These are not glorious times for the British Film Industry. That was the narrowly reached verdict of a debate chaired by Stewart Till at London’s Goldsmith College on 3 February.
During the debate Screen International reported that Paul Trijbits, who for several years was Head of the UKFC’s New Cinema Fund, cited a recent study by Oxford Economics which found that the total value of film to the UK economy was £4.5bn, but of that, independent British films only represent 1.3%.
There you have it. That’s just how bad things are for UK independent film-makers: 1.3%. That’s just how much of an American cultural colony we are. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if even French films have a bigger share than we do.
Oh yes – in France 10% of the turnover of every single broadcaster has to be spent on French film production and film acquisition.
These are not glorious times for the British Film Industry. That was the narrowly reached verdict of a debate chaired by Stewart Till at London’s Goldsmith College on 3 February.
Recently ScreenDaily.com hosted a round-table discussion about the state of British independent film production. The participants were all leading producers whose credits ranged from “Made in Dagenham” to “Fish Tank” and “Adulthood”.
To save time, here’s a summary of the key points:
*The UK tax-credit is designed to help the industrialised film business – the studio system. On a budget of $100m, they can take $20m out of the UK. And Britain has been effectively cut-off from European filmmaking ever since the Tories took Britain out of Eurimages – the EU co-production funding system – in 1996.
(note: The UK joined Eurimages in April 1993. The number of films awarded Eurimages funding and involving UK co-production companies was 12 in 1993, 21 in 1994 and 22 in 1995, and the total amounts awarded were £2.66 million, £5.45 million and £6.138 respectively; this being about three times what the government had contributed to the fund.)
*Everyone is suffering. Today no one is promoting independent cinema on the world stage, as Miramax did, and so it’s very hard to make any deals with US producers.
*The English language could be a disadvantage. France, Italy, Spain and Japan are protected by their language (and quotas – JW) but our cinema is so dominated by industrialised product that we don’t even have a chance.
*Digital screens put in by the UK Film Council at large expense, have been of no benefit to British filmmakers.
*The handful of established production companies (and directors) will continue to stagger along; but it’s a handful of people who are getting older and older. No younger and more innovative people seem to be managing to break into the industry; and without major changes it’s hard to see how they can.
The UK Film Council has just published its Statistical Yearbook for 2009. In order to save you from the hassle of wading through its obfuscatory pages, here’s some of the key data – from which you’ll get some idea of just how foreign dominated the UK market is
Ten distributors had 92.2% of the UK market – slightly down on last year. Of these one is French (Pathe) and one English (Entertainment). Almost all of Entertainment’s films involved their acquiring UK rights from major US distributors – Warners, Universal, and New Line in particular.
All together these ten companies had a total box office gross of £1billion (near as makes no difference). The other eighty-three (yes, 83) distributors shared £83.5 million.
Nine of the ‘other 83 companies’ were the largest distributors of foreign (i.e. non-English language – funny how ‘American’ is not classed as ‘foreign’) films, distributing between them a total of 62 films with a combined box-office gross of £17.2million. Foreign-language films are particularly attractive as, if of EU origin, they are heavily subsidised.
Of course foreign films featured widely in the portfolios of other distributors as well, but the UKFC doesn’t bother trying to give a clear picture (of anything, really); however it would be safe to assume at least £20million+ (i.e.25% of what the ‘other 83’ share).
This would appear to suggest that approximately 75 distributors had a bit less than 5% of the box office – a total of about £60 million gross. Subtract from that both what the cinema owners take and the distributors’ prints and advertising costs and you’re left with a net of, what? Less than £20million? And don’t forget, that’s not from 75 films, but from the total portfolios of 75 companies.
From all this it’s clear that, if your film wasn’t acquired by one of the American majors (or Pathe) the chances of it grossing even £100,000 (and you therefore seeing maybe £10,000) at the box office are remote.
But what we really want to know is, how much do films make on that all important DVD market? The UKFC provides us with virtually no data at all on this. All they do tell us is that a film with a box of gross of £100,000 would sell, on average, 20,000 copies – from which the filmmaker might see £50,000
The UKFC provides no data on the straight to DVD market – even though that’s where most UK films go. Nor do they provide any data for revenues from TV sales or any other markets. But it is safe to say that it must be really, really hard for a filmmaker to net just £100,000 – and that’s the measure of just how American dominated our film market is.
Over the past five or six years, what first started in the USA has now turned into the growth of a veritable army of ‘new distribution model’ pundits, gurus and seminar organisers, all proclaiming that the ‘old model’ is dead – but not to worry, there’s this whole new model…
But, if you’re from the UK, it’s important to take all this with a very large pinch of salt and consider the following figures:
The North American market is seven times larger, in gross population terms, than the UK; with the key demographics being proportionally even bigger. What’s more, US indies have about 5% of the market; whereas UK independents (i.e. films not produced with either US or French money) have about a 1%. So, at the level of the most basic maths, the US indie market is 35 times larger.
