First the good news – the EU MEDIA fund invested nearly €8m in UK film, television and interactive media companies last year, supporting everything from documentary film project development and training programmes such as our very own ENGAGE project to UK distribution companies like Artificial Eye and Soda Pictures and Scottish cinemas such as Glasgow Film Theatre, DCA and Filmhouse.
Now the bad news. Scotland’s share of MEDIA funds to support film and television production has slumped to its second lowest level ever while Welsh and Irish producers continue to access much higher levels of development cash. The Welsh, for example, between 2001 and 2009 secured over twice as much (€4m) development cash as Scotland’s €1.9m.
The EU MEDIA programme, which in various guises has been running since 1990, is designed to help build a stronger European industry and promote wider circulation of film and TV across national boundaries. The UK has historically done well out of MEDIA’s various interventions in training, project development, distribution and exhibition and in the past Scottish production companies have been quite successful at tapping this investment source. So while its great to see two Scottish based companies (Synchronicity Films and True TV & Film) sharing in the €1.1m of funds awarded to the UK in the latest round of single project funding its rather worrying that there are only two. It’s even more worrying to see that none of our production companies have secured slate development funds since 2006. It would be comforting to think that these figures are just a blip rather than symptomatic of a trend but looking back over the past decade our analysis shows that from a high in the early 2000’s, Scotland’s share of MEDIA investment in production companies has dropped steadily since 2004 while England, Wales and Ireland’s shares have held up well, especially given enlargement of the EU in 2005. Looking at MEDIA project, slate and TV broadcasting funds combined Scottish companies’ take has declined from an average of over €300K in the first half of the decade to around €60K on average over the past four years.
Of particular concern is the fact that no Scottish-based company has secured MEDIA slate funding since 2006. (London based Ecosse films secured slate funding in 2008 and have just announced they are opening a Glasgow office headed up by former Scottish Screen Head of Talent Carole Sheridan but it would be misleading to count them in the 2008 figures on that basis). Slate funding gives production companies vital working capital with some discretion over which particular project it is invested in, depending on timing and market conditions. Given that one might reasonably expect that over the last few years more companies would be in a position to put forward a slate of projects the figures suggest that the companies that have previously received slate funding are not yet in a position to secure a second tranche and that newer companies that have previously received single project funding still haven’t reached the point where they can present a credible basket of projects. (The most optimistic interpretation is that they don’t need MEDIA’s help at all because they are able to access sufficient development funds elsewhere but this is rather unlikely.) Alternatively it may be that Scottish companies simply aren’t developing projects with appeal outside the UK which for some television genres is quite likely but for feature film, documentary and animation, co-production is practically obligatory so the fact that so few have succeeded to secure that most precious of risk money, development funding, is a significant indicator of international weakness in the Scottish production sector.
There are, it has to be said, some bigger issues at stake here. Scotland, because it is a part of the UK, doesn’t benefit from designation as a country ‘with low audiovisual production capacity’ unlike every other EU country other than France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Ireland, on the other hand does, and designation as such earns more points in the competitive evaluation of funding bids. That said Wales doesn’t benefit from the designation yet its producers are doing a lot better than the Scots.
As ever in the screen industry Ireland presents a useful comparator and there the story is once again rather different. Over the past decade Irish producers have typically accessed three times as much MEDIA funding as Scots and, tellingly, have in the past three years secured over a million Euros of slate development funding compared to a princely €80,000 in Scotland.
At the other end of the journey from idea to screen is distribution and once again the MEDIA programme offers support to hard pressed independent production companies trying to get their programmes seen beyond the UK. In the early 2000’s Scottish producers regularly accessed the TV Broadcasting fund, averaging over €120,000 a year investment from 2001 to 2004. Since then no Scottish company has been awarded support while Welsh producers have on average received over half a million euros a year. The existence of a well resourced Welsh (and English) language broadcaster –S4C – may be the key here as it plays a pivotal role in co-financing and broadcasting deals with its opposite numbers in other European countries. Scotland, by contrast, can bring very little to the table in terms of domestic broadcaster investment.
It isn’t pleasant drawing attention to these comparisons but without considering the facts, however unpalatable they are, we won’t get very far in identifying what is needed to improve Scottish film and television’s international presence and revenues.
In the film sector in particular co-production is a practical necessity even if opinion is divided about whether it’s always desirable. The combination of limited domestic markets and the fact that distributor/financiers need to find partners to share the risk of what are relatively small slates of projects, mean few European films of any scale are made without at least one partner from another territory. Indeed Hollywood studios apply exactly the same risk spreading principle to the financing of studio slates so the economic logic of co-financing is pretty much universal. The extent to which the pull of co-production may distort the creative integrity or unnecessarily complicate the production process and add costs is a much debated topic. It featured for example in the most recent cycle of ENGAGE co-production workshops for new filmmakers led by Screen Academy Scotland. But even if many producers view co-production as a mixed blessing, for the foreseeable future it can only continue to grow in importance and in that context support systems such as the MEDIA programme remain a vital aid to developing and distributing across borders. Scotland’s production community is clearly missing out on that support and needs to address why that is. Equally Blair Jenkins and the rest of the expert panel hatching plans for a Scottish Digital Network ought to consider carefully how to engage with international audiences and finance if Scottish screen talent, product and producers are to reach beyond these borders.