Posts Tagged 'UK film'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The difference a film (or two) makes – British film bouncing back at the box office

Media coverage (see e.g. The Independent, The Guardian , Televisual) of the latest statistical yearbook from the BFI has focussed on the apparent rude health of independent British film but does the detail back up the hype?

Well the answer is a qualified yes.  There is a discernible upward trend in the share of the box office garnered by UK independents (i.e. not those notionally UK films backed by US studios which include the Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and X:men First Class franchises).

However while the headlines trumpeted the record 13% UK independents’ share, as regular readers will be aware it’s a truism of film box office patterns that almost all the the spoils go to a very few winners and in that respect independent film is no different.  As Sean Perkins and his colleagues note in their report the annual figure is “dependent on a small number of high grossing titles”.  Just how dependent can be seen in the graph below which shows what the market share of UK independent film over th past three years is with and without the top one, two and three titles.

GRAPH (pdf)  impact of top three films on indie box office share

What the figures also reveal is that just two films accounted for almost all the 2010-2011 year on year difference.  Spool back a couple of years and 2009 was a pretty good year for UK independent  film with the top twenty titles collectively taking £85m in ticket sales and Slumdog Millionaire taking over  a third of that total at £31m.  2010 didn’t sustain that bump and saw the top 20 indie titles take only £50m with the number one UK indie film, StreetDance 3D, taking just under £12m of that. 2011 was another even bigger bumper year than 2009 with not one but two smash hits – The Inbetweeners and The King’s Speech each taking £45m to push the independent total to a record high of £144m.

And there’s the rub – take just two films out of the annual picture and the share of the box office changes by a much more modest +/- 1% point.  Should we be concerned?  Well no, not in the sense that as we know film is largely a ‘winner takes all’ business at every scale (though there are some encouraging signs that the inverted pyramid is getting a little less steep with the top 50 titles taking 74% of the box office in 2011 compared to 84% in 2001) .  But should we treat the unprecedented success of 2011 as a further sign of an independent British film renaissance?

Well here the BFI have been scrutinising the longer term trends and conclude that while the average UK indie share of the UK box-office for the past decade has been 6% there is a discernible upward trend from a low of 3.4% in 2003.

Given that encouraging fact what might the reasons be?  The simplest, almost axiomatic, explanation is that we must be making better films.  But there’s a parallel fact that over the past decade we have also generally been making more films (NB the data used here counts only those films with a budget of £500k and above, but that’s OK as so far no sub-500K film has had a significant box office success).  Has this growth in output had any effect on performance?  Well on the face it no, as our graph below illustrates, over this ten-year period there seems to be no statistically significant relationship between production volume and market share.  While the former has, until pretty recently, steadily increased the latter has fluctuated quite wildly.

GRAPH (pdf) comparison of indie volume and share over ten years

That said it remains interesting that there is an upward trend in both sets of data, the coincidence of which may be entirely accidental or it may mean that higher levels of production are a necessary but not a sufficient condition of higher box office share.  There is an argument that to produce more winners at the film casino your odds will improve, but are not guaranteed, if you make more bets. Clearly if production volumes were to continue to drop over time and box office share was sustained or increased then this suggested ‘ratchet effect’ would be disproved but it would seem worthwhile to at least keep an eye on this particular relationship as its often alluded to in film policy debates about ‘quantity versus quality’.

Film skills and training – who cares, who pays, who benefits?

Film skills strategy is a topic that tends to come round at five year intervals in line with the UK policy cycle which dictates that strategies should run for around five years and film bodies should get merged or abolished every ten years or so (see last post).  With the BFI resurgent as film policy top dog and Skillset re-emerging from an enforced period of silence on its future plans due to their logical dependence on the outcome of the DCMS/Lord Smith film policy review and the BFI’s strategic review, we are entering into a renewed period of deliberation on priorities and purse-strings – hence the EIFF panel session ‘What does the future hold for Skills Training and Development?‘ I’m moderating on Monday at Midday.

