In the year or so since the demise of British Screen and the founding of the UK's Film Council former chief executive Simon Perry has remained silent. Now on Screendaily.com, he delivers an open letter to the UK's secretary of state for culture, media & sport, Tessa Jowell.
An Open Letter
to the Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport
Dear Secretary of State
A kind of hush has descended on the British film community this year. There is no interesting debate, minimal provocative comment, certainly no fresh ideas or proposals. Since you took over Chris Smith's office, I doubt if anything material concerning the film industry has landed on your desk.
The Film Council was due to finalise its Stage Two policy proposals ('designed to encourage real structural change') in January, but eight months later nothing has emerged. Something might have been heard by now from the 'tough new watchdog' which the DCMS planned to set up to monitor the organisations it funds, including the Film Council, but no such watchdog seems to exist.
As for the rank and file of filmmakers, normally opinionated if seldom unanimous, here the silence results from the loss - new in my experience - of both the will and the courage to speak up.
The process of refurbishing government involvement in film over the past four years has left many of those who believed in its good intentions disillusioned and winded. First came a report called "A Bigger Picture". It was frankly a re-hash, containing only one concrete proposal, which then could not be realised in practice. Eventually came the establishment of the Film Council, described as a new 'strategic agency' but, so far anyway, reeking of old Arts Councils in its structure and causing the professional community all the frustrations associated with centralised control and administration.
Moreover that centralisation has not only dismayed filmmakers, it has effectively silenced any complaints they might be tempted to voice, since in one way or another all are now dependent on the monolith for support.
I am the exception! I am, I believe, the only working member of the British film community who has nothing to lose at the hands of the Film Council. The elimination of British Screen accorded me the status of 'unperson' in the realm governed by the Film Council. But it did not deprive me of my passionate interest in seeing British cinema flourish.
Hence I am not afraid to speak my mind and (heedless of whether or not they are 'on-message') to send you a short bulletin of ideas that I hope may contribute to whatever view you have or are developing with regard to our industry.
1. Production funding - less can be more (and should made to be)
The provision of government support for film production has become a minefield, particularly where Lottery money is involved. Equally, a small amount of support can be highly effective in this business if it is applied with maximum leverage on private sector investment.
If the level of public funding for production is kept low, much tabloid damage can be avoided when (as is inevitable) some of the films fail at the box-office. But, augmented by private cash, it can still accomplish the job of encouraging original talents and stimulating a fine British cinema overall.
Currently the two Film Council production funds have $21.7m (£15m) between them. At British Screen, in our best-funded years, we had the same, but broken down in broad terms as 25% DCMS direct grant, 30% Lottery money (in the Greenlight Fund) and, crucially, 45% private sector resources.
Although producer-colleagues might be surprised that I take this view, my strong feeling is that £15 million of public money is more than adequate as direct support for production in a country the size of the UK, provided that the body managing it is obliged to 'multiply' its effect via partnership funding from the private sector.
Is the Film Council under such an obligation' If so, what are its targets'
2. A better choice at a cinema near you
So if production is already getting enough money, then when the three production franchises come to the end of their leases in less than three years' time, the question arises: how should the £15 million or so of Lottery money that is allocated to them annually be otherwise deployed'
I would urge you to consider an innovative programme of investment - hand-in-hand with the private sector - in the building of new multiscreen theatres which are conducive in their design and location to the showing of films from anywhere in the world. Very many of the multiplex theatres that have sprung up in Britain during the last 15 years are essentially halls of American culture, in which only Hollywood films play naturally. Without seeking to undermine the success represented by the steady rise in admissions since the mid-1980s, I would contend that the increasing homogeneity and narrowness of the available cinemagoing experience is a significant factor in denying British audiences access to a reasonable choice of films - and vice versa.
The programme would need to include some form of revenue support over a long period of time while theatre operators developed necessary new marketing strategies and while audiences' taste-buds were re-awakened (to the range of savours enjoyed by British cinemagoers in the past, and still enjoyed by citizens of certain other European cities).
I recognise all too well (having had a successful exhibition company myself) the risks entailed in such a venture. Two arguments recommend themselves. First, as Secretary of State for Culture I hope you will perceive the value of reversing a trend towards the exclusion of so much world cinema from these shores - exclusion which is now seen as a mark of cultural and educational shame by other European countries. Second, improvement of public access to a wider choice of culture, coupled with investment in tangible capital projects, surely makes the scheme more defensible than production support with regard to the Lottery Act'
3. Regulation - time to bite the bullet
A main plank of Film Council policy is 'developing a sustainable UK film industry'. It is hard to see how that can even begin without consideration being given to the fact that up to £1 billion of UK distribution and exhibition revenues leave the country every year, remitted by local branches of multinational companies to their overseas headquarters.
The single solid idea contained in "A Bigger Picture" was a re-application of the principle of the Eady fund, abolished in 1985, whereby British production was subsidised by a levy on all films shown in the UK. Under the new proposal the 'haves' - the major distributors and broadcasters - would contribute a tithe of their annual earnings for the benefit of the 'have-nots', i.e. British producers. Unfortunately, of course, the report proposed that the levy be voluntary, and the big players saw it off in a matter of days.
It's worth mentioning that in France the vast majority of the support provided for film production, distribution and exhibition comes not from government subvention but from the industry itself as a result of regulation. There is a box-office levy which enhances the revenues earned by French films; the TV companies, as a condition of their licences to broadcast, are required to invest a percentage of their turnover in new French cinema; and there are tax-shelter vehicles for film financing, called soficas.