Is a rigorous cultural test a good way to determine which projects are eligible for national tax breaks' Two Screen writers give their opinions based on the experiences of the UK and Australia, where governments are both attempting to create sustainable, long-term film industries by making state financing available to local producers via tax credits and rebates.
Screen's London-based writer Geoffrey Macnab, who supports a cultural points system, gives his opinion below. (To read the opinion of Sydney-based Screen writer Sandy George, who opposes a cultural test, click here)
Geoffrey Macnab in London
In the UK, producers can access a 25% tax credit on UK spend based on their 'Britishness', determined by a controversial points-based cultural test. After the roller coaster ride of the sale-and-leaseback era, UK producers regard the new UK film tax credit with undisguised relief. What it provides, above all else, is stability. The system appears abuse proof. No longer is there the risk the government will spontaneously outlaw the latest film-financing scheme.
To qualify as British, films must now pass a 'cultural test'. Scoring the required 16 out of 31 possible points should not be onerous for projects with any kind of British identity. Early signs are that the new system is user-friendly. It is also stable; there is no sunset date.
In theory, the new system could run indefinitely. And since the introduction of the test in January 2007, the number of films coming to or through the UK to shoot has not dropped and independent UK producers should still be able to work easily within the new guidelines.
The test was revised from its original form in order to gain European Commission approval, with more focus now on a project's content than on either its shooting location or the nationalities of the cast and crew. In theory, a producer can spend three-quarters of the budget in the UK and employ a 90% British crew and still fail the cultural test if the project is not British-originated and does not tell a British story or feature British actors.
The system now appears transparent. A producer can look at the guidelines and tell quickly whether or not a project will qualify. The points for 'cultural content' offer considerable flexibility - and some scope for imaginative interpretation of the rules.
For example, one US-backed sci-fi project with US leads sought to pass the test by tweaking the screenplay and setting a key action sequence at Stonehenge in south-west England.
Producers say the Certification Unit, housed within the UK Film Council, is very accommodating. 'They are helpful, they are inclusive, but they are not giving points away,' says one. 'Films that deserve to pass will pass. It's as simple as that.'
Decisions are also taken quite quickly. HM Revenue and Customs processes the tax credits. Insiders suggest this takes 25-50 days, so the turnaround is fairly swift. Moreover, experts on the test argue that films such as The Constant Gardener would sail through, even when they are made abroad.
The very fact The Constant Gardener was written by a British author, John Le Carre, and shot in English would guarantee eight points. Another four points would be scored for the principal actors being British citizens or residents. It would not be too much of a stretch to pick up the other four points required.
Of course, the tax credit is an incentive to spend money in the UK. If a project films in Kenya, it may qualify as British, but it is not going to secure the relief on UK qualifying production expenditure.
The new tax credit is not as lucrative to producers as the previous sale-and-leaseback transactions, but at least it seems stable. Now, overseas producers and financiers know there will be a 25% tax credit on their spend in the UK and that the money will be bankable.
Is it perfect' Probably not. But at least it is straightforward, fair and will ensure more films with British cultural and creative elements are made.