But then there are also important cultural differences. The USA has a very large number of film festivals, many of which exclusively screen American product, often with an accent on their home city or state. This is patently not the case in the UK. And then the US has many, many more independent cinemas, again most with an accent on screening US films, which the indie filmmaker can access. Not so in the UK. US independents can release their films as ‘unrated-18′, whereas in the UK you have to pay quite literally thousands to the BBFC if you want to do both theatrical and DVD releases. And, finally, in the US you do have a chance that your film might just be picked up by a major distributor, but not here. All of that adds up to the fact that that 35 times larger figure underestimates the actual size of the advantage that the US indie filmmaker has over the British one.
But, even with all those advantages, the US web-zine “Film Slate” recently estimated that, if you have ‘no stars’, then at even a budget as low as $30,000, you probably won’t make your money back (unless you then go into the ‘how to’ seminar market and make some money from the desperate and the gullible that way). You do the maths. Very depressing, isn’t it?
Now, what worries me is that, until quite recently, the UK Film Council routinely faced tough questioning by Parliamentary media and communications committees. And that was hardly surprising given that he near total hold of Hollywood on the UK market meant that the Film Council’s bottom line is that it recoups, according to Screen Daily, about 12% of what it invests in UK independent production, despite it’s policy of backing much more in the way of ‘commercial’ projects.
This parlous state calls for real answers and real action – and that means being like most countries with successful home grown film industries and re-introducing quotas. The thing is though, recently the UK Film Council has been managing to side-step all of the issues by resorting to the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of the ‘digital economy’. British independent film may have been doing really badly under the real world, but, not to worry, it’s got a great future in cyberspace. And they’ve been hiring consultants and commissioning reports like there’s no tomorrow. But did they deliberately not check their ‘consultants’ CVs? Just a couple of clicks on Google is enough to show that they’re people with no track record of success in any aspect of the business – other than in cobbling together their own version of some American “guru’s” power point presentation. I mean, it’s even reached the point in which Elliot Grove was lamenting that you seemingly couldn’t move at Cannes without encountering yet another snake-oil seminar.
Monday Feb 22, The Storey Industries Centre, Lancaster.
Organised by Workshop Productions.
Workshop Productions pitched this event thus: “‘Reel Vision’ brings professionals and enthusiasts from across the region together online and face to face. Through ‘Reel Vision’ you will build links and partnerships, share information, skills and resources and become a real contributor towards the future shape of the North West Film Industry.”
The fact that this made no reference to what’s been going on for quite some time across the region didn’t bode that well – and the tone of the pitch didn’t either. But, of course, I welcome any initiative by anyone, no matter how ham-fisted their first attempt may be. Hopefully their next event will be better.
So here’s what was wrong with the first one.
They’d put together a panel chaired by someone with no real idea at all. On it was Tara Cook, Head of Production at North West Vision & Media. Why did the Regional Screen Agencies dream up titles like ‘Head of Production’ to describe people with an annual total of £120,000 to spend implementing the Film Council’s largely pointless short film and script development schemes. Still, at least Tara had the decency to tell the audience that they didn’t have any money, that NWV&M was about to lose 25% of it’s total budget, that a lot of people didn’t like them – at all, but they were trying to change (repeated several times during the evening), that they didn’t really have any pull so there wasn’t really any point to them even giving the ‘seal of approval’ to anything, and so on. She did say that they were planning to do some distribution workshops, but when I raised the point that distribution has to reach screens and the problem of exhibition had to be addressed first, it didn’t seem as if that was anything they could do anything about. Oh yes, she also lamented the fact that not very many people have been taking advantage of the ‘surgeries’ that she’s been running across the region – but as someone who did attend one confirmed to me that ‘she seemed to be a nice person who couldn’t do anything’. By the time she got to outlining her vision of the future for film in the region it had degenerated into empty rhetoric and platitudes – no reference to what’s going on and how it could develop.
So that was one chair wasted.
Also on the panel was Iain Bennett, Sector Leader for Digital and Creative Industries at the North West Regional Development Agency. Now these organisation are all part of a top down micro-managed example of New Labourism at it’s worst. Quango’s like the UK Film Council formulate policy in conjunction with civil servants and Junior Ministers at the DCMS, and these then get devolved to regional agencies (accompanied by the consuming of many buffets) – so they started off as being flawed and by the time they get here the world’ moved on. People like Iain Bennett then parrot the buzz phrases – “Our aim is to attract world class companies to the region” etc. When challenged over how the UK film industry is almost totally dominated by the Americans he replied with a phrase I now read several times before – “We don’t want any French solutions here”. France has a pretty successful film industry and this is not just the product of French policy, but of EU policies which are also bringing success to Spain, Germany, Denmark and so on. I want to see those policies implemented in the part of the EU. The Americans don’t, so the Film Council doesn’t, so the government doesn’t, and so they all unthinkingly bray about ‘we don’t want anything French…’ whilst accompanying their ‘cleverness’ with patronising laughter
He does have an explanation as to why things are as they are – British films are not good enough; and he’s backed up on this by Tara. Obviously this means that a film like ‘Precious’ is on general release because it is just so much better than anything by Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Steven Frears, Shane Meadows, etc. By now I was starting to get just a little bit annoyed
So, two chairs wasted, what about the other two?
