Mark Versus

Blurring the line between self improvement and self punishment

Category: Financing

Some Disruptive Thoughts on the DCMS Film Policy Review

Having read just a few short pages of the report before needing to start typing furiously (the typing, not the mood) this will only cover one principle of the report as I feared that if I waited until the end I may have no spirit left. I want to talk about this idea of the audience for British film.

I will state this up front and outright – THERE IS NO AUDIENCE FOR BRITISH FILM.

Why do I say this? Because ‘British’ or otherwise, the British film industry operates in the English language market. That market is very well stocked with films from all across the world (by which I mean America) and Britishness becomes as relevant as Australianess. It is relegated to a sub-genre. The report states research that says that people when surveyed overwhelmingly declared their support for British film. But was that only because they asked? And, being asked, who’s going to say “NO, I think the British film industry is a pointless waste of time”.

Without taking into account the fact that no English language British film operate in a market of its own there will never be a successful British film industry, because in order to survive it must compete. Not with itself but with  every other English language film available. And that means Hollywood.  And to do that, you have to compete with them on their terms too, with big box office grosses over there. That means (and I doubt you will hear it said in the halls of the BFI) the British film industry needs to make American films. In America.

There are people doing it. “Paul”, the 2011 film starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost is not the most British Film in the world, but it certainly has more than a red, white and blue streak was made for $40million and grossed just under that in the US but with a worldwide gross of $90 odd million. “Shaun of the Dead” a very British success grossed $13million in the States. See, even their slightly worse films deal in bigger numbers.

Here is a conversation that NEVER happens:

Boy “Hey, do you want to go see a film?”

Girl “Yes, let’s. What would you like to see?”

Boy “A British film” 

Now, it may be the case that the boy may say ‘THAT British Film‘ but I would be willing to bet that it would be based on something other than its Britishness. Most likely that they heard it was a good film. So here is solution number one to growing the film industry – ONLY MAKE GOOD FILMS.

Well, if we knew which they were going to be we’d be doing that. So here comes solution number two – MAKE SO MANY FILMS THAT STATISTICALLY ENOUGH OF THEM WILL BE GOOD/SUCCESSFUL THAT THE BAD ONES CAN BE IGNORED BECAUSE THEIR COST WAS COVERED BY THE HUGE BOX OFFICE OF THE ONE THAT SUCCEEDS.

That’s how Hollywood does it and, guess what, it works. It costs more money that the British Film Industry has to spend and requires that UK production companies taking the benefit of US box office successes so that that money can go into making more terrible films in the hope of a gem or two.

But until the UK film bods stop talking about the British film industry and start talking about the English language market we will always remain a cottage industry. If the BFI want a truly British film industry then they should invest in the production of Welsh language and Gaelic or Cornish language films and develop a foreign language British Film industry*, because with the report reading like they are treating the UK as a distinct market, we are going to do as well with a  Welsh film in the English language market as a French or Italian film would. Subtitles are subtitles after all. And these films would be uniquely British.

If they want a successful industry then they need to support business looking to compete, and that means productions signing big stars and filming people talking in American accents and doing American things and letting the money come back. Because nobody cares that Braveheart was an Australian guy if he’s talking in English.

Pah! I’ve run out of steam now but would love some comments and further discussion on the subject.  I can;t wait for the inevitable chunk on piracy.

* I would personally love to see these industries developed more actively than they are and see the regional funds for these films as a way to marginalise them out from the British Film Industry. We should have a Foreign language Oscar contender annually.

Advertisements

Beyond Crowdsourced Funding

Movie CameraLooking at the statistics for this site over the last year or so it appears that there is a lot of interest in the subject of crowdsourced funding, and in particular crowdsourced funding of film. The most popular post on this blog is by some margin [The crowdsourcing post link]. I can only agree with the figures given that it is the subject that caused me to write the most. Obviously it holds interest for me. Due to this popularity and following a number of conversations I have been having on the subject I think that it is time to weigh back in.

I feel obliged to state from the outset that these are opinions based on zero practical experience of raising finance for a film. Some might think that should invalidate what follows. I say that if there is anything to add to a debate then let’s hear it irrespective of the source. I can choose to disregard it after the fact. There may, however be something worth hearing. I hope so here.

