On Monday, the UK Film Council – the body set up in 2000 to distribute funds to British movie projects – became the most high-profile victim in a cull of cultural bodies by the coalition government. What does the decision mean for the independent filmmakers of these rain-soaked isles? Reaction follows from some of the directors whose movies have been showcased on Indie.
For those resident in the UK, the word 'cuts' features heavily in the contemporary lexicon. Public spending is being shorn as drastically as the hair of all those recruits in the Full Metal Jacket title sequence, and if most laypeople are honest, the debate about what we should cut, when we should cut, how much we should cut and whether we even need to cut a great deal at all is as impenetrable to them as the cordon of security protecting the Google algorithm.
For months, media outlets have been colonised by folks from both ends of the political spectrum and all the space in between, as they have laid out their lengthy, seemingly well-informed arguments as to why every course of action aside from the precise one they are advocating will result in the economy collapsing like a house of cards in a hurricane, us all losing our jobs and homes, and everyone being forced to go and live in one giant rabbit warren, where there's only one TV, and it's not HD. Not even HD-ready.
What isn't open to a great deal of debate is that the 10-week-old Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government are going to be making some mammoth reductions even to what are considered the core areas of public spending (schools, policing), so consequently those departments more on the periphery are really in for a walloping. And so it proved on Monday, when the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (the DCMS to its friends, of which it now has substantially fewer) announced, amongst other measures, that the UK Film Council was to be taken outside the metaphorical barn and given two shotgun barrels to the back of the skull.
A statement on the DCMS website reads, 'Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, has proposed a number of changes, including, abolishing the UK Film Council and establishing a direct and less bureaucratic relationship with the British Film Institute; this would support front-line services while ensuring greater value for money – Government and Lottery support for film will continue.' Hunt himself is quoted as saying, “The changes I have proposed today would help us deliver fantastic culture, media and sport, while ensuring value for money for the public and transparency about where the taxpayers' money is spent.” But then he would say that, wouldn't he?
The DCMS statement's reference to the British Film Institute offers succour to that body, which – according to a Deadline piece from January by Tim Adler – had been looking likely to come off the worse in the merger between it and the UK Film Council which had been demanded by the previous, Labour, government. Despite reputed resistance, the BFI seemed more likely to be subsumed by the UKFC than the other way round, and a further blow was dealt to the former in early June when it was announced that its flagship project - a £166m brand new film centre on London's South Bank, due to open in 2015 – was being delayed.
Reporting at the time, Adler suggested that 'the UK Film Council presented the UK Film Centre freeze as a fait accompli,' without any consultation with the BFI, and things got worse later that same month when the government officially withdrew the £45m of funding it had been due to contribute to the centre - though the BFI is apparently determined to push on with their plans, seeking private investment to make up the shortfall.
The UK Film council was established in 2000, in a bid to provide a satisfactory solution to the testing riddle of how best to distribute funding to British film productions. Following the inauguration of the National Lottery in the UK, several years were spent flailing around in a search for the most satisfactory – or the least unsatisfactory – method of selecting which movies were to be awarded the development and production money generated by the said tax on people's mindless optimism. After testing out the viability of assessing projects on an individual basis and handing out cash via a 'franchise' system, it was decided by the Labour government of the day that a quango (an independent body controlling state money) set up to effectively operate like a mini-Hollywood studio would represent the most effective option.
And lo, the UKFC was born! With an annual budget of £15m and a staff of 75, it has invested £160m into more than 900 movies over the course of the last decade, as well as providing support for the SkillSet training programmes and the Digital Screen Network, which aimed to reduce exhibition costs, thereby allowing a wider range of films to make it into theatres.
There have been critical and commercial successes over the years, such as Bend It Like Beckham, In the Loop and Gosford Park, and the UKFC contributed cash towards the two most high-profile British movies which featured at Cannes in May - Mike Leigh's Another Year and Stephen Frears' Tamara Drewe. Inevitably there were failures too though, with the £1m reportedly awarded to 2004's Sex Lives of the Potato Men turning that universally despised flick into the UK Film Council's Heaven's Gate, Ishtar and Revolution all rolled into one; it becoming a huge pointy stick with which the body's critics could mercilessly thrash its delicate bits whenever they so chose.
The DCMS statement claims that the details and timing of the Film Council's closure have yet to be finalised, although chief executive of the latter, John Woodward, apparently told UKFC staff that he had been advised of an intent to have the organisation completely dismantled by April 2012. Speaking about the plans in the House of Commons, Hunt said they were not yet final and he invited people to voice their opinion as to whether they were in favour or not. While it seems almost inconceivable that any degree of public clamour will see this decision reversed, people have already been getting animated about the subject, with this petition boasting 14,700 online signatures (at latest count) and this Facebook campaign attracting over 25,000 'like'-ers (effing Facebook...).
No real clues yet as to how exactly film funding will be distributed in future, and with Hunt and his fellow MPs having now broken up for their summer hols, nothing looks likely to be announced till the autumn. Another Adler piece to appear this week (yes, I'm not entirely sure why Deadline's British articles all seem to be headlined 'Blimey!' either) suggests the government is considering handing the £15m of UKFC money to the film wings of small screen outfits, Channel 4 and the BBC.
And what has the wider reaction been to the government's decision to wield the axe? Well, read any of the comment streams to the various reports on the subject and reaction divides into two opposing camps - camps which are roughly summarised by these competing comments on an Empire story, from Neth and, first, rpem22:
'The admin and bureaucracy involved was no doubt tiresome and fruitless to almost all the unestablished new filmmakers. Along with this, the administrators there had a reputation for acting like megalomaniac Hollywood big shots while drawing a 6-figure salary from the public purse,'
On the other hand...
