The publication of a recent policy report into the UK film industry sparked kneejerk headlines but is actually a detailed blue print for the future.
This post is a general introduction to the report which was titled A Future for British Film: It Begins With the Audience.
It will explore who was involved in it and the wider context of British film as it stands in 2012.
But it will also be the first of several dedicated ones around the different sections, which break down into the following areas: growing the audiences of today and tomorrow, the digital revolution, exhibition, how films are developed and distributed, the role of major UK broadcasters, international strategies, skills and talent development, our screen heritage, research and knowledge and the expanded role of the BFI after the closure of the UK film council.
Aside from “what is your favourite film?” amongst the questions I am most frequently asked is:
“what is the state of the British film industry?”
“Has it been a good year for British films?”
At this point I try to gauge whether or not they are actually interested in the state of UK film or more concerned about whether British actors are going to win an Oscar.
But if they are serious it remains a question that deals with the complex interplay between art, commerce and business.
However, there is no doubt in my mind that historically as a culture the British have tended to favour theatre (going back to Shakespeare) and television (which still dominates pop culture in this country).
Attitudes have changed since the advent of home video in the 1980s and a generation who have had access to DVD and YouTube, but there still lingers a sense that film is somehow inferior or less respectable.
This isn’t to say British audiences dislike it as a medium but if you compare this country to the US or France, cinema is embedded in their cultural DNA in a way that it hasn’t been in the UK.
Even now, releases tend to be viewed through the prism of low-brow (“Hollywood blockbusters”) or high-brow releases (“Art house”).
Media coverage of this very report repeated a lot of the old line about “commercial” vs “obscure” and whilst these distinctions do exist they actually reveal a lot more about deeper cultural divisions in the UK.
This is then fuelled by mainstream media coverage that can often focus on the trivial (e.g. celebrity gossip or obsession with the BBFC certificate) over the substantial.
It doesn’t help that the very term “British film” can be a slippery one, which is why I wrote about the three types of British film back in September:
- Home grown productions financed by British companies (e.g. Slumdog Millionaire)
- International co-productions financed from two or more countries (e.g. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
- Iconic franchises which are essentially funded by US studios (Harry Potter, James Bond).
Often the media coverage gets a little over the top when quality British films either win awards (Chariots of Fire, The King’s Speech) or flop badly (Sex Lives of the Potato Men and Lesbian Vampire Killers).
That is because UK films are to varying degrees reliant on public money and this creates extremes of opinion: it seems every year there is an article in which British films are utter crap or totally brilliant.
This is accentuated around awards time, when Oscar success is unhealthily equated with the overall state of the wider industry.
Which is why this report is so interesting.
It is probably the most in-depth look at the British film industry in well over a decade and is actually backed up by research, hard data and facts.
Not that you would know this from some of the initial reports in the mainstream media.
INITIAL MEDIA REACTION
The immediate headlines that pre-empted the actual publication were along the lines of BBC News: “UK films urged to be more ‘mainstream’ in new report”.
There were more measured and insightful pieces by the likes of Maggie Brown in The Guardian, an experienced media reporter who probably had taken the time to read the whole thing.
Main UK industry publication Screen International reflected a range of views with key UK organisations, such as the FDA, PACT and Film4 mostly giving a positive response (I suspect this was because they had been listened to in the consultation process).
Of course it was a canny, if questionable, political tactic of Cameron’s spin doctors to leak the review with the angle of “PM wants more successful films” because what director, producer or exhibitor could disagree with that line?
They were hardly going to say they wanted failures.
There was a lot of instant reaction on Twitter (hashtag: #FilmPolicyReview) but the whole report was pretty long, so instead of just regurgitating media angles I thought I’d read all 37,708 words and comment on the bits that stood out.
Back in May, the coalition announced that former Culture Secretary Chris Smith would head a panel of eight film industry experts to review the Government’s film policy.
This came in the wake of the closure of the UK Film Council and questions over public finances during a recession.
Their broad remit with the report was the following:
- Provide greater coherence and consistency in the UK film industry
- Determine how best to set policy directions for the increased Lottery funding
- Identify ways to develop and retain UK talent
- Increase audience demand for film, including independent British film.
Who were on the panel?
A pretty good selection of people as it turns out.
I personally would have liked to see a representative from one of the major UK art house chains (like Curzon or Picturehouse) but overall there was a wealth of experience at all levels on the review team.
- Chris Smith, former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Chairman): Experience of a relevant government department and by no means a Coalition stooge as one of the culture ministers from the early Blair era.
- Will Clarke, Independent film distributor, founder and former CEO, Optimum Releasing: Founded leading UK indie distributor Optimum in 1999 before selling it to French company Studiocanal in 2010. Now a producer in his own right with Attack the Block and the upcoming Embassy and Filth.
- Julian Fellowes, writer and actor: Experience of working as an actor (Baby, Secret of the Lost Legend, Tomorrow Never Dies), screenwriter (Gosford Park), director (Separate Lies) and of creator of ITV hit series Downton Abbey.
- Matthew Justice, UK film producer and Managing Director, Big Talk: His company has been involved in producing that rare British thing: genuine critical and commercial successes such as Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007).
- Michael Lynton, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, Sony Pictures Entertainment: The big US studio angle was represented by a man who has worked at Hollywood Pictures (Disney’s live action arm), Penguin, AOL and now heads up Sony Pictures Entertainment.
- Tim Richards, Chief Executive, Vue Entertainment: Former Warner Bros executive who started one of the leading UK cinema chains in the late 1990s. Has overseen stadium style seating and the digital upgrade to cinemas up and down the land.
