Thursday, July 29, 2010

Not Good: Goodbye UK Film Council

Between 1997 and 2009, turnover in the British film industry went up by 50%, contributing £4.5 billion to the economy, while cinema takings in the U.K. are at an all time high. This can be partly attributed to the creation, in 2000, of the UK Film Council, a publicly-funded body (whose budget comes from the takings of the National Lottery), with the stated aim "To stimulate a competitive, successful and vibrant UK film industry and culture, and to promote the widest possible enjoyment and understanding of cinema throughout the nations and regions of the UK. The UKFC has a mandate that spans cultural, social and economic priorities."

This past May saw the election of a new government, one that's making cuts to departmental budgets left and right in an attempt to stave off financial disaster, and their latest move, announced on Monday by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and without any kind of consultation within the industry, is to abolish the UKFC. And, while ther
e were many problems with the institution, it's very, very bad news for anyone with a love of cinema, either in the UK or abroad.

The UKFC's principle role was that of a funding body, aiding the development, production and release of British films. In the States, public funding of film is almost non-existent, but in most European countries, and indeed much of the rest of the world, it's a necessity; the studio infrastructure simply doesn't exist in the same way, and it's nearly impossible for a feature film to get made in the UK without some form of backing from at least one of the three
publicly-owned boards: the UK Film Council, BBC Films (the likes of "An Education") or Film 4 ("Slumdog Millionaire," among others).

The Film Council has three principal feature funding strands. Firstly, there's a Development Fund, investing roughly £4 million a year on working on screenplays, either in the First Feature Film Development Programme, for newcomers, like Sam Taylor-Wood's "Nowhere Boy," or the Feature Film Development Programme for more established names, including Jane Campion's "Bright Star," one of The Playlist's favorites of last year. This is vital, as it's something that private companies are often less willing to fund; it's less glamorous and more intangible -- too often, British films feel like they haven't progressed past a first draft, and this department helps refine projects before they get in front of cameras.

Once things are further along, there are another two strands. Firstly, there's The New Cinema Fund, which again looks to support emerging talent, with a particular focus on writers and directors from minorities. Recent successes have included "Man On Wire," "Fish Tank," "In The Loop," "Hunger" and "This Is England," films that, to be frank, may well have remained in development hell were it not for the UKFC. For more mainstream fare, there's The Premiere Fund, which has a patchier track record although there have also been some gems, like "Happy-Go-Lucky," or "The Escapist," from director Rupert Wyatt (whose success landed him the gig directed "Rise of the Apes" for 20th Century Fox).

They've certainly backed their fair share of stinkers, though, most notably "Sex Lives of the Potato Men," a raunchy comedy starring Mackenzie Crook ("The Office," "Pirates of the Caribbean"), which is generally regarded as one of the great disasters of the 21st century so far. And they've also missed plenty of opportunities; Garth Jennings' "Son of Rambow," one of the most critically and commerciall
y successful British films of the last few years, was turned down by every British funding board in existence, including the UKFC, and had to go to Europe to raise its budget.

But ultimately, a publicly funded entity can't just fund 12 "Fish Tanks" a year; they have a wider remit. You might hate the "St. Trinians" films (assuming you've seen them), and we certainly do, but, unfortunately, our opinion isn't any more valid than the phalanx of tweens that have brought them to huge grosses at the U.K. box office, and the Film Council simply can't ignore an audience like that, nor should they.

In fact, as a funding body, the UKFC is remarkably successful, returning £5 for every £1 that the council invests -- a rate of return that any studio would be jealous of. Which isn't to say that there aren't naysayers; one look at the comments section of Deadline's story on the matter will show a number of filmmakers who've been wronged by the UK Film Council to one degree or another. One of the most common complaints seems to be that the board awards people who are already familiar to them, at the expense of newcomers; the award-winning likes of Jane Campion, Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears win out, as do names who've won out with the council in the past, while fresh new talent are left out in the cold.

Except that this isn't really true. At all. Newcomers like Wyatt, Duane Hopkins ("Better Things") and Gerard McMorrow ("Franklyn") received substantial awards, and that's only in features. Filmmakers like Tom Harper ("The Scouting Book For Boys," which is still our favorite British movie of the year so far) were able to move up to the big leagues by having shorts funded by the UKFC; the board gives funding of some kind to over 100 every year.

It becomes clear that filmmakers like Arnold, Wyatt and Steve McQueen wouldn't be making the kind of contribution to cinema that they are without the support of a funding body like the UKFC, and cinephiles the world over would be worse off without them. The government have promised to continue funding the film industry, to the tune of £15 million, but it's unclear how this will happen; it seems most likely that the British Film Institute, a charitable organization, will take over this role, but they have a very different remit, focusing more on cinema heritage, and they haven't had an infrastructure in place for this for years. There's also the idea to split their budget and give it to BBC Films and Film4, which is poorly thought out to say the least, and likely to be even more unpopular.

But still, this ignores the impact that the UKFC has at every level of the industry -- it's not simply a funding body. Other initiatives include Skillset, a comprehensive training scheme for people wanting to enter the industry, and First Light, which enables young people to get a taste of digital filmmaking. They're also responsible for aiding distribution for smaller and non-mainstream films through the Prints & Advertising Fund, which has enabled films of all stripes to compete with Hollywood blockbusters - £2 million a year was spent on the distribution of international films, so it's not just British films that would lose out. The UK is still one of the top markets for cinema outside the States, and films like "Reservoir Dogs" and "Donnie Darko" partly owe their reputations to being taken to the hearts of British audiences.

They now partially fund the London and Edinburgh Film Festivals, and the Sheffield Documentary Festival, and enable increased cinemagoing for the disabled through the Cinema Access Programme. Even if the funding for the films themselves continue, it seems unlikely that many of these programs will be continued, and there's little point in funding movies if you don't have a trained crew to make them, festivals to show them at and the ability to compete in the marketplace.

Maybe it'll all be fine. Maybe all the functions of the existing UKFC will be preserved, moved to other bodies and be more efficiently run. There can be little doubt that there was fat to trim in the institution, and that cuts could, and should, have been made; the overheads were very high, even for an institution as large as this one, and a strong argument could be made that the top figures were overpaid. But at the same time, April had seen it announce plans to cut its admin costs by 20%, with the loss of 22 jobs, so plans were already afoot for streamlining, but were never given a chance to be put to use. To scrap the institution entirely seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and undoes a lot of very good work being done by very good people.

It's not expected to be disbanded until early 2012, so there's still time for the plans to be stopped, and there's a petition to sign and a Facebook group to join for anyone who wants to add their voices. Ultimately, it's a very short-sighted, wrongheaded move, done to make the account books presentable, rather than with any view of the big picture. Hopefully Hunt and his colleagues will see sense, otherwise it risks crippling the country's film industry, and leaving moviegoers everywhere worse off.

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