Posts Tagged 'Ireland'

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.

 

Irish film alive and kicking

For the fifth year running I’m at Ireland’s National Film School  for the first of three workshops in our ENGAGE film talent development programme.  Every time I visit what strikes me about film in Ireland isn’t so much that there’s more going on than in Scotland (though there is, as there’s more money, a bigger and more clearly defined audience and all the less obvious benefits that come from being an independent state) but that there’s much more of a buzz and a more tangible sense of a real community of interest than back home.  Leafing through the once monthly, now quarterly Film Ireland or visiting the Irish Film and Television Network website or the Irish Film Institute you can’t help but feel that filmmakers, critics, institutions, educators and the wider film audience are talking to each other, or at least abreast of what’s going on (or isn’t and should be), in a way that is rather lacking in Scotland.  It’s a long time since we’ve been able to support a print magazine dedicated to celebrating/debating/informing on all things screen with the production values and sense of confidence of Film Ireland.  Scottish Film and Visual Arts had a go in the 90s, Variant hosted an occasionally thought-provoking piece and Scottish Screen’s Rough Cuts, though sometimes rather cringe-inducing in its lack of discrimination or editorial quality control, was nonetheless a very important information conduit, if not really a place to debate the issues of the day.  Similarly our online media portals, good as they are (e.g. ReelScotland, David Cairn’s blog), don’t (yet) have the same reach or the same ‘must check’ quality as IFTN.

Why this should be so has long puzzled me. We don’t appear to lack for things to write/talk about and there appear to be plenty of aspirant film journalists/critics/commentators who could rise to the challenge of creating a genuinely ‘authoritative’ epublication.  From sharing experiences and publicizing opportunities to find funding or collaborators to holding institutions to account or debating the business, politics and ethics of filmmaking, we ought to be able to ‘get Scotland talking’ just as much as it seems Ireland already does.

 

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.

Scotland’s missing MEDIA millions

First the good news – the EU MEDIA fund invested nearly €8m in UK film, television and interactive media companies last year, supporting everything from documentary film project development and training programmes such as our very own ENGAGE project to UK distribution companies like Artificial Eye and Soda Pictures and Scottish cinemas such as Glasgow Film Theatre, DCA and Filmhouse.

Now the bad news. Scotland’s share of MEDIA funds to support film and television production has slumped to its second lowest level ever while Welsh and Irish producers continue to access much higher levels of development cash.  The Welsh, for example, between 2001 and 2009 secured over twice as much (€4m) development cash as Scotland’s €1.9m.

The EU MEDIA programme, which in various guises has been running since 1990, is designed to help build a stronger European industry and promote wider circulation of film and TV across national boundaries.  The UK has historically done well out of MEDIA’s various interventions in training, project development, distribution and exhibition and in the past Scottish production companies have been quite successful at tapping this investment source. So while its great to see two Scottish based companies (Synchronicity Films and True TV & Film) sharing in the €1.1m of funds awarded to the UK in the latest round of single project funding its rather worrying that there are only two.  It’s even more worrying to see that none of our production companies have secured slate development funds since 2006. It would be comforting to think that these figures are just a blip rather than symptomatic of a trend but looking back over the past decade our analysis shows that from a high in the early 2000’s, Scotland’s share of MEDIA investment in production companies has dropped steadily since 2004 while England, Wales and Ireland’s shares have held up well, especially given enlargement of the EU in 2005.  Looking at MEDIA project, slate and TV broadcasting funds combined Scottish companies’ take has declined from an average of over €300K in the first half of the decade to around €60K on average over the past four years.

Of particular concern is the fact that no Scottish-based company has secured MEDIA slate funding since 2006. (London based Ecosse films secured slate funding in 2008 and have just announced they are opening a Glasgow office headed up by former Scottish Screen Head of Talent Carole Sheridan but it would be misleading to count them in the 2008 figures on that basis). Slate funding gives production companies vital working capital with some discretion over which particular project it is invested in, depending on timing and market conditions.  Given that one might reasonably expect that over the last few years more companies would be in a position to put forward a slate of projects the figures suggest that the companies that have previously received slate funding are not yet in a position to secure a second tranche and that newer companies that have previously received single project funding still haven’t reached the point where they can present a credible basket of projects.  (The most optimistic interpretation is that they don’t need MEDIA’s help at all because they are able to access sufficient development funds elsewhere but this is rather unlikely.)  Alternatively it may be that Scottish companies simply aren’t developing projects with appeal outside the UK which for some television genres is quite likely but for feature film, documentary and animation, co-production is practically obligatory so the fact that so few have succeeded to secure that most precious of risk money, development funding, is a significant indicator of international weakness in the Scottish production sector.

There are, it has to be said, some bigger issues at stake here.  Scotland, because it is a part of the UK, doesn’t benefit from designation as a country ‘with low audiovisual production capacityunlike every other EU country other than France, Germany, Italy and Spain.  Ireland, on the other hand does, and designation as such earns more points in the competitive evaluation of funding bids.  That said Wales doesn’t benefit from the designation yet its producers are doing a lot better than the Scots.

As ever in the screen industry Ireland presents a useful comparator and there the story is once again rather different.  Over the past decade Irish producers have typically accessed three times as much MEDIA funding as Scots and, tellingly, have in the past three years secured over a million Euros of slate development funding compared to a princely €80,000 in Scotland.

At the other end of the journey from idea to screen is distribution and once again the MEDIA programme offers support to hard pressed independent production companies trying to get their programmes seen beyond the UK.  In the early 2000’s Scottish producers regularly accessed the TV Broadcasting fund, averaging over €120,000 a year investment from 2001 to 2004.  Since then no Scottish company has been awarded support while Welsh producers have on average received over half a million euros a year.  The existence of a well resourced Welsh (and English) language broadcaster –S4C – may be the key here as it plays a pivotal role in co-financing and broadcasting deals with its opposite numbers in other European countries.  Scotland, by contrast, can bring very little to the table in terms of domestic broadcaster investment.

