David Cameron’s ill-conceived vision for the British film industry

Jack Blackburn 11.32am

David Cameron’s comments about the UK film industry have attracted a good deal of controversy.
The Prime Minister’s view is that the film industry’s primary concern should be to invest in films that are likely to be “mainstream and commercially promising”.

This is part of a wider range  of government statements on the subject of British film, most of which will be formally set out in Lord Smith’s review next week. The emphasis is largely on the notion of making British film more lucrative than it is now, by appealing to broader international markets (i.e. America) and trying to maximise profits by investment in the aforementioned “commercially promising” projects.

The rhetoric has been brief and lacking detail so far but its tone is troubling. It sounds like ill-informed nonsense. While I have sympathy with the idea that so-called ‘mainstream’ projects should get a higher proportion of public funding than they currently do, this idea contains many problems.
 Firstly, as has been widely commented, one cannot reliably predict which films are going to be successful. The two most successful British films of recent years, Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The King’s Speech (2010), were not ideas which seemed “commercially promising” until very late on in their production. Who would have thought that millions would see films about the slums of Bombay, or a man’s struggle with his stutter? Famously, the former lost its American distributor a matter of months before it won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Secondly, given that you cannot make these predictions, if you are looking for potential commercial successes, you are more than likely to go for safe-bet ideas, which generally translate to the inane, the dull and the forgettable. If one looks at the most bankable films made in Hollywood, such as Transformers (2007) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, 2007, 2011), they are often (but not always) unremarkable. They frequently aim for the lowest common denominator and generate repetitive sequels. Are these the characteristics we want for the British film industry?

Finally, the philosophy behind these ideas is deeply distressing. It is unacceptable to presume that art and culture should only be there if there is an appropriately sized audience for it. Such a philosophy serves to create a narrow and homogenous culture, increasingly devoid of variety and vivacity, based not on the tastes of many groups but on the single perceived group of the “many”. This is undesirable, particularly as there is a vibrant and successful film industry in Britain. Based on its good track record, the Prime Minister could be well-advised to leave it to run itself.

This article was originally published on Jack Blackburn’s film blog, Reel 6.

Follow Jack on Twitter @BlackburnJA and the Reel 6 blog @Reel_6

Government extension of film tax relief is welcome boost for British film and economy

Nik Darlington 11.20am

David Cameron has today announced the Government will extend film tax relief until the end of December 2015, following competition approval from the European Commission.

The film tax relief provided £95 million of support to the £1 billion British film industry in 2009/10, according to a ‘cultural test’. Films that qualified under this test include Brighton Rock, Coriolanus (right) and Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows.

In February, our in-house thespian and film critic Jack Blackburn criticised the Government’s decision to axe the UK Film Council, saying that films such as the celebrated King’s Speech could not have been produced without up-front assistance.

The UKFC had an aim to support British filmmaking, through lottery funding for production and distribution, as well as promoting Britain as a location for international film. It was a cornerstone for a thriving industry, whose achievements were numerous. Most striking is that for every £1 of the £160 million invested over the past decade, it generated £5.

And in August, Jack covered a British Film Institute report which revealed that the UK film industry contributed £3.3 billion to the national economy in 2010.

Film is clearly an important export for the UK and no longer just because Brits make good toffs, spies and villains in Hollywood flicks. Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said:

The huge success of British films at the Oscars, the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs this year is clear recognition of our world-class talent and creativity. But as a vital creative industry, it also has huge potential for economic growth. Film tax relief is at the heart of our drive to support the production of culturally British films within a sustainable and vibrant industry. I’m delighted that we can give certainty to the industry for the next four years.

Any Government support, in a year that it seemed as though support was lacking, is very welcome. Especially when there’s the possibility of economic growth to be mentioned.

UK film industry needs our support as audiences fall and Harry Potter departs

Jack Blackburn 6.00am

The UK Film industry contributed £3.3 billion to our GDP in 2010. In these tough times it needs and deserves our support.

Box office figures for the UK in 2010 are something of a paradox. Admissions are up. Receipts are up. Explanation? 3D.

But one of the reasons I despise 3D is that it costs more to see a 3D film than a 2D film. And for no reason, as far as the consumer is concerned. There is no difference in quality. Consumers see no reason why we should pay more for one film over another.

Nevertheless, it was the success of films such as Toy Story 3 that led to the upturn at the box office, as 3D films contributed 24 per cent of total revenue for the UK and Ireland.

However, the most important figure is also the most depressing: less people are going to the cinema.

This could turn out to be one of the most turbulent weeks on global financial markets in my lifetime. The crises afflicting economies worldwide are entering a second stage of turmoil. With cuts being employed as medicine, people have less money to spend and for cinemas this means fewer admissions. The industry needs to brace itself for a contraction in the coming years.

As far as concerns British films, a British Film Institute (BFI) report is keen to highlight the success of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One, but that is a franchise that as of this summer has been and gone. Once the revenue from Part Two has been counted (with the expected 3D bonus), the nation’s film industry has a vacuum that may not be filled. British productions may need supporting in the future.

