Tomorrow is 1 April, and so today marks the day on which the contracts of the regional screen agencies run out. The regional screen agencies will be replaced by Creative England, but not until later this year. Tomorrow is also the day the BFI takes over from the UK Film Council.
The new website for Creative England is here, although there is very little in the way of actual information. The FAQS on the Creative England website are not informative. The first question – ‘Why does there need to be a new structure?’ – does not actually answer the question and provides only an overview of the government’s steps to abolish the UK Film Council. We are promised ‘a simpler, more efficient structure with an expanded remit to support the creative industries across England,’ but this is vague and commits the government to nothing. The rationale is actually given in the consultation document for 2011/12 in paragraphs 3.1.4 and 3.1.5, which emphasise that it is necessary to save money and that the presence of the nine RSAs had resulted in ‘duplication or unnecessary competition.’ The CE consultation document does not state what was duplicated or why this was a bad thing. Nor does it define what is meant by ‘unnecessary competition.’ Neither of these arguments is convincing at the present time because (i) we have not yet received any estimate of how much money will be saved by restructuring the RSAs and the costs of the restructuring the regional bodies have not been made clear, and (ii) the RSAs were organised to represent and support their regions and were responsible for implementing national film policy within geographically defined areas and were not – by definition – national bodies. The RSAs served their regions and had no remit beyond that – they provided the services that were necessary to their region irrespective of what services were provided elsewhere. The RSAs competed with one another to attract productions, and this took the form of developing the range and skills of the workforce, developing the range of facilities, supporting businesses so that they could compete not just at a regional level but also globally, and in many other ways. The introduction of the RSAs was a business-orientated decision (albeit with public funding) with competition at its heart – and in many respects has been successful in making the UK an attractive place for filmmakers to come to. What is ‘unnecessary’ about this? Does the (predominantly Conservative) government not think that competition is a good thing?
It is also clear from paragraph 3.1.8 of the consultation document that Creative England is not intended to be an institution to support the film industry, but will be expanded to cover the other creative industries as well:
… the broader ambition is to grow Creative England beyond the film agenda by developing an over-arching strategy for the development of the creative industries throughout the English regions.
This is a clear statement that, in England, only London will a have dedicated film body, while the rest of the UK will have three creative industries bodies that include film within their remit but are not specifically screen industry bodies. Given the domination of the UK film industry by London and the South East of England, the competitive relationship between the English regions was not with the capital but the other parts of the UK; and as the reform of the RSAs affects only England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be in a much stronger position to out-compete regions institutionally de-nuded regions such as Yorkshire and the East Midlands. I cannot find any assessment of the impact of restructuring on the relationships between the regions, and the relationship between the English regions and the non-English regions has not apparently been addressed.
If CE is to be a single body for all the creative industries, why has the Arts Council for England not been abolished along with the UK Film Council? What is the difference between ‘the arts’ and ‘creative industries’ that they should be treated differently?
For an interview with Sally Joynson, chief executive of Screen Yorkshire, published yesterday in The Yorkshire Post see here. As of today, Screen Yorkshire has made seven of its 21 members of staff redundant, with a further four switching from full-time to part-time. This low staffing level marks a return to the pre-2000 days of the screen commissions that was recognised as unable to effectively serve the film industry by the UK Film Council’s Film in England report (here). Screen Yorkshire will continue to operate at this staffing level for six months until Creative England formally commences operations in October 2011. This leaves a six month period in which the existing bodies must carry on the serve the indstry with reduced staff and funding before the new body becomes operational. The Creative England website states that
2011 will be a year of transition as the Regional Screen Agencies reform into Creative England. In the meantime, it will be ‘business as usual’ for the agencies.
This is a silly thing to say – especially since the business plan for Creative England will not be published until September 2011, and so we will not know its exact structure until that date.
Game Republic (their new site is here) will cease to receive funding from Yorkshire Forward via Screen Yorkshire, and will be funded by games developers and three universities (Sheffield Hallam, Bradford, and Leeds Metropolitan [see here and here]). University funding in the UK is also being cut back by the government as part of its deficit reduction programme, and there was considerable surprise when Leeds Met announced it was going to charge students up to £8,500 per year (here). This cannot be right – public funding for a body to support a media industry is being cut by the DCMS, but the same body will receive support from universities that have had their teaching budgets slashed. Universities obviously have an important economic role to play within a region, but supporting industry bodies whilst increasing tuition fees is not appropriate.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that the decision to reform the publicly funded institutions of the British film industry is wrong; only that you cannot be sure it is the right decision if it is as disorganised and as ill-informed as this. The decisions of the government may be right or wrong – but they are certainly bad decisions. You can access the report of the National Audit Office on the financial management of DCMS here, but it is worth quoting paragraph 2.55:
… the Department [of Culture, Media, and Sport] announced the closure of UK Film Council in July 2010, but it had not performed sufficient analysis of the financial implications of the decision. It announced the transfer of functions four months later, but still had no formal arrangements in place as to which Film Council staff would transfer to other bodies. It had also not calculated the expected costs of closure, although it had decided the transfer of functions would take place on 1 April 2011.
