Posts Tagged 'scottish screen'

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.

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!

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.

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!

 

Welcoming back the BFI to filmmaking in Scotland

If as expected Culture Minister Ed Vaizey announces tomorrow [he did – see comment below] that the British Film Institute (BFI) will take over most of the UK Film Council’s role in funding film production, will film in Scotland be any better or worse off?  Nobody can really know for sure but there are a few pointers from the past which may prove to be relevant. 

Whoever houses the new arrangements for investing in development and production (not to mention distribution, exhibition, education and a whole slew of other activities largely overlooked in the furore over the UKFC’s imminent demise) it is likely that many of the same people will, for the time being, be making the decisions.  But historically the BFI has had a somewhat different institutional take on film culture and film industry than the UKFC and it will be interesting to see if the Scottish dimension of that, a mixture of general neglect punctuated by occasional enlightened acts of benevolence, is revived.

In general terms the BFI always had a bit of a problem with Scotland – it was to all intents and purposes ‘other’ –  our cultural, educational and political administrative systems sufficiently distinct but insufficiently interesting to merit much dedicated officer time or attention.  By the same token Scotland’s emerging autonomous film institutions (Films of Scotland followed by the Scottish Film Council, technically a branch of the BFI to begin with, and then Scottish Screen) substantially let the BFI ‘off the hook’ when it came to being held to account for film developments north of the border, even though its title and charter were resolutely British.

 But at the same time and to its credit the BFI did play a critical role in fostering the first stirrings of narrative cinema in Scotland by championing the work of Bill Douglas, a film-maker whose filmic aspirations did not fit the mould of the then ‘Films of Scotland’.  Douglas stands out as Scotland’s most internationally recognised ‘auteur’ filmmaker (though the other Bill, Bill Forsyth deserves to be included in that category for those who choose to employ it) and, tellingly, practically the only one to be supported by the BFI Production board in its nearly fifty years of nurturing “An alternative British art cinema”. And it did latterly support the singular vision of Margaret Tait, co-funding her first feature Blue Black Permanent in 1992 (at the tender age of 72!) and Lynne Ramsay’s first professional short (Kill The Day, 1997) but on the whole the Production Board had by all accounts a fairly negative view of Scottish talent and Scottish stories.

WHAT ABOUT THE MONEY?

Since the UKFC was established in 2000, and as we’ve noted elsewhere , a fair amount of UK cash has come Scottish cinema’s way, in addition to the sums disbursed by Scottish Screen that is.  Given that Scottish film has been able to access both Scottish Screen (now Creative Scotland) and UKFC funds it would be easy to think (and easy for those smarting from the cuts to public arts funding in England to complain) that we Scots have been having our cake and eating it.  Well a little inspection of the facts suggests otherwise.  Though the calculation of what amounts to a ‘fair’ Scottish share of public expenditure has ever been and will no doubt remain a vexed question there is enough life left in the ‘Barnet formula’ to make it worth a shot. 

Taking the financial year 2008-9 as our example, and with the aid of the UKFC Research and Statistical Unit’s extremely useful Annual Statistical Handbook, we find that the total ‘public sector selective investment’ in film comes to around £256m (including Tax Relief, film investment by the BBC and Film 4, EU funds and so on).

Now if we strip out the tax relief, broadcaster and EU funds that drops to direct UK public expenditure of around £116m.  The Scottish share of that (totting up Grant-in-Aid from the Scottish Government, the average allocation of Lottery film funding to Scotland of around £2.7m AND the average UKFC investment in Scotland of £1.4m) comes to around £8.4 m i.e. 7%.  The Barnett formula for calculating Scotland’s share of any change to UK funding is generally based on 9.77% of the equivalent spending in England and Wales which in this case would come to £11.38m or in other words a gap, in 2009-09, of approximately £3m.

Even with the swinging cuts to many of the areas of expenditure making up the UK total at this point it seem very unlikely (but we will examine it in future posts) that in the coming years Scotland’s share of film-related expenditure will catch up, proportionately, with the rest of the UK. (And even if it did it wouldn’t remove the historical disparity).

