Everyone wants to save the Film Council. Mike Leigh wants to save the Film Council; Hannibal from The A-Team wants to save the Film Council; 42,000 people on Facebook want to save the Film Council. Everyone wants to save the Film Council. Even Clint Eastwood, who eats financiers for breakfast and cleans his teeth with the sharpened bones of distributors, wants to save the Film Council.
When a self-proclaimed libertarian like Clint Eastwood is arguing that you should keep a government body to subsidise a product that competes with the one he is producing, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at what’s actually going on. And that’s when you discover that not everyone wants to save the Film Council.
There is a small group of film-makers – mostly independent, mostly young – who don’t want to save the Film Council. Not at all. In fact, you get the feeling they’d quite happily burn the Film Council to the ground, and dance in the ashes.
They’re making quite a compelling case that the UK Film Council was simply a way of subsidising the production and distribution of Hollywood films in Britain. Which is exactly the same point Clint Eastwood made.
Chris Atkins, director of Taking Liberties, is one of the more visible members of this relatively-small ‘movement‘ (the ‘Get Rid of the Film Council’ group on Facebook has 123 members), but other prominent supporters of the UKFC’s closure are Alex Cox and Jonathan Gems (screenwriter of Mars Attacks and 1984).
These filmmakers point to the £200,000 given to Warner Bros to help with print and poster campaigns for their movies, as well as the £140,000 given to Disney in 2006. They point to the £144,000 given to distribute U2-3D and the £154,000 to She’s All Right, and wonder why the taxpayer is subsidising what are essentially extended marketing campaigns for millionaire rock stars.
They point to the Digital Screens Network, which, when it was announced in 2004, was meant to spend £14 million in putting digital projectors in 200 cinemas in Britain, so that smaller films could be distributed cheaply on hard drives, rather than having to get celluloid prints produced. However, rather than ensuring an open system, the UKFC caved to the ‘anti-piracy’ lobby, who insisted that these hard drives be encoded in a unique way. A unique way that is only done by one company in Britain, and which costs £5,000.
The cinemas also took this opportunity to put the digital projectors on their main screens, rather than their smaller screens. So, now the digital screens are used to cheaply distribute CGI animations on big screens, and are utterly inaccessible to independent film-makers, who still have to shell out for prints to be distributed to cinemas.
For EXAM, Stuart Hazeldine was offered 25 screens if he could afford prints for all of them (he tells the story in the comments section of this post). He couldn’t and the UKFC didn’t help. The film ended up opening on 8 screens. As he says: “I got a BAFTA nom for a film nobody saw.”
In some ways this seems to stem from an objection to one of the UKFC’s roles, what it liked to call ‘inward investment’. This was ensuring that Hollywood production money was spent in Britain’s studios, edit suites, and quaint villages. If you see this as the UKFC’s primary function, then it has arguably been a huge success (although the current financial troubles of Pinewood-Shepperton, and it’s failure to get planning permission for its large expansion suggest that the UKFC could have done more here, too).
Some, however, see using Britain as a ‘production house’ for Hollywood films, where all of the returns go back to studios in the US (like the Harry Potter or James Bond franchises) actually stifles any chance of having a British film industry. Jonathan Gems is quite persuasive in arguing that what the UKFC understood as British films weren’t, in a lot of cases, British in any meaningful sense (although his unfortunate choice of last line moves firmly into Little Englander, Blimp-esque territory).
Myself, I instinctively felt the old, hot ball of rage swell within me when the closure of the Film Council was announced. Like any right-thinking, left-leaning arts practitioner, it was quite heartening to feel the Dragon of Horror At Things The Tories Do stir within the cave where he’s slept since 1997. His replacement, the Impotent, Hoarse Donkey of New Labour Betrayal was never quite the same…
However, I’ve long argued that we should stop subsidising production, and, instead, spend that money subsidising distribution. I believe that the problem with attracting private investors is mainly because it’s so difficult to get a film into cinemas. If it were cheap and easy for a film to be shown on digital screens, and distributed on hard drives, and there were a financial incentive for a cinema to show local films, then it would be much easier to raise the funds for productions. The way to kickstart the industry is to give private investors a (high-risk) way of making a serious return on their investment, rather than ensuring that they will have to sell their film to a US- or French-owned studio in order to get it into cinemas.
So I am sympathetic to those who see the demise of the UKFC as an opportunity for a real and basic change in the way the British ‘film industry’ works. However, I don’t share their optimism.
The government is not attempting a major rethink of its strategy with regard to the way in which films are produced and distributed in this country. It became quite clear in the day following the announcement that they hadn’t even thought very hard about what was to replace the Film Council. It probably made Jeremy Hunt look quite good in Cabinet the next morning. Maybe he got to carry David Cameron’s books for him. It was a piece of macho posturing from a deeply unimpressive man; as if someone had cast Charles Hawtrey in The Expendables (although that’s about the only thing that could induce me to go and see it).
So, whilst I have sympathy with those who say that the Film Council was exclusive and a force that stifled the industry; whilst I agree that the slate of films produced since 1999 is, apart from those of Andrea Arnold, staggeringly mediocre (compared to the exuberance of the 1990s); whilst I agree that the enormous sums spent on salaries and offices don’t seem like the best use of limited resources, and that way in which the Digital Screen Network was implemented was a scandal, I’m not whooping with delight to see the back of the Film Council. It was an ideological move, the implications of which have not been thought through, and that could potentially be devastating for inward investment if that work is not maintained.
The UKFC was a flawed, in many ways unhelpful, organisation that it should not be difficult to replace with something better. Unfortunately, it looks like not much attention has been paid to replacing it at all.
And, besides, do you want to argue with Clint Eastwood?