Friday, 30 July 2010

UK FILM COUNCIL CLOSURE: The Best Reaction so Far

From the Daily Mash:

THE closure of the UK Film Council is a largely Danny Dyer-based decision, the culture secretary confirmed last night.

A sequel to Lesbian Vampire Killers is now looking increasingly unlikelyJeremy Hunt said the closure will mean the loss of 75 jobs but also guarantees a 92% reduction in poisonously bad Mockney crime capers over the next three years.

The Football Factory 'actor' who deliberately misspells his surname, will be slowly wound down over the next 18 months and eventually shoved off the end of Clacton pier.

Mr Hunt said: "It wasn't just Dyer, of course. Sex Lives Of The Potato Men, St Trinians, St Trinians II, that awful piece of shit about the spaceship on the way to the sun - please stop me when you've spotted the new Lawrence of Arabia."

Director Roy Hobbs has been forced him to postpone his latest film, You Fackin' Slag, a gritty, uncompromising drama about people who live in a horrible place but retain a wonderful sense of humour and rob a bank.

He added: "This is a disastrous decision that will force the British film industry into making films people actually want to see. Meanwhile I've got at least four Winstones sitting around doing nothing on time and a half."

Julian Cook, editor of Cinema magazine, said: "Thanks to public subsidy Britain is making some fantastic films such as the The Football Factory, the St Trinian's series and that wonderful film about the spaceship on the way to the sun.

"Meanwhile the best the Americans can come up with is rubbish like Sideways, Juno, Good Night and Good Luck, No Country for Old Men and The Godfather.

"Just imagine how good The Godfather could have been, if only it had been part-funded by the government."

Ken Loach, the artistic force behind some of the most wilfully unpopular British films of the last 40 years, insisted he would bring some of his trademark realism to his next project, a chalk and cheese buddy cop movie featuring a talkative pussy.

Loach said: "Admittedly Meow You're Talkin! is a change of pace for me, but it will be infused with authenticity, if we can just get the cat to improvise."

Thursday, 29 July 2010


There have been many responses to the ConDems plans to abolish the UK Film Council so far, including a Facebook protest group, a campaign website and a petition that, at the time of writing, has nearly 16,000 signatures (including my own).  This commentary presents a range of arguments which can be divided into two categories.

Firstly, the industry view.  This has been a combination of shock and incredulity.  For example, the Film Council's chairman, Tim Bevan: "Abolishing the most successful film support organisation the UK has ever had is a bad decision, imposed without any consultation or evaluation".  He continues, "People will rightly look back on today's announcement and say it was a big mistake, driven by short-term thinking and political expediency. British film, which is one of the UK's more successful growth industries, deserves better." 

Likewise John Woodward, the UKFC's Chief Executive: "Having first seen the bus marked 'Quango Cuts' hurtling towards us two years ago, I was certain we had proved our value.  But then, last Friday, the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt carefully backed the bus up, put his foot on the gas and drove it straight into us."

What is at stake for the industry is captured in a letter to the Guardian from Directors UK (a guild for film and television directors).  It argues that the UKFC "helped to create a unified cultural and industrial film sector, and [spoke] much good sense to both government and to the industry.  We welcome the proposed retention of film tax relief and the production fund, but we also want to see an effective environment within which they will operate, with no return to the chaos of the 1990s, with its conflicting bodies and departments and no single voice for the industry."

As mentioned in a previous post, the extent to which the UKFC seems to represent the entirety of British film culture in this discourse is interesting.  This assumes that the British film industry is a single monolithic entity that has a unified set of interests.  However, the UKFC, with its Board made up of industry movers and shakers, always represented the interests of the employers, the big money, more than it did struggling independent film-makers or those concerned with the less profitable aspects of cinematic activity. 