Meantime we look forward to seeing how the new custodians of the UKFC’s film investment funds see Scotland’s contribution to British cinema’s future and hope that they adopt a less metro-centric perspective than in the past.

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.

Let’s not pit TV against film

A couple of years back in a contribution to the book Scottish Cinema Now I wrote

Over the past twenty-five years filmmakers in Scotland have benefited from a protected support system which has privileged their claims to both cultural subsidy and direct financial investment in screen content. That situation is changing rapidly, as television, games and new media producers demand equal status in the subsidy game, basing their claims on economic, cultural and democratic grounds.

Today’s Sunday Herald article on television in Scotland highlights the sector’s growing case for greater public investment to underwrite the domestic production sector’s capacity to secure a greater share of network commissions.  The BBC is the key objective, as it rolls out its promise to up Scotland’s share of network spend, but Channel 4 and, to a lesser extent, ITV are additional prizes on the horizon.

The suggestion that film in Scotland has enjoyed a ‘privileged’ status akin (STV’s Alan Clements is quoted as saying) to ‘snobbery’ in the eyes of Creative Scotland’s predecessor Scottish Screen echoes the comments made in evidence to the Scottish Broadcasting Commission in 2007 by PACT CEO John McVay “The obsession with film was a big mistake. “ and well as former Scottish Enterprise CEO Jack Perry who claimed films supported by the Glasgow Film Fund had ‘negative value to the economy’.

Now public investment in talent, skills (both creative and business), development resources, infrastructure and professional support services are all perfectly legitimate claims for any industry – creative or otherwise – to make on the public purse but in a period of swingeing cuts to public sector spending its even more vital that legitimate and important conditions are met by any investment regime.

Firstly public funding mustn’t be used to substitute for or ‘crowd out’ rather than ‘crowd in’ investment that could (and indeed should in the case of public service broadcasters) be made by the central industry players in the market. Where public funds leverage new additional investment either from end-users (broadcasters, distributors etc) or from private finance that’s undoubtedly a good thing. There is certainly a case for additional investment in the development capacity of independent producers but if this simply leads to a transfer of risk e.g. from broadcasters to public funds without a significant net increase in overall investment nothing will really been achieved. 

Secondly we need to be careful that public funds raised and designated for one purpose e.g. Lottery Funding explicitly designated to support ‘The Arts’, amongst other ‘good causes’, are not used to substitute for the lack of appropriate and necessary investment from other branches of Government. 

The perfectly legitimate case for pump-priming investment in television production companies producing revenue generating, employment creating, profit-maximising product in a context where they have been at a historical and structural disadvantage in the market place shouldn’t be confused with mechanisms to address a wider cultural, social and industrial deficit in the production, distribution and appreciation of indigenous screen content.  They are, of course, intimately intertwined but they remain separate policy objectives in need of co-ordinated but nonetheless in some respects distinct forms and criteria of intervention.

Thirdly we need to be wary of what economists call ‘regulatory capture’ – “the process by whereby beneficiaries of government decisions gain control over the relevant decision-making machinery.” – a charge usually leveled at cultural rather than economic players (see David Throsby, 2010. The Economics of Cultural Policy,  Cambridge University Press).  

Consultation, participation in deliberation, expert advice and opinion are all vital to the formation of policy but we always have to ask if any one interest group is exercising undue prominence or obscuring the wider picture and if the evidence, analyses and option appraisals they offer up are as objective and robust as the public have a legitimate right to expect when scarce public funds are at stake. 

As the Sunday Herald article rightly notes, there is in prospect a much more joined up approach to growing the economic (and indeed the cultural and democratic) contribution of television in Scotland. Likewise the television production sector has an absolutely legitimate place in the debate over public intervention in the screen sector, but so do filmmakers, the audience(s) and a host of interests from Gaelic speakers to community cinemas.  That said we need  to avoid setting television (or games or any other screen based creative content) against cinema and confusing the criteria by which each has a claim on public support. 