Since the era-defining publication of A Bigger Picture in 1998 which put training and skills very firmly in the centre of UK film policy, a lot of time and money has been spent on all kinds of training and education from individual bursaires to a significant (if declining) investment in the UK Screen (now Film) Academies [interest delcared, I’m director of one of them, Screen Academy Scotland].  From construction skills to cinematography and screenwriting to SFX, few aspects of film-making have not been addressed by schemes, short courses, seminars and subsidies.  Has it helped the UK turn a corner in terms of responding to the concern expressed by the British Film Commission that “increasing levels of investment in the training of filmmakers and technicians in other territories, along with improved fiscal incentives, will provide stiffer competition for future UK inward investment”?  Has it consolidated at least the first few rungs of ‘the ladder of opportunity that the Smith Review wants to see extended  “to address the needs of those working on their second or third feature film   and the BFI feels is not yet there when it highlights the need to “Ensure that future skills strategies provide a ladder of opportunity through effective alignment and integration with policies focusing on the development and education of young people “?  These are some of the questions which a panel including the BFI’s Eddie Berg, Creative Skillset’s Dan Simmons, First Light’s  Leigh Thomas and David Pope of Advance Films will be chewing over at Monday’s session.  Hope to see you there and we’ll return with some of the highlights in a later post.

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.

A Future for (Scottish) Film?

A Future for British Film’ (Lord), Chris Smith’s Review of UK Film Policy, is packed with recommendations so inevitably commentaries have tended to focus on a selection  – production, exhibition, culture finance etc. and this one is no different.  The significance for filmmakers of suggested changes to the investment environment and recoupment, getting distributors into the financing process earlier etc have been well covered in the trades and elsewhere so let’s take a moment to ask what does it all mean specifically for Scotland?

Firstly this is an independent report setting out to the Westminster Government, the BFI and others recommendations which they may or may not choose to follow.  While the Scottish Government (and key bodies such as Creative Scotland or the NLS where the Scottish Film Archive now sits) have no formal obligation to pay it any heed, it nonetheless has great significance for film in Scotland, from education and training to production, exhibition and archive as it both sets out key issues and challenges and some of the means by which they might be addressed.  In doing so it has the potential to bolster the case made by various interest groups (not always entirely shared) – from educators to exhibitors – for funding and other interventions.

The Review has direct implications for how the BFI may relate in future to Creative Scotland and other Scottish bodies and, in passing, it prompts not a few questions abut how a future Independent, or at least fiscally independent, Scotland would manage some of the matters which are currently reserved to the UK such as tax breaks for film production, the treatment of co-productions and so on.  (Indeed what the role of the BFI might be post independence or devo-max is an interesting but so far entirely unexamined question.)  In its submission to the Review the Scottish Government, amongst other things, called for film lottery funding to be fully delegated to Scotland and suggested that the BFI could also be made accountable to the Scottish Parliament for its activities in Scotland.

Back to the report then and amidst the welter of recommendations on treatment of producer’s equity, piracy, integration of film education and closer working between producers and distributors (now where have we heard that before? Oh yes, in 1997 when the Lottery Film Franchises were established…or even further back in 1980… plus ca change)  there are some which have specific significance for Scotland, vis:

Recommendation 6. (“The Panel recommends that the BFI should co-ordinate a joined-up UK-wide film festival offer, to promote independent British and specialised film and maximise value for money, utilising a mix of public funding and private investment and sponsorship.”) though it doesn’t mention it by name,  implies the continuing  importance of the Edinburgh International Film Festival to the UK film festival ecology but stresses the need for more to be done ‘to understand the role of local festivals and their relationship to international festivals in the UK’.  Growing festivals like Glasgow’s may take heart from that whereas Edinburgh may need to consider what role it wants to play as Scotland‘s centre of excellence in festival programming, curation and so on outside of the few weeks of the Festival itself.

