PART 1: ABOLITION
Exactly 10 years after the UK Film Council was abolished, Screen looks back at that momentous day, and assesses the impact of the decision on the UK film industry.
On Monday July 26 2010, the UK film industry was taken by surprise when the abolition of the UK Film Council (UKFC) – which had come into existence 10 years earlier – was announced by government minister Jeremy Hunt, with no explanation of what might replace this New Labour-created film body. That evening happened to be the night of the party for the 2010 edition of Screen’s Stars Of Tomorrow – and there was one topic of conversation that dominated.
The May 2010 UK general election had led to the forming of the coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, with the Conservatives’ David Cameron as prime minister, Jeremy Hunt appointed secretary of state for culture, Olympics, media and sport, and Ed Vaizey as minister for culture, communications and creative industries. The 2008 financial collapse had dented the public treasury, and chancellor George Osborne initiated a brutal round of cost-cutting, with quangos that had proliferated under the preceding Labour government first in the firing line.
Following his announcement, Hunt pinpointed the high salaries of senior UKFC executives – but was that mere justification for a decision taken for political reasons?
To mark the 10-year anniversary of this highly controversial event in the history of UK film policy, Screen is presenting an oral history spread over two features. In Part Two – ’Legacy’ – which will be published on July 30, we will look at the achievements of an organisation that distributed £160m to more than 900 films, backing commercial hits and award winners such as Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, Jane Campion’s Bright Star, Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday, Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, James Marsh’s Man On Wire, Shane Meadows’ This Is England, Kevin Macdonald’s Touching The Void, Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park.
But first, we focus on the abolition itself, speaking to many of the main players for the inside story of how it unfolded, and also ask: with the benefit of 10 years’ hindsight, what impact did the closureof the UKFC ultimately have, if any?
Pete Buckingham (head of distribution and exhibition, UK Film Council, 2002-2011): You could probably say that with the financial collapse of 2008, which precipitated the destruction of the Film Council, this was a response by the establishment that it was the public sector’s fault. That the public sector had got too rich, the public sector was insulated from the collapse, the private sector was suffering all over the place, and so on. That was the context. It was an easy target.
Sally Caplan (head of UK Film Council Premiere Fund, 2005-2010): It was a complete shock, not least because the UKFC and its CEO John Woodward were generally well-respected, and the rumours were that the UKFC would absorb and run the BFI [British Film Institute].
Rebecca O’Brien (UK Film Council board member, 2006-2011; producer): I think the thought was, well, there seem to be two organisations [the UKFC and the British Film Institute] to do with film, and one is a charity that we can’t get rid of very easily, and the other is an organisation which is absolutely the personification of New Labour.
Tim Bevan (chair of UK Film Council, 2009-2011): They handled it appallingly. They broadsided us. I was in LA, and Ed Vaizey phoned me up, saying, “There is going to be this announcement tomorrow.”
Ed Vaizey (minister for culture, communications and creative industries, 2010-2016): I had a very good relationship with John Woodward (CEO of the UKFC), and also with Tim Bevan. And I had a very high regard for the UK Film Council. I didn’t have any particular animus against it. I didn’t come into office thinking, “We’ve got to deal with the UK Film Council.” It was the last Labour government – and Sion Simon, who was then the creative industries minister – that had announced the merger between the BFI and the UK Film Council in 2009, and there had been this ongoing debate about merging the two. The Labour government had taken this in-principle decision, but nothing had been done about it.
Jeremy Hunt had come into office determined to be teacher’s pet. The noise from the Treasury to all departments was: cut your budget, and cut your quangos. Jeremy was first into the Star Chamber, which is where you get your spending set, and he managed to get us a whopping, I think, 30% cut. Other people actually got a better deal for their department, so he was teacher’s pet number one because he managed to negotiate deep cuts to his own department.
In July, we had one of those meetings where you just sit around the table and say, “Right, what quangos can we abolish?” So I said, “Well, potentially we could abolish the UK Film Council because people have been talking about it being folded into the BFI, and that could be one of the things we offer up.” And before I knew it, Jeremy stands up at the despatch box and announces all these quangos he’s abolishing, including the UK Film Council. At which point all fucking hell breaks loose, because there had been no kind of rolling of the pitch in terms of preparing anyone for it.