As I suggested in that Scottish Cinema Now essay, some in the film community were a little too eager in the 1990s to obscure the cultural case for film in order to make somewhat inflated claims for the (currently achievable) economic impact of indigenous production.  By the same token those now pressing, quite understandably, for a more serious approach to growing the broadcast sector shouldn’t see film as a competitor for attention and funds.  In reality television drama for example (a must for the long term health of television in Scotland) and film-making for the cinema are mutually inter-dependent.  Amongst their shared interests both rely on the same talent base from writers and directors (look at Paul McQuigan) to post-production SFX specialists and commissioners (think Andrea Calderwood) and there are important synergies to be found at a business level as a recent report on the corporate finance of SMEs in the UK film industry for the UK Film Council found.

When it comes to film and television, as in so many other walks of life, united we stand, divided we fall.

The Scottish Screen (or is it ‘Screen Scotland’?) dug is dead.

Today sees the official birth of Creative Scotland and the demise of the Scottish Arts Council and, according to the Press Association , as dutifully reproduced on the Herald and other newspaper websites around the country, something called ‘Screen Scotland’. (It would seem that the old newspaper practice of checking agency copy is now a thing of the past.)

Those gathered at last night’s farewell do in Glasgow for departing Scottish Screen staff and those who came to work today for their new employer, Creative Scotland, had the opportunity to swap reminiscences about the ups and downs of the agency’s thirteen years (91 in dog years so quite a good run) and look forward, albeit with a certain amount of trepidation, to the new era.  As a former Scottish Screen employee myself I’d be the last to say that it was an unalloyed success.  Some of the good intentions behind the joining together of the Scottish Film Council, Scottish Film Production Fund, Scottish Broadcast and Film Training and Scottish Screen Locations were at best only partially fulfilled and the operational silos that persisted in some areas only really began to be dismantled with the arrival of its third and final CEO Ken Hay.  That said, the ‘Golden Umbrella for films by Scots’ as the Herald put it back in 1996, did shelter a lot of good work and sustained the bare bones of a film industry still struggling to achieve critical mass. 

The task facing Creative Scotland (and as one of its newly installed Board Members that of course includes me) is to build on Scottish Screen’s (and its predecessors’) achievements; identify new/better ways of supporting screen work and the people who make, show and benefit from it; and pull together the various national, regional and local players who can make both screen culture and industry stronger.  More of a ‘big tent’ than an umbrella you might say.

Those PACT proposals – good for whose business?

Yesterday’s ‘Something for Nothing’ Edinburgh International Film Festival discussion on PACT’s proposal for a new deal between public funders and film producers proved to be quite a lively affair.  Having raised the specific issue of how the proposals might impact on Scottish production (see earlier post) I was invited to be on the panel and contribute to the wider discussion.  Having given them a bit more thought it seems to me that PACT needs to address, and the public agencies need to consider carefully, some key questions and consider a number of safeguards should they take them forward.  There are some other issues, principally of methodology and the evidence required to back up the assertions around cause and effect, much of which could be addressed through some econometric modelling of the proposals, but we’ll leave those for now.  But for new readers let’s briefly recap the key ‘problem and solution’ posed:

a. In essence PACT’s view (and few could disagree with this first point) is that UK film businesses are underperforming – they are under capitalised, too few have any scale and even of those that do there are major obstacles to sustaining their businesses.  PACT also holds that this is not because of any deficiency in the product:  “UK Independent producers consistently make films that work with audiences and critics alike, yet the current business model prevents them being able to benefit.” 

b. PACT believes that a major contributory factor to the above state of affairs is that public film financiers such as the UK film council, Scottish Screen and the regional screen agencies treat their investment in film production as equity and expect to recoup their investment before the producer (albeit many now allow a recoupment corridor e.g. the UKFC’s recently agreed 30%).

c. PACT proposes, therefore, that henceforth public funding should be treated as the producer’s equity and that this would produce the following benefits:

1. producer’s would have increased leverage when seeking private sector finance as they would be seen as investing their own equity

2. production companies profitability would improve as a consequence of being able to secure more finance, on more advantageous terms, added to the direct benefit of being able to reinvest the recoupment revenue stream (of what would now be their equity) ensuring better financed development, less ‘rush to go into production’, the prospect of increased budgets and following those better results in theatrical and other markets.  In short a virtuous circle in which everyone would benefit because:

3. More succesful film companies would become progressively less reliant on public funding as they would increasingly be able to source finance elsewhere and this would in turn allow smaller/newer producers to get an increased share of the public funds thus ensuring that their (other principal) purpose – ensuring a culturally diverse, risk-friendly film financing environment – is not just maintained but enhanced, thus ensuring better public value all round.

