THE GIFT OF HINDSIGHT can be a wonderful thing. In the average time it takes to get over a break up, two months have passed since Jeremy Hunt, Minister of Culture announced a number of cuts and “streamlining” initiatives that saw many public bodies merged, or simply culled.
The public sector has forced its goodbyes to The Theatres Trust and even the General Teaching Council, as well as the UK Film Council.
In the clearest example of responsive journalism, the broadsheets all granted attention to the UKFC Twitter backlash. Opinions were hash-tagged* #ukfc, and ladled out generously. The latter was all real-time, just an hour after the Coalition’s press release had hit the web and the former appeared following day as double page spreads, flash image galleries online and columns. A good foot of newspaper space was dedicated to demonstrating the grievances everybody had.
(*To the untwitterated, a hash tag indicates the subject matter of a tweet/140 character opinion/link/fact/comment/statistic. It is often a noun or proper noun. Some people like to subvert this tradition with a verb or adjective phrase about their own life. E.g. #thisisselfreferential)
BBC News ran an online piece called “Industry reacts to abolition of UK Film Council” on the same day as the announcement and presented a range of views, which both supported and denounced the move. Tim Bevan, former chairman of the UK Film Council, had first dibs on having a say: “Abolishing the most successful film support the UK has ever had is a bad decision, imposed without any consultation or evaluation… British film, which is one of the UK’s more successful growth industries, deserves better.”
Of particular interest were the tweets they had picked up on by documentary-maker Chris Atkins (Taking Liberties, 2008): “UK FILM COUNCIL ABOLISHED! Fabulous day!” he tweeted. “I wonder what 70 incompetent overpaid bureaucrats are going to do? I could do with a couple of runners.
“…far more misses than hits, Funded Sex Lives of Potato Men, U2 3D, 4321, Rolling Stones, St. Trinian’s, I could go on.” The films quoted by Chris all lost money in terms of the returns they were expected to pump back in to UK indie film.
Daniel Barber, director of Michael Caine’s latest movie Harry Brown was not in complete agreement. Daniel said: “I think there hasn’t been a great history in this country of helping British filmmakers make films…Harry Brown was my first feature, and the funding I received from the UK Film Council really helped us get the rest of the investment.”
To the outside world, the UK was grieving the loss of their Apollonian heavyweights who dealt on behalf of Her Majesty’s citizens to ensure our films could still muster box office credence. It got especially dicey when Sir Steven Spielberg got stuck in and said that the loss of the UKFC was detrimental. Now, though, the Twitter and Facebook hysteria has fully dispersed and with it, the press bandwagon and my Twittering self. After job losses and, as Lord Puttnam put, the “time to digest fully”, are UK film directors struggling without the support they need? Or are they actually doing okay? What does the disappearance of the UKFC really mean for independent film-makers now?
Traditionally, the indies tackle short film before hitting up the 90-minute touchstone.
“We decided a few years ago to make a feature film, but we weren’t involved in short films, we never watched short films: we were quite ignorant really. But we were never interested – we watched big films at the cinema…we had a rubbish camera, but we did our best and got a good film out of it.” Colin Warhurst went the other way. He is the popular Manchester co-director and producer of indie feature film Mancattan, a film about twentysomthings who escape to New York in a bid to chase an adventure.
Col and co-director Phil Drinkwater did not seek UKFC funding, but Col did write a letter to the then Culture Secretary, who forwarded them onto the UKFC.
“I wrote a big letter. He wrote back saying that they were sending my letter to the UK Film Council. And I said no, I wrote to you, you’re the politician, you’re in charge. So that’s when I first heard of the UKFC, because any time you have a legitimate question about UK film, the government send you to them. But why would the UKFC make decisions about the BBFC?”
For filmmakers to even have their film legally considered for DVD/bluray sales release, they have to be classified by the British Board of Film Classification.
I interviewed Col about the film: “We never intended to make money from it, it was purely to see if it could be done. Sounds very cheesy – for arts sake – but we were doing it for fun. So we got to the end and though, ok we’ll sell some DVDs and try and make a bit of money. But you can’t sell feature DVDs without classification, and that’s because of the Video Recordings Act – you need to have a certificate. That was brought about in 1984, to stop video nasties being sold, like the Freddie Krugers on the market that kind of stuff.
“Everyone, including me, at that point, thought classification was a good idea – you’ve got your 15s, 18s, it stops people buying inappropriate material…But then we found it can cost around £1200 to get a film rated.”
There is even a helpful calculator here from the British Board of Classification which apparently determines that a 90-minute theatrical release may cost £715 for the privilege of being a U, or maybe even an 18 if your material is so inclined, (as accessed on 15th Oct 2010, the site reads: “Customers are urged not to make payments based on this calculation as over or underpayments are likely to arise.”) nudge nudge, wink wink; say no more. But because the BBFC calls itself an organisation external to government, would it more helpful if part of the lottery funding helped UK filmmakers who can’t afford to pay for the certification?
Colin says that classification law needs to be reviewed, as more and more filmmakers demand the rights to sell their film. “With VAT – it makes money for the economy in a small way, but it would still be there.”