The other thing is you had strong personalities involved. You had Tim Bevan, who doesn’t take many prisoners, and you also had [BFI chair] Greg Dyke, who comes from the same stable, although Greg likes to stand on a soapbox more than Tim does. So you had this clash of the titans.
Stewart Till (chairman of UK Film Council, 2004-2009): It was a shambles. Jeremy Hunt wanted a headline. It was decided, with no discussion with the industry. Then they said, “Well, we don’t want to turn our back on the industry, so what can we do?” And they gave it to the BFI. But the BFI, its DNA is about culture, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It was the best of a bad job: okay, at least give it to the BFI who have knowledge about film, rather than the Arts Council at the time, God help us.
Sally Caplan: Salaries were consistent with what had been paid since the start, so it’s strange after 10 years to come to the conclusion they were too high. Whilst a lot of folks working at the UKFC were absolutely passionate about the industry, in order to attract good people, salaries have to be reasonably in line with the commercial world, though I think they were generally still below.
Vince Holden (head of production finance, UK Film Council, 2000-2011): Lottery money comes with a condition you can only spend 10% of it on overhead. The day that Jeremy Hunt was spouting about the Film Council being too expensive, I spent most of my evening on the phone to an audit company finishing off an audit that had discovered a couple of Far Eastern companies had exploited a film outside of the licence. I earned two years of my salary on that one phone call, and Jeremy Hunt tells me I’m paid too much? Fuck off. That made me cross.
Stewart Till: I think we were fiscally agile. We kept overheads flat for about four years. If the government had said, “Look, we want to cut X percent,” then I think we would have had a very rational [response], and acted like a private sector company would have done: cutting overhead, being a little more parsimonious, and strategically cutting off the branches that bear less fruit. We could have reacted. I think Jeremy Hunt [focused on costs and salaries] as a justification. He wanted a headline, and he got one.
Ed Vaizey: In retrospect, [the way we did it] was probably the right thing to do. If you’d entered into an endless consultation, nothing would have happened. So by simply announcing it at the despatch box, Jeremy made it happen.
Tim Bevan obviously knows the prime minister, they’re part of that Gloucestershire set. So he rings up the prime minister and screams bloody hell. It was one of the few times in my life that David Cameron actually phoned me to ask about [something]. He said, “Are you sure this is the right thing to do?” And Greg Dyke, who is not the most empathetic person at the best of times, obviously crowed like anything that he had won this great victory.
But then the Film Council started this fight-back, and they started ringing all the film studios in the US. We started getting missives from the film studios, giving quotes saying, “This is a disgusting, terrible decision. This government doesn’t care about the film industry, and we’re going to have to seriously look at our investment in the UK.” And we had the Australian Film Commission saying, “If you’re thinking about shooting a film in Britain, come to Australia instead where we care about film.” So it was all going slightly pear-shaped.
I rang up a friend who was quite well-connected with US film studios. He said, “Ring up this guy, who heads one of the film studios.” And I rang him and I explained to him the reason behind our decision and he very kindly put me in touch with the other four studio heads. So that slightly lowered the temperature.
Oliver Foster (head of corporate affairs, UK Film Council, 2008-2010): Obviously those initial weeks were intense and fast-paced, involving a whole team of people talking to the studios. It’s always worth challenging government if you think they’ve got something wrong or there are unintended consequences of a policy they’re pursuing. I think most people would agree now that the end state – ie, an enhanced BFI alongside a lasting and popular tax credit – is probably a far better outcome than what was initially anticipated.
Tim Bevan: [After the abolition announcement], it all went batshit because obviously everyone was appalled and shouted and screamed, and the rest of it. I remember Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey getting me into their office, kicking out all their special advisors and saying, “You’ve got to make this stop.” I said, “Well, you know, sorry. But if you’d gone about this in a different way, you wouldn’t be getting this overreaction.”