It all sounds terribly good but there are one or two catches.  One of them I’ve already raised, the problem of national/regional funders seeing the recoupment stream (small as it is) leak out of their nation/region .  Though its worth noting here as a reminder that out of the £5m in Lottery awards Scottish Screen (soon to be Creative Scotland) made in 2007, 55% (£1.9m) went to London-based companies and while they might well, under the suggested new rules, be inclined to reinvest revenues returned by virtue of their (publicly donated) equity in Scottish talent/projects, without some safeguards in place there is no guarantee that would happen.

An even bigger issue, however, is the credibility of the idea that over time the call on public funds from the growing, more profitable, production companies would decrease.  At present, taking PACTs own argument at face value, there is a significant disincentive to better-capitalised, more market friendly companies seeking UKFC or Scottish Screen investment precisely because it is likely to dilute their equity position and reduce overall revenues.  Take away that barrier and it is difficult to see why any rational film business wouldn’t try to get as much public money into their projects as possible since in effect it would become a grant and increase their equity to boot.

On this point several panelists suggested that since the public bodies have the right to choose which projects to invest in they could choose not to invest in projects whose producers might only be trying to ‘milk’ the system.  However to do so there would need to be a criterion for determining which projects were ‘genuine’ and which were trying it on and that is by no means simple.  Almost any producer worth their salt could make a pretty convincing argument on the basis of employment, multiplier effects, sustaining UK production infrastructure etc. plus a modicum of ‘cultural relevance’ to argue their case to access the public cash. 

While these are legitimate arguments for certain kinds of public intervention, there remains a very real risk that a significant amount of public funding could end up substituting for, rather than additional to, market investment and thus not in fact delivering any of the public value it is intended to.

 There are, then, quite a few issues that PACT and others need to address and on a positive note the indications from yesterday’s event are that at least some of them will be taken forward.  In reality I suspect PACT don’t expect to get a complete transfer of equity from the public funders and the report is the first salvo in a negotiating strategy which is looking to gain at least 50% of revenues.  Unlike the effective and well-deserved reversion of TV rights from broadcasters (who unlike the UKFC or Scottish Screen etc. are end-users and get their/our public value from the licence to distribute ) to indies, the position of public film funds in the current climate makes any dimunition of their meagre resources a tough sell.

Putting Creative Scotland in its place

Andrew Dixon’s first tour of Scotland arrived in Glasgow today for the latest in Creative Scotland’s open forum series, the first to feature the newly installed CEO.  Developing themes which he has in the past few weeks aired in a variety of settings from Ullapool’s Ceilidh Place to an RSA event held in the offices of solicitors Anderson Strathearn, Dixon gave pride of place to, well, ‘place’.

The importance he attaches to the development of places (alongside branding and a culture of investment rather than subsidy)  is perhaps not all that surprising given Dixon’s previous role leading the Gateshead initiative. It might also be seen as an effective way to balance the emphasis we’ve seen to date on Creative Scotland being an artist and practitioner-led organisation with a broader sense of community benefit and participation in arts and culture.   Beyond that laudable aim however, one can also see a certain tactical and rhetorical shrewdness in emphasising how particular communities, localities or regions engage with arts and creative industries.  It immediately brings into focus the critical importance of partnership with local authorities, Scottish and Highlands and Island Enterprise, and all the other national bodies that spend the 70% of the Scottish Government’s cultural budget that CS doesn’t control.  