The other thing the report highlights is the value of big films being made in Britain by outsiders, including Hollywood and Bollywood. This remains British film’s strong point. Directors such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, and films like X-Men: First Class and Captain America, have all had an involvement in the UK in the last year. The appeal of filming in Britain persists but film-makers can go elsewhere if the UK becomes economically unviable.

Only the biggest optimist would say that the BFI’s report is encouraging. Tough times lie ahead, even if the current state of our film industry is strong. They key to success in the coming difficult years is to continue to support it.

For more on this subject read: 'The King's Speech its last hurrah, is the UK Film Council a cut too far?' by Jack Blackburn (23 February 2011)

You can read more of Jack’s work at the Reel 6 blog, and follow him on Twitter @BlackburnJA

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The new Creative Industries Council is good mood music but can it deliver?

Sahar Rezazadeh 6.44am

The launch of the Creative Industries Council has received a good reception from leading heads of industry, such as the Music Industries Association, the Design Council, the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors and UK Music.

Chairing the new council are the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and the Business Secretary, Vince Cable. It is anticipated that it will comprise representation from across the creative industries such as music, film, gaming, design and TV production. The Chancellor, George Osborne, has said that the purpose of the council is to ‘provide a voice for the sector with the financial community and coordinate action on barriers to growth…as well as access to finance, the CIC will look at other issues in the sector, which may include skills, export markets, regulation, IP and infrastructure.’

The UK’s creative industries face a host of challenges. Foremost is a lack of investment, which has handed an advantage to global competitors, mostly in the United States. Despite the fact that the music industry alone contributes nearly £5 billion annually to the UK economy and employs over 130,000 people, the growth potentials for creative industries go unrecognised.

The Chancellor and the Treasury recognise that investment possibilities are regularly misunderstood and financiers are ‘more likely to turn down a request for funding from a creative industry player than a company from another sector with a similar risk profile.’

Feargal Sharkey, former lead singer of The Undertones and now the head of UK Music, has pointed out that talent needs time and patience to develop over five years or more, but the eventual returns can be very beneficial to all stakeholders and the wider economy. Instead even when artists do attract investment their work can be compromised in the search for higher returns. Musical themes of sex and violence are invested in for quick profitable returns. Other themes and genres might be more narrowly appreciated but that shouldn’t mean they can’t be profitable long-term. In any case, the creative industries will be more successful when appreciated for their artistic worth as opposed to short-term financial gain.

Sharkey has outlined three key areas of attention for the UK music industry:

Help the creative sectors gain access to the financial and investment communities; develop the necessary education, skills and training; and enforce tougher copyright protection.

Given that almost 85 per cent of businesses in the creative and cultural sectors employ less than five people, independently focused measures will go a long way to supporting talented designers, artists and producers who are unable to get exposure for their work. Independent artists are squeezed out by the four major record labels.

Businesses in the creative sector play huge social and cultural roles. Music and film have massive influence. Creative industries also have enormous economic potential. For the next decade, we must ensure that British entertainment and design gets the investment it needs to showcase all our best talent to the world. Most industries have their own vested interests and the creative industries are no exception. It is important that we do not shut out the next generation of talented artists, producers, designers and innovators. The new Creative Industries Council is apposite mood music. Now it has to deliver.

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The King’s Speech its last hurrah, is the UK Film Council a cut too far?

Jack Blackburn 7.55am

The King’s Speech, This Is England, The Last King of Scotland, Touching The Void: merely a selection of the films produced with the help of the UK Film Council, which will dissolve this year - a victim of the bonfire of the quangos.

The UKFC had an aim to support British filmmaking, through lottery funding for production and distribution, as well as promoting Britain as a location for international film. It was a cornerstone for a thriving industry, whose achievements were numerous. Most striking is that for every £1 of the £160 million invested over the past decade, it generated £5.

The King’s Speech (pictured), its last hurrah and hotly tipped for this weekend’s Oscars, caused a stir at the BAFTAs. Its producer, Emile Sherman, said: “Without the UK Film Council this film just could not have been made, and it’s a real testament to the importance of government subsidy for the film industry.”

Its abolition has caused uproar amongst filmmakers worldwide, including Steven Spielberg (KBE). At a talk in Oxford that I attended, Lord Puttnam - the film producer and Labour peer, one of the driving forces behind the UKFC’s creation and a prominent critic of its rescission - suggested that the Government had blundered by throwing national film policy into jeopardy and being ignorant of its obligations (the UKFC’s lottery money awaited distribution).

The Government had to solve this problem. The result was a transfer of certain UKFC responsibilities to the British Film Institute. This included the referring of duties to educate and to support film nationwide. The round-and-round-in-circles farrago seemed to demonstrate a lack of organisation and nous in Jeremy Hunt’s department. It did not inspire confidence.

Alongside the Government’s cuts to arts teaching and a 30 per cent cut to the Art Council’s budget, it is little wonder that the Government’s commitment to the arts is under question. Of course, the economic situation is complex, but how much of a hit can these lucrative and popular industries take, and how great will the long-term damage be?

Many questions remain. Can the BFI carry out its new tasks on top of its existing commitments? Will it be as effective as the UKFC? Is the next generation of filmmakers still at risk of being unsupported?

Only time will tell, but the UKFC was a boon to the national economy. Its demolition is not a saving: it is a loss.