film policies, of different kinds and at different levels from national to local.  Amongst these concerns are questions of equality and diversity of representation in respect of women, minorities and other groups.   Picking up this concern Rosalind Gill from King’s College highlighted the continuing issues of access and equality surrounding the film industry’s resiliently ‘informal’ recruitment and selection practices which continue to reinforce the underrepresentation of women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities in many if not most parts of the industry.  She observed that it continues to be difficult even to raise the resistance and/or inability of the film industry to adopt the kinds of formal practices and interventions that have gained ground in other sectors.

At the end of this particular day, it’s fair to say it was a valuable and welcome start to a much larger enterprise – that of getting better film policy(ies) informed by more and better research arising out of what all present hope will be a significant increase in scale, range and impact of film industry-academic collaborations.  This, of course, requires funding from industry and/or Government and if the most tangible outcome of the day proves to be a better-marshalled case for the benefits of such an investment that alone would make it worthwhile.

Netherlands filmmakers may have to go dutch

Interesting to see Dutch producers calling for new regional film funds as central funds are cut from €37m to €28m a year.  With a population of 16 million or so that’s still a healthy €1.75 per million of population compared to the UK’s roughly €1m though nothing like Denmark’s €10m per million, keeping the Danes way ahead as in so many other measures.  At around €3.5m (though due to rise to €4m by 2013 – see Creative Scotland CEO Andrew Dixon’s evidence to the Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee on 13th September) Scotland’s direct per capita spend is around €700K per million people (though with the UK Lottery and other film investment the combined total is pretty similar to the Netherlands.

Hedgehog bottleneck

Just back from watching the delightful and gently heart-rendering (and explicitly Ozu-influenced) The Hedgehog currently playing at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, Glasgow Film Theatre, Bristol Watershed and the Curzon in London if not elsewhere (not that you would know where if you looked for it via the usually reliable Findanyfilm.com where for some reason it isn’t listed as being in cinemas) and distributed by our very own and doughty distributor Cinefile. Curious to know its release history we find that it opened in France some two years ago where it was seen by around 800 thousand people.  Since then it has made its way around Europe picking up the same number again across ten countries, with Italy (it was a French/Italian co-production so presumably got more push there than it might otherwise have done) generating the largest audience (414 thousand) followed by Germany (217 thousand).

It’s exactly the kind of film which, were it possible to get a wider release in multiplexes as well as its natural home in our subsidised film theatres would probably garner two or three times the audience and perhaps turn a few more people on to the joy of films not in English.  We should be very grateful that the tireless Cinefile team of Allison Gardner, Ilona Morison, Richard Mowe and John Beattie continue to seek out, acquire and promote world cinema despite the precarious economics of film distribution which remain so despite the assistance of digital distribution in lowering print costs and making simultaneous releases such as this one a bit easier. Anyway, soon be the opening episode of The Story of Film (see last post) so ‘sayonara’…

The Story of Film on your screens and the future of film education in your hands

While Madonna takes hobbyist film-making to, by all accounts, new lows, tonight on More 4 and on Monday night a cinematic rollercoaster ride through film history promises some real highs and not a few surprises.  The fifteen part adaptation of his book The Story of Film, helmed  by Mark Cousins with producer (and former Scottish Screen CEO) John Archer at his side, this fifteen part epic aims to de-centre the European and Hollywood-centric world view of cinema.  Indeed Cousins pulls no punches in the opening episode, declaring conventional histories to be racist in their dismissal of the contributions made by film innovators in Africa, Asia and the global south.

Having experienced the entire fifteen hour series in one hour, courtesy of editor and (Screen Academy Scotland graduate) Timo Langer’s deft skill at employing 50x speeded-up motion between sequences drawn from across the series, I can attest that audiences are in for a kaleidoscopic immersion in a century of moving images, allied to an incisive and insightful commentary by Cousins. No doubt some will take issue  (as I did) with one or other of Mark’s claims to cause, effect or significance.  But there is no doubting that this series will be a major contribution and indeed corrective to the story of film.  It is especially important as a potential aid to the teaching of film history to new generations of young (and not so young people) – a particular concern of Cousins evident in his and Tilda Swinton’s Eight and a Half foundation, launched at last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival following his 2007 Vertigo ‘Letter to my Eight and half year old self’ .

