In a guest column, ACE head Simon Perry argues that the UK is missing out on co-production prospects.

In proportion to its size, the UK now has significantly less funding available for the making of its own films than almost any other European country. You would expect, therefore, that its production sector would be seeking all and any means and mechanisms by which to raise money abroad. With presales of most independent films too tight to mention these days, the obvious solution is international co-production.

But the public funding practices and tax incentive rules in the UK seem designed to ensure that British producers are shut out of co-production prospects in every way possible. Non-membership of the pan-European fund Eurimages probably does most to make Britain the co-production partner-of-last-choice within Europe. But the reduction in the value of the tax credit imposed on official co-productions has a worldwide impact, and now comes the news that co-productions are henceforth precluded from funding under the EIS (Enterprise Investment Scheme).

Among amendments to the tax credit rules announced late last year, reduction of the eligibility threshold for expenditure from 25% of budget to 10% makes it theoretically easier for British producers to join foreign films as minority co-producers. But (unlike their European counterparts for whom minority co-productions bring good, regular business and prestige) their appetite for it is lacking. Funding of £1m earmarked by the BFI for this purpose – in an attempt to show readiness by the UK to reciprocate in the co-production game – proved hard to shift last year, going mainly to support an English-language adaptation of a Georges Simenon story with a UK director.

ACE, which I helped to found 20 years ago, is a network of more than 150 experienced European and non-European film producers who have been through an advanced training course, who remain in contact to exchange information, know-how and projects, and who use international co-production as the primary tool for the financing of their films. 

Selection of UK producers for the ACE programme has declined steadily in recent years because the prevailing British mindset seems to equate ‘international’ with ‘US’ and nowhere else – that is, if it even looks abroad at all. In his latest column for Sight & Sound magazine, BFI Film Fund head Ben Roberts analysed the funding available to UK producers, exclusively listing local sources: the words ‘Europe’ and ‘co-production’ did not appear.               

What strikes us at ACE as most curious is the apparent complacency of the British production sector. Most producers seem to accept that the films that define British cinema – films initiated here by British businesses that represent British culture and artistic expression – will be financed by a small handful of domestic backers, with two or more typically working in tandem. From a money standpoint alone, this means that opportunities for producers in the UK are a fraction of those available to their counterparts (and competitors) in France, Germany and Poland, let alone in small countries if the figures there are pro-rated to match the size of the UK: Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and even, despite savage cuts, Ireland. 

No one can doubt the quality of the best British films currently coming down this narrow pipeline. The question rather is: how much other good work is not catered for, remains unrealised, or is produced with inadequate resources? Would a greater diversity of British talent and ideas reach a worldwide public if a wider range of tastes and structures were decisive?

According to the BFI, no strong voices are being raised within Pact or elsewhere in the sector in support of the potential of co-production, of removing the tax regime obstacles and rejoining Eurimages. Is this because the authoritative producers are doing okay with the status quo, the service producers don’t want the tax credit unpicked, and the rest can lump it?

If so, is it really sustainable in a world where no country can function as an island, UKIP notwithstanding? The only film industry in Europe that might reasonably justify a mindset of self-sufficiency is the French, with its annual support mechanism worth more than £600m, all of it derived from the industry itself and not the government. But even the French now pursue co-production energetically as a necessary strategy for getting their own films made, and as a means of participating creatively and financially in films by the best talents from all over the globe. Can the UK, with its meagre coffers, afford to deny producers the benefits of co-production and risk missing out?

Simon Perry is president of Ateliers du Cinéma Européen (ACE).