The "chaos of the 1990s" was the previous patchy and underfunded set of organisations - particularly the British Film Institute and the Regional Arts Boards with their broadly cultural remits - that had developed over a long period out of motivations to build aspects of film culture that were not catered for by the industry, such as minority cultural films, film education, political film-making, or community film-making.  The UKFC subsumed these within its "unified cultural and industrial film sector" which was basically a subsidised industrial sector geared to the perceived needs of business, much in keeping with New Labour's neoliberal restructuring of other parts of the public sector.  And it did this very well with relatively large amounts of subsidy.

Which leads us to the second category, the view of the independent sector.  These display a mixture of surprise, schadenfreude and tentative hope.  For example, Undercurrents, an activist film group, posted on their blog: "When I find something that I agree with in a Tory Government, should I begin to worry?" 

Filmutopia points out the irony of the situation: "For years, UKFC and their regional representatives have quite literally made decisions about who and what to fund, based on arbitrary and shifting criteria, which ultimately impacted on the personal finances and careers of the people involved. The fact that they are now being treated with the same 'well, we don't think your efforts are worth funding' mentality, that they themselves handed out on a daily basis, that tickles me."

Or take Brett Gerry, an independent film-maker based in the North East: "The UK Film Council failed totally at its remit, relaxing into a position whereby it fed a glossy Hollywood machine with docile crew and picture-postcard locations, and made pathetic token gestures at ‘real’ films for this country . . . Not a single one attempted to build a national film identity unique to this country, but all modelled themselves on a gross North American product".  Gerry argues that, "With the UK Film Council on the way out, there is now greater opportunity for those locked out of the old system to forge new directions in British cinema."

Alex Cox has been one of the most consistently vitriolic critics of the UKFC.  He argued that "It's very good news for anyone involved in independent film.  The Film Council became a means by which lottery money was transferred to the Hollywood studios.  It pursued this phoney idea that James Bond and Harry Potter were British films. But, of course, those films were all American – and their profits were repatriated to the studios in Los Angeles."

Equally consistent has been Colin MacArthur: "All sympathy to those about to lose their jobs, but the UK Film Council has been hoist by its own petard . . . it shovelled heaps of sterling into the already bulging pockets of the American majors . . . The [UKFC] did not foresee that an incoming Conservative-led government might just take the council's boasting about how business-friendly it was at face value.  If the market is so responsive to British film, went the Tory thinking, then the market can handle it without the Film Council.  It is profoundly ironic that it is the BFI . . . which will survive while the council goes under."

There is the sense that the chickens have come home to roost for the UKFC. Devoting themselves so slavishly to the market they are now the victims of its logic: the financial sector is more important to the ConDems than the film sector.

But was the UKFC so entirely market-orientated?

In fact, the UKFC presents an interesting case study into the operations of cultural policy under New Labour; the extent to which cultural subsidy had become instrumental in the neoliberal colonisation of the public sector and the transfer of public money to private interests.  To take two examples: one of the most lauded capital funding projects the UKFC initiated was the Digital Screen Network which completed in 2008 after converting 239 cinema screens from film projection to digital projection, giving the UK the largest number in Europe (until it was overtaken by France in 2009).  The potential benefits of this to cinema goers and smaller British film-makers alike were enormous: digital distribution is about 90% cheaper than traditional film and lowering the costs of distribution could open up the market to smaller, independent production companies and increase the proportion of non-Hollywood cinema shown on British screens.  However, in practice the savings accrue to distributors, of which ten companies control around 90% of the market.  Eight of these are American-owned, one French and one British.  The Digital Screen Network failed to tackle their industry position and effectively subsidised their already considerable share of the profits.  So while recent statistics show that the proportion of British films shown on British screens increased slightly in 2009, the main beneficiaries have been large international companies.

Example number two: much has been made of the UKFC’s role in training and development, particularly money spent on creating inroads to the industry for previously marginalised social groups.  They pumped money into regionally-based digital short film production schemes, helped set up several Screen Academies and funded low-budget feature films by often first-time creative teams.  This has allowed many people to make films who would not otherwise have been able to do so.  At the same time, it effectively outsources training, research and development – the sort of thing the industry used to do for itself – to the public sector whilst also providing publicly-funded products for commercial exploitation and a large pool of non-unionised skilled labour.  While this needs to be seen in the context of overall growth in the film sector in the period, again the overwhelming benefits accrue to the existing broadcast and film sectors.  For every Shane Meadows that has come through this system there are many more people working on low pay in short-term contracts with very little creative control over what they make.  Furthermore, research has shown that after ten years of such initiatives the film industry is still systemically racist and sexist.