Months of uncertainty continued until the late-November 2010 confirmation that the BFI would inherit key functions from the UK Film Council, with the British Film Commission to be housed at Film London. In March 2011, it was announced that 44 posts (including a couple of vacancies) were transferring to the BFI. Key executives transferring included film fund head Tanya Seghatchian, head of distribution and exhibition Pete Buckingham and head of business affairs Will Evans. By the end of 2011, both Seghatchian and Buckingham had exited their posts.
Ed Vaizey: There was a lot of confusion for three or four months. We hadn’t done any of the work. The announcement came before the work. The narrative from the Tory point of view was: we are cutting a quango. As opposed to: we are doing a very efficient and carefully thought-through merger of two bodies that overlap. I spent a lot of time firefighting, to ensure the story didn’t get out of control. All the thinking about how it was actually going to work happened after the announcement rather than before.
It took Tim Bevan a very long time to ever speak to me again, which was quite painful. I don’t think John Woodward has ever spoken to me again. Greg Dyke and I ended up falling out anyway because we had to keep cutting the BFI budget, so I didn’t get any kudos from that. But the hero of the story is probably [BFI CEO] Amanda Nevill, who made it work. And it did work incredibly well.
I think people would find it quite hard to say, even during the period of the merger, that they could point to anything that had a direct impact on film investment and production in the UK. And the great secret was that, although the last Labour government had cocked up the film tax credit [for a period], they had just about sorted it out when we came into office. And it worked, and it has continued to work and be refined and updated. It’s been an extraordinary gangbusters success. Whether the bang for buck is worth it or not, because it’s quite a generous subsidy to US film producers, you can’t argue in terms of what it’s done to attract inward investment into the UK.
The merger has shown that you can put these two bodies together and not lose focus. The BFI is capable of both being an archivist and a film producer, and I do think it’s easier just having one body for the film industry.
Stewart Till: The irony is that the Conservative government, who were more private sector-oriented, gave it to a cultural organisation to run, and gave them similar sorts of money. I do think the BFI did an okay job, but I feel nowhere near as good a job as the Film Council was doing. Executive against executive, and board member against board member, the Film Council I felt were much stronger.
Ed Vaizey: I think Amanda [Nevill] ran an incredibly efficient organisation [at the BFI]. There was an element of friction in our relationship because Greg was never backward in coming forward, and every year we were saying to the BFI, “Sorry, you can’t have an increase, in fact we are asking you to take an X-percentage cut.” Amanda put up with what I had to do with a zen-like calm and patience, but there was no doubt at all that we went through and continue to go through a golden age of inward investment.
Will Evans (head of business affairs, UK Film Council and BFI, 2002-2018): Certain people in the industry at the time were saying they didn’t believe the BFI was an organisation that would be able to effectively handle this Lottery administration function, because at the time they were principally a film archive and cultural organisation. Having been at both organisations for a combined 16 years, I can confirm that those concerns were completely unfounded. The BFI ended up being more than capable of undertaking the Lottery administration function, and one of the key reasons is because of the 42 people that transferred over to the BFI in April 2011, who knew what they were doing, and were allowed to carry on doing what they were doing.
Prior to abolition, in 2010, the UKFC had merged its Premiere, New Cinema and Development funds into a single film fund under the leadership of Tanya Seghatchian, who had led the Development Fund since spring 2007. She then took her team over to the BFI in April 2011. (Seghatchian and John Woodward, UKFC CEO from 2000 to 2010, both declined to comment for this article.)
Vince Holden: When Tanya [took over the new combined UKFC Film Fund], she thought she’d be fighting [us] – she called Will Evans and I the two-headed beast of the Film Council. When she came in, she said, “I want my new fund to work in a totally different way.” I said, “Fine, tell me what you want and we’ll put it into action.”
Jack Arbuthnott (UK Film Council Development Fund executive, 2006-2008): Compared to Tanya’s streamlined single fund, there were many more people doing the same work, or tasked to cover the same responsibilities in the three-fund system. [The abolition] all seemed to be very ironic. They had considerably tightened up [costs] by having one fund.
It struck me as a little bit of a reverse takeover by the BFI, in terms of its strategy and its focus. But within the BFI, with a single fund and without this sense of, “We are going to teach the industry how to become better”, you’re not setting yourself up to be pilloried, and you can operate much more nebulously. There is also this sense of the inherent value of cinema that the BFI is there, as a charity, to champion that gives a defence for that activity that the Film Council didn’t have.