Clearly Creative Scotland isn’t responsible for supporting the totality of cultural production, arts access or creative industries development from the Borders to Shetland.  Given its assigned leadership role in the Scottish Cultural Industries Partnership though, staking a claim to improving the cultural life of Scotland as a whole by marshalling the disparate players in the culture and creativity game into a cohesive team could translate into material benefit if it leads to clear visions, suitably resourced and managed, of how places as diverse as Kilmarnock and Killin can join equally in the benefits of a Creative Scotland.  But as Dixon noted, in these strained fiscal times, CS will require clearer priorities and ways of measuring success than we have seen before.

Festivals on demand

Sticking with festivals and Video on Demand (see yesterdays post) some query the wisdom of festivals pursuing a distribution platform that has been around for some time and appears to some not to have fulfilled its promise. Exactly a decade ago analysts were predicting  that ‘enhanced TV’ would be worth $20bn by 2004 (See The Hollywood Reporter April 28 2000).  Well ten years on Screen Digest estimates global VOD revenues in 2009 to have been a more modest $2.9bn (about a fifth the size of the DVD market) and to reach $5.3bn by 2012.

However according to  Screen International  VOD may be on the edge of a breakthrough as DVD sales fall, the multiplication of ways in which to access VOD content – game consoles, TVs with built in web connection – and more sophisticated pricing strategies secure its place in the domestic living room.  The rub here, though, is that contrary to what fans of the Long Tail might expect, ‘speciality’ films appear not to be benefiting from this democratisation of distribution channels.  Why?  because VOD reproduces the ‘aggregator’ role that distributors/video stores/online DVD rental outlets like LoveFilm etc. play in selecting, curating and promoting titles.

This is where Festivals could find a niche – with the potential to leverage their programming skills and ‘brand value’ in creating a VOD ‘label’ (and assuming they can do a deal with a carrier) a festival like Edinburgh could make like a ‘Metrodome/Soda/Optimum’ .  (I would have included Tartan Films but sadly they went bust in 2008).

Why bother with Cable/Satellite VOD when you could do the whole thing online?  Well there are a variety of reasons including anti-piracy, security of payment, the ‘installed base’ of things like hotel Pay-TV but also marketing and ‘perceived value’ advantages.  In any event go-ahead festivals like Tribeca and others are trying to test out where and how they can use their market knowledge to create additional revenue streams that get the movies they love to show seen more widely. 

Not content with getting a slice of the distribution action, not a few festivals – such as Adelaide and Melbourne – have also set themselves up as financier/producers.  That some of their investments result in films that then premiere at their festival neatly closes the loop from production to distribution.  Following that model the EIFF could become a rival to  (or perhaps more accurately complement) Scottish Screen/Creative Scotland and the existing production companies…

Film festival seeks out screens nearer you

With recent volcanic activity reminding us of how much we take air travel for granted, cineastes trying to reduce their carbon footprint may be cheered by the Tribeca film festival’s determination to extend its audience reach through Video on Demand.   The much-loved festival was founded in 2002 (by Robert De Niro amongst others) as a cultural riposte to 9/11 and is now launching an online presence which offers not just clips, comments, reviews and bookings but a dozen full-length films simultaneous with their festival premiere .  Reaching potentially 40 million cable-TV homes courtesy of deals with the likes of Time Warner and Comcast, the Festival aims to extend its brand into online, DVD and theatrical distribution.

Beyond the festival box office

The Tribeca move reflects the upheaval in film distribution generally and its impact on festivals in particular.  Feeling the squeeze of declining sponsorship and public funds, an ever more crowded festival calendar, new platforms to profile films before they are picked up by distributors and, at the same time, new opportunities to  reach audiences hundreds if not thousands of miles and not a few dollars away from a festival, taking the festival to those eyeballs and leveraging its hit-picking expertise down thevalue chain to distribution and sales is rapidly becoming the festival survival strategy of choice.

Edinburgh – the moving image centre of the north?

Where does this leave our own and the word’s longest continuously running film festival?  Well that’s a question which will no doubt be put later this month to the candidates for the newly created post of CEO of the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI).  The CMI brings together the Edinburgh International Film Festival and Filmhouse in a new corporate entity with designs on exhibition, education, incubation and possibly a great deal more.  Bulging at the seams of its Lothian Road premises the desire to find a new, bigger and better base has been around for some years but extending the Festival/Filmhouse brand into virtual space is likely to feature strongly as well.

