Death of the BFI
Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture and Creative Industries, announced on Monday the government’s pans for reforming the UK Film Council, the British Film Institute, and the Regional Screen Agencies. The full text of the speech can be accessed at the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) website here. Today, I will go through this speech piece by piece to give it some context and identify some problems and questions that need to be addressed.
Throughout I will include links to online papers of research on the British film industry as they are relevant to my discussion. Not every link will be to the full paper, and some papers will not be the final published version. Some general papers that are useful to read include:
Dickenson M and Harvey S 2005 Film policy in the United Kingdom: New Labour at the movies, Political Quarterly 76 (3): 420-429.
Magor M and Schlesinger P 2009 ‘For this relief much thanks:’ Taxation, film policy and the UK government, Screen 50 (3): 299-317. DOI:10.1093/screen/hjp017.
Redfern N 2007 Defining British cinema: transnational and territorial film policy in the UK, Journal of British Cinema and Television 4 (1): 150-164. DOI 10.3366/JBCTV.2007.4.1.150.
Other useful research articles can be accessed from my earlier collection of papers on the British film industry here.
The New BFI
It has been widely reported in the British press that the BFI has been given control of film policy and that the UK Film Council has been disbanded. This is not the case. What we call the BFI will cease to exist. What will replace it will be some new institution called the BFI that is the UK Film Council in all but name plus the old BFI. The BFI is dead. Long live the BFI.
The section that introduces the government’s major decision in restructuring the UK’s film institutions begins with the following assertion:
We need a new strategic body to oversee the future development of film in this country.
There is no justification given for this statement – it is simply asserted. The decision to disband the UK Film Council was (we were informed) part of a general cost-cutting exercise to reduce the size of the UK’s public debt. That was why the BFI lost £45 million of funding for the BFI Film Centre in June 2010. Now the game has changed, and the restructuring of the UK’s film institutions is part of a strategic plan (which no-one has seen) that is apparently so necessary it cannot wait. Is this decision the product of an economic or political process? It appeared to be one and now it’s the other – when did that change? If we need to cut costs in a recession then fair enough; but if we need a new approach to film policy then this is neither the responsible nor the democratic way to do it.
In fact, this plan is neither new nor cost-saving.
There is quite simply nothing original in the government’s decision to merge the UK Film Council and the BFI. Last year, the Labour government proposed giving control of the BFI to the UK Film Council. The DCMS press release for the proposed merger dated 20 August 2009 can be read in full here, but it is worth considering this quote from that press release in the context of Monday’s speech.
The overall remit of the BFI and UKFC will not be reduced. The proposal is for a streamlined organisation, which can spend more of its money on film and services and less on infrastructure, and in turn offer better support for Britain’s film culture and promotion of its film industry. Its remit would span securing investment across the sector, steering the industry through the transition to digital, championing the cultural importance of the UK’s film heritage and guaranteeing that the full diversity of film culture is available to all.
The announcement on Monday made it clear that the current government intends to do exactly the same thing, only they are going to call it the BFI instead of the UK Film Council. Nonetheless, Vaizey describes his speech as ‘an exciting new vision for the British film industry.’ Under Labour’s scheme the BFI would have retained a separate identity as a provider of educational and heritage services due to the fact that it is a registered charity and was established with a royal charter. The Conservative plan will simply create a single body responsible film policy, production investment, training, information gathering, heritage, and education.
This means the end of the BFI as we know it, and will require a new royal charter for the BFI along with a review of its status as a registered charity. This was acknowledged by Amanda Nevill, Director of the BFI, in 2009 when the merger of the UK Film Council and the BFI was originally proposed, as you can read in her letter here. A new royal charter will not be difficult to implement – they are renewed and updated as the law changes and (as far as I can recall) the current charter dates from 2000. The charitable status will probably prove to be more difficult to deal with: the ‘new BFI’ will now be responsible for directly providing funding to private corporations for commercial benefit, which is an interesting definition of ‘charity.’ Of course, this was always the case for Lottery funding for the film industry (which hardly meets the definition of ‘good cause’), but the UK Film Council was an arm’s-length government body and not a registered charity. I assume that the ‘new BFI’ will have similar status as a government-backed body and not as a charity.