Several commentators have highlighted the Review’s veiled criticism of UK Broadcasters for not doing enough to support the film ecology it benefits from to the tune  of £1.2bn in ‘economic value’ and the fact that 80% of UK film’s audience is via television.  While it resists calling outright for the statutory quotas for film investment or output which are common in outher parts of Europe, it does dangle them as a plan B if a voluntary solution isn’t found: “the Government initiates immediate discussions with each of the major broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and BSkyB – with the aim of agreeing a Memorandum of Understanding with each broadcaster setting out its agreed commitments to support British film. Should this approach prove unproductive, then the Government should look at legislative solutions, including new film-related licence requirements to be implemented in the new Communications Act.

From a Scottish perspective the question is whether such voluntary or statutory arrangements can produce a commitment to diversity of material and/or a specific commitment to film investment/output in Scotland by the terrestrial broadcasters.  Given the current scale of opt-out programme budgets and available slots this might seem implausible but STV’s drive to opt out of the ITV network more and more, the declining ‘entry cost’ of (low budget) feature film production, wider partnership opportunities with domestic and overseas co-producers and the greater flexibility over release ‘windows’ all make it much easier to envisage Scottish broadcasters part-funding festures for theatrical and near to simultaneous TV release.  Indeed without them it is difficult to imagine a sustainable Scottish film ecology.

Alongside finance and distribution, skills and talent development are crucial to the ‘supply side’ of film-making.  Sustaining the critical mass of craft skills in Scotland needed to support incoming and indigenous filmmaking and nurturing new talent to the point where it can attract investment from near or far remain high priorities (or ought to).  The Smith Review Panel “recommends that the BFI, in partnership with Skillset and BIS, continues to deliver and strengthen a strategy for skills which represents a ‘gold standard’. Such a strategy will help ensure that skills across the sector remain one of the UK’s great strengths, that our skills base continues to act as a powerful incentive for inward investment, and that the indigenous film sector is able to maximise benefits to audiences.”

Our own research has recently uncovered a worrying downward trend in film skills investment in Scotland over the past five years both in absolute terms (due to the cuts in funding to UK skills body Skillset) but also in percentage terms as the ‘centre’ of the industry has been, relatively speaking, protected.

Skillset Nations and regions spend

The Smith Review recognizes the ‘National and Regional Challenge’, noting that “Despite support for out-of-London film activities from National and Regional screen agencies, the UK film industry remains a London-centric business [which] presents challenges for the development of talent and on-screen representation of the UK’s Nations and Regions.”

In recommendation 44 Smith “recommends that the BFI works with and supports Creative England, the National Screen Agencies, Skillset and others to create a strategy to ensure diverse talent is found, supported and nurtured, outside of London. Ways should be found to help ensure that talented people can work, in a sustainable way, wherever they may wish to locate themselves in the UK.

Fine words though there is not much flesh on them in the report itself.  That said one of the concrete recommendations with a potential direct impact in Scotland (here I must declare an interest as Director of Screen Academy Scotland) relates to film schools:

“42. The Panel recommends that the BFI, together with Skillset, HEFCE and the Scottish Funding Council, undertakes a review of the three Skillset Film Academies, with the objective of establishing their readiness to be considered for the equivalent of ‘Conservatoire’ status for delivering world-class skills and training – similar to that enjoyed by leading music, drama and dance academies.”

Since we established Screen Academy Scotland in 2005, transforming the opportunities for film talent to pursue postgraduate, practice-based training in a well resourced, creative and risk-taking space, the goal of sustained funding at a per capita level commensurate with e.g, the National Film and Television School, has remain frustratingly close but just out of reach.  This recommendation by the Smith Review, if heeded, may finally help us close the gap and ensure that the nation’s film and television school does not have to live from hand to mouth, chasing funding on an annual basis.