I would also add that the basis for my lack of experience in financing a film in this manner is, in part, that until something new is added to the formula, the process simply does not work well enough to be a viable course of action. This statement is meant as no disrespect to those people who have worked or are attempting to work in this manner. On the contrary, I would wish to see them held up as the pioneers of whatever comes out of the flux that independent film finance is currently (but seems always to be) in. It would nonetheless be foolish of me to wait in a queue behind them to pick at the same fruitless tree. Instead I have the luxury of watching how their experiments play out and learning fro their successes ad failures. What exists as fact at the moment is that the crowdfunding model for film finance does not work. It is not refined enough, it is not efficient enough and it is not effective enough. If it was, everyone would be doing it. The truth is that the act of building and maintaining a community is itself a challenging enough prospect (particularly in the company of scammers and social media ‘consultants’ and ‘experts’). The labour of doing such a thing is Herculean and does not suit being placed alongside the similarly epic task of developing a film. When both tasks are undertaken by the same person it is no surprise that the process takes so long or loses its momentum before it has really begun.

That is not to say that you cannot make a film that has been crowd funded. I could not claim that. But the question needs to be asked (as it should be always) “Is there a better way?”. Rather that an old world attitude of “If it ‘aint broke dont fix it” those looking to make films should be asking “If it never worked to begin with why not accept that it is probably broken?”.

Crowdfunding is, in the most part, a means to an end. The end is a film of whatever description you care for. I would doubt that there are many, of any, filmmakers who attempted to crowdfund a film purely to see if it could be done. Instead, they are looking for a workable way to meet the costs of producing a script. To these people it doesn’t matter how the money is raised, just that it is raised. I would add that these people are, intentionally or otherwise, looking to operate outside of the standard systems of film finance and that any alternative to the crowdfunding model needs to meet this accessibility criteria. The rise in crowdsourcing generally is a byproduct of (as good as) free access to an audience and it is this or other benefits of the information age from which we are likely to find what we are looking for.

Read the rest of this entry »

Let Kev Do The Talking

Just a short one to encourage you to have a read of some of @thatkevinsmith‘s recent online output.

I know that Kevin Smith has had success that can afford him a little luxury. Luxury that your average independent film-maker may feel they can’t afford when trying to finance and exhibit their films. But Kevin has made a pretty balls out move in respect of his latest “Red State” by eschewing the standard distribution outlets – the system within which has up until been the source of his luxury – in favour of an alternative.

He describes his process here in a post that is also a nice summing up of the way the money flows in distributing a film.

A few people have shit on the idea, either because they aren’t a fan of him, or the film, or his choice to work in this way.  Personally I think that for independent film-makers the traditional distribution model is not necessarily the most appropriate path for these films and it is good to see someone, particularly someone established and at risk of alienating an awful lot of people in the industry, taking a step in a different direction.

More people should follow suit and mix it up. And hats off to Kevin Smith for being one of the first, and let’s face it the noisiest, to give it a shot.

Goodbye UK Film Council

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.

On Crowdsourcing Film Finance

Today I got into a Twitter exchange about the benefits of various crowdsourcing techniques for financing a short film with a director named Danny Lacey.  I had seen at least a couple of retweets regarding the short film he is planning to make (called Love Like Hers), and which he is fundraising for via the web.  I saw that he had already raised £3,500 of the £10k he has budgeted the production at (I have made this assumption and will discuss it further later) and I added a small amount of my own, doing so on little more than a cursory look at the information on the film’s site and Danny’s own blog at dannylaceyfilm.blogspot.com (where he is documenting the process). That and the retweets.

Having donated to the film I was drawn to think about some of the methods Danny is employing in this crowdfunded model and whether or not it is actually as innovative as is claimed on those sites.  Read back that sentence sounds like the opening to an episode of The Cook Report, so I do want to stress at this point that I am extremely impressed with the amount of money raised to date, gave my money willingly, and hope that a more direct involvement of the crowd in low-budget film-making is encouraged by Danny’s actions.  I do, however, feel that the topic deserves and requires discussion and exploration so that the model can be improved upon and, hopefully, developed into a more sustainable method of low budget film finance.