The Guardian (here) reported earlier this month that the wind-down cost of abolishing the UK Film Council is £11.3 million. We do not yet know how much cheaper the new BFI will be.
The Report of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on arts and heritage funding published on 22 March 2011 (here) was also very critical of the decision-making at DCMS, while recognising that there was scope for cost savings at the UK Film Council:
The abolition of the UK Film Council was handled very badly by the Government. We would not expect a decision with such significant implications for the film industry to be sprung on the UK Film Council with little discussion or consultation. It is extremely regrettable that a film-maker of the stature of Tim Bevan has, as a result, decided to take no further part in Government-sponsored initiatives.
If you want to read a really good debate on the government’s film policy and its recent decision-making then you should read the debate in the House of Lords from 7 March 2011 (column 1412 onwards). You can access Lords Hansard here, and by selecting the debates by date (on the left hand panel), then by ‘Debates and Oral Answers’ (below the calendar), and then by ‘Amendment 65A’ from the index you can read the full debate.
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.
In this post I use data from the UK Film Council Research and Statistics Unit to look at the types of films produced in the UK from 2003 to 2009, and the connections between UK film production and other parts of the world. Data was collected for a total of 996 films. Documentaries were excluded from the sample. Note also that this data only includes films with a budget of £500,000 or greater, and so only provides a partial picture of UK film production.
The UK Film Council groups films into five categories: co-productions (COP), incoming co-productions (ICP), domestic features (DOM), inward productions (INW), and films that come to the UK to source visual effects (VFX). Here I only use the first four categories because data for VFX has only been collected since 2007; and I combine COP and ICP into a single category, as the frequency of the latter is low for 2003 to 2006 and zero for 2007 to 2009. The percentage of each category of film is presented in Figure 1, which also includes the data table.
Figure 1 Film production in the UK by type of film, 2003 to 2009
From Figure 1 we can see that there are two clear trends. First, the percentage of co-productions has fallen by two-thirds from 60% to 20%. Second, the percentage of domestic productions has increased by a factor of three, from approximately 20% to 60%. This change occurs in two steps, with an initial step occuring at 2005, with the final change in 2007. This coincides with the initial proposal of the cultural test for British films in 2005 and its final implementation in 2007, and cannot therefore be attributed to the global financial downturn that began in 2007/2008. The percentage of inward features appears to be immune from this change, with the notable exception of 2005 which shows a small increase.
From looking at the actual counts in Table 1 It is clear from this data that there has been an increase in domestic productions with the introduction of the cultural test, but that this has not replaced the number of films lost from the decline of co-productions, and that overall the number of films produced in the UK has decreased. This data does not of course tell us anything about the level of production spending in the UK, and this is obviously a crucial factor in considering the health of the film industry in the UK.
Table 1 Frequency of British films produced by category, 2003 to 2009
Nonetheless, this data should give cause for concern because it indicates that film production in the UK has become increasingly one-dimensional. A healthy film industry is one that can absorb shocks to the system as patterns of production in the global film industry change – but if film production becomes too concentrated into a single class of films this increases the vulnerability of the industry to a crisis. We might say that the cultural test has been successful in stimulating the British film industry, but that this has come at the expense of the film industry in the UK. (Here I make a distinction between all film production activity that takes place in the UK – the UK film industry – and that part of this production activity that is defined as culturally British – in other words, the ‘British national cinema’). A sudden drop in funding for culturally British films would plunge the UK film industry into a crisis of production, which would not be able to make up the short fall from productions originating in other parts of the world. The tax incentives available for film production in the UK are therefore of great importance, and without them we would likely return to the low numbers of production last seen in the 1980s.
It is perhaps instructive to think of the cultural industries in ecological terms: they are a system in which the companies are subject to forces of competition, predation, and extinction, and a change in one part of the system can have very significant consequences throughout the system as a whole. Biodiversity is one of the measures of the health of an ecological system, and economic diversity should also be thought of as a measure of the health of the cultural industries. The above data suggests that the economic diversity of the UK film industry has declined over the past seven years, as film production has become over-dependent on a single class of films. Disrupting the delicate equilibrium of this system could have significant consequences.
- If a government were to announce it was disbanding the government body responsible for developing and implementing film policy and for distributing funding for film production in the UK without announcing what would take its place, thereby reducing the ability of producers to attract funding because of the uncertainty such a decision would introduce, could also have a negative impact on the level of film production.