'I can only speak from personal experience, but everyone I've ever dealt with [at the UKFC] is hugely passionate about film and remarkably well-informed about the subject too... they lent their backing to plenty of films that obviously had limited commercial appeal from the outset in the hope of developing the talent involved.'
Basically, good riddance to the swines at the trough vs. sad day for the British film industry. Within the upper echelons of that industry, responses have been primarily angry and frustrated. Tim Bevan, Working Title founder and UKFC chairman, was understandably peeved, remarking that, “People will rightly look back on today's announcement and say it was a big mistake, driven by short-term thinking and political expediency.” And in a blog for The Spectator, director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Enduring Love) wrote that the decision 'would be laughable if it wasn't so apocalyptically misjudged', as well as suggesting it was 'a very disturbing hint at what lies ahead for those of us who work in film and in the arts in general.'
The Guardian quoted further negative reactions from Mike Leigh ('I'm reeling from the shock') and Mike Figgis ('I am deeply disappointed but not that surprised – we were just waiting for the axe to fall'), although Repo Man filmmaker Alex Cox was altogether less perturbed, calling the decision 'very good news for anyone involved in independent film. The Film Council became a means by which lottery money was transferred to the Hollywood studios.'
Three people who are very much involved in independent film are directors Pat Higgins, Louis Melville and Carlo Ortu, whose respective movies The Devil's Music, Man Who Sold the World and The Killers have all been showcased here on Indie Movies Online. So with one of Britain's leading film funding bodies going the way of the dodo, it seemed to make sense to canvas their reactions to this development.
'The UK Film Council never made a difference to me as an independent filmmaker,' admitted Pat via email. 'It felt like a different sphere of existence which wasn't really one that I operated in.' It is a point of view shared by Carlo: 'For many filmmakers in this country the UKFC wasn't on their radar.' While Carlo felt sympathy for those at the Film Council ('there are also 75 jobs at stake so I hope these people do find other employment'), he suggested that, 'the UKFC needs to be reformed in some way. I, like most independent filmmakers I imagine, have applied to the UKFC on a few occasions over the years with various projects... but like most filmmakers, I didn't expect to get funding and indeed never got it. In fact, we didn't even apply with The Killers.'
Continued Carlo: 'I was invited in for a chat a while ago and told I was on their radar, which was perhaps somewhat like saying “Close, but no cigar.” Many people look, or should I now say looked, at the UKFC like they do the BBC Writersroom – a waste of money. I have mixed feelings about this, but the money in many cases seems to have always gone to established filmmakers such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Robert Altman and Stephen Frears, and although the UKFC have claimed to champion first and second-time filmmakers as well, many have already established themselves in some form or another, e.g. Armando Ianucci, Kevin Macdonald and Gurinder Chadha.'
Carlo also accentuated the positives of the organisation though, noting that, 'if it wasn't for the UKFC, many films would never have got made and a lot of people would never have been employed to work on them so I do think they overall did a good job... the bigger concern of course is that arts funding cuts will have a very negative impact on our culture, whether it be film, theatre or painting.' This chimes with Pat's thoughts: 'Some fantastic projects found their way to the screen via UKFC support and I do rather worry that making huge cuts in terms of cultural investment isn't a good sign. I've got colleagues who will mourn the UKFC and feel that it was a brilliant institution, others who are glad to see it gone. I feel personally unaffected and I'll keep making films in the way I always have, but I feel very much for those whose careers have taken a hit from this decision.'
Louis, meanwhile, was already looking to the future when I contacted him: 'What will come next worries me; will it be UK Film Council Mark 2, with a lot of the same old players still with their hands on the purse strings. I have always asked myself what all the 75 staff did there? Why £3m a year in admin? Why did so much money go to companies that should have been able to fully fund their films in the market place?'
He proceeded to outline some suggestions for how projects might be supported once the UKFC has been folded in itself. 'We need a whole new look at how British film is funded. Why is the tax credit not paid upfront to filmmakers? UK film funding should be just for development and production, and solely for wholly British-owned companies that shoot their films wholly in the UK. Investment in any one film by any new UK film fund should be capped at a maximum of £500,000 per film, no matter what its budget. This would mean that one, the funds available would go further, and two, that some lower budget films could be fully funded. By doing this, it might make some of the companies rethink their budgets downwards.
'It's a new market place and UK film budgets need to reflect that,' notes Louis, before concluding with, 'Let's tax all non-UK films at the UK box office. Even if this was at just 2p in the pound, it would still be enough money to give every British film made per year that does not have a UK distribution deal a release, even if it was just for a week on say, three screens. Let the public make up their own minds if the films are good or bad. This would also help the overseas sales of these UK films.'
Okay, well, assuming there's someone still reading this (hallo mum!), I feel I'd like to stick my own tuppence-worth into the big blender of opinion. There seems to have always been a fundamental tension over what people thought the UK Film Council should be doing, with it often appearing – to me, at least – that it could not win. If it invested in commercially-minded fare, people complained it was spunking money on second-rate copies of Hollywood product. If it invested in art-house films, there was whinging that money was going on films that were only going to be seen by one man and his dog.
There may have been some largesse at the top of the organisation but this could, and surely would, have been hacked away at over the coming months, and perceptions of the execs should not obfuscate the fact that it was a very good thing indeed that there existed a route for which filmmakers could apply for funding for their projects. And with there still being the requirement to have some kind of panel awarding funds for British films, it feels like constructive surgery to the UKFC would have been a preferable to an impromptu execution.
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