Posts Tagged 'Scottish newspapers'

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.

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.

One fort doesn’t make a film industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How new is the new creative economy and is it really shrinking?

In the first of an occasional Friday series on the language of policy we take a look at when and how ‘creative economy’ entered the lexicon of policy wonks, politicians, academics and the chattering classes (apologies if you feel you don’t belong to any of the foregoing!).

Many people think John Howkins coined the term with his 2001 book The Creative Economy but in fact it was in use considerably earlier than that.  Ten years earlier in The Times (April 13th 1991) Neil Kinnock was reported as indicating “Labour was proposing a move towards a ”learning society”, the only sure foundation of a creative economy. Labour’s technology trusts would bring together universities, industrialists and financial institutions. They would try to commercialize ideas developed in universities and by other public bodies, giving inventions a real chance of being manufactured in Britain.” 

The following year, 1992, Chinese Central committee member Yang Jike opined that: “the combination of science and technology with creative power results in a creative economy and a restructured economy; and the combination of science and technology with information results in an information economy and a policy-making economy” ( Xinhua news agency domestic service 7 Nov 1992)

A year later neighbouring Japan was looking forward to the Creative Economy in a Government sponsored report calling for “Formation of a Domestic-Demand-Led Economy and a Sophisticated, Creative Economy” as one of five core principles for economic reform. (The Daily Yomiuri, December 18, 1993)

Closer to home in 1995 an Irish Times opinion piece calling on the Irish Government to end subsidy of Temple Bar area (now somewhat synonymous with stag and hen parties but intended to be a dynamic cultural quarter) suggested: “The rest of the creative economy upon which the expensive edifice of government rests will have to fork out to pay for the tax-holiday of those in Temple Bar. There’s no such thing as a free lunch no such thing as a free tax-break. Somebody will always pay the revenue missing.”

Things really hotted up (in the UK) with Labour’s 1997 election and in a critique of the Arts Council of Great Britain (and in terms familiar to us from the debate over the establishment of Creative Scotland) the Guardian’s Johnathan Glancey observed: “For [Culture Minister Chris] Smith and New Labour it [the Arts Council] represents a top-down approach to the arts that seems not only out of step with Government thinking, but a long way removed from the way that the creative economy’ works in 1997. It does seem remarkable that full-time career bureaucrats, based largely in London, have the power to channel funds to one artist or group of artists and away from another. The paperwork, committees, in-fighting and jostling for position involved seem utterly divorced from the artistic process. Far better to be funded or commissioned by a maverick private patron, perhaps, than by committees. Great art is not the product of consensus, but of confidence, risk-taking and even recklessness.

Smith gave a speech on the Creative Economy at that Autumn’s Labour conference (though ‘Cool Britannia’ was the tabloid’s preferred term) and Tony Blair used the pages of the Mirror to say “Government can help build a creative economy fit to take on the world in the new Millennium.” (3/10/1997)

Back on home turf  (and eerily presaging Andrew Dixon’s recent tour)  in 1999 ‘ART CHIEFS HIT THE ROAD WITH MISSION TO LISTEN’ was the headline in The Scotsman (August 11th) reporting the launch of the national consultation on cultural strategy that has led, via many twists and turns, to where we are today, mere months away from the formal launch of the agency charged with making Scotland’s creative economy both bigger and better.  Eleven years back  “The value of the arts to Scotland’s economy is also stressed in the consultation document, Celebrating Scotland. The “creative economy” has been estimated by Scottish Enterprise as generating GBP 5.3 billion a year and sustaining 91,000 jobs.” 

Interestingly, if rather worryingly,  ten years later the Government told us “The creative industries in Scotland has an estimated turnover of £5.1 billion in 2007 and employed 60,700 people .” – not exactly good news if the data is truly like for like, which of course it almost certainly isn’t. (see Creative Industries, Creative Workers and the Creative Economy: A review of selected recent literature. )

Always ahead of the curve (and keen to work football into any discussion) Channel 4 nations and regions chief Stuart Cosgrove (rightly) berated the meeja/policy wonk’s determined focus on the issue of  ‘a Scottish Six’ (O’clock news)’  as a distraction from wider issues:

This month, Scotland’s two biggest clubs, Rangers and Celtic, will commission more media work than most broadcasters. They are vital to Scotland’s creative economies – building websites, driving e-commerce, pioneering live beam-back television, planning pay-per-view channels and commissioning sell-through videos for the Christmas market.”  (‘So who do you think controls the future of Scottish broadcasting?’ Scotsman 3/12/99)