With the future direction of support for film education (at a UK level ) partially subject to the outcome of the current DCMS film policy review which will in turn have a major influence on the BFI’s own strategic review, there are just 6 days left to make your views heard here. So perhaps after watching episode one of The Story of Film on Monday night would be a good time to put finger to keyboard…

Seventh heaven (again) for Inbetweeners’ producer Chris Young

UPDATE (31.8.11)

While its producer and stars celebrated on Skye, The Inbetweeners continued its reign at the top of the Box Office charts for a second week, adding another £5.6m over the weekend (bringing its total take to date to just a shade under £28m) outdoing new releases One Day, Final Destination 5 and Conan the Barbarian and securing another record as the fastest-grossing live action comedy in the UK ever. To put this all in perspective this low budget (3.5m) has already taken more than last year’s Sex and the City 2, Clash of the Titans and Despicable Me and more than Four Weddings and a Funeral (well OK, not if you allow for inflation)taking the latter’s place as (so far) 64th highest grossing (In the UK) film of all time.

With his seventh theatrical feature Skye-based Chris Young has not only broken UK box office records for both comedy and an independently produced feature but remains the most prolific Scottish-based film producer if we count only lead rather than co-producer credits.  However the journey from 1989’s Venus Peter (Writer/Director Ian Sellar) to TV series spin-off The Inbetweeners has been far from plain sailing .

Demonstrating considerable entrepreneurial flair, the National Film School Graduate sold £50 shares in Venus Peter on the basis that if the film got made investors would get £80 back.  For his second feature, Prague (1992) , earned a certain (undeserved) notoriety amongst Scottish-based crew because of the small number of them employed on the shoot in the eponymous Czech city.  Not particularly well reviewed critically (though Philip French cited it as an ‘example of a genuinely pan-European cinema transcending individual national borders’ – quoted in Jonny Murray’s excellent 2004 bibliographic research guide That Thinking Feeling),   Prague managed a very modest £15,000 at the UK box office (BFI Film and TV Handbook 1994) which probably didn’t help accelerate the prospects of Young’s slate of films in development.

After a considerable gap of seven years Young’s next theatrical release, Gregory’s Two Girls, brought John Gordon Sinclair back to the screen as  Bill Forsyth’s beloved teenage hero  some seventeen or so years after his debut in what remains the best (and still one of the few) cinematic accounts of Scottish adolescence.  Sadly it didn’t charm audiences back to the cinema, taking a disappointing £130k at the UK box office and failed to get a theatrical release anywhere else

Young’s next release, The Final Curtain, brought two more talents with Scottish ‘form’ together, writer John Hodge (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) and Director Patrick Harkins (Sea of Souls, Taggart) but the result went straight to DVD/PayTV.

Undeterred (and remember that getting a film financed and made, far less securing any sort of release, is nothing short of a miracle) Young returned to Scottish subject and locations with writer/director Annie Griffin’s 2005 debut feature Festival.  Garnering three stars from the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wasn’t enough to help it break through at the box office though with a £178k gross or around thirty-eight thousand admissions.

Having established his home and company base in Skye it was perhaps not totally unexpected that his next feature had a celtic dimension but to produce a Gaelic language feature was a bold move and the result in 2007, Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle was a beautifully written and performed set of intertwining stories.  Billed by its producer as the first feature film in Gaelic (actually it wasn’t, the accolade should go either to Barney Platts-Mills Hero or, if  ‘contemporary’ is the qualifier Mike Alexander’s 1993 As an Eilean). Perhaps not surprisingly, given the language barrier, Seachd didn’t get far across the border despite being picked up by dynamic London distributor Soda Pictures but I suspect its reported 2000 theatrical admissions significantly underestimates the true audience in the Gaeltacht.

2007 was clearly a very busy year for Young with a TV movie Flashpoint, a comedy pilot and the first series of Inbetweeners going into production.  Three series later the transition from small to big screen has proved to be a commercial triumph, indications of which were already clear when the Telegraph and the Guardian gave it three star reviews at the same time as the Sun and the Mirror gave it four stars.