All in all the Smith Review has much for filmmakers, educators, audiences and policymakers to welcome but of course the real test is what notice the Government(s) and BFI (whose own strategy is due out in a month or so) take of its recommendations and how much pressure is effectively brought to bear on them by the diverse (and largely disparate) interests that make up the audience for this report.

Getting film researchers and industry into the same room proves productive

Around 60 researchers, policy makers, consultants and others too multi-faceted to categorise but all  sharing an active interest in film policy gathered at NESTA’s London HQ on Wednesday (26th October), courtesy of sponsors the University of Hertfordshire.  Titled ‘Research and policy making for film’ the symposium’s objective was captured in an early session title: ‘Opportunities and challenges of collaboration’.  Setting the scene, the BFI’s head of strategic development Carol Comely observed that in recent times Governments (of various hues) had developed and implemented policy on the basis of a ‘sub-optimal’ research and evidence base.  This was so despite the recommendations of the 2008 “Creative Britain” review.  Declaring the BFI’s aim to be seen as a ‘knowledgeable organisation’ whose expertise ought to extend way beyond ‘film as text’ she acknowledged that it still had “some way to go”.

One  might add that the BFI is not alone in that regard, the evidence base for film policy in Scotland has been scanty to say the least, indeed there hasn’t been any systematic research into the impacts or options for film policy here for over a decade. The closest we’ve got being the 2001 Scottish Executive Review of Scottish Screen and David Graham Associates ‘Audit of the Screen Industries in Scotland’ but as in other domains (see below) these tend to studiously ignore reviewing previous policy success or failure and are thus apt to neither learn from nor avoid repeating the same (mis)judegments.  There have of course been occasional and useful contributions to an otherwise largely absent ‘serious’ debate as distinct from under-informed invective.  These ranging in time and place from e.g. Mark Cousins writing in Vertigo and (then backbencher) Mike Russell reporting to Parliament  to contributions from the more academically inclined such as Duncan Petrie’s significant corpus of work on Scottish ciema which often touches on policy questions and myself (though I leave the usefulness of the latter for others to judge).

Back to the present and Jim Barret from Bigger Picture Research identified a key challenge to greater academic influence on the policy process – the disparity in timescales between policy formation, often measurable in months (or, in the case of the UKFC’s demise what appeared to be weeks) and securing funding for and completing academic research, which is more often measured in years.  Royal Holloway’s John Hill characterised the position of academic researchers as lying on a continuum ranging from ‘hired hand’ to ‘critical public agent’ – the latter ensuring that researchers maintained sufficient distance and disinterest to both ask and answer questions that might not always be the ones Government or public agencies want asked.

A little surprisingly, during the course of the day few seemed to feel that policy evaluation, as distinct from original research which might inform new policy areas, was a significant area of potential.  Compared to other fields such as health, criminal justice and so on, which are awash with evaluation projects, the results of successive film policies seems to go unchallenged.  To be fair John Hill did point out that every successive Government film policy seemed to adopt an ‘ab initio’ position, blithely ignoring the previous regime’s efforts.

NESTA’s creative industries director and former Lehman Brothers economist Hasan Bakhshi was less interested in what had or hadn’t worked in the past, preferring to focus on what he suggested were as yet largely unexplored methodological avenues.  ‘Experimental’ and ‘action research’ approaches could, he argued, yield more useful research outcomes, citing the example of NESTA’s work with the National Theatre on cinema broadcast relay of theatre performances.  He suggested there are insights not being brought to researching the film industry: “as an economist I’m particularly concerned at the lack of engagement of economics researchers with the film industry.”

One might challenge this assertion as there has certainly been quite a lot of work going on nationally and internationally, usefully summarised in Sydney University researcher Jordi McKenzie’s recent literature survey.  That said a contributor from the floor rightly observed that applied film industry research doesn’t tend to get you published in the mainstream international journals and thus gain the attendant quality ranking when exercises such as the Research Excellence Framework are conducted.  These are major concerns for up and coming as well as established academics.  As a potential corrective Bakhshi supported the idea of dedicated funding streams to support academic-film business research collaborations.

