Posts Tagged 'film production'

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The long road to a scottish film studio

We noted yesterday some of the previous attempts to sustain a film studio in Scotland and given the Scotsman’s piece today on the debate and since on Fridays part of our mission is to recover some of Scotland’s endangered film history let’s skip back a few decades in time to previous newspaper reports of Scotland’s film studio, or lack thereof:

First the thirties and one of many comparisions between Scotland and Denmark:

“Denmark and Norway maintain a steady production, and Sweden has a widely known and respected film tradition.  Scotland does have one fully equipped film studio and laboratory, capable of turning out films on a comparatively modest scale.  At their India Street studios in Glasgow, Scottish Film Productions have just completed their most ambitious production.  This is “The River Clyde” produced for the Clyde Navigation Trustees, and directed by Stanley L. Russell from a scenario by George Blake.  Perhaps the most significant aspect of the films that, apart from the film stock, it was made entirely in Scotland – financed by a Scottish institution, written by a Scottish autor, directed by a Scotsman, and completed for the screen in a Scottish laboratory.  Clearly we have the technical requirements for film-making.  Finance, production strength and a market may follow.” ‘A Stevenson travesty, Kidnapped from Hollywood’ The Scotsman 28 Jun 1938 

the forties

“AT first glance there appear to be several reasons why Scotland should have her own film industry, a prospect which formed the subject of a question by Major Lloyd to the Secretary of State for Scotland yesterday.  The picture the screen has presented of Scotland over many years has given little satisfaction to Scotsmen; their history, habits and clothes have been repeatedly travesties in films made four hundred or four thousand miles away.  … …The project abroad of a  travesty of the Scottish story is, therefore, not a mater of indifference; and in addition to the cultural aspect, the film is a valuable instrument of propaganda for a country’s commerce and industry … These are arguments in favour of good and trustworthy Scottish films; they are not necessarily arguments in favour of the establishment of a Scottish film industry.  A film industry connotes studios, equipment, technicians, distributing organisation, and hard-won experience – expensive though not unobtainable items, given sufficient capital.  On the whole, it seems unlikely that these requirements will be met in such a way as to give Scotland a fil industry in any way comparable with those of London and Hollywood. “ Editorial Article the Scotsman, 3/2/44

“Good wishes will attend the launching, with Board of Trade approval, of Scottish National Film Studios, Ltd. Which is appealing for public subscription, in gifts or loans, of £100,000 to put a Scottish film industry on the map.  The new company’s resources are enough for it to have planned already the production of three films, but it is justified in requesting solid support from the Scottish public with which to embark on more ambitious ventures while marinating the ideals which it has started. [But] the real test, and the real ambition of this venture, must ultimately be the production of full-length “story” films with which to challenge the world’s markets. ‘Scotland on the screen’, Glasgow Herald, 9 April 1946 

the 1950s...

“What he [Sir Compton Mackenize, speaking about new Albion Film Company] hoped to do, he said, was to repeat  if possible, the success of “Whisky Galore”.  If that could be done he would try to raise enough money in this country for a third production.  After that there might be film studios in Scotland for it was no use talking about Scottish films until Scotland had her own film studios.” Film Venture’s Plans – Glasgow Herald, Oct 12, 1953 

“Mr Elder, who had toured Denmark to study Danish film production, asked why Denmark had a thriving film industry while Scotland, with 1,000,000 more of a population and the advantage of the English language had not one film studio in the country. Scotland was rich in talent and colorful background for the producing of films and had made several efforts to enter the industry,  These had been individual ventures without adequate backing, said Mr Elder.  He suggested that a group of Scottish exhibitors should meet with other interested parties to form a trust, acquire modest studio premises and initiate production.  Modest feature films could be made at least as successfully in Scotland as in Denmark, he said.” ‘Scotland’s Poor Film Record – Denmark’s Example.  Glasgow Herald, 1 February 1955 

“A Scottish film studio is the only thing lacking to provide all-the-year round employment for actors in Scotland Mr Alex. McCrindle, Scottish secretary, yesterday told member of the British Actors Equity Association at a meeting in Edinburgh…The question was being considered by the Scottish committee and if nothing could be done commercially the only thing would be for them to demand that a national film studio for making feature films in Scotland should be established by the Government.”  The Glasgow Herald 8 Sep 1958

Plus ca change!

