PART 2: LEGACY
In the second part of our feature looking at the UK Film Council 10 years after abolition, Screen talks to key players about its achievements, missteps and lasting impact on the UK film industry.
It is now just over 10 years since the shock news of the abolition of the UK Film Council (UKFC) by David Cameron’s coalition government. Earlier this week, Screen looked at the events surrounding the abolition and the fallout from it, and asked senior UKFC executives and board members how effectively they believe the British Film Institute – which inherited key UKFC functions and 44 staff roles in April 2011 – was able to fill the void that was created. Now, we consider the achievements of the UKFC, and the degree to which it succeeded at achieving its original aims.
The Film Council (later UK Film Council) was created in 2000 after Culture Secretary Chris Smith commissioned a comprehensive review of film policy, A Bigger Picture, and as a consequence of lobbying efforts by David (later Lord) Puttnam and Lord Attenborough.
With the report recommending consolidation of government film bodies, Smith asked Alan Parker, then chair of the British Film Institute (BFI), to chair the new organisation, with Stewart Till – president of international at Polygram Filmed Entertainment from 1992-1999 and president of Universal International Pictures in 1999-2000 – as deputy chair. BFI director John Woodward was appointed CEO.
The Film Council absorbed the British Film Commission, and the filmmaking activities of both British Screen and the BFI Production Board. It also took over the granting of Lottery money for film from the Arts Council – including for the three franchises that had been awarded at Cannes 1997 to funnel £90m of Lottery money into film, which were Duncan Kenworthy and Andrew Macdonald’s DNA; Pathe, in alliance with an array of producers including Thin Man and Fragile Films; and the Film Consortium, which combined Scala, Skreba, Parallax and Greenpoint with Virgin Cinemas and Carlton Film Distributors.
Paul Trijbits (head of UKFC New Cinema Fund, 2000-2006): You need to always look at it from the lens as to: what was there before? The Arts Council distributing lottery money for film, nobody thought that was a good idea. The only people who thought that was a brilliant idea were the three that got the Lottery franchises. Everybody knew it was a disaster.
Having the British Film Commission in a crummy office in Baker Street, and British Screen somewhere else – it worked in a sort of British way, but it wasn’t very cohesive. Most other countries had one national agency for film, and it always would encompass exhibition, cultural activity, education, strategy, production, development and distribution. [Bringing the functions together] felt at the time the right thing to do.
Robert Jones (head of UKFC Premiere Fund, 2000-2005): It’s important to remember that period, because that was one of the primary reasons that the Film Council was formed – because of the massive negative publicity on use of Lottery money by the likes of the Daily Mail, around the fact that money was going into films that just weren’t being seen.
The Film Council came into being amidst a lot of enthusiastic ambition, but also managed to disaffect a lot of people who they were effectively replacing. A lot of people weren’t happy about the demise of British Screen. A lot of people at the BFI were not happy that this seemingly Blairite New Labour quango was being formed.
Carol Comley (head of strategic development, UKFC and BFI, 2000-2020): From my perspective, the UK desperately needed a body such as the Film Council. It was very different from the BFI, where I had worked before. But it was a difference that was needed in order to achieve the objectives for a vibrant culture and competitive industry.
If you’re organisationally not weighted down by history, what may be termed encumbrance of all sorts, and if you’ve got a government or a set of political arrangements that are going to help you fly your kite, then organisationally you have the best possible prospects for success enabling the Film Council to positively reposition UK film internationally.
Vince Holden (head of production finance, UK Film Council, 2000-2011): When I took over the Arts Council portfolio, its projected recoupment rate was 10%. They invested about £42m over the years, and they were targeting a 10% return. I brought in a royalty analyst and money chaser to aggressively chase revenues, and we got their final return up to 21%.
The [Arts Council] franchises were a fricking mess when we took them over. We took a projected 15-18% return, and converted it into a 40% return. That rigorous policing of the franchise deals, getting better terms, policing royalty statements, auditing distributors, got £8m-plus over and above what they were earning before we joined.
Lottery money was on the decline virtually from the day I walked through the door, every year. Which is why the drive to try and make sure that I uncovered every stone, and got back as much money from our investments to make up the gap, was important.
Paul Trijbits: One of the things we did, we pulled out the Arts Council application form, which ran to 40 pages and was asking all those questions of everybody about every bit of the Lotteries Act they needed to adhere to, if they were so lucky to get the money. Well, hold on, all those obligations only apply if you’re a recipient of the money. The first stage is a creative assessment. That meant that the application form went down from 40 pages to four pages, and we could turn stuff around much quicker. To me, that demonstrates the can-do mentality, the professional-input mentality of what we were asked to do at that time.
