The UK industry still awaits clarity about Government’s new plans for film, but there are successes still to cheer. Geoffrey Macnab takes the temperature of the industry at this week’s Screen Film Summit.
Three months on….and the UK industry is still in the dark about what precisely the Government’s film policy will be. When Culture Minister Ed Vaizey spoke at Wednesday’s Screen Film Summit, he tried hard to be reassuring without giving anything away as to how the void created by the axing of the UK Film Council will be filled.
WIth its latest statement on quangos today, the Government certainly shed no further light: “We are currently considering with stakeholders how best Government can support the industry and strengthen its sustainability, and an announcement will be made later this year,” the statement today (Thursday) read.
The July decision to get rid of the Film Council has seen the rebirth of what producer Iain Smith calls “factionalism.” As he puts it: “there are a lot of oppositional voices all squabbling over not very much money.”
So just how damaging has the three month hiatus been? Whatever frustrations the delegates at the Summit may have felt about Vaizey’s evasiveness, most will agree that it’s not such a dismal period for British film as it may have seemed in late July. Channel 4’s decision to increase the budget of its film financing division Film4 to £15 million for the next five years was a major boost. Speaking at the conference, Sue Bruce-Smith, Head of Commercial Development at Film4, suggested the decision was part of the Channel’s “creative renewal” after it decided to leave Big Brother behind. “More development, more films and slightly bigger films” is what Film4 is now promising.
That £15 million combined with the BBC investment in film, the £100-110 million in tax credit funding and the £15 million and rising in Lottery money makes a sizeable pot of money available to British producers.
Meanwhile, the UKFC is still in operation. The new Film Fund under Tanya Seghatchian is expected soon to announce its initial slate of projects. One key difference about how the fund operates now is that it is “putting money in first,” outgoing UKFC CEO John Woodward noted.
Inward investment (in the shape of US films shooting in the UK) remains robust. The Brits had a strong Toronto (where The King’s Speech won the audience prize) and there has been much tub-thumping about the strength of British films in the London Film Festival (which opened last night with Never Let Me Go.) In other words, in spite of the dire warnings of some senior industry figures about a post UKFC world, the industry (for now) appears to be functioning pretty much as normal.
Even so, everyone will remain jumpy as long as the DCMS continues to delay explaining its new strategy. Speaking at the Film Finance Conference prior to Vaizey’s appearance, Woodward (shortly to depart for a new job at Arts Alliance) made a telling point. He said that the Film Council had served “as a lightning rod for everybody’s discontent.” In its absence, that discontent is bound to be directed elsewhere. Producers who have their applications for funding turned down will now have to find someone else to blame.
Film London Chief Executive Adrian Wootton, recently returned from a trip to the US, called for rapid clarification of Government intentions in order to reassure fretful international producers. “We’re all wanting that decision,” he said. “If the functions are put in the right place and they are sustained, there is absolutely no reason why we can’t put a positive message out this year but we need to get that message out quickly.” (British Film Commissioner Colin Brown says he’s been sticking to business as usual for his office even during the government upheaval.)
As the decision to axe the Film Council without even a hint of consultation underlined, it is impossible to second guess what decisions the Government might make. Vaizey made it clear that he has been lobbied fiercely to ensure that there remains “a plurality of gatekeepers.” Does that mean he is now against disbursing lottery money through the broadcasters (an idea that senior industry figures have called “barking mad” and “insane”)? No-one knows.
UK Trade and Investment is expected to have an increased role in the film industry. Film London also looks poised to expand. “We have - like a number of organisations - been asked by the DCMS to consider whether we could take on a larger role,” Wootton told the Film Finance conference. This, he pointed, would not be a case of Film London “plus” but of the organisation taking on a national role.
What is apparent is that financiers and broadcasters remain resistant to PACT proposals that recoupment of public funds in their films should go back to producers. The debate over how best to achieve “sustainable” production companies isn’t going to be magically resolved by the Government restructuring public film financing, whenever it is finally announced
Vaizey made it clear that he has been receiving large amounts of contradictory opinion and advice from different sectors of the industry. For example, while UK distributors are pushing him him to increase rental rates, exhibitors have told him that in terms of net box-office receipts, distributors “get more share of the box-office than any other country in Europe apart from Austria.”
The Minister is promising to reveal his hand “by the end of the year” at the latest. The Government’s refusal to make up its mind what to do about the UK film industry is continuing to cause high anxiety. However, in the short-term at least, Vaizey’s argument that British film still “has a very good story to tell” is hard to counter.