As we entered the 2st century the term really took hold of our politicians’ imaginations: 

Scotland’s creative industries, already worth £5 billion every year, are to receive £25 million worth of investment as part of a new strategy, MSPs heard yesterday. The pledge was made by Nicol Stephen, deputy minister for enterprise, speaking during a debate on the creative economy. Mr Stephen said that the executive wanted to see the sector grow, year on year, by 10 per cent. Acknowledging that the sector was both “wide” and “diverse”, Mr Stephen explained that it encompassed industries as wide ranging as architecture, computer games and advertising.” (The Scotsman, 28/9/00)  By this point the number of people employed in the sector was miraculously back up to 100,000 (unlikely) – or he was using a different definition (likely).

Not everyone in Scotland at the turn of the millenium was so enamoured of the Creative Economy though. 

The debate on the “creative economy” is typical of this Government’s flatulent filibustering when it has nothing new to say but needs to deny debating time for more important issues like the SQA shambles. I ask Rhona Brankin if the Government will invest scarce public funds in a so-called film studio at Glasgow’s Pacific Quay when developers are already willing to make a huge private investment for a film studio of international scale elsewhere in Scotland. A polite body swerve is her response.” (Brian Montieth. MSP’s Parlimaemtary diary in the Herald 9/10/2000)

So the term ‘Creative Economy’ has been in fairly widespread use for the best part of twenty years and it seems we still dont know for sure just how big it is or how many people work in it and therefore how fast it is growing.  Another argument (if any were needed) for someone (Creative Scotland?) to knock heads together to establish a data collection, research and analysis unit fit for the creative economy of this century rather than the nineteenth. 

Have a good weekend!

Scotsman wins BAFTA blether award for first time

Announcement of the BAFTA shortlist always provides our friends in the press an opportunity for a spot of patriotic cheerleading or handringing (and sometimes both at the same time) concerning the current fortunes of Scottish film. This year is no exception and that handy aphorism ‘success has many fathers but failure is an orphan’ comes readily to mind.

Under the headline “Scots produced movie shortlisted for Bafta” the Herald’s Phil Miller leads with “A Scottish produced movie about the early life of John Lennon is in the running…” Well yes Douglas Rae of Ecosse films is Scottish but he and his company have been based in London for most of the past 22 years and apart from his personal Scottish connection I’m not aware of any of ‘Nowhere Boy’ being shot or post-produced in Scotland, nor does it appear to have any finance from Scotland.  Since Douglas executive produces all of his company’s output should we also count Brideshead Revisted, Mistresses as Scottish? 

One shouldn’t begrudge writer or sub the need to find a Scottish angle in a ubiquitous UK story, but this kind of ‘any connection will do’ attribution of Scottishness to movies is not particularly helpful to the cause of greater understanding of the state of the sector, regardless of whether your interest is mainly cultural, economic or both.

The Scotsman is on much firmer ground with its David v Goliath angle “Never mind £200 million Avatar, how will £400 Happy Duckling fare at the Baftas?” which neatly manages to draw on the most popular theme of Scottish moviemaking coverage, how great success can be achieved with almost no money (and without the help of Scottish Screen) and see off the big boys (not that the two films are in the same category if one wants to be pedantic). Though the director is an established Israeli animator, producer Bob Last (declaration of interest – he sits on the Screen Academy advisory board) and his animation company Digital Ink are Dundee based (not that the Dundee Courier seems to have noticed) and the hands-on animation was undertaken by students at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art so there’s no questioning the legitimacy of this one. However The Scotsman also succumbs to the Ecosse connection in claiming Nowhere Boy’s four nominations for the homeland, stretching the parentage factor even further with the observation that “Even the Edinburgh festivals could claim a helping hand. In 2004, Christian McKay drew rave reviews playing Orson Welles in the one-man play Rosebud.”

Our friends in the north at the Press and Journal were reduced (lack of staff?) to playing the wire copy straight as they clearly couldn’t unearth a north east connection to ‘localise’ the story.  Likewise the Daily Record which runs pretty much the same copy and unlike The Scotsman or The Herald doesn’t bother to point up the Scottish angle provided by Peter Capaldi’s performance in In the Loop.

So a mixed performance this year in the ‘milking the Scottish angle’ awards but the BAFTA Blether award for most tenuous supporting angle (thus far) must go to Tim Cornwell and the Scotsman for the Christian McKay connection.  Well done Tim, a fairytale ending indeed, even if the competition wasnt quite so stiff this year as it might have been.

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