“So, from 1984 until recently, it wasn’t an issue because people like us couldn’t afford to make films. But now, with your iPhone 4 consuming HD quality film, or having a better Windows Movie Maker and iMac at home – they’ve got the basic tools you need. Maybe not to professional cinema levels, but that’s not the point. There are directors who don’t want a cinema, who just want to make it profitable or just have your story seen – a calling card, surely as what all short films are.”
On the other hand – is that not the battlefield filmmakers run onto?
“Yes. There’s one line of argument that says, ‘well, that’s the game, if you want to make a film, you have to save £1000 and you have to buy some equipment – like being in a band.’ But the counterargument to that is, well imagine everytime you wrote a piece for your blog, you had to have that censored. That you have to pay someone else, per word, to check it’s okay for kids to read. You’d be like, ‘what kind of totalitarian state are we living in?’”
(At this point in the interview I nod my head a lot in agreement.)
“Classification is for shops. Don’t tell me that kids can’t get hold of what they want to watch. You switch on Freeview channel five-hundred-and-something after nine o‘clock, and have you seen what those ladies are doing?
“I think I was the only kid who wasn’t allowed to watch Robocop until I was fifteen – and then all the booby bits were edited out. Anyway, If we sold 100 DVDs then we’d be able to pay for the BBFC. But you can’t even do that – you can’t sell it full stop.”
Jon Williams’ Diary of a Bad Lad is the fightback success story of current northern indie film. After being refused funding from the UKFC, Jon went on to make a film that went on theatrical release and made its way into Asda, Play.com, WHSmiths and was even released in Hong Kong.
In recording all the non-support received from the UKFC, Jon’s blog listed everything on “postcards” of what he had to come up against in the hope that newer filmmakers can learn from what he happened to him.
Jon says in his blog:
“There are people out there, from the UKFC to sales agents (who won’t buy your film – for them it’s not a case of ‘what’s it like’ but ‘who’s in it’), who will all tell you to ‘make a genre film’. And what that actually means is ‘remake something that’s been done a thousand times already and do it on a pedal car budget’. Is it any surprise that only one in twenty UKFC funded films makes any money?”
But surely, is it better to have one film out of twenty that gets the pot of gold, than none at all? It is widely believed that most Hollywood productions lose money, with the blockbusters smoothing out the shortfalls, so it could be argued that this would be following a successful model. Plus, as less public money is pumped into the arts, there is a possibility of a refreshment period for the creative communities. A film featured at this year’s Raindance festival, ‘When The World Breaks’ by director and musician Hans Fjellestad, is about how the Great Depression in 1929 brought with it, not only suffering, but perhaps the suffering necessary to create and discover great art.
On the other hand, it is easy to revert to romanticism like the argument did in that last paragraph, ignoring the fact that all you have to make a film – like most indies – is what you’ve got leftover after rent, bills, food and transport.
And whilst private money can go so far in preserving art, or galleries, for example, it is thus: conditionally; so far. Many art buyers are private collectors who do not wish to share, and private galleries often ask for an entry fee. Whilst this is similar to the cinema model and may seem to make sense, first of all consider: do cinemas really make money from distributed films – or is it down to you and me buying popcorn and coke? Would it have been more helpful to sponsor UK screens for local talent? In a straw poll (made up of five friends who are moviegoers), all of them said they thought the UKFC were, to quote one lady, “supposed to do that kind of thing to help.”
Col: “Eveyone’s instincts were: ‘Save the UKFC!’ But only half the Facebook group joined the actual petition. To put a different opinion on the group, you had to join it. We thought, Jon and us, we thought it was just us. But it was actually loads of people, people who have been in the business for years, who said that they had the same problems and didn’t even have the equipment then.
“I guess it sounds like I’m a bitter filmmaker form the north. But that’s not the case. I’m talking about the UK Film Council in that they didn’t invest enough in UK talent.”
So it can be argued that the Film Council should not have existed purely to make money out of films, but rather to nurture the growth and production of the UK’s filmmakers who, without LA connections and solid distribution deals (The UKFC did have a Beverly Hills office, though, and rumours are that even after the cull, the UKFC have refurbished their office and used public money for a reprieve campaign), find it unjustifiably difficult to have their film screened by even just one cinema in their hometown.
Col: “The UKFC didn’t look inwards: it was all about bringing business into the UK, not cultivating and developing more of that talent we already have.”
Without UKFC support, ‘Mancattan’ has gone on to receive tens of thousands of hits online. The ad revenue goes to charity and you can still watch it for free.