In both these cases what was required was funding initiatives that shifted market power away from dominant commercial interests in favour of smaller organisations through the creation of an alternative distribution sector and film production network (what Margaret Dickinson and Sylvia Harvey have called the ‘other cinema’ strategy).  This could have provided a space for the production of films not made in the market place and created ongoing programs of work that kept film-makers in bread and butter when the international money dried up, as it periodically does.  In turn, this would have provided an outlet for such work.  It would, however, have involved interfering with the interests of the established commercial organisations, which New Labour simply would not countenance, seeing them as the drivers of all things of value.

So is the UKFC worth defending?  The answer is yes, and there are two reasons why.  Firstly, the context of overall cuts in subsidy means that whatever system replaces the UKFC it is more than likely going to have less money, and will probably be worse.  Secondly, the overall cutting back of commercial film production will have a large negative effect on the people that work in the film industry, whether through increased unemployment or decreased bargaining power, lower wages and poorer conditions.  The ability to make a broad range of different films in this country, and to see as broad a range as possible from elsewhere, depends on the levels of public subsidy available and this is the issue at stake.  Defending the UKFC is thus a position which, in the current climate, helps to defend the principle of not leaving culture to the market in general and defending film culture in particular.

Ultimately, then, defending film relies on reasons other than the relative amounts of profit different subsidy systems generate for private business.  Those concerned with film culture in whatever sense need to join the dots between their campaign and the wider campaign to defend public services.  And if the ConDems want to take British film back to the lean times of the 1980s then film-makers should take the lead and develop the sort of oppositional film sector that that decade of British cinema is best remembered for.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The End of the UK Film Council: A return to the 1980s?

Yesterday the ConDems announced their plans to abolish the UKFC as part of their more general policy of slash and burn in public services (Netribution has live commentary here).  We imagine for many people it comes as a surprise to think of the UKFC as a public service, not least the executives judging by the salaries they paid themselves.  They did everything they were supposed to: it wasn't subsidy, culture or art, but investment, economic development and sustainability.  Judging by the reactions so far, the extent to which the UKFC came to represent the British film industry becomes apparent, as if nothing is imaginable without them. 

This, then, is an opportunity to think through some 'old' arguments.  Why, and in what way, should the government fund film?  The UKFC and its advocates seem to be almost completely incapable of making an argument that does not come down to a commercial logic: we invest money into the film industry which has been a growth area of the UK economy.  They always represented the perceived interests of the industry players more than the public, or most individual film-makers, who were required to work within a framework that emphasised commercial potential at the expense of everything else.  Well, commercial logic has come back to bite them: propping up the banking sector is clearly more valuable to the economy than propping up the film industry.  But defending public subsidy at a time like this requires arguments based on other reasons, cultural reasons, political reasons, moral reasons, for example.  It is these arguments, more than any others, that can sustain opposition to the ConDems plans for the Big Society (which looks increasingly like 'there is no such thing as society') and judging by the comments on the 'Save the UKFC' Facebook group it is these arguments that motivate most people to defend the UKFC as well.

So is this the death of the UK film industry?  A return to the bad old days of Thatcher and the almost complete collapse of British film production?  The government's announcement is that it will establish a more direct relationship with the BFI and the Regional Screen Agencies are apprently safe, for the moment.  This would seem to be a return to the state of things pre-UKFC with a modest film-culture infrastructure.  But is the BFI now capable of fulfilling this role, particularly in terms of production?

The devil, as always, is in the detail.  The key questions are: how much will overall subsidy be reduced?  How will it be distributed?
Watch this space.