Scrapping UK Film Council may be good for British film
Innovative film-makers have fallen by the wayside in the search for box-office success. This is our chance to rethink British film
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 27 July 2010 11.00 BST
Whichever way you look at it, the announcement by the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt that the UK Film Council is to be abolished makes for uncomfortable. The organisation, which employs 75 people, has funded over 900 productions since its formation in 2000. Andrew Pulver, over at the Guardian's film blog, rightly describes the announcement as a "hammer blow" to the country's film industry, one that seems particularly bizarre as it was one of the few areas of the arts that actually saw a return on its investment. While the government has said it will continue to make lottery money available for films, it is not clear who will distribute this money, or how it will be distributed.
We should not, though, let the shock of this announcement stop us seeing the shortcomings as well as the successes of the movie-making culture fostered by the UKFC in its 10 years of existence. A key element of Labour's arts programme, the organisation took its structural cue from the City, with executive salaries well above the industry norm. Using a mix of lottery money and direct government subsidy, the UKFC has spent more than £300m – and the tax credit system it promoted has indeed enabled a commercial renaissance.
Yet, as Ryan Gilbey argued in the New Statesman last year, the industry has become hooked on recreating hit films modelled on the likes of Four Weddings and a Funeral or The Full Monty. From Bend it Like Beckham to Calendar Girls to Slumdog Millionaire, the tendency has been towards feelgood, aspirational stories (not unlike the sentiments expressed in New Labour's theme tune 'Things Can Only Get Better', in fact) aimed at a primarily American audience.
This is where an enlightened funding body should step in to promote riskier projects, but the box-office successes have arguably come at the expense of more innovative film-making. According to the critic and producer Colin MacCabe, the UKFC's "aggressive commercial strategy" has frequently stifled creativity. Organisations like the British Film Institute Production Board, which funded experimental films, were abolished to make way for it, and the UKFC has often insisted on having the final cut on films it funds.
The past decade has not been a creative desert – Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank and Steve McQueen's Hunger are wonderful examples of daring British films with political bite and potential mass appeal. But the praise deservedly showered on their directors also serves as a reminder that others have been allowed to fall by the wayside.
Take Andrew Kötting, a unique British talent whose latest film, Ivul, is receiving positive reviews. The project, which was almost abandoned when Kötting failed to find the money to film it on the Scottish island of Jura, is a French production, filmed in France and featuring French actors. No bad thing in itself, but Kötting is an established director. How many promising young film-makers have seen their dreams stifled by the same lack of foresight?
In the long run, this week's announcement could be good news for British film. Money is likely to be tighter, but there is an opportunity at least to rethink what kind of films we want to emerge from Britain in the years to come. It is encouraging that the government is now looking to work directly with the BFI, whose chair, Greg Dyke, has already fought hard to maintain the independence of his organisation.
Reasons for optimism are slim, however, as we must see this in the context of the coalition's ideologically driven attack on public spending: in the culture department alone, 54 other bodies will be abolished, merged or "streamlined". Hunt has already stated that he wants private donors to take a much greater role in funding the arts, which suggests that the commercial imperative for film-makers could become even stronger. Seeing one of the UK's major arts bodies abolished at the stroke of a pen is scary indeed – but so is the thought that we might come to look back on the past decade as some sort of golden era for British cinema.
Scrapping UK Film Council may be good for British film | Daniel Trilling | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
Film Council axemen could murder an industry
The government's decision to shut down the UK Film Council is tragically naive. No other body will do a better job
It was nothing short of a hammer blow. This morning, word came through of John Woodward's email to UK Film Council staff informing them that the government was planning to shut them down. Then the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) confirmed it in a written statement at lunchtime. I was genuinely shocked. It felt like I'd nipped out for 10 minutes to get a pie and while I was out they closed the British film industry.
Reading the fine print is tricky. Can it really be the case that the Film Council will be killed, with nothing to take its place? The government has said that lottery funding of films will continue, but transferred to already existing organisations. (Who, exactly? The reason why the Film Council was created in the first place was that no one had proved competent in dealing with film industry funding in the past.) The British Film Institute was promoted with the phrase "strong relationship", but the BFI was stripped of its production funding capability years ago, and was in any case preparing to merge with the Film Council. What's happening there? And what about the Edinburgh and London film festivals, who have basically been directed and repositioned as part of a Film Council funding programme?
But first and foremost, what about the films? Are we seeing a return to the early 70s, when the sudden removal of US studio finance saw a catastrophic drop in the number of films made in the UK? What will happen to the films already in development and production that are reliant on Film Council money? The tabloid view of British film-makers may be of goateed beret-wearers sucking down cappuccinos in Soho, but the truth is every film is comparable to a three or four-year small business enterprise, with its own traumas of cash flow and income generation. If a large chunk of cash suddenly goes missing, the whole edifice will collapse. This decision could prove devastating to an entire generation of film-makers; for all its ups and downs, the Film Council has got involved with the likes of Armando Iannucci, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Peter Mullan, Sam Taylor-Wood, Kevin McDonald and Pawel Pawlikowski. How much credit the council can take for their film-making is up for debate, but it has at least functioned as the connective tissue between such disparate talents.
It's also a tad ironic that this news comes as the Film Council has just been able to promote itself, and the British film industry as a whole, as exactly the kind of profit-generating outfit this government was supposed to like. It had also begun to feel like the wider industry had finally got used to its existence, and had stopped grumbling about the nature and scope of its funding decisions. (You suspect that any gatekeeping organisation would be subject to the same complaints of partiality.) Only the other day we had a meeting with a couple of senior Film Council executives who were positively messianic about their plans for trying to reinvigorate British cinema.
I can't help feeling that this is a tragically naive decision by the government. I've spent a significant amount of my time as a Guardian film journalist reporting on the various attempts to disburse lottery funding, which began in the mid-1990s. To summarise: first it was directly administered by the Arts Council, on a project-by-project basis, in the same way as theatre shows or brass bands. This set-up was clearly inadequate -- for keeping out both naive amateurs who wasted the money and smart operators who just ripped them off. In 1997 the franchise system was dreamed up. This meant established outfits would band together, offer a slate of projects, and be given a large amount of money. That system proved unwieldy and unworkable. It was quietly abandoned when the Film Council was set up in 2000 to operate like a mini studio, allowed to invest in big films (Gosford Park, The Constant Gardener) and also help out with small (Better Things, Red Road), as well as funding ancillary activities like the Independent Cinema Office, print and advertising assistance, and digital projection. The Film Council was essentially the most sophisticated method found so far to deal with the lottery money, and I simply don't believe any existing body will do a better job.
Of course, there will be many quiet sniggers of satisfaction at today's news in various parts of the film industry, though anyone with any sense will know that financial stability is vital for a healthy industry and that financial chaos doesn't help anyone. I can't help recalling the last cataclysm to hit the British film industry, the closure of FilmFour in 2002 -- though that was a commercial rather than a political decision. If there's any comfort to be taken, it's that Channel 4's film unit went through terrible times, but eventually re-emerged triumphant, with Slumdog Millionaire et al. British films will still get made; some will be great, and some terrible. But destroying the Film Council isn't helping anybody.