The twenty-odd years between Chris Young’s debut feature and his first smash hit are a salutary reminder both that producing is not for the faint-hearted and that it can take a lot of attempts to find the combination of story, talent, execution and zeitgeist to spark a wave of interest in a British film that can pull (young) people into the cinema in the kinds of numbers we saw this weekend.  It will be interesting indeed to see how the movie does in the UK over the next couple of weekends and the extent to which foreign distributors up their release strategy/marketing spend.  Meanwhile Chis Young can bask in the satisfaction of having a real hit on his hands, not something a Scottish producer has had to contend with for some time.

The future of film at EIFF 65

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!

One fort doesn’t make a film industry

While John Grierson is reported1 to have said that ‘cinema is the one industry where one swallow could make a summer’, linking the resurgence of Scottish film-making to the building of a replica fort, as usually sensible Arts Correspondent Tim Cornwell (or a thoughtful sub) did in his Scotsman piece yesterday prompts us to dig out similarly optimistic predictions from the archives with marks out of ten for prescience:

1985 “the Scottish film industry is now a definite rival to Australia’s still fledgling industry” (from “McMafia Scotched” , Comfort and Joy Review, Mello N, Telegraph 22 Feb 1985 Score: 2/10 (Australia now produces about 30 features a year to our six)

1995″ Next year could be the year of the real revival – the long-term revival of the Scottish film industry. All it will take is the courage and vision to make it happen. Then we can get the world watching our plums and turkeys at Christmas, and reap the benefit of them every day of the year.” Alex Salmond, opinion piece, Herald, 20 Dec 1995 Score: 7/10 – The FM demonstrates another of his superpowers – 1996 was indeed the best year ever for Scottish film but sadly it has been pretty much downhill from there.

2001 “From the happy slacker movie Late Night Shopping to the contemplative beauty of One Life Stand, the fantastical animatronics of Frog to the blockbuster Mary Queen of Scots, the Scottish film industry of tomorrow promises to be a multi-faceted and celebratory cinematic experience.” Ann Donald , ‘What do you call an ex- footballer, a former trolley boy and a disillusioned stockbroker? The future of Scottish film’, Herald, 14 Jul 2001 Score: 6/10 Multi-faceted yes (from  Morven Callar to Gamerz) celebratory not-so-much – though Festival, The Flying Scotsman (in part) and The Illusionist can claim that mantle.

2003  “A MULTI-million-pound film project backed by the Hollywood star George Clooney could kick-start Scotland’s ambitions to become a global centre for film production, Frank McAveety, the culture minister, said yesterday. Hollywood boosts the Scottish film industry. Mr McAveety forecast a bright future for Scotland’s film-makers, as he announced that Clooney’s production company is to film a £19 million project in Scotland [The Jacket].” Tracey Lawson, ‘Hollywood boosts the Scottish film industry’ Scotsman, 16 Oct 2003  Score: 7/10 Not exactly rivaling New Zealand but we still manage to pull in up to £25m of location spend in good years which is just as well as local production wouldn’t keep many Swallows alive past the summer.

2005 “It has been suggested that On A Clear Day could make up to $20m at the US box office”  Major US deal sets up Scots f ilm for global success Focus Features wins US rights to independent Scottish movie that nearly wasn’t made By Aideen McLaughlin , Herald, 6 Feb 2005 Score 1/10: We could just pretend it isn’t Scottish but the presence of Peter Mullan and Billy Boyd plus an injection of cash from Scottish Screen and Glasgow Film Finance force us to adhere to my maxim ‘if you claim it going up you must claim it coming down’.  A mere $191, 033 in the US and $106,847 in the UK though they seemed to love it in New Zealand ($473,766) according to Boxoffice Mojo.

1. David Bruce (1996) Scotland The Movie, Glasgow, Scottish Film Council.

Where have all the co-pros gone?

While the world’s media were heading to Cannes to traipse the Croisette and the red carpet (where, incidentally, our own Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin has been very well received), MEDIA, the EU’s support scheme for pan-European collaboration last week announced the results of its latest round of funding.

The good news is that Accidental Media, a Scottish based company founded by Tomas Sheridan (an Edinburgh Napier graduate and 2009 participant in ENGAGE, Screen Academy Scotland’s European coproduction workshop which is itself funded by MEDIA) has secured Single Project Development funding for ‘Babel’s Market’ which was a runner-up in the 2009 ENGAGE competition.

Accidental’s €11,488 award amounts to 3% of the total €413,393 in single project funds awarded to UK-based companies so far this year.