- A determination to reduce immigration from non-EU countries, for example, would not only reduce the number of scientists coming to the UK but could also have a negative impact on the film industry as filmmakers from outside the UK decide to make their films in more welcoming countries.
The first of these has already happened, and threatens to disrupt levels of investment in film production in the UK. The second will be introduced next year, and may further reduce the diversity of film production in the UK. Either one of these could create problems, but both together indicate a lack of foresight on the part of the coalition government.
Part of the drop in co-productions has been attributed to the fact that some films that would previously have been classed as co-productions are now able to qualify as ‘British’ under the terms of the cultural test, and thereby enjoy the full benefit of being a ‘qualifying British film.’ This argument has been put forward by John Graydon, who was involved in structuring the UK’s film tax credit system, and who notes that this represents the success of incentivising film production in the UK (Mansfield 2009). While this may certainly be a fair assessment of the status of some films, it cannot account for the full-scale of the decline in co-productions and does not explain why there has been an overall decline in the total number of productions for each year.
We can also evaluate the diversity of the UK film industry by looking at how the UK is connected to the rest of the world. In Table 2, we have the number of films that have a connection to one or more other countries that were produced in the UK, and we see the same pattern of decline noted above. This table includes films from all the UK Film Council categories.
Table 2 Films produced int he UK connected to at least one other country, 2003 to 2009
These 642 films account for a total of 870 connections to 49 different countries. The number of connections exceeds the number of films because a film may have connections to more than one country. (No film has more than five non-UK co-production partners listed, and most films are productions that involve a UK producer and a producer from one other country). A year by year breakdown by country is presented in Table 3 (NB: this table is quite large).
Table 3 Number of connections to co-producing countries for films produced in the UK, 2003 to 2009
The USA is consistently the most important source of connections to the UK with France a distant second, but where the US has remained at the top of the pile the frequency of connections to France has fallen sharply. Interestingly, India is listed as the third largest source of connections beating Germany into fourth place. ike France, Germany has gone from being a major production to partner to an occasional source of connections after 2004. This is also true of Canada, which has no connections listed for 2009 at all, as well as Spain, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, and Denmark. The category ‘Europe’ is not defined by the UK Film Council.
If we look at the diversity of countries connected to the UK in this way and the number of connections, we find that European countries are the most numerous at 33, accounting for a total of 528 connections (I include Turkey as a European country here). North america accounts for only 3 countries but the USA accounts for 173 connections and Canada 60 so clearly. Next comes ASia, which accounts for only four countries but a total of 75 connections. It should be noted, however, that almost all of these are accounted for by India. Notable absentees from the list of co-production partners in Table 3 are China, Japan, and South Korea. Africa is represented by four countries totalling 15 connections, of which South Africa account for two-thirds. Oceania is represented by Australia and New Zealand, providing a total of 15 connections; while the only South American countries included are Argentina and Brazil, accounting for only 3 films. Figures 2 and 3 make this information somewhat easier to appreciate.
Figure 2 Countries with connections to UK film production by region, 2003 to 2009
Often when we talk about globalisation in the film industry we imply something that happens all over the world, but this is clearly not the case for connections between the UK film industry and elsewhere. The places to which film production in the UK is connected can be sorted into three major groups: first, there are the countries geographically closest to the UK – i.e. Europe; second, there are the countries that are historically closest to the UK – i.e. former colonies such as India, Canada, Australia, and South Africa; and, third, there is the United States, which is the dominant global power in the film industry. We can therefore say that some of the ways in which the UK film industry is globalised are through proximity, legacy, and domination by a superior market. When we turn our attention to countries that are far from the UK, that do not have a close historical/cultural relationship, and which are not major world cinema powers – in other words South America and the Far East – we find there are very few connections, if any. In this respect the UK is not that different from Poland, Malaysia, Chile, or Morocco that I have looked at elsewhere on this blog (see here and here).
Given that it is countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China that are tipped to become major global economies in the 21st century, it is imperative that the diversity of feature film production in the UK can be expanded to include links to these countries. India aside, one of the greatest challenges facing policy makers in the UK is how to go about establishing connections to these distant places in the absence of a strong historical relationship. It is difficult to see how this will be achieved whilst restricting immigration from non-EU countries.
The proposed reduction in immigration will hit Indian and American filmmakers hardest, and yet beyond Europe these are the only significant sources of inward investment and co-production partnerships for the UK film industry. Without them, the UK will become increasingly more dependent upon the EU. And yet, as I made clear above, the introduction of the cultural test for British films has dramatically reduced the number of co-productions between UK producers and their European counterparts. A further loss of diversity will only increase the vulnerability of the UK film industry to crises it has been historically ill-prepared to deal with.
Mansfield M 2009 A Report on the British Film Industry for Shadow DCMS. This report can be accessed here.
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.