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Since writing a blog post about those film-makers who were happy to see the back of the Film Council, I’ve had a couple of debates with people who thought that I supported the closure of the UKFC. To make it clear, I’ll repeat what I said in that post:

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. [emphasis mine. Well, obviously, I wrote it the first time too, but, you know…]

I think that the UKFC has been a moderate success in promoting Britain as a centre for production for Hollywood films. I think it has been a relative failure in promoting a self-sustaining British film industry outside that template.

Today, news has emerged in The Independent that Ed Vaizey, stung by the high-profile defences of the UKFC, the 5,000 people on Facebook who want to save it, and the 25,000 signatures on a petition to that effect, has called members of the Film Council in to demand an explanation. In Vaizey’s world, these people only hold these opinions because the UKFC told them  to.

In the Fantasy Land of Ed Vaizey, Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood have nothing better to do with their days than to get involved in funding disputes in foreign countries that will not affect them one way or the other. In the FLoEV people think that the UKFC is symbolic of the British film industry as a whole because they are wilfully being misled by radicals like Bill Nighy rather than the fact that that’s exactly what it was set up to do. It was meant to be the visible face of the British film industry, your one-stop shop for film in Britain. The fact that people think it is tends to suggest that it was quite effective in at least one way…

Mr Vaizey’s letter seems to be most infuriated by the fact that the UKFC claim that they are actually doing a good job: “It looks as though sources at the Film Council have been overzealously briefing in order to protect their interests. As a result they may be damaging the film industry that they purport to represent.”

Yes, in the Fantasy Land of Ed Vaizey, a Film Council that said: “Actually, you’re right. We’re pretty incompetent. We were going to fund a good film once, but the script got lost in the aftermath of one of our larger money-fights. John Woodward had just copped a bunch of £20 notes in the eye, and may have shredded it out of pique.” That would be better for the film industry than having an organisation that champions its own work, when its major role has been to champion its own work around the world.

And the height of the flatulent, pompous imbecility that furnishes much of the Fantasy Land of Ed Vaizey is the idea that summoning the UKFC to his offices, like a headmaster who has just found an exercise book of ribald limericks in the boy’s showers, and telling The Independent all about it will, in some way, not make him look like a massive twonk. If this sort of thing doesn’t stop, he will be keeping the whole British film industry in after school. There will be no tax breaks for anyone, if you can’t behave. It’s your own time you’re wasting…

Perhaps he would like to interview the UKFC about their poor value for money whilst sitting on the £467 sofa he tried to make to taxpayer foot the bill for, sipping quietly from a nice glass of red balanced on his £607 table.

The most unnerving thing, however, isn’t the unnecessary and juvenile macho posturing, but the fact that this doesn’t seem to have been anticipated. Although the DCMS has claimed that there will be £3 million more invested in British films, and that the inward investment tax break will continue, they haven’t explained how this is to work at all, and it appears that they haven’t explained it because they just don’t know.

Generally muttering something vague about the BFI is not going to satisfy people that this isn’t politically motivated, or that the DCMS has given it any real thought. The fact that it was done without consultation as a testosterone-fuelled sop to the more frothing Tory commentators only makes it look worse. The people of Britain cherish the illusion that they have a film industry and the UKFC is a large part of that illusion, as it was designed to be. The DCMS may as well have oiled themselves up, dragged Richard Curtis into a gym and beaten him bloody with dumbells.

We’re told that the inward investment will continue, but we were told that immediate government cuts on the scale we have seen would cause a double-dip recession. We were told that the NHS was safe in your hands. We were told that the we would regain ‘a sense of decency and liberty’ when dealing with migrants.

The reason people are still worried despite your protestations, is that they don’t believe you. Your protestations have, on the whole, turned out to be, for want of a better word, arse-dribble. From the need to raise VAT to nuclear power stations, statements made by any member of the coalition government have turned out to be the worst sort of guffluent, excused by ‘the structural deficit we could not possibly have known about’. Apart from by looking at the budget in any one of the last 13 years.

When any department makes any commitment to future spending, we must assume that the minister responsible is crossing their fingers behind their back, when they’re not actively chuckling behind their well-manicured hands.

It’s not the UKFC’s briefings that make us fear for the future of the British film industry, Mr Vaizey, it’s you.

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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.

Say what?

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?

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