Death of the UKFC
The decision to dispose of the UK Film Council (UKFC) has been announced by the government this week, and has produced a great deal of gnashing and wailing (and some celebrating). Overall, there has disappointment at the decision – largely because it came of out of the blue, apparently with no consultation of the industry or the public. Perhaps most seriously, there does not appear to be an alternative in place before the announcement. This will create uncertainty in the film industry, leading to a drop in investment in production simply because producers will not be able to make decisions for the next couple of years.
The demise of the UKFC has been widely reported as a disaster – in the Guardian, Sunday Times, Herald Scotland, and The Scotsman – or a good thing – in The Daily Telegrpah (which has nothing to do with film policy and was always predictable) and yesterday in The Times; but the fact is that an industry that has perennially struggled to make an impact has lost its most public voice with no incoming body to take its place.
We may find ourselves back in the dark days of the 1980s when we had a Conservative government that simply was not interested in the film industry and what it could do, and which lead to a directionless and fairly dismal period in the history of British cinema.
This is a very shortsighted and ill-informed decision by the government.
But that does not make it wrong, per se.
The first thing we might wish to know is why does an industry that has a turnover of millions of pounds need a tax-payer funded body to lobby for it.
If anything, the existence of the UKFC pointed to the fundamental weakness in the British film industry – namely, that it just cannot get its act together. The demise of the UKFC might be a good thing if it prompts BAFTA, the Film Distributors Association, the Cinema Exhibitors Assocaition, PACT, Skillset, BECTU and the other unions, the regional screen agencies, and the thousands of production, distribution, and exhibition companies in the UK to work together to create a single body to promote the film industry. It would be a good thing – but of course it will never happen. Why? because there is a malaise about the film industry in the UK where very little seems possible simply because nobody can be really bothered. Will we get an industry body to promote and protect its interests? No – because everybody will the pass the buck until at some later date the government will step in. This will obviously be hailed as just what is needed to get the industry going, rather than be understood as evidence that – yet again – the industry fails to organise itself.
The British film industry needed – and needs – a body like the UK Film Council. But the fact that this body only came into existence with the support of the government is proof of the desperate state of the industry.
Consider the example of the role of the Research and Statistics Unit (RSU) at the UK Film Council.
As a consumer of the outputs of the RSU this is obviously of interest to this blog, and without the UKFC in place to disseminate information about the film industry some of the topics covered would be very difficult to do otherwise.
Nonetheless, I am not particularly a big fan of the RSU because it seemed so limited its actions. As far as I could tell, it took information produced by other bodies and produced some nice-looking graphs based on this data. Often, it took a considerable amount of time to do this – why did it take until Wednesday (at the earliest) to get the weekend box office data on-line? Despite the grand title of ‘Research and Statistics Unit,’ I am not aware of any actual research conducted by the RSU. The RSU did not do much in the way of analysis – the Statistical Yearbooks, for example, present a great deal of information but you could not say that it analysed this data to arrive at any conclusions about the economics of the British film industry.
Do not get me wrong – collecting, collating, and disseminating were (and are) important functions, and the RSU was an improvement on what had gone before. The Statistical Yearbooks are much better than the old BFI Film and Television Handbooks. But it all seems to lack ambition.
We have to ask some important questions about the future of the RSU:
1. What will happen to the outputs of the RSU that are currently available?
The RSU website provides a range of information from box office grosses, to the Statistical Yearbooks, to production data, and so on. Going back to the summer of 2001, we can find much information that could be used far better by film scholars but which may soon disappear. What provision has the government made to ensure that this data remains available after the UKFC has been shut down? Perhaps this information could be transferred to the BFI’s website where it can be made freely available. (This is after all public data). When the Thatcher government (rightly) disposed of the Eady Levy they simply stopped collecting any data on the film industry, so that we have gaps in the data from May 1985 to December 1986. This cannot be allowed to happen again or we will lose a whole decade from the historical record.
This does, of course, raise issues about the purpose of archives in a digital age. I have worries that editions of the Statistical Yearbook will continue to be available in the British Library, the Library of the House of Commons, the DCMS (and its successors), and maybe even university libraries. But what about the production data posted on the RSU website? Or the box office data? Who will archive this information?