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!

Asia and Latin America steam ahead at the Box Office while more US films chase fewer US dollars

The just released MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) theatrical statistics for 2011 show a continuing rise in global box office with an overall rise of 3% but that figure masks where the real growth is occurring – which is in China (up 35%) and Latin America (up 24%). The US and Canada, by way of contrast, experienced a 4% drop in box office year on year.  Behind the box office figure, boosted both by inflation and the premium cost of 3D tickets (sales of which dropped, ominously, by 18% from 2010 to 2011) the long-term US decline in admissions is also clear – down from 1.57 bn to 1.28 bn between 2002 and 2011, or per person an average of 5.2 dropping to 3.9.

Taking a longer (five-year) view the report confirms that the US ‘domestic’ market, having grown by just 6% between 2007 and 2011,  continues to decline as a proportion of the global box office as ‘International’ (i.e. non US) box office grew by 35% over the same period.

The ‘regional’ figures show just how fast box office is growing south, west and east of North America:

Territory Percentage change  in box office 2007-11
Europe, Middle East & Africa

+ 24%

Asia Pacific

+38%

Latin America

+86%

TOTAL          

+35%

More low budget and independent films, fewer studio films.

Undaunted by falling ticket sales, US filmmakers are turning out movies in ever greater numbers but more and more of them are low to micro budget while the studios have trimmed their production slates.  MPAA members (the established end of the business) produced 97 films in 2011 compared to 137 in 2007.  By comparison in 2011 non-members made over 400 films (at an estimated $1m or higher budget), up from 360 in 2007.  And at the under$1m budget level production rose to 319 in 2011 from 290 in 2007.

All in all over 800 films were produced in 2011 hoping to get a theatrical release of which around 610 made it onto a big screen, just under a quarter of which (141) were from MPAA members and the balance (469) from non-members.  Which sounds like there is plenty of box office to go round until you consider the way it splits across those releases.

According to box office mojo the top 200 titles of 2011 collected just over $10.02 of the $10.2bn in domestic box office, which left $180m for the remaining 400 odd titles, an average (and as regular readers of this blog will know there are no average films!)  of $450k per film.  Since the 80/20 rule tends to apply all the way down (see previous posts ad nauseum) you can readily see that the majority must have tanked.  Once you get down to no. 300, a film called October Baby, its $199,442 from 14 theatres is far from the worst performance in the charts.

Whose to say if it or any of those languishing further down the charts might still have a life on DVD/VOD but the chances of making a buck are pretty remote.  Those are the breaks at the roulette table of cinema, after all not even Disney get it right every time!

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.

Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise – the first crowd-funded film?

If you believe Wikipedia (which I sometimes do, but only once I’ve cross checked the sources) “Crowd funding in the film industry was pioneered by French entrepreneurs and producers Benjamin Pommeraud and Guillaume Colboc from company fr:Guyom Corp. when they launched a public Internet donation campaign in August 2004“.

Actually wily producers like Scotland’s own cigar-toting maverick David McWinnie were at it in the mid 1990s when he offered anyone who could stump up a grand or so a vanity credit and the generous offer of being an (unpaid!) extra.

But Jean Renoir was way ahead of the game back in 1938 when he used public subscription to finance La Marseillasie.  It seems (according to Bert Hogenkamp in his book Deadly Parallels): “A two franc share entitled the holder to a deduction of the same amount on the price of a ticket after the release of the film“.

So the moral of this tale is, as with so much else, don’t believe the hype about the ‘newness’ of the new.  The internet may make it faster, easier and more visible but original ideas are few and far between…

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.

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.

Film been turned down for funding? that’s showbusiness

Writer and actor Ford Kiernan is reportedly rather frustrated that his film Seven Songs for Amy is being made in Ireland after having been turned down by Scottish Screen (Interest declared: a former employer of mine, though it no longer exists).  Well of course they did. Why?  Not because it wasnt any good or despite it being good (I have no idea of the quality of the project) but because everybody, repeat everybody (with the exception of Pixar), is very, very bad at picking winning film ideas.

