There was an interesting line of argument at a recent conference in Germany about the supposed 'professionalisation' of the industry. It's an odd notion for an industry that is more than 100 years old but the contention is that the soft money has begun to harden, the hedge funds have scarpered and any residual 'easy money' finance has dried up.
The argument follows the Francis Fukuyama 'end of history' line: until now film finance has veered wildly between sugar daddies, tax evasion, tax avoidance, taxpayers, super-rich egomaniacs, super-rich states and the occasional dash of cash from dictatorships, money laundering and extortion.
Now the world of film is settling slowly, painfully but inexorably into a clearer free-market pattern, where the pros are on top. There is a growing sophistication in selling to multinational markets, for example, and at studio level, the studios are owned by diversified conglomerates with vast global interests and want results that make sense on a spreadsheet. The maverick is subsumed into maths.
Maybe at that level, we are seeing the end of a confused recent period that has seen sale and leaseback and German investment funds fall away and hedge fund money bubble and burst.
It will be interesting to monitor how the influx of Indian and Middle East finance is handled. Maybe it is the start of a new era though it would be rash to bet against the usual process of inflated expectations followed by tears.
At least the studios have some economic factors on their side. The recent drive to enhance the spectacle of film through 3D, or through creating fewer but bigger franchises, looks to be spot on in a recession that will surely heighten the demand for relatively low-cost escapism. Hollywood's plans are classic bread and circuses at a time when the business pages read like the Book Of Revelations and those poor dears in the investment banks are down to their last Ferrari. Cinema is a chance to stop the world and get off for a couple of hours.
The argument for specialist and arthouse films is a little less convincing. What's more, a number of the would-be mini-studios that have been emerging this year are reliant on investment that looks a little more precarious than it did a week ago.
Again, however, they have a commercial logic in their business plans - an attempt to overcome the restrictions of single territory sales. They are exemplars of this professionalised idea, at least in clarity of objectives.
Film finance for most of the rest of the world, however, comes down to soft money, dependent on the unasked largesse of the taxpayer, justified on the grounds of culture. Yet questions are beginning to surface that will eventually boil into fundamental debates that mirror the professionalisation argument.
Policy on everything from subsidy to piracy is framed very narrowly in most countries. The justification for incentives is to create or sustain a fully functioning industry infrastructure and to create culturally important art.
In fact, the cultural element expressed in film policy in most countries is a necessary fig leaf to cover up a desire to attract big money shoots from Hollywood and create jobs and expertise. It's protectionism with a fancy cover - and most producers will say hallelujah to that.
But exponents of the professionalisation line might say the challenge should be to use new digital opportunities to create lower-cost films that can now find greater audiences. The soft money should focus primarily on the genuine cultural goal of nurturing the talent of a rising generation that is beginning to express itself visually in a way bearing comparison with the democratising rise of skiffle and punk in music. And surely, alongside the abstract, elitist judgement of artistic merit, we should be attempting to close the gap between film and audience.
These discussions are already beginning to form the basis of a necessary film policy debate in many countries because the only financial fact you can bank on is that the gravy train never stops at the arthouse station.
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