The Cups of Confusion and the Gaderene Swine

This article first appeared on the Netribution website in November 2006. At its end I expressed doubts about whether the Digital Screen Network would amount to anything. Elsewhere on this blog I have commented on how this has proved to be the case. Today, 14 July 2008, in it’s own ‘Film in the Digital Age’ report that the notion of any further funding for the ‘DSN’ has been dropped from the Film Council’s future plans as this will be taken care of by ‘market forces’. As ‘market forces’ obviously won’t deliver an increase in the availability of sub-titled, classic and genuinely independent British films in the multiplexes, one can only assume that they are talking about the installation of further 3D capable digital projectors.

On October 12 this year (06) North West Vision (NWV) held a very well attended all-day seminar on feature film production in the North West at FACT, Liverpool’s new, and very impressive, large independent cinema and art house complex, situated in the city’s ‘cultural quarter’.

 

The seminar was largely prompted by the publication of “Defying Gravity”,  a report on feature filmmaking in the region by Derek Murray which NWV had commissioned, and which is available on the net at: http://www.northwestvision.co.uk/section/publications. Its aptly titled as Derek found that, largely spurred by the rise of digital technology, there has been quite a dramatic rise in feature film production in the North West, but that this has taken place with virtually no support from either the established industry, nor the UKFC; and that the filmmakers had also avoided having anything to do with North West Vision. This is hardly surprising when one considers that, for example, Derek found that, in 2003, only 4.16% of single project development awards went to non-London-based companies. 96% for London and 4% for the rest of the country! It’s to their credit that NWV are taking this situation very seriously.

 

Besides presenting Derek Murray’s key findings, the seminar also looked at the impenetrability of the established industry, the problems of building sustainable feature film production companies in the region under circumstances in which established business models may well be becoming redundant, the policies being pursued by the Digital Screen Network, and the relationship between the UKFC and regional production.

 

Some of what emerged at the seminar could only really be termed, ‘the cups of confusion’. Many filmmakers assume that the UKFC and the RSA’s exist in order to support UK feature film production, but they have found that dealing with these bodies involves a very large amount of seemingly irrelevant form-filling – in order to end up getting nowhere – and some have endeavoured to increase their chances by trying to ‘read between the lines’ in order to try to ascertain just what sort of projects the UKFC is looking for and come up with projects which they think give them what they want, whether they believe in them or not, but again with as good as no chance of success if they’re not London-based.

 

But it is the case that the UKFC does have an overall policy of nurturing UK film production, it’s just that they have a different agenda – and it’s an agenda which sees a particular role for the RSA’s. And that is to firstly be as facilitators who can provide the information and practical assistance which may attract both foreign and domestic established production companies to shoot films in their region, i.e. an attempt to replicate what’s been achieved in such as Ireland, or The Isle of Man. This is a strategy which has achieved little or no success, other than the creation of a network of attractive offices staffed by often, if the truth be known, very frustrated administrators. Still, it must be nice to know for London-based companies that the infrastrucutre does exist that will enable them to parachute into the North of England in order to shoot their latest, miserabalist ‘it’s grim up North’ production.

 

The second function of the RSA’s is to act as talent scouts for London as sub-contractors for the Ulf’s ‘digital shorts’ scheme, along with some tiny amounts of support for aspiring local screenwriters; which, if the RSA’s weren’t to endeavour to scrabble around for other sources of funding, would be pretty much the only funds that they have to spend on actual production.

 

Hence NWV, and many other RSA’s have had to look elsewhere for funding. And that’s primarily been in the area of business development and employment creation. Hence they can come up with some assistance provided that projects are dressed up in these terms – which, yet again, means filling in yet more forms. But it also means, as far as the North West is concerned, coming up with Liverpool-based projects as these can also be dressed-up as deserving EU business development funding. It’s little wonder that most regional filmmakers don’t have a decent word to say about their RSA, but it’s not the RSA’s fault, it’s structural.

 

This landscape is being shaken up by the digital revolution. The advent of the Digital Screens Network has obliged the distribution wing of the UKFC to undertake audience research into just what sort of independent films actually manage to put at least some ‘bums on seats’ – research which is vital if the DSN is to have any success, as exhibitors will only tolerate largely empty screens for a limited period – Steve Perrin, Deputy Head of distribution at the UKFC who has been responsible for this research, gives it four years in which to either build audiences of go under.

 

Regrettably, at the time of writing, non of this research was available on the UKFC website, but Steve Perrin did present his findings at the NWV seminar.

 

Perrin has identified four different audiences:

 

1. ‘Mainstream’, who only go and see blockbusters.

 

2. ‘Mainstream plus’ who go to the blockbusters, but will also watch some other mainstream movies.

 

3. ‘Afficianado’s’ who are prepared to go and see some independent films, provided that these have been championed loudly by critics in the quality press as being worth watching because they are entertaining. Recent examples include films like ‘Hidden’, “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, and some films by Almodovar.

 

4. ‘Hardcore Film Buffs’. These tend to avoid mainstream movies altogether and deliberately seek out ‘difficult’ films. They possibly number as many as 500,000, so a film targeted on this audience may make back its costs provided that it’s made for less than £50,000. But, provided that the film is entertaining, there is an overlap between the ‘hardcore’ and ‘afficianado’ audiences.

 

Perrin has also come up with a new, and rather novel, way of classifying films. He sets up, as it were, the north, south, east and westerly extremes; and all films can be located somewhere between these points.

 

To the west is ‘sentimental films’ – all those crass mainstream sentimental movies which tend to, rightly, bomb at the box-office unless they have something about them which makes the entertaining – ‘Forest Gump’ for example.

