Posts Tagged 'UK Film Council'

BFI and Government get ‘could do better’ progress report from Smith film policy review team

Follow up reports to Government commissioned reviews can often be rather bland and self-congratulatory but Chris Smith’s Film Policy  Review two year update has rather more teeth and doesn’t hold back from expressing frustration with the BFI, Government and industry’s lack of progress in a number of areas. (The original report can be found here and our 2012 post on it here)

Careful to acknowledge the funding cuts imposed on it by the UK Government and broadly positive about overall progress to date, Smith’s report nonetheless takes the BFI to task on the central plank of its BFI’s ‘Film Forever’ strategy, developing the audience for film and in particular for ‘specialized’ (i.e. UK independent and foreign language) cinema.  Its criticism is directed in part at the rather ‘top down’ way the BFI is working with partners in exhibition and lack of engagement with commercial distributors. The review expresses this is diplomatic terms ‘recognizing’ “the importance for the BFI of capturing and building on the experience and local knowledge in the regions and nations, as well as that of established organisations like the Independent Cinema Office, both in terms of avoiding duplication and spreading best practice” which is code for ‘consult more, command less’.

In relation to Film Education, another key aim of the Film Policy Review and the BFI’s strategy, the review update notes that, compared to England, the other nations and regions seem to have a more-joined up approach and that the designated delivery body, In To Film (until recently known as Film Nation UK or FNUK) on the one hands needs more room (from the BFI) to get on with the job but on the other recommends it “urgently engages with  schools and teachers to achieve capacity and scale for film education  interventions. The Panel stresses the related need for FNUK to engage more  fully with the government, and the Department for Education in particular, in  order to enable this

Although a seemingly arcane subject to most people outside film distribution the mechanics of the Virtual Print Fee mechanism, used to recover the cost of digitalising Britain’s cinemas, are of great significance for low budget filmmakers, distributors and smaller exhibitors.  The review update endorses a proposed alteration to the system which amongst other things would introduce a fee waiver for films released on 99 ‘prints’ or fewer, a considerable saving for distributors and thus venues and thus a help to the indie film-maker in getting their work to audiences.

The review update is pretty positive about the BFI’s roll out of its Development, Production and Distribution responsibilities which it acquired following the demise of the UK Film Council.  However Smith and co. are clearly frustrated at slow progress towards the Joint Venture Initiative between talent, producers and distributors heralded in the original recommendations, implying that PACT, DUK and WGGB are the principal source of the delay.

However the review update reserves its strongest admonition for the Government and its failure to make headway in getting the Broadcasters to do more to support the industry, expressing disappointment that “there has been no progress on the Film Policy Review recommendations concerning Memoranda of Understanding between broadcasters and an investigation into the UK film acquisition market”  and rather archly ‘reminding’ Maria Miller and co “that it accepted and agreed these recommendations, and strongly urges the government to prioritise their implementation as a key strategic component of an effective UK national film policy.”

On Skills and Talent development the update observes that despite considerable new investment and progress on many fronts the BFI isn’t listening to or working in quite as joined up a way as it might with the variety of delivery and strategic bodies across the length and breadth of the UK. Smith recommends that “the BFI, Creative England and Creative Skillset work more collaboratively … and that the BFI facilitates ongoing discussions with leading delivery agencies in UK skills and talent development across the UK’s regions and nations, to enable a more cohesive strategy for the sector. The Panel suggests this could be done most effectively via a steering group,  made up of strategic partners and led by the BFI.”

Summing up the progress of the BFI as Lead Agency for Film the review update reprises its core motif of ‘doing well, could do better, especially by being more collaborative’ and, noting that the BFI is due for a Triennial Review this year concludes:  “As it matures in its role as lead agency for film in the UK, we would encourage it to find an optimum balance between providing strong industry leadership and truly collaborative partnership working that allows partners the necessary licence to deliver against their remit.”

Given the considerable disquiet  in the exhibition and education sector about the BFI’s tendency to be somewhat over-directive in its approach to partnership working one suspects there will be not a few people saying ‘amen’ to that.

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Veteran British Film Institute launches New Horizons for Film

Film support agencies come and they go but at 79 years young the British Film Institute (est. 1933) endures like no other, having last year absorbed its short-lived patron the UKFC (2000 – 2010) .  Its nearest rival in longevity, the Scottish Film Council (established 1934) lasted sixty-four years before it (and three other bodies – Scottish Screen Locations, Scottish Film and Broadcast Training and the Scottish Film Archive – which later became part of the National Libraries of Scotland) gave way in 1997 to Scottish Screen. The latter survived a mere ten years before it too was swept away (with the Scottish Arts Council which began life in 1967) and replaced by Creative Scotland in 2010.

