As the UK industry is invited to consult on a draft strategy for new regional body Creative England, Sarah Cooper discovers that there is a fierce debate going on behind the scenes.
As part of the consultation process for the formation of Creative England, the umbrella body being established to replace the regional screen agencies, its chair John Newbigin has been working his way round the country hosting a series of consultation meetings with film industry professionals to get their views on the body’s strategy going forward.
And it seems that ironically, the one issue that is not up for consultation – the locations of Creative England’s three “hubs” – is the one issue that everyone wants to talk about the most. Or at least, they want to know about the process behind the decision to name Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, three cities based in the west of the UK, as the three centres of Creative England.
According to Newbigin, the decision was taken back in September 2010, before Ed Vaizey formally announced the existence of Creative England, although Vaizey didn’t refer to the three cities in his speech in November 2010, only referring to Creative North, South and Central. In fact, the locations of the three hubs have never formally been announced.
“The various agencies got together in various alliances and pitched ideas, and we went with the idea that commanded the most support, subject to some justification as to why they were being chosen,” says Newbigin, who reveals that the decision was made in a meeting attended by all the CEOs of the existing regional screen agencies (RSAs), excluding Screen Yorkshire’s CEO Sally Joynson, who was not there due to illness.
So was the decision amongst the CEOs unanimous? “You seek consensus in so far as you can, and when there is no consensus you have to go with the majority decision otherwise nothing happens,” explains Newbigan.
Still, some industry insiders are puzzled as to why and how the decision was taken with no wider consultation from the industry at a time when there was no formal Creative England strategy in place.
Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that following the decision, a “shadow Creative England board” has been set up, consisting of the chairs of Screen West Midlands, Vision and Media, and South West Screen (the three regional agencies based in the hub cities) along with the chair of Screen South, in order to, as Newbigin says, “drive things forward”.
Whilst only an interim board — Newbigin intends to set up a formal Creative England board consisting of around 12 members once the body’s structure has been agreed on — it effectively means that the chairs of the remaining regional screen agencies have been excluded from drawing up any Creative England proposals, although they are given the chance to approve those proposals.
As one industry professional, who didn’t want to be named, suggests: “It means you’ve got no one on the board who has any knowledge, expertise or contacts on the entire east of the country. How can a plan be a plan for the whole of England when half the country is excluded from drawing it up?”
Another thorny issue is the fact that in December, Creative Central was registered at Companies House by the CEO of Screen West Midlands, Suzie Norton, adding to the sense that the process is being dominated by a few key parties to the exclusion of others.
“I think the intention was to pre-empt anybody else buying the name, but it was probably not a very wise thing to do without clearing it with everyone else,” admits Newbigan.
“I really do think it’s a bit of a storm in a tea cup though. Creative Central, if it comes together, will have to be a reflection of all the agencies involved,” he adds.
Still, it’s enough to have raised some serious concerns for those based in areas outside the hubs.
“Unfortunately, and I hope I am wrong, I get the impression that the decision, influenced presumably by the beneficiary groups to be involved, has already been made as to the future structure,” says Roger Morris, managing director of Elstree Studios, which is based in Hertfordshire.
Yorkshire-based producer Piers Tempest (Killing Bono) is also concerned: “It doesn’t make sense to me that arguably the best-performing English Screen Agencies such as Screen Yorkshire and EM Media that secured major investment from incoming films in their regions are effectively sidelined in this new incarnation of the screen agencies.”
“It seems to most of the industry that this has been a triumph of lobbying rather than track record,” he adds.
The fact that the only money currently on the table is for film-related activity (in the form of £4.5m in combined grant in aid and Lottery funding), has led to more discussion over the choice of the hubs and their “track record” when it comes to film activity. Newcastle-based producer Samm Haillay (Better Things) is certainly keen to see the money “being spent on films, not on iPads and digital stuff.”
To some degree, opinion is clearly divided between those who appear to be “in” and those who appear to be “out” of the Creative England loop.
Screen accessed a letter addressed to John Newbigin asking that “EM Media play a fully role at the heart of Creative England” signed by a host of top industry names, including Stephen Frears, Andrew Eaton and Mark Herbert.
And elsewhere, a spoof Creative England Twitter account has been set up with tweets including “We’ve been working on this since last November - let us know how far from the mark we are.”
In the other camp, Jo Nolan, CEO of Screen South, thinks all the infighting is counterproductive. “There has been so much conversation about the hubs that we haven’t had enough conversation about what we are actually doing, who are we going to be working with and how we are going to pull in more money. And at least there is still money on the table!”
“We should be talking about the regions, not the cities. If in a year’s time it is not working having an office in Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham, let’s revisit it when the new CEOs are in place,” adds Nolan.
Newbigin points out that picking the hubs was bound to be a no win situation because “however you divide the cake, there is always going to be some people whose noses are put out of joint. The important thing is to demonstrate to people once we’ve got the hub companies ready to go that they really do represent the whole region and not just the cities where they are based.”
The CEO jobs for the three hubs are to be advertised externally, something that Vision and Media’s CEO Paul Taylor says is vital. “There are clearly political sensitivities and if it were me taking over I wouldn’t want to think that I had been handed some backdoor deal.”
As to whether the hub locations could change, Newbigin says; “If there was some absolutely overwhelming new evidence then yes I suppose so. But when we’ve got so much to do, I don’t think that unpicking decisions is the way forward.”
While some film-makers feel that the new Creative England structure has the opportunity to be fairer than the old system of regional screen agencies, London to Brighton producer Rachel Robey, who is based in Nottingham, said she was not sure that the current proposal was heading that way.
“To date, people’s postcode has dictated their access to support as some regions have had more money than others. It would be lovely if the new structure could be set up in such a way that actually there would be much more equality of access, but that is not necessarily reflected in the consultation document, which is light on detail,” says Robey.
Still, Newbigan is keen to point out that there is still a degree of flexibility surrounding the Creative England structure. “If people have got particular circumstances that they want taken on board, we will try and make it work.”
One agency to test that theory is Newcastle-based Northern Film and Media, which plans to sit outside the Creative England structure but maintain a service level contract with the body.
For now, Newbigin remains optimistic that the finer details of Creative England can be ironed out in time for its launch in October, whilst insisting that it must be based on a “coalition of the willing”.
But to achieve this, it seems, he still has some way to go.
CREATIVE ENGLAND – WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR
- The seven existing regional screen agencies – South West Screen, Screen West Midlands, EM Media, Vision and Media, Screen South, Northern Film and Media and Screen Yorkshire - will be replaced by Creative North, Creative Central and Creative South, which will be three subsidiary companies of Creative England.
- The consultation is only for Creative England’s strategy in 2011/2012. From April 2012, Creative England’s strategy will be based on the government’s film policy review which is planned for this summer. Whatever strategy is drawn up for Creative England now will be fed into that.
- Newbigin anticipates that the agencies will play out any existing contracts they have, rather than being closed down in October when Creative England launches.
- Creative England will operate a hub and spoke model. There will be a number of front doors for Creative England — the location and number of which are still to be revealed.