My major concern with the model and its claim of innovation was that I as far as I could see there are not many ways in which it varies from existing financing models (other than in scope).  Most film financing endeavours of any scale generally work along the lines of ‘give me money to make my film and I will give you [riches beyond your wildest dreams/a DVD] in return’.  Whether the reward is a tax break or a walk-on part in the movie it is the same process.  That the process in this instance is being marketed openly via the internet is only as a result of the film’slow  budget, with most open investment structures (like an EIS structure) undertaken by seasoned investors being subject to massive FSA restrictions on who you are or are not allowed to pitch investment to.  The point being that this kind of investment in film goes on on a daily basis, and as such cannot be called innovative.  It is called Capitalism. Another point to make would be that in the cases further up the budgetary food chain it is not uncommon to see the investors receive some stake in the film by way of equity.  People are keen to share in success.  Danny’s structure does not offer such equity. Rather, in each case, it boils down to the exchange of goods or services for money.  This is not a criticism (an equity stake in a short film is unlikely to yield returns) but rather an observation.

If it is the medium (the INternet) that is meant to be the innovation then I would direct anyone who cared to ask towards Kickstarter or Flattr, both of which have been doing stellar work in the area of crowdsourced funding.  Kickstarter often works in the ways described above, with various rewards for various levels of investment. A current downside is that it is, unfortunately for us Brits, very UScentric, and Flattr working in quite a novel though less direct manner.  I would probably point them towards AD Lane’s (who I note is also a contributor to Danny’s film) Indywood Project who have been spamming my Twitter feed every day since May 2009 with their crowdsourced film financing. I can’t say I am a fan of the genre, but they are up to £20K themselves.

Is there an example of an innovative attempt at crowdsourcing finance? Try looking at the CoProducer project set up by YouGov CEO Stephen Shakespeare.  Shakespeare attempted to raise finance and generate content for a film by enlisting thousands of members of the public from the pool that YouGov polled to agree to complete surveys both on the film  as well as commercial surveys (used as the fundraising tool) in exchange for producer credits and a share in the film’s success.  The cost in cash terms to the investor was nothing but their investment both in time and interest was great.  What evidence is there that it was innovative? It appears to have been a massive failure.  YouGov’s site has no mention of the project and the domain has been removed (a BBC article from 2008 on the project can be seen here).  Nothing tried and tested can really be classed as innovative.

My second concern with Danny Lacey’s model is that it does not really take advantage of that at which the the crowd excels – namely, being a crowd.  The goal of the campaign may be fundraising but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the focus.  Building interest in the project, fostering investment in Danny and the film (beyond financial investment because, let’s face it, the returns are not great) and creating a energy and momentum around the project will have their own value and will, albeit eventually and indirectly, bear financial fruit.

As an example there are, I can surmise, a number of people who follow Danny’s Twitter account and blog and youtube channel that have not given, nor will they give and nor should they be expected to give.  There value however is that they are (in purely statistical terms) proportionately the number of people required to generate the number of existing contributors.  By equal token there exists a large number of people who would contribute to the film but who do not even know it exists.  Simplifying (drastically) the maths of Danny’s current progress and taking his Twitter followers as a rough indication of the films footprint on the Internet you could estimate the following:-

  • It takes 200o followers to create 100 contributors;
  • He has raised £3500 those contributors making an average donation of £35;
  • With each contributor donating the average £35 it requires another 185 contributors to meet his target;
  • 3700 Twitter followers are required to yield 185 contributors.

The maths is laughable, but the principal is sound. The more people that know about the project the more will contribute.  The focus should be to push awareness about the project up and the metric above, clumsy though they may be, could help.  The more reason you give the crowd to make noise about the project the more noise they will make.  Encourage them not to donate (which costs them money) but to promote (which costs them nothing) and to do so on something that they care about because they have watched it grow and want to see it succeed.  Those who want and are able to contribute financially will do so. I myself am an example of that.