This week week saw the BFI publish its much anticipated future plan ‘New Horizons for UK Film‘ which is open for consultation until 10 June.  Different sections of the industry and the wider film ‘interested parties’ are either smiling, looking anxious or groaning at perceived wins/losses and will be prepping their submissions as I write.  Its not a simple task to unpick the proposed funding allocations and compare them against the UKFC’s budget.  But there are some immediate stand out comparisons such as Festivals, down 500k to £1m from the UKFC’s £1.5m, and ‘Skills & Business’, which at an indicative £4.5m a year is £0.9m (20%) less than the comparable UKFC Film Skills fund of £5.4m.  However the devil is in the detail and the headline figures may or may not be an accurate reflection of where the money will go as, for example, the ‘Talent’ category of £2m may be picking up some of what was covered by the Film Skills Fund.  These and many other questions will doubtless get asked (and one hopes answered) at the regional roadshows the BFI have organised over the next couple of weeks and if the consultation is a genuine one there may be changes ahead.  Watch this space!

A hundred years of investing in Scottish film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future of film at EIFF 65

As the 65th (and my 32nd )Edinburgh International Film Festival slips into its final weekend it’s an appropriate time to reflect, not on the merits of this year’s festival (in that regard there are plenty of people scrubbed up and well into their coroner’s reports before the body is even cold) but on some of the themes and issues upon which the industry conference and other events attempted to shine a light.

One of the billed tentpole events of this year’s festival, ‘What is the state of the British Film Nation?’, aimed to “address new sources of financing and revenue and look to the future of the British film industry”.  A  perennial question which a well-qualified range of speakers set out to address, if not answer.

Conscious of the considerable angst and scepticism which surrounded the British Film Institute’s assumption of the summarily abolished UK Film Council’s responsibilities, the BFI’s head Amanda Neville adopted a resolutely upbeat tone, attempting to draw a line under the debate over the merits of the change and instead focus attention on the Institute’s future role in sustaining and developing film industry and culture in the UK, a subject to which we will no doubt return in future posts.

Television’s part in that future was the focus of the first session in which, despite a tendency to undervalue just how much ‘cinematic’ television drama there was, even before Film Four and BBC Films became central to the ecology, Ruby Films’ Paul Trijbits and Stephen Garret of Kudos Pictures helped challenge the somewhat artificial divide between film and tv talent, business and creative/production value.  The TV holy grail of high value returning drama series on the scale of The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, The Tudors or Mad Men increasingly requires much the same creative nous and business acumen as feature film does, particularly as television business models have converged with the multi-party, multi-territory, multi-platform/window model that features have had for the past thirty years.

The fact that companies such as Kudos and Ruby operate across both TV and theatrical film demonstrates what is possible – whether its necessary for all feature producers to embrace both to be economically viable in the UK context is a key question.  Clearly there are some companies which can operate solely in the film ‘space’ either because they have sufficient volume of films to have a sustainable business or conversely they operate on such a low overhead that a film every two or three of years can keep them in the game.  In between these two ends of the spectrum the ability to operate in both markets is possibly the soundest business proposition but requires a critical mass which can sustain the specialist development skills, commissioner/financier relationships (and credibility) and management capacity to be a ‘player’ in two games simultaneously.

Looking beyond the UK was the theme of two sessions, one on European co-production and the other on the UK’s complex relationship to Hollywood, which like that other ‘special’ relationship is decidedly asymmetric.  Though not explicitly stated this session picked up on the film/tv split as the trans-Atlantic traffic of television formats and talents is beginning to look like the driver of UK TV companies’ growth while growing European co-production remains critical to the sustainability of UK feature production (re-joining EURIMAGE would be a help, as promised but like so much else not delivered by the Blair administration).  In either direction understanding what works for audiences beyond your immediate experience is clearly an asset, even if the fact that the British films that work best in the US seem to stubbornly remain, like The King’s Speech, skewed towards an older audience more easily won over by ‘ye olde worlde’ UK charms.  Whether British film is destined to be confined to a cultural division of labour which only rewards literary adaptations, posh folks in frocks or romantic comedies set in a deracinated (if no longer swinging) London remains moot.

A couple of days later in the (Scottish) Directors’ Forum, resident helmer Morag McKinnon and ex-pats Gilles MacKinnon and Paul McGuigan shared their thoughts on the long road to directorial career security, if such a thing exists.  All three reprised the importance of television in fostering their career development and, in Paul McQuigan’s case, embracing it now (in the form of Sherlock) as offering more creative freedom than a US studio system where the phalanxes of executive and associate producers added to the weight of commercial expectation can crush the bones of even the most assertive director.  Casting their eyes homewards messers MacKinnon (G) and McGuigan were less well briefed on what is and isn’t happening domestically e.g. in terms of the amount of Lottery film finance going into UK film or the continuing support of film by Creative Scotland. Nonetheless they were right to point out the need for more television drama production to let directors and all the other talents cut their teeth. Inevitably the comparative richness of Denmark’s filmmaking ecology cropped up (as it has for many years, the first instance of many I’m aware of being in 1938: “Why don’t you make your own films in Scotland?”Thus the film people in reply to our protests. Smaller countries than Scotland so so.  Denmark and Norway maintain a steady production, and Sweden has a widely known and respected film tradition.” ‘A Stevenson travesty, Kidnapped from Hollywood’ The Scotsman 28 Jun 1938) and, as in the Film Conference’s session on co-production, the established pairing of Sigma Films with Zentropa stands out as an example of small countries producers’ helping each other out of mutual interest (even if also a little asymmetrically).

