The UK film industry is entering another new chapter courtesy of the new government. So now we know the plans, there’s an occasion for optimism.
I am resolved to be positive about the UK government’s new plan for film announced this week which essentially creates one giant body for both film industry and culture in the British Film Institute (BFI).
Whatever were the political machinations, applications of influence or exercises of ego that led to the abrupt abolition of the UK Film Council in July, it is time to open a new chapter and embrace a BFI charged with overcoming the gripes and discontent which dogged the UKFC through its ten year history, while building on its many accomplishments.
Culture minister Ed Vaizey bandied around some encouraging figures on Monday. By 2014, he said, Lottery funding for film will have increased to £43m from its existing £27m. BFI chairman Greg Dyke added that in its first year, the BFI plans to raise the Film Fund from £15m to £18m. I choose to believe these assertions and accept that the BFI, under the determined management of Amanda Nevill, will handle its internal reorganization effectively and accommodate new industry functions into its already hefty overhead while achieving the economies of scale such a reboot entails.
So now the waiting game is over, let’s at last focus on what’s best for the film industry, at a time when producers have never been more stuck in raising finance. At a time when distribution of non-blockbuster movies has never been more challenging. At a time when UK audiences are showing only sporadic interest in British cinema.
I raise a few thoughts in light of this climate.
The UK still remains isolated from other European film cultures and the tax credit alone is an inefficient device for independent co-production. Nor is the UK a member of Eurimages. Government has preferred to ally the local industry with the US and on Monday Ed Vaizey stressed that Hollywood is not the enemy, since the studios invest hundreds of millions of pounds a year shooting in the UK, paying UK talent and crew and bringing images of UK culture to the world.
But these studio films should be set apart from independently produced UK films, just as US cinema delineates studio and independent. They are two different spheres.
It is the independent UK production community which is suffering at present. That sector does not have the resources to keep UK talent away from US productions, not least because the US independent distribution sector which was previously paying top dollar for British films is in shambles and hardly buying, let alone pre-buying.
This is the sector which could benefit from European co-productions, and this is where the sustainability argument is focused and where resource needs to be directed. Joining Eurimages would be a start.
And, as Vaizey said, the BFI should seriously consider the PACT proposals for diverting the public money recoupment corridor from successful films back into the producing entities. The Arts Council film franchises failed, the UKFC slate funding deals failed, but here is a chance to reward producers of hit movies with funding for slates of future projects. Will that mean a handful of familiar producers will be the beneficiaries? Probably, but only if they are successful, and, jealousies aside, their stability benefits everyone.
Similarly, with a view to boosting the independent production sector, the BFI could learn from UKFC lessons and be less aggressive on recoupment positions for Lottery funding. Many producers felt their own chance of recoupment from their films was being undermined by the UKFC.
The BFI also has the chance here to stimulate audience in the UK for UK films, not just by marshalling its own resources as a nationwide exhibition body but by encouraging a closer relationship between production and distribution. Vaizey suggested that the Lottery’s development, production and distribution funds might come into one large fund which could, if managed by the appropriately varied skillsets, assist this. One need only look at the success of Vertigo, an aggressive and dynamic young company which produced and distributed Streetdance 3D this year, to see how the forensic targeting of local audience demographics across the entire process can reap results.
Likewise UK cinema, more than any other national cinema, has a real opportunity in export, particularly with the right film. I am a tad puzzled by Vaizey’s plan to recruit BAFTA and BBC Worldwide to promote British films for export to the US, not just because BBC Worldwide has minimal expertise in theatrical sales but also because any US distributor worth its salt would be fully apprised of British film productions from development stage onwards (perhaps Mr Vaizey has not met any US acquisitions executives, who by nature are the most well-informed around). Promotion in other international territories is a more pressing need.
So, is it a new dawn for UK film? It could be. Who knows? Let’s hope so. Let’s even believe it.