Film Tax Relief (approved by the EU Commission in 2006) then, is arguably most beneficial to bigger, richer filmmakers. According to the UKFC’S website (as accessed on 15th October 2010, it’s still up but I cannot find the table which shows the Council’s expenses anymore, please Tweet me if you find it/saved it lovely readers), this is the value of UK tax relief:
“-For films with a total core expenditure of £20 million or less, the film production company can claim payable cash rebate of up to 25% of UK qualifying film production expenditure;
-For films with a core expenditure of more than £20 million, the film production company can claim a payable cash rebate of up to 20% of UK qualifying film production expenditure”
It sounds like a fabulous deal. Despite the assumption of £20 million which neither Col, Phil, Chris nor Daniel have, you and I could go and make a film of which 25% is on expenses…as long as it qualifies:
“ -Tax relief is available for British qualifying films. Films must either pass the Cultural Test or qualify as an official co-production;
– Films must be intended for theatrical release;
– Films, including those made under official co-production treaties, must reach a minimum UK spend requirement of 25%;
– Tax relief is available on qualifying UK production expenditure on the lower of either:
80% of total core expenditure; or
the actual UK core expenditure incurred.
– There is no cap on the amount which can be claimed.
– The FPC (Film production company) responsible for the film needs to be within the UK corporation tax net.”
The Cultural Test, as (was) defined by the UK Film Council on behalf of the Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport means many out-of-UK filmmakers are protected by tax breaks, which in turn attracts many productions to take a hike to our shores. This means all the film’s private investors give back very little VAT to the location they use.
And that earns them more money in the long term.
Col: “I don’t want to dissuade or bad mouth it. I started reading all of Jon’s tweets and blogs and looked into it. Basically the UKFC – their remit is to promote British film. The way they do that, is to make British films… but they don’t put them into cinemas.
“They did a lot of good work; they’ve got a lot of good trainee schemes. I’m against their policy and the government’s policy. All they’ve done is promote Britain, not as filmmakers, but as a film facilities house. You know, it’s not ‘Come here and make films with us, and back our production companies’, it’s ‘Come here and use our studios cause they’re the best studios in the world. Come here and use our sound engineers, because they’re the best in the world. Graphic designers, actors, our musicians…’”
“Some of the best filmmaking kit it in Britain. But films: take Harry Potter. Not a British film. Bond: not a British film – to put it in simple terms. Look where the money goes when the films make money. If it’s an American production company, they can do everything from filming to marketing: but the money goes back to America.”
There is certainly a history behind reformations in legislation concerning film. All the way back in the fifties, Harold Wilson irritated American filmmakers when he brought in the Eady Levy. Wilson wanted to provide a cash fund that was not considered a subsidy, and was available to British filmmakers only, by pooling:
“…a proportion of the ticket price… —half to be retained by exhibitors (ie, effectively a rebate on the tax) and half to be divided among qualifying ‘British’ films in proportion to UK box office revenue, with no obligation to invest in further production.” – summary of Eady Levy
Perhaps it is of small surprise that many public services set up by the state in an attempt to mainstream and increase interest in the arts have found themselves squeezed in 2010, or abolished altogether. In the middle of Thatcher’s Britain, economic recession brought with it cultural recession. Many from the media workforce found themselves redundant. The special effects industry was forgiving – but only thanks to major Hollywood investment for the Superman film.
Of late, we’ve been saved again by arr’kid Uncle Sam, in the form of Marvel’s Captain America. It is one of the last films in which the UKFC and more fundamentally, Vision & Media played a part in attracting over here. Filmed in a 1940s-converted Northern Quarter, Manchester, it is just one of many films that has featured several of its major scenes in the UK, including Warner Bros.’ Sherlock Holmes and Ecosse Films’ Nowhere Boy.
Apart from the arguably sneaky Digital Reform Bill passed this year (which reinforced the necessary classification of films) perhaps filmmakers are lucky not to have had new legislation written down yet.
In 1985, the Films Act dissolved the National Film Finance Corporation and the Eady Levy. The related quota for British film disappeared too, despite a great start to the eighties with all the big historicals that make it into those Top 100 lists of films you’re meant to watch: the massively long film Chariots of Fire (Alan Parker, 1981 and Oscar winner) and the biographical Ghandi (Richard Attenborough, 1982).
Here is Section Eight of the Films Act, where it appears that the government took autonomy away from a film director who may have looked to oversee her/his own budget:
“8.—Power of Secretary of State to direct alteration of labour costs. Where particular payments are, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, either inappropriately high or low for the labour or services concerned, a different sum can be substituted.” –Film Act 1985
And here is one research piece into the UK Film tax relief from 1992-2008.
With the curtains now closed on the UK Film Council, have we lost a vital signpost where directors, producers, actors and crew could find something in common, and find the resources they desperately needed to have even just a glove in the wholly starred-and-striped ring of the film industry? Or is there a possibility that the UK independents might get a better chance at having their film funded and screened locally – as most wish – without seeing The £20-million-expectant Man first?
I am not a filmmaker (yet!) but I do know a lot of film lovers will be happy when we can disprove * this * soporifically inane bloke:
“The nation’s filmmakers, like its people, can’t express emotion; they lack drive and passion, they’re tame and repressed. As a result, the British can write novels and plays, but when it comes to cinema, they might as well forget it.” – James Park, British Cinema
To you, Park-off, I present the two-fingered salute. And a toast to angrier, even more determined filmmakers with better opinions than your unsatisfactory generalisation.
Aye. How very British.