It’s as simple as that – many very succesful films get turned down several times by very smart, very succesful executives in studios, independent companies and public agencies.  Equally the majority of films that do get made disappear without trace.  Film development is a game of chance (for a personal experience see previous post ) in which judgement and taste are important but not determinant and routinely overstated (see http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/10.1086/209624.pdf?acceptTC=true) and no-one (well Pixar do seem to be the exception) has devised a system to beat the odds.  This has been shown repeatedly, with considerable scientific rigour and is part of the fundamental reality of the creative industries.  One person passes on a project and another says yes.  Fire the former and promote the latter and you’ll soon find the terms reversed.  (There’s some evidence that US Studio Executives are often fired for underperformance shortly before the projects they have actually been involved in developing get released and the studio’s performance improves.  In other words they get blamed for their predecessor’s decisions and their decisions get credited to their successor. For more on this and a good non-technical introduction to chaos in movie making see Leonard Mlodinow’s  Chaotic – How Hollywood really operates.).

Seven Songs for Amy may well turn out to be a smash hit like The Inbetweeners or it may tank.  If the former, then Scottish Screen’s decision will be seen as poor, if the latter as wise.  Twenty-twenty hindsight is the curse of this business and those close to a production are always going to be miffed when an exec passes on their cherished project.  There is a good case to invest public funds to keep productions in Scotland on economic grounds but those funds need to be kept separate from those invested on the grounds of a film’s significance to our culture or audience needs.  In either case some decisions will prove to have been smart, others not, that’s life in a risky business.

Irish film and TV goes from strength to strength

Ireland’s screen sector posted record results in 2010, doubling production value to €388m from €145m in 2009  according to its Audiovisual Federation’s annual report.  Feature film accounted for €117m (€35m) of that output (with Irish spend in brackets)  Independent TV €242m (€150) and animation €30m (€20m).  The Irish exchequer received a total of €171m from film and TV production. Domestic investment from all sources totalled €130m leveraging overseas investment of €258.

The feature film sector itself almost doubled in value to $117m with the aid of €23m of Irish investment (most of it public) which leveraged €93m of overseas investment, of which €6m came from the UK, €51m from the rest of the EU and €30m from the US.

We will be looking at these figures in more detail in a future post but suffice to say whatever else is happening in the Irish economy its screen sector is not suffering from the recession.

What is a Scottish movie? Wuthering Heights and the wittering Herald

According to today’s Sunday Herald “A Scottish movie version of Emily Bronte’s brooding romance Wuthering Heights picked up an award for best cinematography at the Venice Film Festival last night”.  On this account what qualifies Andrea Arnold’s latest film as a Scottish hit is Ecosse Films‘ producer Douglas Rae’s nationality, his track record of producing Mrs Brown and BBC’s Monarch of the Glen and the fact that his production company now has a Scottish office.

With Skye-based producer Chris Young’s The Inbetweeners topping the box office for a third week in a row with a cumulative £35m that makes it the third highest grossing film of the year, it would seem Scottish film-making is riding the crest of the wave – or is it?

Sadly this journalistic boosterism (albeit perennially counter-balanced by equally wide of the mark doom mongering) is the arts and entertainment equivalent of ‘Titanic sinks: Aberdeen man lost at sea’.  Notwithstanding Arnold’s previous Scottish connections (the Martin Compston and Kate Dickie starring Red Road, shot in Glasgow and co-produced by Sigma Films) and Doug Rae’s Scottish roots, until the very welcome opening of its Scottish office last year, this has been a film and a production company about as solidly English-based and focused as its possible to be.  If only Scotland could legitimately lay claim to such a broadly-based and prolific drama operation as London-based Ecosse with over 200 hours of network drama from An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Mistresses to He Kills Coppers and nine films including Charlotte Gray, Becoming Jane, The Water Horse and Nowhere Boy!

Since Mrs Brown in1997 Ecosse’s film output has had precious little economic or cultural relevance to Scotland save the location shooting of The Water Horse.  Nor should we expect it to just because of the company name.  Wuthering Heights is by most accounts a very fine film but it isn’t in any meaningful sense Scottish from story, cast and crew to locations, production company or financiers. To claim it as ‘A Scottish Movie’ is just silly and doesn’t help us have a mature discussion about the fortunes of Scottish film-making which is something we very much need.  Papers need pegs to hang stories on but its a rather sad indictment of newspaper coverage of Scotland’s film and TV industry that this kind of flim-flam makes it on to page two of a serious newspaper.