At the BFI, the film fund under Tanya Seghatchian and subsequently Ben Roberts drew praise from the industry for instituting a more producer-friendly regime.
Rebecca O’Brien: With The Wind That Shakes The Barley , I didn’t want to go to the Film Council. I really wanted to avoid that money. It was to do with the recoupment position that they took, and the lawyers. They were into playing hardball with producers. Everybody had this sort of fear of Will [Evans] and Vince [Holden]. They were like two Rottweilers sitting there.
Vince went after the Film Council closed down. Will stayed on and changed his spots completely. To the film industry, he became Saint Will. Suddenly he started making it easy to get money out. Whereas with the Film Council, the idea was that these should be quite hard bits of money to get.
There was definitely a lot of distrust within the producing community about how the Film Council operated. And there was perceived to be a certain arrogance. It was like, “We know how to run the film industry, and we’re really good at it. And the producers can be grateful for our beneficence.” I think the very fact that the Film Council itself was so shocked when it got cancelled was a key to how out-of-touch it was with its constituency. It did think that it was the centre of the universe as far as film was concerned in Britain.
Robert Jones (head of Premiere Fund, 2000-2005): Certainly, the Premiere Fund had a high recoupment target, which I think it managed to achieve, and I don’t think any public fund anywhere in the world has ever done that. We were constantly in the position of having to justify to the government that these funds were needed and they weren’t just being flushed away. That was a slight culture shock for people. When you bring in practitioners from the commercial world, they are going to bring in commercial practices.
If you compare the way the Film Council oversaw the financing of the films that it was involved in, and how it did expect a certain amount of rigour and discipline on the part of the people who were making them, then I can see that that was not the same as they had experienced, certainly with the Arts Council of England [which oversaw the distribution of Lottery money to film prior to the creation of the UK Film Council in April 2000].
But if you remember that what the Film Council was inheriting was a slightly dysfunctional system, to put it mildly, then I would defend it against any kind of suggestion that there was an overzealousness in terms of just trying to make sure that things were done with some eye on the real world.
Will Evans: When they set up the Film Council, they decided that Lottery film production investment would be subject to meeting certain financial recoupment targets. If it was projected that the Film Council would recoup at least 50% for a Premiere Fund film, then that project would be put forward for approval to the production finance committee. However, if after running the numbers, it showed that projected recoupment wouldn’t be possible to get anywhere near that recoupment target, then, in the days of the Film Council, that project would have been rejected. That does not apply to the BFI. Projected recoupment targets are generally not a key consideration in terms of whether the BFI will invest Lottery money into a film.
The BFI now is much more able to be generous to producers than the Film Council was. It goes into a lockbox but producers generally don’t seem to mind that, because these lockbox entitlements can sometimes be very valuable to producers.
Carol Comley (head of strategic development, UKFC and BFI, 2000-2020): My recollection of the aims and objectives and public policy of the Film Council was that, while it wanted to be a fair player, being generous to producers, or indeed any other player in the film ecosystem, was not in and of itself its principal objective. The BFI is probably an organisation that resists saying no, finds it easier to say yes, compared to the Film Council.
Paul Trijbits (head of UK Film Council New Cinema Fund, 2000-2006): At the New Cinema Fund, I didn’t have a recoupment target per se, not like something that I had to hit or I was going to be fired. But we always said, if something works well, we should definitely benefit from it at an equal level as any other party that is part of that process. Now, were we benign enough to the producer? No, absolutely not. And people thought it was tough that both Robert and I, who were producers, were upholding that position.
In hindsight, we were too tough. Because in the end, you have to ask yourself, would the money that came back each year have been better sitting with 20 or 30 or 40 producers, doing what they were doing, versus [the UK Film Council] being able to invest in two or three more films? I think the answer is: it would have been better to be sitting in those production companies, for people to continue to take creative risks.