Turning in the next session to examples of successful collaborations, veteran film historian, curator and researcher Ian Christie, a leading light in 2009’s groundbreaking study ‘Stories we tell ourselves…’  gave a thoughtful and cogent summary of the ways in which his work has engaged with real world concerns. He gently berated the film studies research community for failing to properly engage with empirical methods which could generate the kind of evidence base to inform cultural as much as industrial policy debates, declaring “we’ve had too little quantitative and too much qualitative” work.

Screenwriter and former Hollywood exec Susan Rogers reflected on her work into the experience of women and other underrepresented screenwriters – how they had found a way into the industry and how they managed to stay in.  Echoing other contributions she noted how prone to believing in its own mythology the film industry is.  Far too many people, for example, appeared to believe that the dearth of women screenwriters was because they didn’t write ‘the kind of material that applied to 16-24 year old boys’ commonly believed, erroneously, to be the dominant demographic (as a quick check of the BFI statistical yearbook will confirm).

The first afternoon session zeroed in on film industry data – what exists, what doesn’t, who collects it and owns it and how far they are prepared to share it with researchers or place it in the public domain.  Earlier in the day Ian Christie noted that the large dataset of British film that had to be created for ‘Stories’ because it simply didn’t exist previously, hasn’t as yet been adopted for further development by anyone else – a major omission which he hoped would soon be put right.  Sean Perkins, Acting Head of former UKFC and now BFI Research and Statistics Unit (whose existence within the BFI finally seems, after a concerted industry lobby, to be secure) declared his hope that more of the large volume of data collated and held by the Unit could be made available to other researchers in academia or industry, the better to facilitate analysis in directions or to depths beyond the limited capacity of the Unit’s staffing base.  At the same time he noted that there were significant obstacles to accessing increasingly important data on e.g. non-theatrical audiences and revenues for Video On Demand, with the UK’s biggest operator believed to be working strenuously to withhold such information.

Manchester Business School’s Richard Philips was rather more sceptical of the benefits of ‘data mining’, suggesting that more ‘what if’ based approaches would be of more help to industry (rather overlooking the point that benefit to the industry is not the only criterion for conducting film industry research).  By ‘what if’ he meant drilling into the film value chain to unpick what the decision making, evaluation and risk management process are at each stage of the film lifecycle from development to exploitation, the better to  understand how risk is/can be minimised by investors.

While such ‘operational’ focussed research has an important role to play in informing business improvement, and may well have wider policy implications, it shouldn’t eclipse the equally valid, and at least as strategically significant importance of, aggregate data about patterns and factors in the economic, cultural and social performance of films and filmmaking and film policies, of different kinds and at different levels from national to local.  Amongst these concerns are questions of equality and diversity of representation in respect of women, minorities and other groups.   Picking up this concern Rosalind Gill from King’s College highlighted the continuing issues of access and equality surrounding the film industry’s resiliently ‘informal’ recruitment and selection practices which continue to reinforce the underrepresentation of women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities in many if not most parts of the industry.  She observed that it continues to be difficult even to raise the resistance and/or inability of the film industry to adopt the kinds of formal practices and interventions that have gained ground in other sectors.

At the end of this particular day, it’s fair to say it was a valuable and welcome start to a much larger enterprise – that of getting better film policy(ies) informed by more and better research arising out of what all present hope will be a significant increase in scale, range and impact of film industry-academic collaborations.  This, of course, requires funding from industry and/or Government and if the most tangible outcome of the day proves to be a better-marshalled case for the benefits of such an investment that alone would make it worthwhile.

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!

Where have all the co-pros gone?

While the world’s media were heading to Cannes to traipse the Croisette and the red carpet (where, incidentally, our own Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin has been very well received), MEDIA, the EU’s support scheme for pan-European collaboration last week announced the results of its latest round of funding.