The need to restructure was sold to the British public as a need to cut costs and improve accountability in a time of economic hardship, but it would appear that the money saved by this reorganisation is only £3 million. There was nothing in the speech about how much it is going to cost to implement these reforms. Furthermore, this money will be invested in film production (as it would have been under Labour) and will not be used to reduce the expense of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (QUANGOS) to the British taxpayer. Greg Dyke, the current Chairman of the BFI, was quoted in The Guardian as saying
We [the BFI] can certainly do it significantly cheaper … how much cheaper we don’t know yet. The UK Film Council carried quite a large overhead.
Surely the rationale for this restructuring is that it would be cheaper and it was known that it would be cheaper.* If the BFI don’t know how much cheaper it is going to be, what then is the basis for the projected saving of £3 million? Why wasn’t a proper audit conducted prior to the decision to abolish the UK Film Council? It is also important to remember that the BFI that will apparently be much cheaper is not the BFI as it exists now, but will be the ‘new BFI’ (i.e. the UK Film Council and the BFI merged together) and no-one knows how much overhead that will carry. If the decision has been made on the basis of the current BFI that will cease to exist next year, then this is stupidity of the highest order. With the transfer of the (potential) £3 million from administration costs to production investment the actual saving to the taxpayer in the short-term is zero, and this does not include the cost of the restructuring. Overall, this is an old plan originally proposed last year that has no basis in fact (as admitted by Dyke), and has been conducted at an indecent pace. In March 2010 (when the Labour government was pursuing its plan for restructuring), the saving was estimated by the Hollywood Reporter to be £10 million per year by 2012/2013 (here). Perhaps the new government’s plan will save this much by then – given that it is essentially the same plan as that of the previous government we should not be surprised if they make similar predictions and produce similar results. But has anyone seen any evidence that the current government’s decision to create a new BFI would be substantially cheaper than the Labour plan to hand control of the BFI to the UK Film Council? As the due diligence process is now beginning after the decision has been taken, does any evidence of substantial savings exist at all? If it does, why hasn’t it been made available to taxpayers?
Perhaps I’m being too hard. Perhaps there is something truly original in this speech that will fundamentally transform the British film industry. At one point Vaizey praises the BFI for its ability to reach many different audiences:
It has the breadth and depth to support excellence and high quality film, while also developing audiences for British films, through its distribution and exhibition arm, which already services more than 600 venues, from remote screenings in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to the Imax in London.
Is the new BFI going to function as a state-funded distributor for British films as this sentence implies? Probably not – even though this would make a far larger difference to the British cinema.
The nine English regional screen agencies (RSAs) are to be disbanded and replaced with a single organisation – Creative England – that will be organised around three production hubs based in the north, the midlands, and the south (though we don’t have any detail on where they will be).
The name ‘Creative England’ is vague and does not feature the words ‘film,’ ‘cinema,’ ‘media,’ ‘screen,’ ‘television,’ or ‘moving image.’ This body will replace not only the RSAs, but also their umbrella organisation Screen England. Why could this name not be retained so that the emphasis on the film/television/media/video game industries could be made explicit? ‘Creative England’ is precisely the sort of title that one would give to a general body responsible for the arts and/or creative industries in England if the decision were made to remove the Arts Council of England (ACE) from existence. Is the government creating a specifically film orientated set of institutions to replace the RSAs? Or is Creative England going to be a much larger organisation for all the creative industries? This is exactly what happened with Creative Scotland, which was created from the merger of Scottish Screen and the Scottish Arts Council, and focusses on the ‘arts, screen, and creative industries.’ The creation of Creative England would suggest that this will happen in the English regions (not including London, of course) – there will be one body that includes the screen industries but which is also responsible for areas of the arts and creative industries. This will inevitably harm the film industry outside London, and is a very bad thing indeed.
There are some parts of the country where levels of film production is very low – the North, the West Midlands, and the East Midlands. The South West, the North West, and Yorkshire and the Humber fare rather better. For data on the distribution of feature film production in the UK you can read my earlier posts here and here. The reduction of film production in England to four hubs – London, plus three others – will inevitably impoverish some parts of the UK. This will hit those parts of the UK where heavy industry has declined and in which new digital and media-based businesses have been expected to reinvigorate the local economy. A recent article in The Sunday Times by Rod Liddle looked at the example of Middlesbrough, and noted just such a development. These places will lose their regionally specific support, making economic recovery and regeneration that much harder. There does not appear to be any plan for maintaining local agglomeration effects with only a single hub between a group of regions.
