After his recent FDA keynote speech, Lord Puttnam spoke to Screen about some of the current challenges facing the British film industry.

David Puttnam is one of the most influential British film producers of his generation with credits ranging from Chariots Of Fire and The Mission to The Killing Fields. A former Chief-Executive at Columbia Pictures, he has become a key figure in debates about public film policy and film education. Puttnam is chairman of The Film Distributors’ Association (FDA). His regular FDA keynote speeches are renowned for sparking debate and looking at the UK film industry’s key concerns from an original and provocative angle. After a speech this week in London in which he outlined priorities for building cinema audiences in the UK, Screen spoke to Puttnam about some current challenges in the UK film industry.
What do you think are the challenges for the BFI to take on its new industrial role as Britain’s lead agency for film?
I’ve described it as a paradigm shift. Everyone realizes what a big ask this is. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I think ultimately it will be successful because they (the BFI staff) are tenacious and I’ve got a lot of time for pretty much everybody who works there. What I’ve been suggesting is that they need to show movement and get traction.

Waiting for the Film Policy Review is important, obviously they’ve got to do that, but they’ve got to hit the ground running. In my experience, momentum is everything. You’re either moving forward or you’re slipping back. You can’t say, ‘Right I am going to stay still for a year’ and nothing is going to happen because inevitably you’re going to slip back. The industry is waiting for the BFI to switch the lights on and prove that it understands their concerns.

What you’ve got is rather a weird relationship. It’s like a girlfriend/boyfriend. It’s like this girl who wears glasses. You know she’s really, really bright but you’ve just been told she is in charge of show dancing at the Lido in Paris. Well, she has got to get up on stage and prove it…what the BFI has to do is re-balance both its internal expertise and talent base and its external perception so it is able to be seen by the industry and cultural world as representing both unambiguously and is not accused of preferring one over the other.
What have you thought of how (Ministers) Ed Vaizey and Jeremy Hunt have approached the industry. You talked in your speech about lamenting the demise of the UK Film Council.
That is something we all need to get past. There is no point in looking back and saying it was all wonderful. It (the UKFC) wasn’t all wonderful. It was pretty good but not all wonderful. My own view is that Ed Vaizey and Jeremy Hunt to an extent put themselves in a difficult place. Some of those decisions on paper look to have been perfectly rational. The new board for the BFI, for example, is as good a board as the BFI has ever had, maybe better…they (Vaizey and Hunt) will now be waiting as politicians to answer questions in Parliament and say positive things. The danger for them is another six months, nine months or a year drags by, the industry is saying what’s going on here and it looks as though the policy decisions they made have not worked.
What about the decision to appoint Chris Smith to chair the Review given his role in establishing the UK Film Council?
If I were to surmise, I’d say that the closure of the Film Council caused more of a political stir than either Ed Vaizey or Jeremy Hunt had imagined…there were certainly people who felt on balance, it was rather a hasty thing to do. Now, if you’ve got yourself in that situation, you seek correctives, political correctives…Chris (Smith) is trusted. Chris has a remarkable track record. I think the important thing was that they were able to persuade Chris to take this on. You’d have to ask Chris whether he sees it as making the best of a bad job or building from where he left off. My guess is probably a little bit of both.
You’ve called for public investment in P&A to be increased as part of an Audience Development Fund. Do you think more Lottery money should be spent on this?
We’re talking about two things: short term and long term. In the immediate term, we need enough money and a strong enough initiative to make a bang in a very crowded year. Olympic year is going to be very crowded and to get a lot of attention (for film) is not going to be easy.
So how much money is needed?
I don’t know. Any figure I gave would mislead you and potentially make me look foolish…in the longer term, the industry always feeds best off a consistency.  If it knows that there are support systems out there that work, it is quite good at adjusting itself to what those support systems are. If you ask me a figure, I would have thought consistently available to distribution, particularly the audience development part of distribution, £10 million would be a figure of the order of the day that I would think could do a good job. £15 million could probably do better. Really, in a way, the cost of one movie.
What would you like to see happen now with production funding?
One of the things that has been very helpful for the last three years (and very stable) has been having a combination of Tanya (Seghatchian) (at the BFI) and Tessa Ross (at Film4) and Christine Langan at BBC Films, all of whom are very, very talented. The obvious, the default option clearly, would be for Christine to move from the BBC to the BFI. It’s a bigger fund. But equally if I were her, I wouldn’t do it unless I was to get more, not less autonomy, than I had where I was coming from.

What you want to see is the emergence of a trio or a quartet of similarly gifted people — and maybe not all women this time, maybe a bloke in that mix — who have the mandate, the courage and the taste to make good judgments. 

Somebody attacked me about The Inbetweeners Movie the other day. The great strength of Tessa is that she absolutely understands that the income that can be generated from Inbetweeners can be spent on three or four treasured projects she has got that may well otherwise be unaffordable. It’s the crass stupidity of the industry that deals in simplistics that thinks somehow or other Tessa is betraying herself by investing in The Inbetweeners…I’ve got to declare an interest: I am deputy chairman of Channel 4 so I probably would say this, wouldn’t I, but I wholeheartedly believe it.
What about Pact’s aspiration for having all public funding as producer equity and the lobbying in certain quarters for an automatic production subsidy scheme?
Rightly or wrongly, I am one of the people who conceived the franchise scheme which was precisely to enable companies to have an automaticity in terms of their funding…The French have an automatic scheme and it works. I am great believer in looking round the world and seeing who has got schemes that work and see how they apply to our own situation. I’ve got no ideological objects to it (an automatic scheme.) Maybe, in an ideal world, the fourth pillar is an automatic scheme. You’ve got three core components – the Channel 4 component, the BBC component and the BFI component. Maybe the fourth component could be the automaticity.

What’s your perspective on new body Creative England?

You’ve got to remember what it grew out of. It grew out of a mixed bag of success and relative failure in terms of the (regional) screen agencies. It was an attempt to deal with some of the failures. It has got good people running it, very good people running it. I wish it well. I think it’s a good idea. If it works, we’ll all be applauding it. If it doesn’t, I hope that instead of scrapping it, we’ll devise ways of helping to improve it. One of the things I most dislike about the present cultural climate is this idea if something isn’t working, you scrap it and start something new.