The good news is that Accidental Media, a Scottish based company founded by Tomas Sheridan (an Edinburgh Napier graduate and 2009 participant in ENGAGE, Screen Academy Scotland’s European coproduction workshop which is itself funded by MEDIA) has secured Single Project Development funding for ‘Babel’s Market’ which was a runner-up in the 2009 ENGAGE competition.

Accidental’s €11,488 award amounts to 3% of the total €413,393 in single project funds awarded to UK-based companies so far this year.

The less good news is that Accidental are the only Scottish beneficiaries out of nineteen UK companies awarded a total of €1.6m across all of the MEDIA schemes from single project and slate development to interactive projects and TV distribution.  That makes the Scottish share of MEDIA funds thus far (there’s a second call whose results will be announced later in the year) less than 1% of the UK total and would appear to the confirm the trend over the last decade which we noted here last October .

In itself the share of MEDIA funding secured by Scottish companies needn’t  automatically be cause for concern, but taken together with the seeming absence of much recent co-production activity across film or TV there are clear signs that the Scottish production sector is not securing the international finance or distribution that it arguably needs to ensure growth or indeed sustainability.  Cinema is almost inherently international these days as the UK domestic market is simply too small to finance anything other than ultra low budget films.  In television, while there is undoubtedly plenty of scope for Scottish companies to grow within the context of UK network commissions, co-production is an increasing opportunity if not a pre-requisite in higher-end factual programming in genres like natural history, history, science and arts.

While of course it’s gratifying that ENGAGE has helped at least one Scottish company on the road to international co-production, it would be good to see more alongside it  The development support available from the MEDIA programme is a very valuable aid to getting projects off the drawing board and into serious development and if there are reasons Scottish companies aren’t applying or are relatively less successful in securing support these clearly need to be addressed.

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.

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…

Rollover day for Lottery film millions?

The debate over who will inherit the UKFC’s Lottery millions when it finally closes its doors rumbles on.  Possible beneficiaries include the Arts Council of England, the BFI and NESTA but the potential role of regional and national agencies, including our own Creative Scotland, has received rather less media attention. 

In a recent response to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee enquiry into the future of Arts and Heritage funding Screen England, representing the nine regional screen agencies, argues:

With the UKFC no longer in existence, and the structure of LEPs [Local Enterprise Partnerships] not yet determined, it is imperative that any future restructuring of funding should incorporate a strong recognition of the creative industries, so that this vital sector can continue to grow, to protect jobs and revenue, and to play its part in helping the UK out of recession. As we move into an increasingly digital future, we believe it is the Screen Agencies, or whatever they evolve into, that are best placed to continue to deliver this support.”            

As if to underline the current precariousness of public support for the screen industries, in an otherwise unrelated development one of the nine regional agencies, Screen East, went bust this week “following reports of financial irregularities and the arrest of one of its managers” according to the Guardian.   However in a show of solidarity the other regional screen agencies have, Broadcast reports, rallied round to help those ‘Eastern’ film projects threatened with collapse.

While Soho is abuzz with speculation about how many and whose hands will be signing the cheques on their next project, North of the Border (and indeed South of it) one of the many little known facts about the UKFC is how much it regularly spent in Scotland, supporting not just film production but distribution, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, training (Interest to declare: Screen Academy Scotland has received  more than £1m of UKFC Lottery funding via Skillset since 2005) and much else besides.  A quick inspection of the extremely useful DCMS national lottery grant database reveals that in excess of £1m a year has been coming to Scotland since 1999 and more detailed analyses taking into account funding awarded in the first instance to bodies with English postcodes suggest something approaching £1.5m a year.  Adding that to the two to three million of Lottery funding that Scottish Screen historically received would be a fifty percent increase in the resources available to the making, showing and understanding of the moving image. That could make a profound contribution to achieving the step change in Scottish cinema that future generations richly deserve. 

