As the British Film Institute takes over the distribution of public film funds to UK producers, Screen asks what makes a good national film fund and how can success be measured?

How do you create the ideal public film fund? At a time of drastic government spending cuts across Europe, this has become a pressing question. National film organisations are deciding how best to allocate public money to film production as producers ponder what exactly they need to get their films made.

The meltdown earlier this year at the Hungarian Motion Picture Fund — which the government accused of “irresponsible handling” and “an unsustainable level of debt” — halted nearly all local film production and is a graphic warning of what can go wrong.

Different countries have different models. Speak to a range of fund executives and they have varying prescriptions for how production should be supported.

But ask producers and there is a consensus: they want to hold on to their films’ rights and build their businesses. “Otherwise we are just talent for hire,” says Danish producer and Zentropa head Peter Aalbaek Jensen, whose credits include this year’s Cannes Competition title Melancholia, backed by the Danish Film Institute (DFI).

Cottage industries

In Denmark, producers hold on to copyright. “No matter what, [the Danish Film Institute] is out in five years. That means the catalogue belongs to the producer,” says Aalbaek Jensen.

Not all public funds are as sympathetic to producers’ long-term interests.

“The industry here is a cottage industry,” suggests Bengt Toll, acting CEO of the Swedish Film Institute. “The production companies and producers are quite weak. There are too many small companies making too few films and that’s not sustainable.”

‘We’re allowed to invest up to 70% of below the line but contractually we don’t own the film. We’re merely an investor’

Katriel Schory, Israel Film Fund

Her comments chime with the situation in the UK where the British Film Institute (BFI) took over the administration of state funding for film production from the UK Film Council (UKFC) in early April. The pressure for recoupment at the UKFC was often high. “I have absolutely no apology for saying ‘no no no’. It’s not free money,” commented a UKFC figure earlier this year.

Unsurprisingly, the UK producers’ attitude to this is double edged: “What we’re looking for is intelligent, fair, constructive support,” says Starfield Productions’ Paul Raphael, whose credits include Under The Bombs and Anita & Me. And whatever their complaints about film-funding decisions, many would agree the UKFC provided such support. But still UK producers struggle to build their businesses (initiatives targeted at supporting bigger companies such as the Lottery franchises and the UKFC’s super-slate deals had, at best, mixed results).

“As producers, we’re massively disadvantaged,” says Raphael. “There is a huge problem in the UK in terms of ownership and copyright of material which, more often than not, we’ve gone out on a limb to create. In the process of getting it funded, we have to give away everything that might mean anything to us in the future.”

In other words, what UK producers crave from public funding is help in holding on to copyright. For all the talk of ‘producer corridors’ and UK tax credit as producer equity, this is still invariably out of their grasp.

“The UK has stood out quite oddly because all over the world, from Australia to Denmark, public funds there have not put their recoupment requirement over and above that of the producer, and effectively created systems where they stimulate producers to be entrepreneurs,” says Ruby Films’ Paul Trijbits, a former head of the UKFC New Cinema Fund.

Indeed, UK producers cast envious glances at other international film funds which at least look like they are trying to address this problem. “We are allowed to invest up to 70% of below the line but contractually we do not own the film. We’re merely an investor,” says Katriel Schory, executive director of the Israel Film Fund, which has backed recent breakout festival hits such as Ajami and Cannes Competition entry Footnote.

They also look to producers in France who can benefit from the ‘Compte de soutien’, the CNC’s automatic support scheme. Every qualifying French producer and distributor receives subsidies in proportion to their film’s success in theatres in France, and also DVD and TV sales.

The art of it

There is a strong counter argument that public film funds should be discretionary, not automatic.

“If we’re talking art support, which is really what our work is about, it’s very, very difficult to make anything automatic,” suggests Henrik Bo Nielsen, CEO of the Danish Film Institute (DFI). “The minute you start making tax credits or automatic support systems available, you should really go to a different ministry. It shouldn’t be the ministry of culture but the ministry of business support.”

Another perennial, highly charged question about public film funding is whether decisions should be made by individuals or by committee. If there is a single gatekeeper, unsuccessful producers can rightly complain the person simply does not like them or share their taste. However, committees can be cumbersome, unwieldy and lack vision.

“It is a question of what kind of film you’re making,” suggests Nielsen. “If you’re making a very broad film aimed at the mainstream market, the decision by committee or consensus is often a very good way. But if you’re talking about artistically taking chances, re-inventing art and moving in new directions, you very often need an individual decision.”

Any national film agency has to win the argument with its government about the necessity for supporting film. This tends to be a cultural rather than an economic debate.

‘At the moment, we have the least imperfect system’

Henrik Bo Nielsen, Danish Film Institute

During the Second World War, the British war ministry is said to have asked Winston Churchill to cut the culture budget to free up additional finance for defence. Supposedly, Churchill refused, proclaiming, “We need to have something to defend.” This anecdote was repeated regularly by Danish culture minister Per Stig Moller last year when he made what, by European standards in a period of austerity, was a very generous settlement — worth $407m (kro2.1bn) — for public film funding in Denmark between 2011-14.

Measures of success include local box office and market share, performance at major international festivals, critical reception and talent development. But this can all be a little hazy. “You have to be accountable and explain what [your investments] brought to the film business and to society,” says Hans Everaert, head of business affairs at the Flemish Audiovisual Fund (VAF). “People have to be convinced it’s important to make films that come out of your local culture.”

Refresh and renew

All deliberations about public film funding models tend to be cyclical. Ten years ago in the UK, around the time of the UKFC’s creation, there was a backlash against the arty, Europe-oriented cinema championed by the existing public bodies, towards more commercially minded fare. A decade on, the wheel has turned. It is debatable whether a project as offbeat as Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (which stars Toby Jones as a sound engineer caught up in the nightmarish world of an Italian Giallo movie) would have been supported by the UKFC in its early days. Now, the film is seen as representative of the type of cinema the new-look BFI wants to champion.

Denmark’s public funding system, for one, works measurably. As Aalbaek Jensen says: “It has managed to put a silly little country on the map of international film-making.”

However, even well-designed and successful state funding systems will creak eventually, either because producers turn against it, the audience loses faith in the films it backs or its decisions seem out of step with the times.

“At the moment, we have the least imperfect system,” suggests the DFI’s Nielsen. “If I look around the globe at support systems, if you want strong artistic films, you also need strong commissioners that you only keep for a few years so there is change and new ideas. It’s a bit like democracy. It’s difficult to find other ways which are really that much better.”