Ben Roberts crop

Source: BFI

Ben Roberts

In a major boost to UK film export and co-production, BFI chief executive Ben Roberts has confirmed that the £7m British Film Institute-run UK Global Screen Fund (UKGSF) has been renewed.

The renewal was first outlined in the 2021 Autumn Budget and is expected to be for a further three years, although the BFI is yet to confirm details as the level of funding is still to be determined.

The funding will come from £42m allocated by the government in the Budget to help the UK’s creative industries.

Speaking this morning at Westminster Media Forum policy conference on the future of British film, Roberts trumpeted the renewal of UKGSF, which launched in April on a one-year trial basis post-Brexit to boost UK cinema internationally.

The UKGSF is administered by the BFI and is available to companies working in film, TV, documentary, animation and interactive content. The second round of funding for the pilot was announced in October.

During the talk, Roberts addressed the continuing struggles of UK independent producers and how the UKGSF could help.

“The business model for independent film is under increasing pressure with film financing from private lenders, equity and bank loans in short supply,” he said. “This is leading to an increased reliance on very limited public funds such as the BFI and public broadcasters. There is further pressure on distributors, financiers and sales agents due to the rapid shifts in the way people are watching films.”

Roberts acknowledged that the level of international co-productions in which the UK is involved has fallen. That, though, was why there is such “delight” about the continuation of the Global Screen Fund which will help UK indie producers to partner on international productions as well as boost export.

However, the bottom line is that “the cost of making and releasing films [for UK independent producers] has gone up while the market value has gone down”. The BFI is responding to this situation with a “strictly economic review” looking at the value chain for UK indie films, focusing on those with budgets up to £15m. This is being led by the BFI research and statistics unit.

“Our aim is to get robust and reliable evidence that we can use to develop proposals to strengthen our domestic film sector over production, distribution and exhibition and start to increase its value over the next decade, including through our next Lottery plan,” Roberts stated.

Skills shortage

Roberts also touched on key challenges facing the UK cinema sector in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

The UK, Roberts pointed out, is currently the world’s busiest “film and high-end TV production hub”. Recent figures suggest that 2021 will surpass the huge £1.75bn figure achieved for feature film inward investment in 2019 before the pandemic began.

“Covid hit our sector hard. Cinemas closed, productions shut down,” Roberts noted while highlighting the measures quickly put into place (among them the Cultural Recovery Fund, the Production Restart Scheme and the Global Screen Fund) to ensure a rapid recovery.

“Ours is a resilient and enterprising industry that tends to find a way through,” he added. “It has certainly been a challenge to get the industry up and running again but production has been restarted since last year, cinemas are reopened and distributors are regaining confidence as audiences return to cinemas.”

However, the BFI chief executive again spoke about the “squeeze [on] our skilled workforce” and the intense pressure on independent UK films.

“We have a serious skills shortage. Crew costs and pressures are going up as inward investment continues to grow. This is putting a huge financial burden on production and a mental health toll on many of those working,” Roberts said. “Rapidly growing the skills base is going to be critical.

“It is clear that as an industry we are not sufficiently meeting the challenge and the challenge is growing,” Roberts added of the pressure on skills despite investment in creating a diverse and inclusive workforce UK-wide.

The BFI Skills review is under way with a report due to be delivered to DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) by spring next year.

“But lottery money isn’t going to do it all. As an industry we may have to think radically,” Roberts noted of how the sector might cope with the shortages. “It won’t all be delivered through new entrants. It will require the industry to be coordinated and contribute to the cost of training. It will probably mean an unlocking of apprenticeships, decentralised training and re-skilling at scale.”