 

To the north is ‘entertaining’, so that’s mainly successful blockbusters.

 

To the south is ‘depressing/miserabalist’, which, unfortunately, typifies a lot of art house movies as well as many misguided British attempts at appealing to the mainstream through ‘grim’ films. However a small number of these films have gone on to achieve major success through combining humour and terrific performances with their grim subject matter, such as ‘The Full Monty’, ‘Billy Elliot’ and ‘Trainspotting’. But Perrin did point out that, despite acclaim from sections of the ‘hardcore’ audience, obscure incoherently plotted films such as ‘Morvern Caller’, which he specifically singled out, have no appeal to any wider audiences.

 

To the east, and this is of most significance to the independent filmmaker, there’s successful indie movies. Regardless of genre, what these films have in common is that they are genuinely clever (as against pretentious) with an offbeat and often ‘dark’ sense of humour – in other words they are both ‘clever’ and ‘entertaining’.

 

For far too long UK independent filmmakers have been fixated by genre. The failure to get anywhere with what may well be a clever and entertaining project results in the conclusion that such films are obviously not what either the industry or the UKFC is looking for, so what do they actually want? So they study the trades and the UKFC website looking for clues. A few years ago several UKFC press releases reported certain leading directors calls for people to be making more commercially viable low-budget movies, such as ‘Horror’. This then becomes a bandwagon which, like the Gaderene swine, everyone starts jumping on. Better still, chuck in a character who’s a person with disabilities and maybe we’ll get somewhere with the Film Council. Now what’s that formula for low-budget horror movies that Raindance is always going on about? Stick a small number of characters in one location and have them do nasty things to each other. The results, with one or two exceptions, have been uniformly dire – which is hardly surprising as successful horror can only be made if you love the genre and have a great knowledge of both its many sub-genres and markets. As Perrin has demonstrated, successful low-budget indie films are not dependent upon genre, but on being clever and entertaining.

 

Given that the DSN has to be successful and that the requirements for it to be so are being seriously researched, and that at least some RSA’s are responding to what’s going on on the ground through the only channels currently open to them – by encouraging local independent producers to be more businesslike, to explore new business models, to take advantage of business support organisations such as UKTI and so on; one could be forgiven for thinking that some ‘joined-up thinking’ is beginning to emerge. But, as far as the UKFC is concerned, the right hand doesn’t seem to know what the left hand is doing.

 

A few days after the seminar, NWV hosted a meeting between Lenny Crooks, the newly appointed head of the UKFC’s New Cinema Fund, and the aspiring local filmmakers who had benefited from funding under the ‘Digital Shorts’ scheme. But NWV also invited some of the North West new wave of indie producers and directors, myself included.

 

Lenny Crooks was previously director of the Glasgow Film Office. He was executive producer on a number of films which soon slipped below the radar, such as Tracey Emin’s ‘Top Spot’, which has been described as ‘the worst film ever’, ‘Young Adam’, for which the Channel 4 review verdict was “If the effect of a film is how depressed you feel at the end of it, then Young Adam is a success. But, lacking suspense and any shades of tone or pacing, as an experience it feels simply underwhelming.” And Morvern Callar.

 

Lenny Crooks is small, thin and wiry. The remnants of his hair is closely cropped and his deeply lined hawk-like face gives off an air of self-satisfaction. He is dressed in a way which seems to be trying to suggest that he is younger than he actually is. He is sporting a white t-shirt with a square block printed on its chest which consists of oddly-spaced letters in different typefaces, which makes the slogan that it actual proclaims hard to read. I spend some time decoding it and it says, “Art’s a dirty business but someone’s got to do it.”

 

Lenny doesn’t seem to be interested in the feature filmmakers present and does not seek to involve us in answering the question of how one may make the step up from ‘digital shorts’. Obviously he has a different agenda.

 

It soon becomes transparent that he sees the digital shorts scheme as a means of scouting for individual directorial flair. Individuals who could be invited down to London in order to benefit from not only the patronage of the New Cinema and Development Funds, but also get access to the growing number of UKFC-developed scripts – Lenny does not think much of what’s been achieved by the digital shorts and much of this down to poor writing, so he seems to be operating an old-style studio executive producer model of looking for scripts and directors to assign to them. But the trouble is that he doesn’t think that Digital Shorts has thrown up any directing talent either. He actually goes so far as to warn the wannabees not to get their hopes up as the chances of them getting anywhere with him are 100:1 (and actually probably a whole lot worse if you live outside the M25).

 

I had gone to the meeting with the aim of raising the issue of completion money. Quite a few production companies, ourselves included, have proved that you can take a film through to its fine cut on very little money. But it still means that one is left with the task of giving the film the final polish of professional grading and mastering, and the enormously long slog of producing a surround sound mix and music tracks, in order to bring the film up to exhibition standard. And that’s all work best undertaken by working with a high quality facilities house. On top of that it’s also very useful to have the assistance of people who can open doors when it comes to dealing with festivals, distributors and sales agents. In point of fact I had approached the UKFC when ‘Diary of a Bad Lad’ was at the fine cut stage, but no one even asked me to send them a screener. So, without having seen the film, I was, rather impolitely, told to go away.

 

As this contemporary reality was obviously off the agenda, I didn’t bother. But, as ‘clever and entertaining’ pretty much sums up Bad Lad in a nutshell, I said, “I make films because I want to entertain people.”

 

“Well you and me won’t be doing any business!” snapped back Lenny.

 

The trouble is, if we don’t campaign against these sorts of attitudes, then the Digital Screens Network won’t do any either.

 

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