Why does the south of England get another hub in addition to London? Presumably this hub will have to be based in the South West – the government region in the south furthest from London – as the East, South East, and London will be amply covered by Film London. This will create a situation where the midlands and the north of England (not to mention Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) are outgunned, and simply reintroduces the core-periphery model that the RSAs were intended to counterbalance.
On the role of networks and the presence of the BBC in a production market I recommend Gail Davies’ Ph.D. thesis from University College London: Davies G 1998 Networks of Nature: Stories of Natural History Filmmaking from the BBC, University College, London: unpublished Ph.D. thesis.
On clustering, cultural industries, and film and television in the UK see Turok I 2003 Cities, clusters, and creative industries: the case of film and television in Scotland, European Planning Studies 11 (5): 549-565.
The ‘new BFI’ will have to be an improvement on the old BFI in its relationship with the regions. The BFI was strongly criticised in the UK Film Council’s report Film in England in 2001 (read the report here). The main areas of criticism were that too great a proportion of funding was spent on activities in London at the expense of the regions, that the support for education programmes outside London was inconsistent and direct funding had been minimal, the failure to put into place a coherent planning framework for the regions, and the perception that the regions were simply delivery mechanisms for BFI products and services. The failure of the BFI was the reason the UK Film Council and the Regional Screen Agencies were created. The BFI is simply not a body with a record of success in building and sustaining film policy in the UK and nothing has changed in the past decade to suggest that it will become such an institution – but then this won’t matter next year because the BFI that failed in the past will no longer exist. If the ‘old’ BFI attitude re-emerges then in ten years time we will simply have another restructuring that takes us back to where we are now.
This decision also raises the question of the government’s general economic policy with regard to the regions of the UK. The development of regional film policy in the UK since 2000 did not emerge in isolation, but was part of a wider Labour programme of economic development for the arts and the wider economy that sought to develop business clusters and agglomeration effects. It was largely inspired by the work of Michael Porter, as can be seen in this annex to a report from the Department of Trade and Industry from 2001. Regional film policy under New Labour should be interpreted in the context of this broader economic policy framework for the regions. What is the new policy framework for the regions and the film industry in the regions under the coalition government? Again, you have to wonder about the logic of this decision in the absence of a clear answer to this question.
It would appear that the government intends to have no regional film policy.
On the subject of regional film policy in the UK, you can access Jack Newsinger’s Ph.D. thesis at Nottingham University: Newsinger J 2009 From the Grassroots: Regional Film Policy and Practice in England, University of Nottingham, unpublished Ph.D. thesis.
Film London will not be included as a part of Creative England, and will take on an international rather than a regional role. Film London is to be handed responsibility for promoting the UK to international producers as a whole. In and of itself not a major change in policy, though it is disappointing that this could not be given a name to reflect the whole nation. From the perspective of the English regions little will probably change – they are already dominated by London and will remain so. Of more concern is what will happen to Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. In my essay I noted that Scotland and Northern Ireland had some connections with the global film industry independent of London. By making Film London responsible for promoting the UK as whole, this will force filmmakers in these regions to go through London where previously they may have been able to work directly with producers from outside the UK. It will be necessary to follow-up my research in five years time to see if there has been any loss of autonomy. Again, this will only entrench a core-periphery model that we were supposed to have seen consigned to the past.
I looked the relationship between the regions and London in my paper ‘Connecting the regional and the global in the UK film industry,’ a draft version of which can be accessed here. My essay was published in Transnational Cinemas last week, and as of Monday’s speech is now out of date! Redfern N 2010 Connecting the regional and the global in the UK film industry, Transnational Cinemas 1 (2) 2010: 145-160. DOI: 10.1386/trac.1.2.145_1.
Supporting British Film
In his speech, Vaizey also took the time to commend Odeon cinemas who have introduced a new scheme to promote British films to audiences. Odeon Premiere Card holders will be rewarded with extra points if they go to see a British film. The Odeon website will promote British films, and will recommend a ‘British film of the Month.’ Odeon will consider giving guaranteed support to a ‘British film of the month.’