It isn’t pleasant drawing attention to these comparisons but without considering the facts, however unpalatable they are, we won’t get very far in identifying what is needed to improve Scottish film and television’s international presence and revenues.

In the film sector in particular co-production is a practical necessity even if opinion is divided about whether it’s always desirable.  The combination of limited domestic markets and the fact that distributor/financiers need to find partners to share the risk of what are relatively small slates of projects, mean few European films of any scale are made without at least one partner from another territory.  Indeed Hollywood studios apply exactly the same risk spreading principle to the financing of studio slates so the economic logic of co-financing is pretty much universal.  The extent to which the pull of co-production may distort the creative integrity or unnecessarily complicate the production process and add costs is a much debated topic.  It featured for example in the most recent cycle of ENGAGE co-production workshops for new filmmakers led by Screen Academy Scotland.  But even if many producers view co-production as a mixed blessing, for the foreseeable future it can only continue to grow in importance and in that context support systems such as the MEDIA programme remain a vital aid to developing and distributing across borders. Scotland’s production community is clearly missing out on that support and needs to address why that is. Equally Blair Jenkins and the rest of the expert panel hatching plans for a Scottish Digital Network ought to consider carefully how to engage with international audiences and finance if Scottish screen talent, product and producers are to reach beyond these borders.

Irish eyes not smiling enough at the box office

Echoing our last post there’s a bit of a debate going on in the Irish film industry about whether local films are doing as well as can be expected at the box office.  Writing in the Irish Times, veteran Irish film industry commentator Ted Sheehy observes that “The criticism that many of the films aren’t good enough to perform in the marketplace is the elephant in the auditorium which many people in the trade will not address on the record.”

Adding fuel to the fire are the box office stats showing a decline in the year-on-year box office for Irish films from a shade under €2m in 2007 to around €600k in 2009.  While this might look like a major cause for concern,  actually that kind of volatility is to be expected when you are dealing with a release slate only just above double figures.   If you look at box office performance over a longer time period, the smaller the number of films released per year the greater the year-on-year volatility.  In other words you’re bound to have boom years and bust years.  Not much consolation to filmmakers, distributors and audiences but an important fact to bear in mind when trying to analyse why one year was better than another – it’s almost certainly down to the ‘stochastic’ nature of box office performance where there are so many determinants, some small, some big, on an idea’s evolution into a film and then its reception once it’s released that performance is, literally, unpredictable, except in aggregate (whcih is only helpful if you are a studio).

Of course all this doesn’t mean no-one and nothing influences the outcome – there’s good writing and bad writing, good directing and bad directing and good marketing and bad – just that none of these can reliably guarantee a particular outcome at the box office.    If you make 100 films enough of them will be good enough to get people recommending them to their friends and survive opening weekend to make a reasonable return while a pile of them won’t get distributed and will be forgotten about. Make ten and everyone expects all of them to be succesful or ‘questions will be asked’.  Well theycan ask, but they will be hard pressed to get a useful answer other than – make more films and keep trying to make them as good as possible.

Scots film output needs to reach Danish levels to achieve take-off speed

I can’t say I was very surprised to read that Danes have been flocking to the cinema to see Armadillo, Janus Metz’s documentary portrayal of Danish troops in Afghanistan.  The Danes, like the Scots, are a nation  of five million or so, and avid cinema goers like us, but the big difference is that they have a steady supply of Danish films to watch and watch them they do.  With Danish films averaging an impressive 27% audience share of the Danish box office only France has a bigger appetite (38%) for its own cinematic produce.

Of the many factors that might account for the popularity of Danish films on home turf, the buoyant state of production could be a primary cause or is it an effect – or both?  Either way from research that I will be presenting at a conference of (mainly) cultural economists in Copenhagen next week, there can be little doubt that there is a correlation between the two.  Or to be more precise we can see a close relationship between domestic production levels and audience share once a nation’s film output rises above the level Scotland (or indeed Ireland) currently sustain. 

Here in Scotland we make so few (typically five) films a year that the annual audience share for local films fluctuates wildly depending on the presence or absence of a single hit film.  In a good year it can be as much as 7% but on average its less than 1%.  Ireland, making around eighteen films a year, still only manages an average 5% market share.  It’s only when production regularly exceeds that level that a country appears to be able to sustain an audience share above 10%.  As production rises the market share follows (see graph) but does so more slowly, particularly above 25% (the UK level) and it takes considerably more films per percentage point of audience up to the ceiling of just under 40% found in France.

LINK TO GRAPH: Film output and market share

Perhaps the most significant point about this relationship, for Scotland at least, is the relatively steep start to the curve.  Quadrupling Scottish film production from its current average of five to around twenty a year could see the audience grow by a factor of fifteen or more and produce a much healthier return on total investment than we currently expect or get.  As, if not more, importantly it would greatly expand opportunities for new filmmakers to prove their talents and existing filmmakers to move onto their second or third film, a crucial point in career development both critically and commercially.

For many years filmmakers and commentators have spoken of a magic figure of around ten to twelve films a year as a kind of ‘take-off’ point for a sustainable (Scottish) film industry.  Well the evidence suggests this is not quite enough to get off the runway.  But get the speedometer up to twenty and things could be different.  Another task for the Creative Scotland ‘to do’ list and a challenge for all of us concerned with the fate of Scottish film to secure the stories, the finance and the distribution if we want to see ‘chocks away’.


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