Goodbye UK Film Council

by markversus

The Film Council looks dead.  Yesterday Jeremy Hunt released a statement in which he has proposed the shutting down of the UK Film Council (along with a heap of other smaller organisations) as part of the government’s cost cutting measures.  Almost immediately a small corner of Twitter was ablaze with outrage at the announcement.  And rightly so. And wrongly so too.

Personally, I agree with the outraged that it is obscene that an organisation that employs nearly 100 people and which provides, to some degree, the cornerstone of the British film industry (financially at least) can be disbanded with what appears to be a minimum of consultation over its function or value.  The thinking behind this decision is entirely opaque and the cost-saving benefits are not proven.  It should not have happened this way.

But that is not to say it should not have happened.  But, I think we all would have rather known why.

[I apologise for the poor grammar from here on in.  It may be appropriate to refer to the UKFC in either the past or present tense and I may veer wildly between the two.]

The Film Council fulfilled a number of roles. Their main function is to distribute the Lottery money allotted to Film both through itself and the regional film agencies.  The manner in which this was distributed has recently changed, with the distinct funds for development, or for first time film-makers  folded into the one single fund.  They also administered the  cultural test used to determine a films qualification for the UK Producer Tax Credit.  The records they keep on the UK film industry provide an incredibly useful resource.  Less tangibly, though no less importantly, they provided a foundation and an anchor upon which a lot of the UK’s film finance industry is based. They were a starting point for the development process for a lot of films and a focus for the financing efforts of inexperienced and veteran producers alike.

By disbanding this organisation in the fashion that seems to be proposed will lead to the knowledge and experience built up over 10 years being abandoned.  Any steps that the organisation has made towards a greater understanding of the film industry in this country, steps that can only be taken over these longer periods of time, will have to be retrod, as whatever replacement system that is put in place learns how to walk and the collective wisdom of the industry has to be coaxed and corralled from the individuals who provided it before.  There will be a cost to this and it will not be small.

Nevertheless, I am exited by it all.

The UK Film Council was not the perfect example of what they could be.  To some extent they were not even a good example.  Statistically it has been shown that for every £1 of lottery money invested in films by the UK Film Council £5 was made at the box office for those films.  This looks like a vindication of the work that were doing and a demonstration of the government’s philistinism and contempt for the industry (which, don’t get me wrong, I think that they do indeed have) but it is not.   It does not even come close to doing that.  And people should know better than to fire it off around the internet in a knee-jerk.   For starters, it does not mention how much it costs the UKFC to invest that £1.  The bureaucratic costs could inflate that side of the equation far beyond the £5 it returns.  And I would expect that with the staff of 90 that it has considerable costs.  They could, and should run a tighter ship.

The only information that this figure provides is that, on average, the films that it invests in are profitable and this should not necessarily be viewed as a good thing.  Of course, commercial success should be nurtured to ensure the growth of the industry but this number might suggest that the UKFC are only investing in what are already safe bets.  The pressure that has built over these last 10 years (10 years that have seen developments in film-making, particularly technologically, not experienced since the 40s and 50s) to demonstrate a track record of success has dulled the risk taking by the Film Council to the point where it is increasingly difficult for a film-maker with no track record to get their support.  There are a number if small and first time film-makers on the roll of recipients of Film Council money, but as often as not these film-makers have applied and been turned down and then gone out and made the film under their own steam only to have the UKFC turn up at the last minute with an offer of finishing funds once it is obvious to all that the film has merit.  Are the film-makers grateful for the money? Of course they are, but it is a little like waiting for the final lap of the race before betting on the winner.  But, the talent was always there. The Film Council weren’t prepared to take the risk.

Which is, I think, one of the jobs that an organisation like that is supposed to do.

It would be nice to imagine that public money could actually be spent with no consideration of returns.  The Film Council should be an organisation that allows a film-maker to fail, so that important, though less commercial, films can be made and appreciated for their value to the industry outside of how well it competes with the latest Ben Stiller comedy on its opening weekend.  This is no longer the Film Council’s interest and is now no longer its concern.

The fear of failure and the narrowing of vision has made it incredibly hard for someone wishing to get started in the British film industry to find support from the UKFC.  They increasingly return to tried and tested film-makers and the merging of their funds effectively removed their obligation to fund first time film-makers.

If the money that is allotted remains at the current level rather than being slashed (as people seemed to assume this announcement indicated despite insistence to the contrary) then the structure of funding can be completely rethought.  Film-makers (myself included) who have applied and been turned down may get another opportunity to present themselves without the old system as a barrier.  I would like to see a more face-to-face approach to the application process. I would like to see a fund that focuses in the development of producers (of course I would). But with all of these being ore of the same I would desperately like to see a stronger focus on the development if distribution infrastructure.  There are teams out there making amazing films with or without the Film Council’s development or production finance.  The new Film Council should spend as much money as is required to allow these films to be distributable.  The technology is available so let’s get them out there.  Give us more digital screens. Give us decent access to these films over the web.

I think we should all view this as an opportunity to move forwards.  I want to hear your thoughts in the comments.

As a postscript, when all is said and done, this is still bureaucracy.  With our political figures pretty much interchangeable across parties, I think we need to be prepared that their schemes will be so too.