What stands out from all these discussions, despite the ritual nod to ‘new digital distribution and financing models’ is just how repetitive discussion of UK film’s prospects is – the same questions being asked with the same degree of uncertainty about what the future holds, other than it ‘not being like it is now’.  Reaffirming the continuing need for public subsidy, whether national or European, to protect a commercially unviable sector whose justification is primarily cultural and which is chronically at risk of losing audience attention to a Hollywood centric system which, whatever its problems, is much more secure than any UK based entity ever could be, is a cry that could be heard at any similar event for the past 65 years – not by any coincidence the age of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  No doubt they will remain talking points for a good time to come.

Speaking of anniversaries, next year marks thirty years since the seminal EIFF event ‘Scotch Reels’ (and will also be the official Year of Creative Scotland) – time perhaps to reflect on three decades of sustained (if still insufficient) investment in Scottish film making from the Scottish Film Production Fund onwards.  Hopefully EIFF wont miss the opportunity to mark it, perhaps by bringing back some of its key protagonists – like Colin MacArthur, John Caughie and Murray Grigor – to engage with a new generation of cinephiles, digital entrepreneurs and cultural decision makers – now that might set the heather alight!

BFI latest: Back to the future

So Ed Vaizey has set out his “exciting new vision for the British Film industry” which was welcomed by BFI Chairman Greg Dyke “as a bold move to create a single body to champion film across the whole of the UK and provide a clear focus internationally.”  Hmm..wasn’t that just what the UKFC was set up to do?  Never mind, the increased Lottery funding for film and the BBC and Channel 4’s increased commitment to British movies are indeed ‘good news stories’ though there is precious little new thinking in anything the Minister has announced (though it was nice to see him ‘encourage’ Sky TV to think about investing in film…again.  Younger readers may be unaware of Sky Pictures,  the Murdoch behemoth’s previous foray into UK production helmed by Elisabeth M. which was not quite an unalloyed success.  Still there will be quite a few former UKFC staffers not transferred to the BFI who will be looking for a job shortly so it might be an opportune time to have another go).  Yes the BFI will assume most of the functions of the UKFC and the English Regional Screen Agencies have circled the wagons and formed themselves into three super-regions with a wider creative industries remit under the banner ‘Creative England’ (now where did they get that idea one wonders?). But that is all about structure not policy or priorities.  The one hint at the latter comes in the Minster’s enthusiastic references to PACTs proposals to amongst other things reform the equity position taken by public film funders and a passing reference to the ‘debate on exhibition and distribution’.

In essence today’s announcement is largely a rearrangement of the deck-chairs although the Lottery consultation Vaizey has announced and the reformation of the BFI’s Management and Board do represent a window of opportunity to influence the direction the ship takes in the future.   Sadly British film policy continues to lurch two steps forward, one step back, as it has done since the 1930s and, notwithstanding Ed Vaizey’s rhetorical attempt to deny, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the US film industry in the UK and the UK industry itself are in many ways at odds with each other doesn’t bode terribly well for an informed debate about its future course under this Government.

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.

Toronto swansong for UKFC

As the Guardian film blog notes it is indeed richly ironic that in the year its demise was announced, UK Film Council-backed films should be making such a strong showing at the Toronto Film Festival. Amongst the 13 UKFC-backed films (out of 29 British in total )  Tom Hooper’s UK/Australian Co-pro The King’s Speech won the Cadillac Audience Award with another Brit pic, Justin Chadwick’s First Grader taking the runner-up prize. But then again the decision to axe the UKFC wasn’t, as far as anyone tell, predicated on an alleged failure to back enough successes or, indeed, on any coherent analysis at all.  It appears to have been the result of a few key individuals (at least one of them a prominent ‘commercial’ filmmaker) bending UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s ear and accusing UKFC executives of milking the public purse.  Facing cuts to his own department of up to 40% it seems the Minister was goaded into precipitate action ‘pour encourager les autres’.  Britain has a long history of see-sawing film policy going back to the thirties and this latest example of ministerial slash and burn on the flimsiest of pretexts is unlikely to be the last. 

But all that said its time to move on (a conclusion also reached last week by UKFC CEO John Woodward) and do what we can to ensure that what emerges from the ashes of the Film Council does justice to the talent and aspiration of UK filmmakers and to the needs and desires of audiences here and around the world.  Pity we seem to have to keep reinventing the wheel though…


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