Will Evans (UKFC director of business affairs, 2002-2011): I was very nervous about accepting the job because, having been in the private sector for 22 years and not being the most patient person, I thought, “God, this is the public sector, it’s going to be like the gas board.” I thought it would be forms in triplicate. I was massively surprised that it wasn’t like that at all. It was a very fast-moving organisation. It wasn’t bureaucratic. It was a smallish organisation, probably 90 people top to bottom at its height.
Stewart Till (deputy chair of UKFC board 2000-2004, then chairman 2004-2009): For the board, we wanted to get the creme de la creme of the British film industry, we wanted to represent all sectors. So there was quite an aggressive search and hire for the board. In terms of executives, the philosophy was, “It’s the public sector, but intervening in a commercial marketplace.”
Paul Trijbits: Having a leader like Alan [Parker] was brilliant because it was somebody, even if you might not have agreed, at least you knew he did it with chutzpah and style and conviction. And the board was extraordinary: people I could call upon were the likes of Tim Bevan [Working Title], Nigel Green [Entertainment Film Distributors], Paul Webster [Film4]. That initial board was a really positive, proactive, smart group of people who had genuinely nothing but the best interest at heart for the British film industry.
The board never interfered with any of the decisions about individual projects. The people you might expect to be most sceptical about some of the things that we did, that were right on the edge of what a feature film might be, were the most supportive.
I particularly reference Bloody Sunday, which was one of the first decisions we made. It was a film made for ITV, a TV movie, and made by not a new director, Paul Greengrass, who had already made one or two feature films before and vowed not to do it again. It was quite clearly a film with a point of view, and all of a sudden this NGPB – this non-government public body – was making a film that was going to cause some ruckus.
When the UK Film Council was set up, it was decided to have separate funds for development (led from 2000-2007 by Jenny Borgars, then by Tanya Seghatchian) and two for production. This three-fund system – Premiere (£10m annually), New Cinema (£5m) and Development (£5m) – was abandoned in 2009 with the creation of the unified Film Fund (£15m).
Will Evans: I think there was a school of thought at the Film Council that it might not be a good idea to have one person in charge of such a large sum of money. If you find the right person to be in charge of a lot of money, then I think it’s fine. So, for example, I’m a massive fan of [the BFI’s] Ben Roberts. I think he walks on water. He showed it’s possible to have one person in charge of a lot of money if you get the right person.
Sally Caplan (head of UKFC Premiere Fund, 2005-2010): I think that it was a good thing to have both the New Cinema Fund, focusing on newer talent, and the Premiere Fund looking after ostensibly more commercial, bigger-budget projects. There was some fluidity between the two funds, which was good, and both funds were trying to promote gender equality and diversity and inclusion.
Paul Greengrass’s directing career arguably faltered after his first two films until the New Cinema Fund backed Bloody Sunday – from which there has been no looking back. Kevin Macdonald’s career was [pushed forward] as a director off the back of the UKFC’s support for Touching The Void. Lynne Ramsay was launched with Ratcatcher and Sarah Gavron with Brick Lane. I guess my department’s biggest success was backing The King’s Speech – when other funding bodies turned it down – which extraordinarily was the first film that Iain Canning produced. Not a bad way to start.
Robert Jones: The flip side of that is you’re getting hundreds and thousands of applications every year and you can only say yes to less than 1%. So you’re doubtless going to piss a lot of people off… Which I managed to do, I’m not happy to say, but it was inevitable.
Jack Arbuthnott (UK Film Council Development Fund executive, 2006-2008): Every script that was sent to the Development Fund was sent out for external coverage, and someone would write this very stern report, and obviously most of the stuff you’re getting is not deemed to be worth supporting.
A meeting was held where we looked at the report, and maybe at the script itself, and then a very offensive letter was sent to the applicant, explaining to them why their script wasn’t commercial based on some choice extracts of the coverage. It seemed to me it was a system to generate needless contempt from the applicant. And so one of the things that Tanya introduced was a more evasive [approach]… it just didn’t piss people off in the same way.
One of the problems that the Development Fund had was it set itself up to be this arbiter of commercial viability. Ironically, it demonstrated absolutely no ability to do that over its lifetime. But even if it had, it’s just a very obnoxious role to be in.
The recoupment targets for the Film Council’s two production funds quickly became a bone of contention with producers, whose scripts were being rejected on the basis that the completed films were not deemed likely to meet the targets. Producers also found the commercial terms offered by the UKFC to be ungenerous, and there was inevitable jealousy of well-paid fund heads such as Jones and Trijbits, who were both former producers.