The less good news is that Accidental are the only Scottish beneficiaries out of nineteen UK companies awarded a total of €1.6m across all of the MEDIA schemes from single project and slate development to interactive projects and TV distribution.  That makes the Scottish share of MEDIA funds thus far (there’s a second call whose results will be announced later in the year) less than 1% of the UK total and would appear to the confirm the trend over the last decade which we noted here last October .

In itself the share of MEDIA funding secured by Scottish companies needn’t  automatically be cause for concern, but taken together with the seeming absence of much recent co-production activity across film or TV there are clear signs that the Scottish production sector is not securing the international finance or distribution that it arguably needs to ensure growth or indeed sustainability.  Cinema is almost inherently international these days as the UK domestic market is simply too small to finance anything other than ultra low budget films.  In television, while there is undoubtedly plenty of scope for Scottish companies to grow within the context of UK network commissions, co-production is an increasing opportunity if not a pre-requisite in higher-end factual programming in genres like natural history, history, science and arts.

While of course it’s gratifying that ENGAGE has helped at least one Scottish company on the road to international co-production, it would be good to see more alongside it  The development support available from the MEDIA programme is a very valuable aid to getting projects off the drawing board and into serious development and if there are reasons Scottish companies aren’t applying or are relatively less successful in securing support these clearly need to be addressed.

We need to talk about film schools – return trip to Cannes for Lynne Ramsay

Fifteen years after her first Cannes appearance, winning the Jury Prize in 1996 for short Small Deaths, followed by the same award in 1998 for Gasman and two awards for her second feature Morvern Callar in 2002, Edinburgh Napier University and National Film and Television School alumna Lynne Ramsay will be back on the croisette with her third feature, her long-awaited and much-anticipated adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin.

It was at Napier (now home to Screen Academy Scotland) that Ramsay, studying photography, was introduced (by then Senior Lecturer in film Colin MacLeod, now retired) to the work of avant-garde filmmaker Maya Derren, a key influence on her decision to apply to the National Film and Television School to study cinematography.  In the early 1990s the NFTS along with the London Film Schoolwere pretty much the only place in which a talented Scot could aspire to study film making.  Many if not most of Scotland’s notable filmmakers have made the journey to Beaconsfield from Bill Forsyth and Mike Radford to Michael Caton-Jones, Gilles Mackinnon, Ian Sellar and Douglas MacKinnon.  (See Alistair Scott’s fascinating account of the influence of Scots on the NFTS and vice versa in ‘What’s the Point of Film School, or, What did Beaconsfield Studios ever do for the Scottish Film Industry?’ in Scottish Cinema Now).

Ramsay’s ‘conversion experience’ at Napier and subsequent encounters at the NFTS are an important reminder that the real value of film schools lies not primarily in access to technology (increasingly available elsewhere) or even skills (also increasingly acquirable by other means) but exposure to ideas, space to experiment and opportunities to find and work with collaborators.  At the NFTS she met cinematographer Alwin Kuchler and editor Lucia Zucchetti with whom over the next six years she made her three shorts, her debut feature Ratcatcher and then Morven Callar.

Despite the plethora of short courses, DIY manuals and (much to be encouraged) ‘just do it’ ethos of 21st century filmmaking, for at least some of tomorrow’s talents there remains something enduring and irreducible about the combination of structure and freedom, guidance and licence, individual and collective that makes three or four years as an undergraduate or one or two as a postgraduate, a simultaneously liberating and challenging experience.

My own experience over the past six years, leading Screen Academy Scotland, gradually expanding our range of post-graduate courses to give producers, screenwriters, directors, cinematographers (and from next year editors) more and more opportunities to find those creative ‘soulmates’ from an ever expanding list of countries, pushing their own and their collaborators’ creativity, is that film school is as useful and powerful a tool to accelerate talent as it ever was.  Thankfully our local talent now has a real choice of whether to head south for an excellent film education and, equally, talents from all over Europe are beating a path to Scotland to make connections.  Indeed we’ve taken that one step further with our ENGAGE programme  (now entering its fourth year), linking up with film schools across Europe (and from this year around the globe) to encourage graduates to partner up at an early stage of their careers to sow the seeds of future collaborations.

Meanwhile we wish Lynne the best of luck in Cannes and expect to see more of our alumni there in the near future.

