Posts Tagged 'film investment'

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..

Independent Screens

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would make things better in an independent Scotland?

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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

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

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

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!

A hundred years of investing in Scottish film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Future for (Scottish) Film?

A Future for British Film’ (Lord), Chris Smith’s Review of UK Film Policy, is packed with recommendations so inevitably commentaries have tended to focus on a selection  – production, exhibition, culture finance etc. and this one is no different.  The significance for filmmakers of suggested changes to the investment environment and recoupment, getting distributors into the financing process earlier etc have been well covered in the trades and elsewhere so let’s take a moment to ask what does it all mean specifically for Scotland?

Firstly this is an independent report setting out to the Westminster Government, the BFI and others recommendations which they may or may not choose to follow.  While the Scottish Government (and key bodies such as Creative Scotland or the NLS where the Scottish Film Archive now sits) have no formal obligation to pay it any heed, it nonetheless has great significance for film in Scotland, from education and training to production, exhibition and archive as it both sets out key issues and challenges and some of the means by which they might be addressed.  In doing so it has the potential to bolster the case made by various interest groups (not always entirely shared) – from educators to exhibitors – for funding and other interventions.

The Review has direct implications for how the BFI may relate in future to Creative Scotland and other Scottish bodies and, in passing, it prompts not a few questions abut how a future Independent, or at least fiscally independent, Scotland would manage some of the matters which are currently reserved to the UK such as tax breaks for film production, the treatment of co-productions and so on.  (Indeed what the role of the BFI might be post independence or devo-max is an interesting but so far entirely unexamined question.)  In its submission to the Review the Scottish Government, amongst other things, called for film lottery funding to be fully delegated to Scotland and suggested that the BFI could also be made accountable to the Scottish Parliament for its activities in Scotland.

Back to the report then and amidst the welter of recommendations on treatment of producer’s equity, piracy, integration of film education and closer working between producers and distributors (now where have we heard that before? Oh yes, in 1997 when the Lottery Film Franchises were established…or even further back in 1980… plus ca change)  there are some which have specific significance for Scotland, vis:

Recommendation 6. (“The Panel recommends that the BFI should co-ordinate a joined-up UK-wide film festival offer, to promote independent British and specialised film and maximise value for money, utilising a mix of public funding and private investment and sponsorship.”) though it doesn’t mention it by name,  implies the continuing  importance of the Edinburgh International Film Festival to the UK film festival ecology but stresses the need for more to be done ‘to understand the role of local festivals and their relationship to international festivals in the UK’.  Growing festivals like Glasgow’s may take heart from that whereas Edinburgh may need to consider what role it wants to play as Scotland‘s centre of excellence in festival programming, curation and so on outside of the few weeks of the Festival itself.

Several commentators have highlighted the Review’s veiled criticism of UK Broadcasters for not doing enough to support the film ecology it benefits from to the tune  of £1.2bn in ‘economic value’ and the fact that 80% of UK film’s audience is via television.  While it resists calling outright for the statutory quotas for film investment or output which are common in outher parts of Europe, it does dangle them as a plan B if a voluntary solution isn’t found: “the Government initiates immediate discussions with each of the major broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and BSkyB – with the aim of agreeing a Memorandum of Understanding with each broadcaster setting out its agreed commitments to support British film. Should this approach prove unproductive, then the Government should look at legislative solutions, including new film-related licence requirements to be implemented in the new Communications Act.

From a Scottish perspective the question is whether such voluntary or statutory arrangements can produce a commitment to diversity of material and/or a specific commitment to film investment/output in Scotland by the terrestrial broadcasters.  Given the current scale of opt-out programme budgets and available slots this might seem implausible but STV’s drive to opt out of the ITV network more and more, the declining ‘entry cost’ of (low budget) feature film production, wider partnership opportunities with domestic and overseas co-producers and the greater flexibility over release ‘windows’ all make it much easier to envisage Scottish broadcasters part-funding festures for theatrical and near to simultaneous TV release.  Indeed without them it is difficult to imagine a sustainable Scottish film ecology.

Alongside finance and distribution, skills and talent development are crucial to the ‘supply side’ of film-making.  Sustaining the critical mass of craft skills in Scotland needed to support incoming and indigenous filmmaking and nurturing new talent to the point where it can attract investment from near or far remain high priorities (or ought to).  The Smith Review Panel “recommends that the BFI, in partnership with Skillset and BIS, continues to deliver and strengthen a strategy for skills which represents a ‘gold standard’. Such a strategy will help ensure that skills across the sector remain one of the UK’s great strengths, that our skills base continues to act as a powerful incentive for inward investment, and that the indigenous film sector is able to maximise benefits to audiences.”

Our own research has recently uncovered a worrying downward trend in film skills investment in Scotland over the past five years both in absolute terms (due to the cuts in funding to UK skills body Skillset) but also in percentage terms as the ‘centre’ of the industry has been, relatively speaking, protected.

Skillset Nations and regions spend

The Smith Review recognizes the ‘National and Regional Challenge’, noting that “Despite support for out-of-London film activities from National and Regional screen agencies, the UK film industry remains a London-centric business [which] presents challenges for the development of talent and on-screen representation of the UK’s Nations and Regions.”

In recommendation 44 Smith “recommends that the BFI works with and supports Creative England, the National Screen Agencies, Skillset and others to create a strategy to ensure diverse talent is found, supported and nurtured, outside of London. Ways should be found to help ensure that talented people can work, in a sustainable way, wherever they may wish to locate themselves in the UK.

Fine words though there is not much flesh on them in the report itself.  That said one of the concrete recommendations with a potential direct impact in Scotland (here I must declare an interest as Director of Screen Academy Scotland) relates to film schools:

“42. The Panel recommends that the BFI, together with Skillset, HEFCE and the Scottish Funding Council, undertakes a review of the three Skillset Film Academies, with the objective of establishing their readiness to be considered for the equivalent of ‘Conservatoire’ status for delivering world-class skills and training – similar to that enjoyed by leading music, drama and dance academies.”

Since we established Screen Academy Scotland in 2005, transforming the opportunities for film talent to pursue postgraduate, practice-based training in a well resourced, creative and risk-taking space, the goal of sustained funding at a per capita level commensurate with e.g, the National Film and Television School, has remain frustratingly close but just out of reach.  This recommendation by the Smith Review, if heeded, may finally help us close the gap and ensure that the nation’s film and television school does not have to live from hand to mouth, chasing funding on an annual basis.

All in all the Smith Review has much for filmmakers, educators, audiences and policymakers to welcome but of course the real test is what notice the Government(s) and BFI (whose own strategy is due out in a month or so) take of its recommendations and how much pressure is effectively brought to bear on them by the diverse (and largely disparate) interests that make up the audience for this report.


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