Vince Holden: John [Woodward] initially suggested a 100% recoupment target. I said, “If that’s what you want to do, I can do it. But it’s not really going to stimulate anything. It’s just going to replace banks with cheaper funding, which is not really what we should be doing.” So we set a target – 50% recoupment for the Premiere Fund, 25% recoupment for the New Cinema Fund – and I basically policed it. It was my job to make sure that those guys hit their targets – in a very soft kind of way.
That credit committee sat religiously, every Wednesday morning at 10am. We had a pile of thinned-down applications that we all wanted to do, and it was kind of like a greenlight process. And that’s where the arguments came… The arguments over Mike Leigh, I can’t tell you. We backed him three times. My argument was, why when we add up all these territories that Mike Leigh films sell for, are we all of a sudden making a film for twice that amount? It’s disproportionate. Mike Leigh should be making a film for a budget that the commercial market can actually stand. I mention Mike Leigh because I love him to bits.
In the end, across the Premiere Fund, New Cinema Fund and Tanya’s Film Fund, we hit 40%, which I’m happy with. Overall, £132m was spent and 40% came in. You can do the maths, that’s a lot of money that came in and was recycled.
Rebecca O’Brien (UK Film Council board member, 2006-2011; producer): What we fought for was a tiny share of any of the money that came back in if your film was successful, and that was the big battle that I was involved in: for producers to get a share of revenue so that they could support themselves, rather than always being dependent on beneficence from the Film Council.
There was also this feeling at the Film Council that producers were useless – that they really weren’t very good at their job and that they all needed hands holding. So there was an awful lot of infrastructure at the Film Council, with a lot of employees.
For producers, there was a lot of mistrust of the Film Council and a lot of misunderstanding as to what on earth they were doing, and the feeling that they just didn’t get what producers did. There was definitely the feeling that if you got one of those jobs, you didn’t have to be a producer anymore. Especially when you have producers earning a tiny bit of development money trying to get projects off the ground.
The UKFC’s position on both recoupment targets and sharing equity with producers did change over time.
Will Evans: PACT were repeatedly saying to the Film Council, “We believe that the amount of the UK tax credit in each British producer’s film should be a recoupable sum for that producer on that film.” In the end, the UK Film Council said, “OK, we will support the notion of this producer equity entitlement equal to the amount of the tax credit, provided that all the other financiers – public and commercial – in the particular film are prepared to allow it.” And in 2010, the UKFC was successful in persuading BBC Films and Film4 to both take the same position.
At the beginning, it was very difficult to get commercial companies to agree to it because they would say, “Hang on a minute, you want to dilute my return, and the answer’s no.” But as the years went on, and when we transferred over to the BFI, it became a more accepted position in the industry.
In the early days, the Film Council used to give back to the producer on each of their films 5% of the Film Council’s revenue recoupment – just a small notional sum. It wasn’t able to give any more than that because, in effect, it’s state aid.
PACT said producers want more than 5%. So the Film Council then went to Brussels and asked if it was possible to increase the percentage, and approval was given to increase it to 25% of the Film Council’s income until they were 50% recouped, and 50% of the Film Council’s income until full recoupment. This gives a blended percentage of 37.5% of the BFI’s recoupment income, and that still stands today. It’s called the BFI Producer Corridor and it goes into a lockbox administered by the BFI for the benefit of the UK producer, director and writer, subject to certain restrictions.
In April 2011, the BFI took the same position that had previously been adopted by the Film Council: you can either have the Producer Equity Entitlement or you can have the BFI Producer Corridor, you can’t have them both. BBC Films took the same view at the time regarding its own producer corridor. In the last seven years, of the three principal public funders, the BFI allows you to have both of these things but they go into a lockbox to be administered by the BFI.
In 2002, the UKFC recruited former Film4 deputy chief executive and head of distribution Pete Buckingham to head up a new distribution and exhibition department, which introduced innovations including the P&A Fund (to help distributors reach bigger audiences for specialised films) and the £12m digital screen network (which helped 240 cinemas digitise their screens, in return for a commitment to show a wider range of titles).
Carol Comley: If innovation is doing things differently, looking to the future, then Pete Buckingham was the person that best represents that side of the Film Council’s way of thinking. The fund heads, for example Tanya, Paul and Robert, at different moments were all very strategic. They were strategic in terms of creative production, whereas Pete was the one alongside John who always took a 360-degree approach – who considered both supply- and importantly demand-side challenges.
Pete Buckingham (head of distribution and exhibition, UK Film Council, 2002-2011): We wanted to get more and more people watching a wider range of films across the UK and enjoying them. And the question is, “Well, what is it we want to do to try and achieve that?”