Back to the Film Festival’s future

Time for our final post of the year and as it’s a time for reflection (and continuing the theme of our New Year Quiz that the more things change the more they stay the same – see last post) the news that the Edinburgh International Film Festival is going for a ‘radical’ new approach in 2011 brings to mind some possibly comforting words of that grand old figure of Scottish Cinema, Forsyth Hardy, reviewing the fourth festival back in 1950…

EUROPE’S Film Festivals have been the target of a steady flow of critical analysis since the end of the last festival season. Their purpose and value have been called in question and a tentative effort has been made to bring some order into what everyone admits has become a confused and somewhat overcrowded field. One of the most reasonable suggestions made is that each festival should specialize in one aspect of the cinema-avant-garde, historical, films for children, and so forth. Although such a course would hardly be popular with the older festivals, it has much to commend it. It would mean, for example, that visitors could confidently expect to see different films at each festival instead of, as happens so often at present, the same few films. It would also mean that a film student interested in a special aspect of the cinema would be able to satisfy that interest by visiting a single festival and not merely have it titillated by chance items in generalized festival programs. It might mean, too, that an enthusiast could make the circuit of the festivals confident that he would have a series of experiences rather than the same one repeated in different surroundings.” <>Hollywood Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Autumn, 1950) 

 

Welcoming back the BFI to filmmaking in Scotland

If as expected Culture Minister Ed Vaizey announces tomorrow [he did – see comment below] that the British Film Institute (BFI) will take over most of the UK Film Council’s role in funding film production, will film in Scotland be any better or worse off?  Nobody can really know for sure but there are a few pointers from the past which may prove to be relevant. 

Whoever houses the new arrangements for investing in development and production (not to mention distribution, exhibition, education and a whole slew of other activities largely overlooked in the furore over the UKFC’s imminent demise) it is likely that many of the same people will, for the time being, be making the decisions.  But historically the BFI has had a somewhat different institutional take on film culture and film industry than the UKFC and it will be interesting to see if the Scottish dimension of that, a mixture of general neglect punctuated by occasional enlightened acts of benevolence, is revived.

In general terms the BFI always had a bit of a problem with Scotland – it was to all intents and purposes ‘other’ –  our cultural, educational and political administrative systems sufficiently distinct but insufficiently interesting to merit much dedicated officer time or attention.  By the same token Scotland’s emerging autonomous film institutions (Films of Scotland followed by the Scottish Film Council, technically a branch of the BFI to begin with, and then Scottish Screen) substantially let the BFI ‘off the hook’ when it came to being held to account for film developments north of the border, even though its title and charter were resolutely British.

 But at the same time and to its credit the BFI did play a critical role in fostering the first stirrings of narrative cinema in Scotland by championing the work of Bill Douglas, a film-maker whose filmic aspirations did not fit the mould of the then ‘Films of Scotland’.  Douglas stands out as Scotland’s most internationally recognised ‘auteur’ filmmaker (though the other Bill, Bill Forsyth deserves to be included in that category for those who choose to employ it) and, tellingly, practically the only one to be supported by the BFI Production board in its nearly fifty years of nurturing “An alternative British art cinema”. And it did latterly support the singular vision of Margaret Tait, co-funding her first feature Blue Black Permanent in 1992 (at the tender age of 72!) and Lynne Ramsay’s first professional short (Kill The Day, 1997) but on the whole the Production Board had by all accounts a fairly negative view of Scottish talent and Scottish stories.

WHAT ABOUT THE MONEY?

Since the UKFC was established in 2000, and as we’ve noted elsewhere , a fair amount of UK cash has come Scottish cinema’s way, in addition to the sums disbursed by Scottish Screen that is.  Given that Scottish film has been able to access both Scottish Screen (now Creative Scotland) and UKFC funds it would be easy to think (and easy for those smarting from the cuts to public arts funding in England to complain) that we Scots have been having our cake and eating it.  Well a little inspection of the facts suggests otherwise.  Though the calculation of what amounts to a ‘fair’ Scottish share of public expenditure has ever been and will no doubt remain a vexed question there is enough life left in the ‘Barnet formula’ to make it worth a shot. 

Taking the financial year 2008-9 as our example, and with the aid of the UKFC Research and Statistical Unit’s extremely useful Annual Statistical Handbook, we find that the total ‘public sector selective investment’ in film comes to around £256m (including Tax Relief, film investment by the BBC and Film 4, EU funds and so on).

