Are we in a golden era for public film funding? The UK is stumbling through a prolonged recession and yet the film industry has seemingly emerged largely unscathed from the ongoing cuts. Geoffrey Macnab analyses where the cash is headed.

Two years after the abrupt closure of the UK Film Council, there is more, not less, money available. With cash diverted to the London 2012 Olympics now returning, and sales of Lottery tickets increasing, the money available for film is rising.

Throughout the summer, Prime Minister David Cameron has been busily extolling the UK’s creative industries to Olympic visitors. There is cross-party support for the film industry which, according to the BFI’s statistical yearbook, contributes £3.3 billion to UK GDP and a trade surplus of over £1.5 billion. 

The BFI Statistical Yearbook revealed that public funding for film in 2011/11 was £358 million (of which £200 million was film tax relief).

In May, when the British Film Institute announced its five year funding plan, the BFI Film Fund confirmed an increase from its current £18 million to £24 million by 2017. Other screen agencies have likewise seen their budgets hiked up. For example, Creative Scotland’s Film and Broadcasting Investment Fund has a budget of £3 million for 2011/2012 - and that is set to rise to £5 million next year (split between £4 million for film investment and £1 million for TV production in a joint fund with Scottish Enterprises.)

“Even though the backdrop is austerity, our Lottery has gone up quite substantially in the last year,” says Caroline Parkinson, Director of Creative Development at Creative Scotland.

The broadcasters on whom UK filmmakers remain so dependent are maintaining or increasing their commitment to film. Under Channel 4 chief-executive David Abraham, Film4 saw its annual budget increase to £15 million in 2010 and then, last May, added an extra £1 million fund for developing comedy features. However, the BBC Films annual budget is now down to £11 million a year (from £12 million).

“Probably, in Europe at the moment, we are in the ascendant,” says Sue Bruce-Smith, head of Commercial Development at Film4. “American independent film is not supported in quite the same way. I think we’ve recognized that our industry does need support but that with that support, it can punch way above its weight.”

In spite of the £1 million cut in the BBC Films budget, Christine Langan (Head of BBC Films) is likewise upbeat about the health of the sector. “All of it reflects on an agreement that we’re good at film and film needs to be supported because it is good for all of us. It is really good for the economy. The opening ceremony of the Olympics, which I thought was wonderful, was a really apt celebration of British creativity and I think film is at the heart of that.”

The angst evident at the time of the axing of the Film Council appears to have dissipated. The combination of the increased Lottery money, the well received Film Policy Review and a run of box-office successes like The King’s Speech and The Inbetweeners has clearly reassured the sector.

However, the optimism isn’t shared by everybody. In the regions, some fret that the industry remains as London-focused as ever. Late in its existence, the UK Film Council set itself a 25% target for non-London originated films - a target that now appears to have slipped.

“In terms of film in the English regions, that (public support) has gone down massively,” says Caroline Norbury, CEO of Creative England. When the nine regional screen agencies were set up a decade ago, they received £7.5 million from the UK Film Council. £4.5m of this was Grant in Aid and £3m was Lottery. Between 2006-09 they had raised an additional £25m from sources outside the UKFC and over the same period an additional £52m for all screen industry investment out of London. 

Agencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland have funds via their devolved governments.  However, Norbury suggests that the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies  has resulted in a substantial cut in monies to the creative sector outside London.

“If you look at the landscape, far and away the most significant contribution to this is the proposed increase in BFI funding for film,” agrees Hugo Heppell, Head on Investments, Screen Yorkshire (which is is currently managing the £7,500,000 “Yorkshire Content Fund.” a new public-private investment fund for the TV, film, video games and digital sectors in Yorkshire and Humber). He argues that the extra investment comes “at a cost of impact to the regions…the lottery money that was made available to the regions via RIFE (Regional Investment Fund For England) was both being scaled back in the Film Council era and has been dramatically reduced in the handover to Creative England.”

Creative England is arguing for a re-balancing of Lottery awards. The figures it cites are stark: between 2001 and 2011 the UK Film Council’s Production and Development Funds spent £167m on London-based companies and talent, representing 84% of total funds.

Nonetheless, Norbury is upbeat about the interventions Creative England has already made, for instance the iFeatures Programme for low budget filmmaking which was launched in 2009 and has yielded such successes as In The Dark Half and Flying Blind.

Amid rumours that public funders and broadcasters have sometimes underspent on their budgets, another nagging issue is whether there is enough talent to justify the current levels of investment. At a recent conference, one senior executive complained about not being able “to find the films.” 

“We’re getting better at finding the talent,” counters Sue Bruce-Smith, pointing to Film4.0, the channel’s digital arm which has taken a highly innovative approach to talent development. Its Scene Stealers initiative invites anyone to choose a film, get a camera and then “recreate your favourite scene.” The channel is also developing long-form projects with emerging filmmakers such as 2011 Screen Star of Tomorrow John Maclean whose Film4-backed short Pitch Black Heist won the short film BAFTA earlier this year and·another Screen Star Jonathan Entwistle, an emerging director who built his audience on Vimeo.

BBC Films boss Christine Langan scoffs at the notion that there aren’t enough decent projects to warrant the level of broadcaster and public support for film. “We have no problem!” she says of the search for talent. Funders, she points out, are still more likely to reject projects than accept them.

A key question now is how the extra money flowing into British film will be spent. Understandably, Ben Roberts, the new head of the BFI Film Fund, isn’t giving many details away about how the BFI will use its extra resources. “We can allocate it however we feel it is best to be,” Roberts says. “That could be on development, it could be on talent development, it could be additional money for production awards. I think we’ll need to retain a certain amount of flexibility as to where we think it is needed.”

This year, with a budget still at £18 million, the Film Fund is spending £14 million on production and £4 million. 

“I can’t tell you what my timetable is but the Future Plan will set out the priority areas for us,” Roberts states. And, no, he doesn’t have any doubts that the BFI will struggle to spend the extra money as the Fund rises to £24 million by 2017. “At the moment, I wouldn’t say that we are able to support every quality project that we want to and to the degree that we would like to - or that the producers would like us to! It’s not going to be an embarrassment of riches.”