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!

The hot scottish screen projects and talents of 2001 – where are they now?

Back in 2001 there were 53 feature film projects in funded development at Scottish Screen – a cumulative investment of just under £700,000 – I know this because back then I was the Executive in charge of script and project development. The agency was established in 1997, inheriting the functions of (and not a few projects from) its predecessor the Scottish Film Production Fund. Scottish Screen in its turn gave way last year to Creative Scotland which has taken on the mantle of investment in Scotland’s screen talent and championing its screen production.

Of those fifty-odd scripts (one or two quite literally so) to the best of my knowledge five have been produced.  A couple of these you will probably have heard of and may well have seen: Young Adam, David Mackenzie’s 2003 adaptation of the Alexander Trocchi novel starring Tilda Swinton and Ewan Macgregor, or The Flying Scotsman, the true story of cycling ace Graham Oberee starring Johnny Lee Miller in the title role. The others you might not have encountered: Stewart Svassand’s One Last Chance (2004), Paul Pender’s Evelyn (2002) and Sergio Casci and Don Coutts American Cousins (2003). Together though, these were ‘the ones that succeeded’ out of the class of 2001, confirming that rule of thumb that one in ten funded developments will make it to the screen.

Was the remainder of the investment (roughly £600K) in those projects that didn’t get made wasted?

No and here’s why:

Firstly as William Goldman sagely observed, no-body knows anything and a one in ten production ratio is par for the course.

Secondly, whether you are a studio, a public agency or an independent producer, development isn’t just about having a punt on a project – it’s an investment in talent and relationships.  This project may or may not pay off but through the process of working on it a collaboration is developed, tested and if it gels may be the seed of future success.  For the individual company or studio the hope is that the talent will stick to you and eventually the right project will get green-lit.  For the public agency however the payback need not be so direct.  If the talent goes onto to make a contribution to the industry/culture as a whole – the common good as it were – then the investment will have been worthwhile.

So what happened to the ‘unmade’ talent of 2001? Here’s a selection of those attached to the projects that didn’t get made:

Craig Ferguson – now a star of US TV. Morag MacKinnon –TV directing career (Nice Guy Eddie, Buried, The Innocence Project)and first feature (Donkeys co-written by 2001 writer partner Colin Mclaren) released in 2010. Jack Lothian –TV writing career (Totally Frank, Doc Martin ShamelessPatrick Harkins has a TV writing and directing career including Sea of Souls and Taggart). Mark Greig has written for The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Life On Mars, Ashes to Ashes and ParadoxEleanor Yule has been directing  documentaries including Crimes that shook the world and drama documentaries on Dennis Nilsen and Ian Brady. David Kane has had a successful career in television as a writer (Sea of Souls, Rebus, Foyles War, Taggart) and recently director (The Field of Blood). Brian Kirk – went on direct TV in Ireland (Pulling Moves) England (Murphy’s Law, Funland) and the US (Father and Son, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones). Robert Murphy has written for Murder City, Cape Wrath and DCI Banks: Aftermath.And then there’s Gilles Mackinnon, Ian Sellar, Brian Elsley, Mike Cullen, Karen McLachlan and Margy Kinmonth.

So all in all at least half of the people that Scottish Screen backed in 2001 have and continue to make an important creative and commercial contribution  to film or TV here and abroad.  That’s the bigger picture of public investment in screen project development and a salutatory reminder that ‘getting it made’ isn’t the only relevant measure of whether an investment has been worthwhile.  That said its notable how the careers of the class of 2001 depend on television and, by the same token, how restricted Scottish feature film production remains (a point regular readers will be familiar with).  With the average age of a first time feature director in Scotland remaining stubbornly around the 40 mark and the competition for the more prestigious, high budget single or 2-part TV dramas at least as intense as it has ever been, the creative bottleneck facing the class of 2010 is unlikely to get much looser any time soon.  So talent development remains a risky game which, for the time being at least, only pays off in the long run.  Good luck to the class of 2010!

 

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.


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Twitter feed

Unless otherwise credited all text and image IP is mine