- Tessa Ross, CBE, Controller of Film and Drama, Channel 4: After the demise of the previous version of Film Four in 2002, she has helped spearhead a remarkable run of critical, commercial and Oscar successes including The Last King of Scotland, Slumdog Millionaire and most Shame.
- Libby Savill, Head of Film and Television, Olswang LLP: The legal/producing/finance angle (often an overlooked area by the national media) is covered by someone with extensive experience of film financing going back to the early 1990s with various Miramax productions and most recently The King’s Speech.
- Iain Smith, OBE, film producer and Chair of the British Film Commission Advisory Board: Experienced producer whose credits include British films like Chariots of Fire (1981), Local Hero (1983) and later on major studio fare like The Fifth Element (1997), Spy Game (2001) and Children of Men (2006). He’s also on Twitter: @iainsmith
It isn’t clear who exactly did what but there’s a lot of insight of both production and exhibition that could be gleaned from this group.
It actually looks like civil servants did their research in finding the right panel.
But what did did they actually come up with?
The final report contains 56 recommendations to Government, industry and the British Film Institute (BFI) which can broadly be summarised as:
- Audience: The audience must be at the heart of film policy (which has been misinterpreted by some media outlets)
- Digital: A commitment to combat piracy but also to unlock the potential of the digital age
- Cinemas: A scheme to bring digital screens and projectors to village and community halls across the country.
- Development: The investment in skills for the next generation of filmmakers.
- Broadcasters: A (surprising but welcome) call for ITV and BSkyB to invest more in independent British films.
- International: Continuation of tax relief and a partnership with BBC Worldwide to invest and promote UK films
- Skills: To build on the current skills base and encourage more diversity and an entrepreneurial approach.
- Heritage: UK archives should be preserved, digitised and made accessible to a wider audience.
- Research: The establishment of a research and development fund to both navigate and exploit the current digital ag
- BFI: Build on the current work being done but make it less London-centric
Each of the above themes are pretty vital (and will be explored later in individual posts) but it is worth examining the wider context of the time in which this report has been published.
A GOLDEN PERIOD OF BRITISH FILM?
The introduction states:
British film is going through something of a golden period. A run of really good, successful, British-made and British-based movies has been taking not just British cinema audiences but many others around the world by storm.
As someone who has experience of watching a lot of British films on a regular basis since the late 1990s, the last three years have indeed felt like a golden age.
Perhaps the current era seems so shiny because the previous one was so disastrous.
Parochial, wildly indulgent and imbued with a peculiar naffness, they were sadly typical of the worst British cinema of this period, which often it seemed like bad television projected on a big screen.
But slowly the tide began to turn.
This was then followed by Hot Fuzz (2007), Hunger (2008), Man on Wire (2008), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Son of Rambow (2008), Fish Tank (2009), In the Loop (2009), Another Year (2010), Four Lions (2010), The King’s Speech (2010) and Never Let Me Go (2010).
Again this was a variety of films of real distinction that connected with both critics and/or audiences.
In the last year Submarine (2010), Attack the Block (2011), The Deep Blue Sea (2011), Jane Eyre (2011), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and Shame (2011) have followed this path.
Certainly not all have been box office hits, but the sheer range and quality has been stunning.
In the early 2000s this would have seemed unimaginable when – if I’m really honest – I approached a British film with the expectation that on some level it would be at least a bit rubbish.
But in August 2009 when Jason Solomons published an article in The Observer bemoaning the state of British films, it prompted mixed feelings.
For critics who see a lot of films on a weekly basis – and not just the good ones – the trip to a Soho screening room to yet another British misfire could feel like a cultural death sentence.
Solomons wrote that the Edinburgh film festival was often an alarming bell weather for the mediocrity of British film:
…years of covering Edinburgh have depressingly demonstrated that actually, the deeper you go inside the British film industry, the thinner the pickings, the slimmer the plots, the ropier the ideas. In truth, there’s always a decent winner (Moon this year, or Control in 2007, or My Summer of Love in 2004), but it’s often a lone star, so far ahead in a competition that is, for the most part, embarrassing in its lack of professionalism and quality. Many of the films in the line-up will never see a paying audience, and neither, indeed, are they worthy of taking people’s hard-earned cash on a night out. Their very meekness seems to acknowledge this within the first, fatalistic 10 minutes.
It was hard to disagree with him, but on the other hand things were improving.
Emerging directors from different backgrounds like Edgar Wright, Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold were making contrasting films of quality and distinction.
The last 18 months have been astonishing, with not only home grown blockbusters (The King’s Speech and The Inbetweeners) but also a wide range of challenging fare (Project Nim, Senna, Tyrannosaur, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Shame).
So good in fact, that I’m concerned that there will be the inevitable downturn as the combination of art and commerce can be inherently unpredictable.
The main change has been the transfer of power from the UK Film Council to the British Film Institute.
Although it caused a stir at the time the report acknowledges the opportunity of having a public funded body under one roof:
The Film Council had accomplished a lot during its decade or more of existence, and The King’s Speech stands as a rather fitting tribute to its achievements. But there is now a real opportunity for the sole, focused leadership of British film – cultural, creative, commercial, educational and representative – to be brought together in the single entity of the BFI. The challenge is for the BFI to use its new-found clout to inspire and nurture and strengthen British film, and we set out some ideas in our Report which we hope will help in this.
With that in mind, they received over 300 submissions of evidence, interviewed hundreds of people involved in all aspects of the industry.
The final report is encouraging because it is wide ranging diagnosis of the UK film industry, that also offers potential solutions and a solid ground work on which to build.