EIFF faces some very significant challenges in the coming year – not the least being the end of a very substantial three year uplift in funding from the UK Film Council.  The £1.9 million over three years that the UKFC awarded the Festival in 2008 runs out this year and there is virtually no prospect of a remotely similar sum becoming available again – not the least because the UKFC has been told by the Government to lose £25m from its budget over three years to divert to the Olympics.  In an effort to protect production investment the Council, says CEO John Woodward in Screen International got rid of a number of things which were nice to do but in the cold hard reality of having less money, we just couldn’t do any more.”  And amongst those “there was a big festival fund and a digital archive fund which have both gone.”  That leaves the EIFF with a drop in income of around £600K a year – not much fun for Artistic Director Hannah McGill or the incoming uber-CEO at precisely the time when raising its game and expanding its reach in time and space  is absolutely imperative.  Likewise a bigger, better building with the potential to add a third dimension to EIFF and Filmhouse is a critical component in any development plan but would seem to be as far away as ever.

Will Creative Scotland and its new CEO Andrew Dixon play a (benign) deus ex machina in this local staging of a global drama?  Not to the tune of £600k a year one has to wager but some serious investment allied to a far-sighted vision and coherent strategy on the part of both CMI and Creative Scotland is clearly required if the twin stars of EIFF and Filmhouse are to shine brighter in these occluded times (and that’s not a reference to the Icelandic ash cloud which not surprisingly has been a headache for film festivals as well).

Boost to UK film producers may spell bad news for Scots

A recent proposal by PACT, the Producers Association for Cinema and Television, to strengthen UK film producer’s businesses by allowing them to retain 100% of the revenue earned on public investment in their films has, on the face of it, much to recommend it.  Like the ‘automatic’ schemes in France and other countries it would give producers a greater equity stake in their productions and, for those (few) that are successful, generate more funds to reinvest in future projects.  On the other hand the film funds, like the UK Film Council and Scottish Screen, would lose out as they would no longer see a financial return on successful investments with which to top up their (declining) Lottery investment pots.

But there is a hidden and rather more worrying aspect to this proposal which would directly impact on Scottish producers.  Of the £37million of Lottery funds which Scottish Screen disbursed between 2002 and the end of 2009, over a quarter (£9.5m) went to London based companies. (This compares to just over £1m of UK Film Council feature film investment that went to Scottish based companies in the same period). Should PACT’s policy be taken up in Scotland then its entirely possible that profits from investment by (what will soon be) Creative Scotland in projects produced by companies in London or elsewhere in England will then be recycled into projects with no direct benefit to Scottish film industry or culture.  The present system, whatever its other failings, at least ensures that the admittedly meagre returns (approx 5%) are retained for investment in either Scottish based projects or Scottish based companies.

Let us hope that this downside features in Scottish Screen/Creative Scotland’s discussions with PACT.

Creative Scotland is born but Scottish Screen may still bark

Reading the debate that finally ushered into being Creative Scotland is only marginally more entertaining than watching paint dry, if only because its possible to skip the most tedious parts to get to the slightly less tedious.  One can’t help wondering who nobbled the tories to try and secure an ammendment to the Bill to give CS the title “lead body” which, if you believe its opponents, would have set it above the national companies, Museums Scotland etc.  Pauline McNeill (Glasgow Kelvin) (Lab) bemoaned the non-transfer of Scottish Enterprise’s creative industries budget (something SE bods like to deny exists) to the new body and the potential loss of the Scottish Screen brand so  doggedly built over the past decade.  Culture minister Fiona Hyslop didn’t comment on the SE issue but she did hold open the prospect of the Scottish Screen scottie dog continuing to wag its tail if Andrew Dixon and his soon to be appointed board feel so inclined:

” I say to Pauline McNeill that the use of the Scottish Screen brand will be an operational matter for creative Scotland, and I will pass on her remarks to the body.”