We decided that we were not going to subsidise [distribution of] films that were core films to a core audience. We were looking for those kind of middle-ground films that had a chance of reaching out to wider audiences. The film needs to have a shot, in our opinion, at reaching £1m box office. Now, that is just unheard of; back then, in 2002, it was a stretch target.
So that’s what we launched, not without some criticism, most notably from [Artificial Eye co-founder] Andi Engel. We were not going to give money to people who had pure arthouse films for pure arthouse release, that was not part of our equation.
To the UKFC, it didn’t matter if the distributor was a Hollywood studio – the investment decision was about the film, and whether matching funds could help it reach a wider audience.
Pete Buckingham: That was an ongoing problem. People were very upset about that. It was too easy to target and say, “Well, 20th Century Fox have got money for that.” And yet they were perfect partners to achieve our strategic objective, which was to get more and more people used to watching a wider range of films across the UK.
The majority of people we worked with were independents because they had these movies, but we would inevitably tend to work with the people with bigger pockets [such as Lionsgate, Pathe, Studiocanal and Momentum] because they would have the wherewithal and the ambition. They were more able to take the risk, and were prepared to have a go.
Vince Holden: The digital screen network that Pete did – I mean, just a brilliant idea. That was commercial meeting government meeting brains, and pushed us on disproportionately in the digital exhibition world.
Pete Buckingham: We thought it would be an amazing thing to have, let’s say, 200-odd cinemas across the UK of all types, which will now have a programming commitment to – for want of a better word – specialised films. That worked. If you look back at those numbers, the numbers are very big. Subtitled films and difficult, specialised films got a wider range and people went to them.
All we were trying to do was give confidence: that actually when the heroin is withdrawn, you don’t revert back to [how it was before]. The new normal could appear and people would operate in that normal. The problem is I don’t think that happened. There are market forces, changes of business structures and philosophies.
I feel sad because for about five or six years, we had all the chains really engaged in successfully building people to watch these films in places they’d never really get a chance to see them. It just slipped back. There was a short period of time when things did look like they might be changing. But then it just fell back to worse than it ever was.
In 2002, the UKFC appointed its first head of diversity, Marcia Williams, who was succeeded by Mary FitzPatrick in May 2010. One of the notable innovations of Williams’ tenure was the creation of the Breakthrough Brits strand in 2005. Conceived to showcase UK talent in the US, the strand spotlighted BAME talent in both 2008 and 2009. Bafta launched its own version of Breakthrough Brits in 2013, which later evolved into Bafta Breakthrough.
Carol Comley: I recall for the first year or two, the feeling from the board was that diversity should be something where everyone including fund heads should take their share of responsibility. After a couple of years, it was felt that the Film Council needed to do more and much quicker. And so, after two years where progress had been good, but not magnificent, it was felt that a head of diversity was the right path.
Mary FitzPatrick (UK Film Council head of diversity, 2010-2011): I came after the previous head had moved on, and the whole strategy was very established. I sat in John Woodward’s top management team, and reported directly to him. I think that the fact that the UK Film Council had a head of diversity sent a very strong message to the industry itself that it really mattered.
Arit Eminue (UKFC development coordinator, 2004-2005; Breakthrough Brits producer, 2008): I started at the UK Film Council on a diversity scheme right after finishing my producer masters at the National Film and Television School. It was a scheme that Robert Jones had set up to support talent from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. I also spent time working with Paul Trijbits at the New Cinema Fund, which included both Marc Boothe and Himesh Kar in the team, and it may well have been the most diverse team in the organisation.
Paul certainly wanted to improve diversity amongst the New Cinema Fund applications. Noel Clarke and Menhaj Huda came through with Kidulthood at that time. Esther Douglas and Ken Williams came through with Life And Lyrics, and Amma Asante with A Way Of Life. But there were also challenges. There were people who didn’t feel that their voices were represented in the slate of films that were developed or produced by any of the funds.
It was Marcia Williams who spearheaded the Breakthrough Brits programme before it ever made its way over to Bafta. I think that Marcia didn’t always get the credit for the work that she did, and that bothered me.
When the UKFC was abolished, the team was not transferred over by the DCMS to the BFI, and the BFI did not continue with Breakthrough Brits, which had been considered a costly scheme, involving flying out recipients to a networking event in Los Angeles. The BFI did not create the senior post head of diversity (reporting to the CEO) until April 2017, although the role of diversity manager had previously existed.