Can there be anything more depressing than the fact that support for the British films on cinema screens has been reduced to a loyalty card? The Eady Levy may not have worked, but at least it was not an insult to the intelligence. Odeon’s other commitments are pathetic. Would Odeon – or any other exhibitor – screen any film that it did not promote on its website? They would have a truly unique approach to marketing if they did. Odeon has not even committed to screening one British film a month – they are only considering it. They have not defined what British means in this context – Vaizey cites Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1 as a successful British film, but surely Odeon’s commitment to promoting British cannot be limited to such studio films they would have shown anyway. We are promised a wider choice of British film, but they don’t define what they mean by this either. (There are no details on the Odeon website). Nonetheless, Vaizey praises Odeon in his speech for supporting British film ‘as much as they can.’ It’s just that this turns out to be not very much at all.
The UK and Hollywood
The contradictory nature of UK film policy in this speech can be identified in the statements regarding the British national cinema and Hollywood. On the one hand we have the ever-elusive goal of what Vaizey refers to as a ‘sustainable, independent British film industry;’ while on the other we have the rejection of the opinion that the growth of the British film industry must come at the expense of US production in the UK. Vaizey refers to ‘some people’ – he does not say who – who belive these aims are contradictory.
I do not see this as necessarily being a problem. I think that it is important to maintain a distinction between ‘British national cinema,’ which is that part of our film culture and film industry that is specifically British (however you wish to go about defining that); and the ‘UK film industry,’ which is the totality of film production, distribution, and exhibition activity within the United kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland including British national cinema. (See my 2007 paper on defining British cinema for how this can work – the link is at the head of this post). It is possible for film policy to seek to develop both ‘British national cinema’ and the ‘UK film industry.’ Indeed, it is desirable that it should do so. Attempts to create a ‘sustainable, independent British cinema’ are not inimical to the goal of positioning the UK film industry in the world as a production hub, and it is foolish to argue otherwise. Almost certainly, one will not survive with the other.
There is nothing remotely controversial about Vaizey’s statement that the film industries of the UK and the US are intimately connected and this connection should be maintained. It would suicide to behave in any other manner. It’s just that if he wants to create a ‘sustainable, independent British film industry’ while maintaining American investment, then he has to say how this is going to be achieved. It would help if he defined what was meant by ‘sustainable,’ ‘independent,’ and ‘British’ in this context. A film industry that relies of government subsidy, that requires government intervention to create and fund a body to lobby for a film industry that could not do this for itself, and that is overwhelmingly dependent on investment from another country doe not sound very sustainable, independent, or British. This is of course the great problem of British film policy that every government has so far failed to deal with, and so it is unfair to berate this government as being especially incapable. But there is nothing innovative in this ‘exciting new vision for the British film industry’ that suggests they will be any more successful than anyone else.
Tax Incentives and subsidies
The one good thing to be made clear by this speech is that the tax incentive for production will be maintained and (one hopes) not subject to the sort of endless interfering witnessed prior to 2006. This financial measure is by far the most important for film production in the UK to be competitive in a global market, and the fact that it will continue uninterrupted is more important than rearranging the management structure of the BFI.
Increased investment from the BBC and Channel 4 are also referenced, but as the BBC’s funding from the licence fee is cut and the television advertising market is in the toilet this is not a long-term strategy. (There was an interesting piece in the Guardian on Monday about declining DVD sales and what this will mean for BBC Worldwide – read it here). Vaizey notes that Sky does not invest significantly in film production and hopes that this will change in the future. This is as close to criticism of a Rupert Murdoch-owned media outlet as a Conservative MP has ever come.
We are also told that the Lottery money available for investment in British film will rise from £27 million per year to £43 million by 2014. This is apparently is evidence of the government’s ‘commitment to film’ but turns out to be the money that would have been available anyway had it not been diverted to pay for the 2012 Olympic games. Vaizey is very keen to stress the ‘commitment to film,’ as the Conservatives have a poor record of dealing with the industry going back to the 1980s; but he is taking credit for this ‘increase’ in funding without actually doing anything. This does, of course, raise a number of questions about what sort of state the British film industry would be in had the money not been spent on the Olympics , and no doubt we will have some research to provide the answers in due course.
What is missing from the speech?
Originality, logic, daring, creativity, policy, basic accountancy, a detailed description of what will actually happen – take your pick.
Three issues do stand out.