Mark Strange was there. For anyone who doesn’t know Mark, well the guy should be a local hero. He’s an expert martial artist, as an actor he’s been in eight films – and he produced three of them. He’s done a lot of work in Honk Kong, but he’s also closely associated with Intense Productions in Lancaster. I’ve known Mark for quite some time and I know how hard he and his associates have worked in getting to where they are. To begin with, as with all of us, they had no choice other than to do everything themselves. Since then they’ve struck several distribution deals, and been represented by both American and British sales agents.
But it needs someone like John Robb, or Stephen Murphy, in the chair in order to draw out the details. As it was Mark did his standard PR schtick, which would have been OK on Radio Lancashire, and that was it.
In the last chair was David Guest, Workshop Productions’ ‘General Manager’. They’re very pro-active, doing corporate and educational projects as well as launching a short film distribution arm. The trouble with that is, no one makes any money from shorts. Maybe David and co. have cracked the magic formula; only time and the sales figure will tell. He also delivered the bombshell that they’d raised something like £2million for a feature, and purely through the efforts of an accountant. Again, though, the thing with this is, they don’t seem to have the principal cast lined up, they’re looking for a director, there’s no big wadge of Film Council money providing a safety net, they don’t seem to have any pre-sales, or a distribution deal in place, and they’re talking about a budget that’s at the top end of what major US independent producers currently would consider spending – and that’s with all the advantages of both being known and the American market. I, for one, wouldn’t want to be in their shoes. But, then again, when I made the suggestion that, if the were to organise such an event again it would be better if the panel was made up of filmmakers, David replied that ‘The problem with filmmakers is that they do tend to go on a bit’. What? I thought, isn’t David supposed to be a filmmaker? Or has he been spending too much time in the company of ‘Business Advisors’ and turned into a suit?
Throughout the Chair had restricted participation to ‘questions’ from the floor; contributions were never called for, and so the (several) filmmakers there, along with representatives of the Campaign to Reform the Video Recordings Act, didn’t get the chance to say anything. But the ‘vision’ of the future presented by the panel had been so uninspiring and so out of touch that I intervened, saying that the foundations of the future were already being laid by the New Wave of filmmaking sweeping across the region, and by festivals such as Salford, Kino, the Pennine, and so on. This got me a round of applause as well as several drinks and plenty of good conversation with local filmmakers and actors at the bar afterwards. As for the panel, they formed a circle, rather like how wagon trains do for their own protection in westerns, in a defensible corner, presenting their backs to the rest of the room – that is except for Mark Strange – he’d gone home already.
UKFC announces that London will now only get 15x more film-funding than the rest of the UK. Big Deal…December 29, 2009
One of the stated aims of the UK Film council’s policy document for the period from April 2010 to March 2013: UK Film: Digital Innovation and Creative Excellence, is that at least 25% on funding will go to “non-London originated film production” – which is perhaps as much as a fourfold increase on current levels. But what exactly does this mean?
In the first place the overwhelming majority of UKFC funding is spent in London and the South-East; so things could, in fact, remain pretty much the same: 75% for London, maybe 20% for the South-East, and the same pittance for the rest of the UK.
But let’s assume for once that this isn’t another of the UKFC’s cynical exercises in moving the goal posts, it’s still worth considering what it adds up to.
Maybe 16% of the population of the population lives in London – so it’s 75% for them. The rest of us, some 84% get a quarter. Now if you work the maths out it means that, on a per capita basis, Londoners will still get some 15x more than the rest of us.
Looked at that way it obviously is another one of their exercises in re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic….
According to the Hollywood Reporter (29.12.09), “The Chinese government protects local films by limiting the number of film imports on a revenue-sharing basis to 20 per year, a quota that effectively limits Hollywood blockbusters to 20 slots annually.”
What arrogance! Just how many blockbusters does Hollywood make annually? And what about films from the rest of the world? The obviously don’t think that those count at all!
So what’s happened? The US government has complained to the World Trade Organisation that China was ‘obstructing trade by forcing foreign suppliers to distribute … through state-owned companies.’
“Warner Bros., Disney, Paramount, Universal and 20th Century Fox (complain that) the Chinese rules cost them tens of millions of dollars each year in lost business opportunities.”
It should come as no surprise that the WTO has come down on their side.
What hypocrisy! Foreign films have no access to the US market unless the rights have been acquired by the Hollywood majors – and on their terms as well. Theirs is a 100% obstruction of ‘foreign suppliers’.
What a bunch of government-backed bullying thugs.
Swedish films’ share of the box office went up from 19% to 32.4 over the past twelve months. Much of this was down to the success of the Millennium trilogy of crime thrillers based on Stieg Larsson’s best-sellers. Hollywood’s share fell to 54%. But, guess what, Hollywood has announced its intention to acquire the remake rights to these thrillers – yet another example of how the Americans see the rest of the world as a source of raw materials for them to exploit with the same logic as an oil giant or mining corporation.
The Swedish experience is far from unique with local productions seeing major rises at the box office pretty much across the world. Of course the one exception is the UK which continues to be 95% US dominated – to the shame of everything from the British government to the UKFC