Saturday, 23 October 2010

Film Policy in the UK and the Spending Review: The Cultural-Shock Doctrine in Action?

The Spending Review and Film

In one of the first posts on this blog I speculated as to whether the closure of the UK Film Council would signal a return to the dark days of the 1980s and the almost complete collapse of British film production. As I said then, the devil is in the detail: how much will overall subsidy be reduced, how will it be distributed? The details of the cuts made to public subsidy for film in the UK are now emerging. What do these suggest?

Cuts or Restructuring?

The following article in Screen Daily outlines the cuts, reproduced via BFI Watch:

film-sector funding outside Lottery funds and the British Film Institute (BFI) has been slashed by over 50% . . .

. . . the annual grant-in-aid budget for film in each of the next four years will be around £18.618m, down from £23.9m in the year 2010/11. After counting the BFI’s newly reduced annual budget, that leaves just £4.655m for all other film activities (excluding Lottery development/production funding which the government has pledged to maintain at current levels). That £4.655m will have to cover:

• inward investment and the work of the British Film Commissioner
• National and regional screen agencies
• research and statistics
• film exports
• certification (assessing which films qualify as British and are therefore eligible for Lottery funding and/or UK Film Tax Relief)
• diversity initiatives
• anti-piracy initiatives
• co-production support
• The UK MEDIA Desk activities
• Sponsorship of work such as The UK Film Centre at Cannes

Cuts had been anticipated but the 50% figure for non-BFI and non-Lottery funding is a stiff reduction and confirms the fear of many in the industry that, while Lottery funding and the tax certification are safe, other areas of the film business will suffer . . .

. . . Meanwhile regional screen agencies are anticipating a cut in funding along the same 15% lines as the BFI.

So these are big cuts, disproportionately placed on certain parts of the subsidised film sector. The tax incentives designed to stimulate commercial feature film production and inward investment are maintained, along with Lottery funding for production. The main cuts are to come from the BFI and the Regional Screen Agencies. The Spending Review can be seen, therefore, as a restructuring exercise for film subsidy in the UK. We can understand it by looking at the structure of film subsidy during the New Labour period.

The Structure of Film Subsidy under New Labour

In the UK Film Council’s first major policy statement, ‘Towards a Sustainable Film Industry’, then Chairman Alan Parker described the UKFC’s strategy thus: "Essentially our intention is to use public money to make better, more popular and more profitable films in real partnership with the private sector, which drives our industry and largely creates our film culture." On the other hand, the “cultural role of the UK FILM COUNCIL has been largely delegated to the British Film Institute and its regional partners." (Here, page 1)

While the separation of industrial and cultural functions proved to be not as neat as Parker would have us think, this demonstrates the structural division between commercial subsidy – primarily via the tax incentive and lottery investment in production – and cultural subsidy – via the BFI and the Regional Screen Agencies – that characterised the New Labour period. As a DEMOS report put it: “The Government and the UK Film Council look to the RSAs to help capture the many facets of British communities”:

To encourage the growth of a sense of community and identity, to identify and empower under-represented and marginalised voices, give support for different forms of distribution, and ensure diversity of access and participation. (Here, pages 20 and 17)

In policy terms, the social and cultural objectives of film subsidy – community, identity, diversity, social inclusion – were placed onto the RSAs and the BFI. The extent to which the Regional Screen Agencies concerned themselves with social and cultural initiatives in practice is a bigger topic than I have space to discuss here, but it is undoubtedly true that they provided a badly-needed inroad to the industry for marginalised social groups. However imperfect they were, these aspects of film policy recognised the failure of the market to be representative of British social and cultural life. It is these sorts of initiatives that will be reduced. We’ve already seen Screen East, one of the Regional Screen Agencies, close (although the circumstances of this are unclear).

So while operators like Clint Eastwood, Dreamworks and Directors UK might be breathing a sigh of relief for the moment, this spells trouble for community film-makers in Leicester or Newcastle. In short, these cuts are not fair; like the more general attack on the welfare state of which they are a part they will disproportionally effect the poorer, more independent and vulnerable sections of the film sector. 

In the 1980s commercial subsidies – the Eady Levy in particular – were slashed leading to the almost complete collapse of commercial feature film production in this country. At the same time, cultural-film subsidy was maintained at a certain level, mostly through BFI Production. This produced some memorable, often oppositional films (My Beautiful Laundrette, Orlando, The Draughtsman’s Contract, Young Soul Rebels).

In this phase of neoliberal restructuring we appear to be witnessing the opposite strategy: the maintenance of subsidy to the commercial film sector at the same time as the withdrawal of state support for the cultural sector. This is the cultural-shock doctrine in action.

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