Now if we strip out the tax relief, broadcaster and EU funds that drops to direct UK public expenditure of around £116m.  The Scottish share of that (totting up Grant-in-Aid from the Scottish Government, the average allocation of Lottery film funding to Scotland of around £2.7m AND the average UKFC investment in Scotland of £1.4m) comes to around £8.4 m i.e. 7%.  The Barnett formula for calculating Scotland’s share of any change to UK funding is generally based on 9.77% of the equivalent spending in England and Wales which in this case would come to £11.38m or in other words a gap, in 2009-09, of approximately £3m.

Even with the swinging cuts to many of the areas of expenditure making up the UK total at this point it seem very unlikely (but we will examine it in future posts) that in the coming years Scotland’s share of film-related expenditure will catch up, proportionately, with the rest of the UK. (And even if it did it wouldn’t remove the historical disparity).

Meantime we look forward to seeing how the new custodians of the UKFC’s film investment funds see Scotland’s contribution to British cinema’s future and hope that they adopt a less metro-centric perspective than in the past.

Kiwi film-makers capture more than just Hobbits

The New Zealand Government’s determination to alter its labour laws and pour additional incentives into The Hobbit to ensure Middle-earth doesn’t relocate to Ireland or any other alternate location shows just how important to the Kiwi economy as a whole, never mind just its film industry, Peter Jackson and his furry friends have become.

There’s no doubt that since The Lord of the Rings franchise first set up camp down under in 1999 the economic impact on both the film and tourism industries has been immense.  Crews, production and post-production facilities have been the principal beneficiaries of the movie’s spend while tourism has seen an impressive 40% increase since the late 1990s.  Doubtless James Cameron’s Avatar would very likely not have spent the $218m in NZ it did had Peter Jackson not led the way.

But how has the indigenous film industry fared amidst this massive injection of Hollywood dollars and the global attention that has ensued?  Perhaps not surprisingly it has indeed seen its fortunes rise, with a doubling in both average production output and domestic box-office comparing the pre- and post-Ring decades.  However this can’t simply be attributed to the ‘Jackson effect’.  New Zealand film-making and its box office were already on a steadily rising trend before Gandalf arrived and have achieved similar levels for short periods in the mid 1980s and 1990s.  What does seem to have happened post-Rings is that a higher level of production  (around six films a year at an average combined box office of just over €7m) is now being sustained. 

With a not dissimilar population (4.3m) to Scotland, New Zealand’s film output is about the same but, crucially, generates around ten times as much revenue in its home territory (if you consider Scotland to be Scottish films’ home territory that is.) achieving an average (2005-9) domestic box office share of around 3% compared to around 0.6% here in Scotland.  Indeed over the period 2000-8 New Zealand films easily out-perform all of the small countries’ output we have examined in terms of average box office per film.

Somewhat contrary to the evidence we have collected from other small countries New Zealand’s film-makers seem to have managed to boost audiences for their films with only a modest increase (from 3.5 to around 6) in annual production.  On the other hand the share of the total box office has actually fallen by half over thisperiod which reminds us once again how, at such low volumes, individual titles can distort averages to the point where they are in danger of becoming dangerously misleading.  Nonetheless there is no doubt that New Zealand film-makers really are punching above their weight – a claim often, but sadly inaccurately made for our own output. (See previous posts including here.)

As ever the explanations that lie behind any small country’s greater taste for its own cinematic output are complex and cover the gamut from talent-support, production and distribution conditions to language, national identity and public policy.  The relationship between inward investment and indigenous growth is clearly not straightforward either., whether in New Zealand or Scotland.  The direct boost given to New Zealand’s (film) economy by the Ring cycle has stimulated greater attention to and investment in local production and helped local filmmakers garner international investment and profile.  Equally the variability of films’ and filmmakers’ performance remains as true in New Zealand as anywhere else and the need to achieve a level of production that escapes the ‘chaotic’ behaviour of small production volumes is no less evident down under than it is here in the Northern hemisphere.

Peter Mullan joins the three-feature premiere league but can Neds repeat the Magdelene double?

Peter Mullan’s third feature, NEDS, having picked up the best film award at the A-list San Sebastian Film Festival in September following its world premiere in Toronto is now garnering glowing reviews following its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on Wednesday.

