Indie budgets – comparing the US and the UK

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.

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