Love Like Hers has some movement in that direction.  Danny’s video diaries offer aninsight into the world of film-making for those who don’t have it.  It offers them an opportunity to fell and get involved.  But I beg Danny openly, as I did on Twitter, not to limit the effect of that movement.  Release the song and music video for free. Stick it on the front page of your site, your blog, your Youtube channel and tweet the hell out of it.  Let people talk about it, recommend it, and then retweet the hell out of it.  Let it be part of the identity of the film.  If it is good and you are proud of it then it will be the best possible promotion that your project could have.  Once people have seen it, invite people to donate for it – same price or otherwise – and see what happens.  If it is not good, then for God’s sake don’t charge people for it sight unseen. That is just crooked.  What should be reasonably clear is that those people who were buying the song or video up until now were not buying it for the song or the video (there is a good chance that they have neither heard or seen it)  they were buying it to become more involved in the process.  Those people will still want that involvement and will donate.  They’ll donate because they will feel a return on their investment.  Everyone else may still want to invest in the film, but will feel just as validated in doing so with their time and their efforts than as if they had paid, and they are just as valuable to have on board.

In respect of the song and video, I will repeat the point made above by repeating something I tweeted to Danny.  Selling something for money is not an innovative way to raise money.  Whether that is a music video, a t-shirt, the novelisation of the script or a seat in the bar in the scene where the lead actor gets shot.  It is the same transaction as buying a bag of crisps. Film-makers need to dig deeper than that if their goal is to reinvent film finance at the low budget level.

I would like to see more attempts at financing arrangements like that of “The Lives of the Saints” by Rankin and Chris Cottam where the entire budget was fronted by a clothing line with the only proviso being that the cast and crew used some of that resource to create an advert for the brand.  In the age of viral marketing, having an entire movie to supplement your ad campaign has got to seem inviting.  Where are the business providing a match making service between brands and film-makers. There are worse ways to spend £100K on marketing.

I would also encourage film-makers to share ideas allowing for the packaging of similar projects together, sharing cast and crew costs topping and tailing production periods or dovetailing production schedules to reduce location costs.  Where is the forum saying “Anyone got a film that can shoot in the summer that is set in a country house? Because I do.”?

Distribution is an area of film-making that has been smashed apart by the internet and by digital recording and presentation technologies.  Where are the film-makers looking to find new licensing opportunities for their films directly with alternative distribution channels? (There is a whole post about the film-maker being more involved in distribution here.)

There is room for exploration and experimentation in film finance, but as an area it suffers because it is rarely viewed as anyone’s goal at this level.  The film-maker wants to make their film by any means necessary and so is more predisposed towards innovation in production – making it better for less.  There are surprisingly few micro-budget producers out there which makes it hard to look beyond “If a million people gave just £1 each…”.

On a slightly different note, there are a number of ways I would like to see the crowd involved in the production process, with the open sourcing of documentation (asking for improvements on budget and schedule), crowd casting (like Shaun of the Dead), collaborative storytelling and others, but they are for another post and, I am willing to bet, already out there somewhere.

I wish Danny the best of luck with Love Like Her, irrespective of whether or not this post gives that impression, and look forward to seeing it, and I hope more film-makers are encouraged by Danny to try their own methods of raising finance.  You can contribute to the film here.

Can Film-makers Think and Act Like Internet Start-ups?

Question: Can the financing ideas of Venture Capitalists in Technology be applied to the equally risky sector of independent film financing?

I know next to nothing about about venture capitalism or internet start-ups (and what I do know is taken straight from wikipedia so if they are lying to me I am screwed) but while listening to Jeff Jarvis narrate his excellent book “What Would Google Do?” I was struck by a number of parallels between the financing of  an internet start up with the financing of an independent feature film.  That is not to say that they are entirely analogous, but they do have some similarities.  They both tend to be built on an idea in which a small, core team have absolute belief, they are both industries saturated with product but in which a stellar idea executed well can breakthrough and they are both incredible risky investment prospects.

So I, of course, got to thinking “How come we don’t fund films and start-ups the same way?”  (Apologies to Jeff Jarvis but, by this point, the audiobook had faded into the background.  I hope I haven’t missed the part where he disproves the rest of this post on a postage stamp).

Read the rest of this entry »