Mary FitzPatrick: Within two months of my arrival, we were told the whole thing was going to be abolished, but I remained in post until March 2011, so there was still stuff that could be done in the limited amount of time that we had left. I was quite surprised that the department was not transferred across [to the BFI]. I think it had to do with funding as well. The really critical departments obviously had to go, and a department like mine might have been viewed as a nice to have, but not a priority.
Following recommendations contained in the Film in England report, nine regional screen agencies for England were created from 2001 onwards. In summer 2010, the new Coalition Government announced the abolition of the regional development agencies, which had provided substantial funding to the regional screen agencies. With no replacement funding available, Creative England stepped into the vacuum with some support from the BFI. Meanwhile, in 2004, the UKFC invited bids for what became known as development franchises, or super slates, which required successful applicants to create strategic partnerships. “We want distribution and sales to be involved in development from the get-go,” said Jenny Borgars at the time of announcement.
Rebecca O’Brien: That was a good thing about the Film Council: there was definitely a real effort to push film industrially all over the country. The problem was the influence was always top down. They were prescribing what people should do in the industry, rather than listening and watching what people wanted to do in their own areas. It was very prescriptive, and it was very top down.
Paul Trijbits: One of the challenges you face is that as time goes on, different priorities get set: the endless shifting from national to regional and back, and where should the decision-making lie, and how to push it out, and then end up with all those regional screen organisations, which were costing too much money. And then it was seen that that wasn’t the right way. In the end, it doesn’t feel like you’ve made a lot of progress.
Jack Arbuthnott: The super slates were a big deal, very ill-fated, and also probably quite exposing. It was stated to say: companies will perform better if they’re forced to work together as bigger entities, therefore to get this money you have to pitch as a consortium. But the consortiums didn’t seem to particularly work. It’s a difficult thing to do right because most of the things you’re going to support are not going to work, so how one is covered for that is really important.
Paul Trijbits: I think organisations that do well seem to have a six-, seven-year period when things go very well. And then I think you end up with something that already looks a bit like decline, often not recognised by the people in it, and that you are probably not able to innovate.
I can certainly tell you that when I left after six years, I had lost some of the more risk-taking boldness that the funds certainly displayed at the beginning. That is an absolutely normal human trait. Because if you know something is good but painful, the second or third time, you might remember and say, “Let’s not do that.”
One of the key aims of the original Film Council was to create a self-sustaining UK film industry. Thanks to the 2007 UK Film Tax Relief, which improved on earlier tax schemes that were open to abuse, a transformation was finally achieved, but indigenous independent production remains selectively supported by public investment, notably the BFI Film Fund, as well as by the tax credit.
Tim Bevan (chair of UK Film Council, 2009-2011): Pre-tax credit, there were all these Mickey Mouse tax schemes and shyster financiers and all the rest of it. And the tax credit and the cleanliness of the tax credit has been way and beyond the backbone of what’s gone on in the last decade or so in film in Britain, because it’s a fantastic scheme that is transparent, is rock solid, everybody can rely on it, and it’s attracted tens of billions of inward investment because of it.
Robert Jones: It was very important to try and help the UK film businesses become self-sustaining, and that was something that the Film Council failed to do. It was something that we talked about endlessly and tried to think of ways, but it didn’t have enough influence and power over the industry as a whole, to change the ecology of the industry in terms of how independent films are financed.
We always held up Jeremy Thomas as the example of a producer who owns a library of his own projects, so has a business that has an asset value and a turnover, whether or not he makes a film every year. Unfortunately, those examples are still very few and far between. Most companies can’t do that, and even more so now in the days of Netflix and Apple. It’s another way of financing but it’s essentially working for a studio. You don’t own anything.
Jack Arbuthnott: The Film Council had clearer aims [than the BFI does], and aims that were clearer to evaluate. It was very focused on building a sustainable film industry but the trends that determine these things were not within the Film Council’s power to alter. So you could very easily say, the Film Council is clearly failing because it’s not contributing to building a sustainable film industry. The decision to nix it, I’m sure, came from how exposed it was.
Vince Holden: On my leaving day, [a colleague] came up to me, and we had had lots of lively discussions over the years about whether government funding or charitable funding should be going into the film industry, and how to make the UK film industry sustainable. She said, “So now you’re leaving and you don’t have to worry about it anymore, how much would it take to make the UK film industry sustainable?”
I said, “You’re not going to like the answer.” She said, “It’s hundreds of millions, isn’t it?” And I said, “No, it’s nothing. You take away the subsidy, you wait three or four years. And when there’s only three or four producers left, and three or four distributors left, that is sustainable.”
This article was updated to include insight into the UKFC’s diversity policy.