First, the statement issued by Tim Cagney (here), Managing Director of the UK Film Council, included the following paragraph:
A number of important areas of film activity which are currently funded by the UK Film Council – including film exports, research, statistics and market intelligence, work on intellectual property and combating film theft, co-production support and diversity initiatives – have not been mentioned in the DCMS announcement today.
As the ‘new BFI’ will essentially be the UK Film Council in all but name with responsibility for the National Film Archive and BFI Southbank, I assume that these functions will be transferred to the new body (though I wouldn’t be too hopeful for the diversity initiatives). These areas are, however, much easier to dispose of than core activities such as distributing lottery funding and will be at some risk for cost-cutting. I’m not convinced that research and market intelligence are within the government’s remit – the former lies within the scope of academia and both are also the province of the film sector itself. We should not see a downturn in either, although accessing relevant material may become harder and/or more expensive. If public money (i.e. tax incentives and Lottery funding) is to be spent on the film industry, then statistics must be collected so that public can understand and assess how its money is spent.
Although there is some discussion of the UK film industry’s place in the world, this is framed entirely in terms of its relationship to the United States. Europe and India are not mentioned at all. As I showed in my post on UK film production and the world last month (here), the number of US films with budgets of £500,000 of greater to be produced in the UK has been relatively stable over the period 2003 to 2009, whereas there has been a substantial decline in the number of connections to other important production partners (i.e. France, Germany, Canada, Spain, Italy, Ireland) following the introduction of the cultural test in 2005. The US is the most important source of production investment in the UK and the UK film industry has benefitted from the favourable exchange rate of the past couple of years; but as the economic situation changes, this advantage will disappear and without a diverse production base the UK will not be able to make up the loss from the UK with production investment from elsewhere. Over the past few years the British film industry has become increasingly one-dimensional, and this will not change unless a broader international perspective is taken. Confusing the ‘global film industry’ with the ‘American film industry’ is a foolish approach to film policy.
Perhaps most importantly, there is no mention of distribution in this speech. There is money for production, and Odeon cinemagoers will get a loyalty card so that takes care of exhibition; but the film industry is distribution-led and the UK does not have a distribution policy. It has not had one since the quota was (rightly) abolished in the 1985, and we have no prospect of one in the future. The section on the UK and Hollywood did not address the fundamental problem with making British films successful – the distribution market is dominated by global media empires (but which have as US bias) that put rubbish like The Bucket List and Rocky Balboa on hundreds of screens but have no incentive to distribute British films. Certainly there are a lot of very poor British films – the worst film ever made is 24 Hours in London – but there is way too much American crap backed powerful distributors clogging up too many multiplex screens that could be put to far better use. There is no point producing British films if they do not get an opportunity to earn any money through well-funded marketing campaigns and sufficiently wide releases. If the object of government policy is to create a sustainable, independent British film industry then this must include distribution.
So what did we learn on Monday?
- The government does not have any original ideas for film policy, and has simply implemented Labour’s plan from last year with a different name.
- There is a lack of detail about the justification for the reform of the UK’s film institutions.
- The UK Film Council and the BFI will not exist by this time next year. An institution called the ‘British Film Institute’ will exist, but it will be completely different to the one we have now.
- The savings to be made by reconstituting the BFI in the manner proposed are small (if any) and will not be passed on to the taxpayer, despite the fact that this was the ostensible purpose behind the abolition of the UK Film Council.
- The government is apparently abandoning film policy at the regional level.
- The English regions will probably end up with no dedicated film body, and will be subject to a general arts and creative industries funding body. Only London it seems will retain a dedicated film body, and this will serve the whole country even though the ‘new BFI’ will be the national body.
- The core-periphery model of the film industry is to be entrenched in favour of London (and to a lesser extent the south of England in general) at the expense of the rest of the country.
- There are no serious policies for getting British films onto British cinema screens.
- ‘International’ is apparently the same as ‘America,’ and other important global relationships are not mentioned.
- Film policy in the UK remains focussed on production in a distribution-led industry.
The goal of a sustainable, independent British film industry will remain as elusive as ever.
* In tribute to Leslie Nielsen, I should as this point ask that you don’t call me Shirley.
Posted on December 2, 2010, in British Cinema, Film Industry, Film Policy, Film Studies, Regionalism, UK Film Council and tagged British Cinema, Film Industry, Film Policy, Film Studies, Regionalism, UK Film Council. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.