So good news for the (‘when we thought we might lose it we realised how much we loved it’) film-making community not to mention dog lovers.  Speaking of the latter Scottish Terrier lovers can get a further film-related fix with an account of how a Coraline Animator got 200 Scottie dogs doing their thing. 

Have a good weekend.

Creative Scotland inspires our friends across the sea

Hardly out of its nappies and Creative Scotland is already being cited as a model for others to follow.  Making the case in the Irish Times for a joined up department of culture and creative industries, Gráinne Millar (head of Temple Bar Cultural Trust) offers a refreshingly upbeat description of our almost-there-now agency as “a radical, innovative new statutory non-departmental public body responsible for developing and promoting culture.”    If nothing else this counts as a belated vindication of whichever nameless civil servant had the brilliant idea of replacing QUANGO with NDBP thus coining a much more melodious acronym for arms-length bodies (if you don’t believe me just try replacing ‘non-departmental public body’ with ‘Quasi autonomous non-governmental organisation’ – see?).

Millar is keen to see a single new department audit, streamline and centralise  not two but five Government departments and no less than eight organs of the arts, crafts and creative industries (the Irish Arts Council, the Irish Film Board, the Heritage Council, the Crafts Council, the Libraries Council, the Council of National Cultural Institutions, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and Culture Ireland).   Makes our synthesis of the Arts Council and Scottish Screen look like a walk in the (sculpture) park.

Welsh film-making time travels into the future

Like the Tardis a surprising amount of filmmaking went on in Wales last year considering its size (population 2.9 million not including Time Lords).  Reviewing the production statistics for 2009 (as reported in the now defunct Screen Finance) the standout fact is that compared to Scottish Screen’s investment in one majority-UK feature (Peter Mullan’s Neds), one equal UK/international co-production (Outcast, produced by Eddie Dick of Makar) and one minority UK co-production (David Mackenzie’s The Last Word, a Zentrop/Sigma co-pro), the Welsh had money in five films, all of which were majority UK productions.  This may reflect the fact that Welsh filmmakers have two local pots of money to approach (the Film Agency for Wales’ £1m investment fund and the £10 million Wales Creative IP Fund) plus of course (like Scots) access to UK Film Council funding as well (although interestingly the UKFC were involved in only one of the five features). The result of this surge in locally financed production was over £25m of production compared to Scotland’s locally supported £11m.  Having built up a healthy indigenous production capacity and facilities infrastructure thanks to the ringfencing provided by S4C, the boost provided by substantial BBC investment, spearheaded by the relocation of Dr Who, and the enlightened enterprise agency approach to the creative industries, the Welsh seem to be forging ahead while Scotland’s film and TV drama production remains in the doldrums, some way from achieving critical mass.  Sadly the fudge that is the Creative Scotland Framework Agreement and the continuing myopia of Scottish Enterprise when it comes to the creative content that supplies their beloved digital markets doesn’t raise one’s hopes that we will be able to match the joined-up Welsh advance any time soon.  But I truly hope I’m wrong about that.

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.

Reasons to be cheerful part 4

2009 was a bumper year for UK cinema with the box office the biggest it has been since 2002 (see UK Film Council website) and the second highest since 1971.   Nothing like a recession and some blockbusters to make us beat a path to popcorn alley!   As the Herald’s Phil Miller notes, no Scottish film made it into the top 20 or indeed the top 20 UK films and none of the latter received any funding from Scottish Screen, a topic we will return to in future posts (and in particular the split between studio backed and indie films). 

But trying to stay positive, what hasnt been picked up by commentators is the sterling performance of UK independent film.  Behind the headline figures for gross box office, the overall UK share of the market at 16.5% in 2009 is rather  disappointing given that the mean share over the past decade has been 23%.  But the independents share (that is films produced without major US studio backing)  has doubled since 2000 to an impressive 8.5%. (compared to a mean for the decade of 5.4%).  That’s very good news for British film as it means less revenue being exported to LA and gives filmmakers more evidence of the upside when trying to persuade investors to back their projects.

The question we will return to (once we have the data, made more difficult by the demise of Screen Finance which published its last issue in December) is how Scots (and Scottish Screen)  fared in the independent stakes – a more appropriate  comparison.


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