At this year’s TV Festival, when I asked James Hunt ( having declared himself a firm supporting of devolving money and decision making), whether he would support devolution of Broadcasting powers to the Scottish Parliament he ruled that out.  Well now he has a chance to redeem his devolutionary credentials…

taxing times gone by

A dip into British Pathe’s online archive reveals this charming piece of industry newsreel  propaganda from 1958 calling for the abolition of the entertainment tax on cinema seats. Amongst the contributors are Sir Alexander King, owner of CAC, then the largest Scottish cinema chain and Anna Neagle who paints a glorious future of doubled production, mothballed studios reopening, new talent fostered and full employment for technicians ushering in a new era in which “the british public could enjoy a greater proportion of our own British films.”  If only…

 http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=37833

Number crunchers at (the) stake

One of the many good things at risk if the UKFC does get sacrificed on the Coalition Government’s QUANGO bonfire is its Research and Statistics Unit (RSU). They have done all of us with a professional interest in film a huge service over the past few years by producing a steady stream of  research both wide and deep.  One of the many questions to be answered by the DCMS and Jeremy Hunt is whether, and if so by whom, this vital if unglamorous part of the UKFC’s work will be carried on.

Delving into the RSU’s latest annual yearbook of film facts, as always there is a wealth of important and revealing data to be found, albeit too little of it disaggregated to provide the Scottish dimension.  Amongst the sections which are, we find that Scots in the central belt continue to go to the cinema more than anywhere else in the UK with 3.5 admissions annually per person compared to the UK average of 2.8 per year which happens to be exactly the frequency at which Northern Scots take in a movie.

Scottish movie taste appears to be more diverse than most of the UK apart with over 5 ‘specialised’ screens per million of population compared to the UK average of 4.  Only London, perhaps not that surprisingly, has more at 10 per million.

One of the more obscure facts buried in the yearbook but none the less still interesting is a comparison of the top movies on free-to-air and subscription channels.  ITV2 clocked up 5.8m viewers for Ice Age 2 while Sky Movies scored 5.3m for National Treasure: Book of Secrets.  The interesting bit is that whereas Ice Age was screened just 5 times on the free channel, garnering an average audience of just over a million, Sky had to press the playout button on National Treasure no less than 184 times for an average audience per transmission of around 30,000.  Two very different patterns of viewing it would seem to get roughly the same number of eyeballs.

A related but much less obscure fact is that contrary to expectations UK pay-movie channels have experienced a decline in audience over the past nine years from 647 million views in 2000 to 559 million last year.  Though over that period the total audience for movies on TV rose above then fell below its 2000 level of 3.5million viewers, it has more or less recovered, mainly thanks to Freeview (with the help of those Artic critters and their friends) to stand at 3.4 million.

What matters most about these numbers is that movies generate a substantial part of the broadcasters’ audience and thus revenue, which the UKFC estimate at around £1.1 billion a year of which around 20% – £200m – are UK films.  Although the majority of these are US backed UK films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Love Actually, there remains an important argument that whether free-to-air public service, licence fee based, advertising or subscription-based, UK broadcasters should be investing more of their revenue in UK production, both on cultural grounds for those with serious ‘public value’ intent (i.e. the BBC) and/or as part of their self-interest in ensuring the continued existence of a UK film industry that can continue to supply film content for their audiences i.e. us.  UK Broadcasters currently invest only about £25m in film production, low compared to other European countries.

These are just a few, almost random, bits of data from the over 200 pages of the 2010 yearbook, a taste of the crucial research that the RSU undertake, collate and analyse so that serious discussion of the film industry is possible and we are not reduced to exchanging anecdotes and guess-work about what’s really going on.  Or as one sage put it:

“Where facts are few, experts are many.”

Save the UKFC online petition

If you want to express support for the UKFC there is an online petition at http://www.gopetition.co.uk/petitions/save-the-uk-film-council.html

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.

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

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

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

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

LINK TO GRAPH: Film output and market share

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

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

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).


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