Jack Arbuthnott: I think the Film Council shot itself in the foot by taking an imperious tone, just in terms of presentation rather than fundamentals. The BFI, in my view, are doing it better than the Film Council did. That may not be as a result of strategy, it might be a learned evolution of how you position yourself. I think it’s a lot to do with the home that the BFI represents and its activities, versus the Film Council.
It’s not about evading scrutiny but it is about boxing clever in a domain where you’re quite rightly under scrutiny. Whenever I deal with the BFI now, they seem to be sort of run ragged. It pleases me that they don’t receive the relentless abuse and attacks that the Film Council seemed to get, because as individuals they have such integrity.
Tim Bevan: Probably from the outside, it looked like [the UKFC] was trying to overstretch a little bit. But if I have any criticism for what’s gone on since – and I actually think what’s gone on since has been perfectly satisfactory – it’s that if the Film Council had subsumed the BFI rather than the BFI subsumed the Film Council, I think you would have seen a more robust speaking body for the greater creative industries. I think that Amanda did a brilliant job, but it is probably not as muscular a body as it should be, if you think about what goes on in the creative industries and film in particular in this country.
It’s a massive growth industry and it should have a very powerful body speaking for it – and dare I say it, it should be a kind of quango, which is what the Film Council was. The reason they don’t like quangos – and this might change, because politics is going to change gigantically – is because it’s expertise from an industry having political muscle in decisions relating to that industry. That’s all been dispensed of in politics over the last 10 years. But the film and television business and the making of audiovisual material is massively powerful and we’re brilliant at it in Britain. And that needs a powerful voice.
When the Film Council closed, no one knew anything about streaming or anything like that. The Film Council would have absolutely got itself stuck in there and worked out how streaming can be turned to everybody’s advantage somehow, trying to make deals with Netflix and Amazon. That is not the way that the BFI production body works. We were just a more commercial-type organisation.
I think [the UKFC’s] natural evolution was to become more of a representative body for the greater creative industries. We were in talks with video games, we were in talks with all sorts of things, and Ed Vaizey quite liked that idea: looking on the Venn diagram where all of those industries join up, which is in employment law, on tax credits, skills, education, and so on. It’s still a good idea, it’s something that, looking forward, wouldn’t be bad. But I really don’t want to come over in any way as sour grapes on this because it is what it is, and the BFI has gone on and done a pretty great job with public money in films.
Carol Comley: The Film Council more had the gene pool of being strategic, forward looking and innovative. And the BFI over time, since taking over many of the Film Council’s functions in 2011, became more like that, but initially that wasn’t part of its natural gene pool.
The UK Film Council thought that it had a specific role to lead the UK film industry, to shape the UK film industry and advocate on behalf of it – it had a more 360-degree role. Whereas the BFI begins its instincts with its own organisation, and by inheriting those functions that it did in 2011, it then had to develop into a bigger role than it had had before. From my point of view, and I think from many industry players’ point of view, after a slow start in 2011, I think Amanda and the BFI governors, and the new governors that came into play, started to have an appetite to be far more industry-focused, far more future-focused.
Vince Holden: I can’t really comment too much on what the BFI do, but I just don’t think they’ve got the clout, the kudos of the Film Council, and the central focus that the Film Council gave the industry. When things went wrong, everybody ran to the Film Council and shouted, which was good, because we listened and then we thought about it, and we tried to cure it. I think you would have far more clarity and visibility of proposed solutions to [Brexit and Covid] if the Film Council had still been around. I just think [the BFI] is not quite as powerful a central lobbying group. But that’s just my personal view.
Pete Buckingham: I spent six months at the BFI. It didn’t work out and, to be frank, I shouldn’t have been moved over. The BFI was a different beast from the Film Council. It was a different organisation that had its own culture and philosophy and it wasn’t really for me.
The Film Council was brilliant. The Film Council was amazing. It had faults in it, which perhaps contributed to its downfall, but it had a bunch of really, really great people, people who understood all aspects of film and were concentrating on making the British film industry better in really intelligent ways.
John [Woodward] was an amazing boss. He was ruthless, and there was a certain arrogance to the Film Council. It didn’t quite see what was coming, it believed it was too indispensable or too good at what it did. They didn’t work hard enough to build up a lobby of supporters at a time that they needed it.