The DCMS Film Policy Review I

This week the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport published the latest review of film policy in the UK. The report is titled A Future for British Film: It Begins with the Audience, and you can access it here. This week’s post covers just a few first impressions I have formed having read the report once. A more detailed and more considered reflection on the issues raised will have to wait for a couple of weeks.

This is the first wide-ranging report on film policy in the UK since A Bigger Picture was published in 1998, though there have been numerous reports covering  a broad range of topics in the past 14 years. This report should of course been undertaken before the dismantling of the UK Film Council because now it is a case of tailoring policy to the institutions we have rather than being able to flexibly adapt to new demands. And it is the new that wrecks policy maker’s fun. A Bigger Picture was almost immediately rendered obsolete by the arrival of digital technology. 3D was old technology in 1998, and now its at the top of the box office charts.

So, first impressions.

1. I like the demand-side approach rather than the focus on production typical of these sorts of reports. The report doesn’t ignore production, but the re-orientation of film policy away from ‘lets produce more British films that on-one will see’ to ‘let’s get people watching films the British films that are available’ is much needed. British film production has been reasonably healthy since the mid-1990s (at least compared to the dark days 1980s), but a long-standing problem is getting screen time in a multiplex dominated market. There’s no point making films people can’t see and there’s no point in making MORE films can’t see which has been UK film policy since 1985. There’s always the possibility that some more British films will make money and so reduce their demands on lottery funding.

The only concern is that focussing resources on independent and specialised film will produce limited benefits from a lot of investment. Audiences for these types of films are smaller than audiences for mainstream cinema, and so there may not be much growth in audiences to be had. The report says that it is important to increase audience choice, and who would disagree with that. But how do you measure the potential for audience growth of specialised films? How do you judge how much money to invest in developing this audience given that audience growth might be quite small? And what if the audience doesn’t want to watch these films?

And how do you get cinema chains to stop showing crap like Green Lantern? Especially when it turns out the average occupancy rate of cinema auditoria in the UK is 20 per cent! Solving the problem of too many bad Hollywood films on British cinema screens would go much further than anything the BFI could ever do. The problem of release windows is recognised in the report and reforming this aspect of the UK film sector in a distribution-led industry will have more impact than simply focussing on production. This is to be applauded. But release windows are determined in Hollywood by multinational corporations who have the power to dictate terms to exhibitors, and why should they care about a policy framework that offers no advantage to them? US producers come to the UK for the quality of the filmmakers, the facilities, and the tax incentives. Where are the incentives for distribution that will make them care?

2. I also like the commitment to ensuring the important role of the BFI Research and Statistics Unit in recommendation 53 (see below), though the suggestion the BFI establishes a ‘research and knowledge’ does raise the questions, doesn’t the RSU already exist and isn’t already fulfilling this function? I’m also a little confused by the recommendation

the BFI be designated a ‘producer of official statistics’ under the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, as was the UK Film Council up until 2011.

Wasn’t this function taken over by the BFI? And if not, why not?

But a revved up RSU means more statistical fun for me, and that’s something to look forward to.

3. I don’t like the make up of the panel that produced the report:

  • Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury, former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Chairman)
  • Will Clarke, Independent film distributor, founder and former CEO, Optimum Releasing
  • Lord Julian Fellowes, Oscar® winning writer and actor
  • Matthew Justice, UK film producer and Managing Director, Big Talk
  • Michael Lynton, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, Sony Pictures Entertainment
  • Tim Richards, Chief Executive, Vue Entertainment
  • Tessa Ross, CBE, Controller of Film and Drama, Channel 4
  • Libby Savill, Head of Film and Television, Olswang LLP
  • Iain Smith, OBE, film producer and Chair, the British Film Commission Advisory Board

There is, of course, no reason why any of these people should not have been involved in the review process, but who is missing from this list?

That’s right, academics. There is no one from film studies specialising in film industries, film policy, or British cinema; and there is no economist, sociologist, or geographer specialising in film/media/creative/cultural industries.

There is a great deal of research on the film industry in the UK and yet very little of this is cited by the report. The report contains a list of references 108 references, including a handful to Margaret Dickinson and Sylvia Harvey, Rob Cheek, Maud Mansfield, and Joe Lampel. (None of these references are properly referenced. If this were submitted by a student you would fail it on grounds of not having a proper bibliography. It really is awful). There are no references to the wider body of research of the film industry in the UK, and this is curious because one of the recommendations addresses precisely this issue.

53. The Panel notes the need for a strong evidence base for film policy and recommends the BFI establishes a ‘Research and Knowledge’ function to a) collaborate with industry and stakeholders to generate robust information and data on which to base policy interventions, b) assist in the design of BFI policy and funding interventions from the outset to produce learning that can inform future policy, c) actively disseminate results and learning from funding interventions, and d) over time build and maintain a valuable and accessible knowledge base for the benefit of the public, the BFI, Government, industry, academia and all other stakeholders in film.

It seems odd to recommend that we need a strong evidence base when the existing available research is largely ignored. This problem was raised at the symposium on research and policy making I attended last October (you can read about it here), and it’s nice to see the above recommendation in the report as it means there is a greater chance progress will be made in this area. But this type of report is precisely the sort of situation in which this type of research should have been used, and it would have been nice to see the panel take the opportunity to do just that. Otherwise, what’s the point in doing research?

But what I really don’t like about recommendation 53 is that it envisages academia as a consumer of data produced by the BFI’s ‘research and knowledge’ function rather than being fully integrated into the policy making framework. Academics shouldn’t be sat on the sidelines of film policy. Any future panel reporting on film policy should include academics among its membership – if only to recommend the relevant research outputs to the rest of the panel. It is the BFI’s responsibility to make sure this is achieved sooner rather than not at all. Who else do they think is going create and fulfil the ‘research and knowledge’ function?

It seems odd to say it, but I think the case for film studies could be put to the BFI more strongly.

4. Finally, this report presents a great deal of statistical information and therefore makes the assumption that its readership will be statistically literate enough to understand it. I raised the issue of statistical literacy at last year’s symposium but didn’t get much of response. Given the use of tables, graphs (which I do NOT like), and numerical summaries in this report it is not an issue than can be ignored. The place of statistical literacy in film studies needs to be addressed by the BFI, and I will have more to say on this topic over the next few weeks.


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About Nick Redfern

I graduated from the University of Kent in 1998 with a degree in Film Studies and History, and was awarded an MA by the same institution in 2002. I received my Ph.D. from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2006 for a thesis title 'Regionalism and the Cinema in the United Kingdom, 1992 to 2002.' I have taught at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Central Lancashire. My research interests include regional film cultures and industries in the United Kingdom; cognition and communication in the cinema; anxiety in contemporary Hollywood cinema; cinemetrics; and film style and film form. My work has been published in Entertext, the International Journal of Regional and Local Studies, the New Review of Film and Television Studies, Cyfrwng: Media Wales Journal, and the Journal of British Cinema and Television.

Posted on January 19, 2012, in British Cinema, Film Industry, Film Policy, Film Studies, Motion Picture Distribution, Motion Picture Exhibition, Motion Picture Production and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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