2. Who will take over from the UK Film Council in collecting and disseminating information on the British film industry?
One solution that I am sure many will propose is the BFI, which has performed a similar role in the past. However, I think this is a poor solution to the problem for three reasons: (1) the BFI did not necessarily do a good job on gathering and disseminating industry data in the past, and the RSU improved on it here; (2) the BFI is not an institution geared towards the industry – its focus is educational and should remain so; and, (3) the film industry, as noted above, is perfectly capable of collecting and distrbuting data itself and should not be taxpayer-funded.
Above I suggested that the BFI host the box-office data currently availble from the UKFC and I think this is broadly compatible with its educational mission – that by preserving this information it is fulfilling one of its key educational functions.
The obvious answer is for an industry directed body to gather and make available data on the UK film industry. Indeed, the industry cannot afford to not do this – making a case to government for continuing tax-relief and/or subsidies will require detailed argument that can empirically justify these policies.
But it is precisely here that the industry falls down. I have complained elsewhere on this blog about the standard of statistical information at the websites of the Film Distributors Association (FDA – here) and the Cinema Exhibitors Association (CEA – here). These are supposedly major industry organisations that have a specific role in promoting cinema-going in the UK, but the so-called ‘data banks’ of both are pathetic. There is very little usable information and it lacks any depth. The availability of historical data is particularly poor – in some cases going back only as far as 2004. The choice of data is esoteric – the FDA website lists the top 6 films on UK television in 2008, but does not give any data for any other years and why only the top 6? Much of what is available is out of date – the FDA will tell you about cinema-going in Europe in 2006, but nothing else. If you want to see just how pathetic this data is then look here.
The CEA website is generally better than that of the FDA, and is broadly speaking much more up-to-date, but if you want to know about the box office performance of films then it is worse than the RSU. Latest weekend box office figures are only available for the top 15 films. Why only the top 15? Even the RSU made available data for British films on release outside the top 15 and other openers. Why can we not have a complete list of the box office data for every film on general release in the UK? Why can we not have much more varied and detailed data? Why can we not have the daily box office data?
Why has the film industry failed to produce high quality and reliable information? The answer is simple – the RSU took on that role for it so no one had to try. Here the existence of the UK Film Council clearly had a negative impact on the industry.
Of course, an objection to be raised here is that it is expensive to collect and disseminate industry information. And, dear god, is it expensive – the latest report on cinema-going in the UK and Ireland published by Dodona Research in April 2010 will cost you £775. (See here for Dodona’s website). An annual subscription to Screen Digest is £575 (+VAT). (Do not even consider buying any of Screen Digest’s research reports if you don’t have a very large overdraft facility).
If we left it up to the industry then would we not be left in the situation where the valuable data collected remains behind a paywall where no one can get at it? Would this not impoverish our knowledge to the extent that we might as well not bother studying the film industry of the UK – we cannot afford the data even if it exists, so why try?
The answer to this objection is to look here at the website of Box Office Mojo (which is owned by the Internet Movie Database) . This website makes detailed analysis of the American film industry available for free. There is a range of data available and there is great depth to the data. There is analysis, and the data is broken down into useful categories (genres, stars, franchises, etc). There is great historical coverage. The vast majority of this data is not behind a paywall, though if you do register you get access to many useful features and it will only cost you only $89 per year.
Why do we not have something similar in the UK?
Partly because the RSU usurped the industry in fulfilling this role – why would you set up a website like Box Office Mojo funded by advertisers and subscribers, if the government will do it anyway?
But a major part is also the attitude of the British to information. In the UK, information must be controlled; and it has been paid for, then information is treated in a very proprietory manner. In contrast, Americans take a much more militant attitude to free speech and are very firmly of the opinion that information should be in the public realm.
With the demise of the UK Film Council and the RSU, we may see the industry improve its performance in this area as no one is there to do the work for it. It is even possible that a private company – like Box Office Mojo – steps into to fulfil this role now that it could make a profit in the absence of the RSU. The problem of the public availability of this information will not be solved until there is a fundamental change in the attitude of the industry in the UK to how it goes about doing this.
The first of these changes is possible but unlikely. The second will take a miracle.
Posted on July 29, 2010, in British Cinema, Film Industry, Film Policy, Film Studies, Motion Picture Distribution, Motion Picture Exhibition, Motion Picture Production, UK Film Council and tagged British Cinema, Film Industry, Film Policy, Film Studies, Motion Picture Distribution, Motion Picture Exhibition, Motion Picture Production, UK Film Council. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.