Should Neds repeat or better the success of The Magdalene Sisters (coincidentally or rather in a neat bit of complementary scheduling, screening on Film 4 this week) it will confirm Mullan as both critically and commercially Scotland’s most successful director working out of Scotland.  This might surprise people but the most successful ‘Scottish’ films have in fact been directed by non-Scots like Danny Boyle and Ken Loach and Scots directors’ most successful films have, arguably, not been ‘Scottish’ (See footnote). 

One of an elite group of just twelve Scottish directors in the past thirty years to make three or more theatrical features, Mullan (and Lynne Ramsay whose much anticipated adaptation of We Need to Talk about Kevin is released in the new year) joins the ‘hat trick’ ranks alongside Bill Douglas, Bill Forsyth, Mike Radford, Ian Sellar, David Hayman, Gilles Mackinnon, Danny Boyle, Paul McGuigan, David MacKenzie and Richard Jobson. To date a first time feature director in Scotland has a 50% chance of making a second feature and an 18% chance of making a third – such is natural selection in the movie game.  (Actually the 50% second feature rate is comparatively high).

Mullan’s second feature, The Magdalene Sisters (2002) presents a case study in the elasticity if not the elusive utility of the distinction between critical and commercial success, not something acknowledged in the generally sneering tone adopted by press commentators whenever a public funder takes a risk in what is an inherently extremely risky business.  Back in 2001 when the film’s producers (Frances & Paddy Higson and Ed Guiney) were struggling to complete the film’s financing in the UK and were contemplating moving production to Ireland, Scottish Screen stepped in with an additional injection of £170k on top of the £500k it had already committed to the project.  In a classic of the film-agency bashing genre and under the headline WHY ARE WE PLOUGHING SO MUCH CASH INTO MOVIE FLOPS? the Scotsman’s resident Jeremiah George Kerevan quoted (then) Scottish Screen Chairman James Lee defending the agency’s top-up investment : “Peter Mullan is a very special Scottish talent and we want to back his second feature film. His first, Orphans, was an outstanding critical success.” Kerevan commented that “The words “critical success” are code for not making any money” adding:

The exact rationale for funding Magdalene – hardly a commercial bet, given its content – is unclear and sums up the present policy muddle over what films to support and why. Mullan’s talents both as a director and actor are proven, so the “bringing on talent” benchmark hardly applies.

Well in this case Mr Kerevan should have placed that bet – over 2.5 million people in Europe bought tickets to see it in cinemas with another 811,000 in the US where it grossed nearly $5m in cinemas bringing its estimated world box office gross to over $20m (against a production budget of £2m).  Add DVD and TV sales to that and it becomes one of the most profitable Scottish films of all time, not to mention its critical success in winning the Golden Lion at Venice, the Discovery Award at Toronto, the San Diego Critics’ Award, the European MEDIA prize and a host of other wins and nominations.

The film is notable in other respects too.  Although it did well in the UK (over 443, 305 admissions) and Ireland (191,420) it did even better in France (562, 782) and Italy (760, 845). Given the storyline the figures for the latter two are, in hindsight, perhaps not so surprising given those countries’ Catholic populations but that can hardly accounts for the 131,946 in Denmark (which has a Catholic population of less than 1%) who bought a ticket, almost certainly more than did so in Scotland.  This pattern of international success is by no means unique.  Ken Loach’s films for example (Scottish or otherwise)  routinely  perform much better in France than here but other Scottish Director’s films have also resonated more abroad than at home: David MacKenzie’s Asylum was more popular in Italy than here as was Paul McQuigan’s Acid House Trilogy.

So the critical and commercial success of Magdelene Sisters is proof, once again, of William Goldman’s adage that ‘nobody knows anything’ and those who attempt to prove that adage wrong are likely, sooner or later, to end up with egg on their face.

 Footnote: One film ‘Last King of Scotland’ is rather contentious in this category. If you count it as Scottish then Kevin MacDonald tops the chart, if you don’t Peter Mullan does.  In my view Last King.. is a British film, albeit directed by a Scot, produced by  London based company DNA with a (London-based) Scottish co-producer, Andrea Calderwood’s Slate Films.  Its Scottish credentials are boosted by a small amount of filming in Scotland and a small investment by Scottish Screen, but realistically it’s a minority Scottish co-production.


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