Breaking the British movie myth

The government has wasting millions chasing the dream of a Hollywood-style film industry—at the expense of genuine innovation. The answer is to shut down the UK film council
December 16, 2009
Fish Tank: a fine British film part-funded by UKFC. The exception, not the rule

In November, the UK Film Council issued a consultation document for its future strategy. This came on the heels of a press release in August from the department for culture, media and sport stating its intention to merge the UKFC and the British Film Institute. What both documents actually signalled was the total failure of a key plank in new Labour’s cultural policy.

When the then secretary of state Chris Smith set up the UKFC in 2000 the aim was to create a “sustainable film industry” in Britain. Out would go the world of production companies living hand-to-mouth making small films, and in would come an industry to rival Hollywood. The national lottery would provide subsidy on a scale to dwarf anything that had gone before. The British Film Institute was stripped of its production activities and deemed an “educational” body, although all its innovative educational experiments were abandoned. A new organisation, the UKFC, was established, to provide the strategic vision and investment that would create a gleaming new profitable future.

There were some voices even then—and mine was one of them—who claimed that a sustainable film industry was a fantasy. Moreover, it was a fantasy that had failed to materialise in every decade from Alexander Korda in the 1930s to David Puttnam in the 1970s and 1980s.

Film plays a very different role in Britain, both culturally and industrially, than it does in the US. For complex historical reasons, both theatre and television occupy a much more dominant position in Britain. In addition, the fact of a shared language with the US makes our industry a branch campus of Hollywood. This means that inevitably the film industry is a hodgepodge of small production companies and big studios that make their living on the margins of the American film and the British television industries. Until the creation of the UKFC, all the existing forms of subsidy in the British film industry recognised this fact—from the venerable British Film Institute Production Board (which funded very low budget experimental films) to the more recent British Screen (which provided additional monies to commercial films) and the completely new “franchises” scheme, through which lottery money was put directly into production companies.

The new Labour regime appointed John Woodward to make their new institution a reality, and he has run the UKFC ever since as its chief executive. Woodward swept away the existing arrangements and deemed that all subsidy would now flow through this single body. And what subsidy: in less than a decade, the UKFC has spent more than £300m on film (at least five times as much as previous subsidy regimes). But there is still no sign of a sustainable British film industry.

Lest I be thought a neutral judge of this experiment may I note, for the record, that one of Woodward’s first acts was the abolition of the BFI Production Board—which I headed from 1985-89, and whose future I thought I had assured—as well as the abandonment of the graduate school that, as the BFI’s head of research and education from 1989-98, I had thought would ensure the future of the BFI itself. Two decades of work were trashed in a year and without any debate. But that was long ago and far away, and if Woodward had succeeded in kick-starting a new industry perhaps the game would have been worth the candle.

He didn’t. And while it was inevitable that economic and cultural realities were going to ensure the failure of this new Labour folly, the UKFC could have failed with grace. But it has failed gracelessly. In preparing this article, I have talked to many producers and have been startled by the level of venom I have encountered. For the UKFC’s aggressive commercial strategy, completely at odds with comparable European bodies, has gone hand in hand with the frequent contractual request that they have final cut on a film, overriding both the producer and director. Moreover, as a senior executive of one the most established production companies told me, “it uses the tactics of a Hollywood studio and its monopoly position to bully producers out of decent equity positions.”

It is here that we touch the kernel of the fantasy of the sustainable British film industry. What everyone has dreamed of is a Hollywood studio in Britain, with its boss firing off curt memos with the brutality and panache of a Jack Warner. But if the failures of Korda and Puttnam were tragedy, Woodward has repeated them as farce. Despite talking the talk of an experienced industry insider, Woodward has never walked the walk. He has neither produced a foot of film, nor raised a pound of finance for a specific film.

Unsurprisingly for the chief of a new Labour institution, Woodward learned his trade as a lobbyist for industry bodies. He is a master spinner and the UKFC expends a considerable amount of energy spinning to the government not on the industry’s but on its own behalf. The Council pours money into genuine events like the British Independent Film awards or the London Film Festival in order to attract sufficient celebrities, whose photos in the paper the next day are shown to officials and ministers as proof that it is doing a magnificent job. More alarmingly, its patronage in effect suppresses dissent. Rod Stoneman, former head of the Irish Film Board, says “nobody will criticise the UKFC publicly because they are convinced that will damage their chances of future funding.”

Of course, the UKFC has done some good. Its one unqualified success, praised by all, has been the tax credit system for the film industry, which it has championed. With so much money, it has also co-financed some great British films, like 2009’s magnificent Fish Tank. But its successes have not matched those of the cash-strapped bodies that preceded it and its failure rate is far worse. It has rolled out a digital screen network that the industry was unwilling to fund, yet it does not have the ambitious distribution policy that would turn this network into a real national resource. It has poured money into training, where the results have been mixed at best. To take one spectacular example, the Film Business Academy, which launched its courses at Cannes in 2007 with much beating of the drums, has decided to ditch those same courses on the basis that they were “neither educationally valid nor commercially sustainable.” When I asked insiders to tell me what the Council does very well, even apologists only became enthusiastic about First Light, a scheme set up in 2001 that has helped the production of over 800 films by “budding young filmmakers.”

One area where Woodward has succeeded is in setting financial records for the quangocracy. A DCMS written reply this summer confirmed that four executives are earning more than a cabinet minister (that is, more than £144,520). Others argue that, if bonuses are included, the figure is actually seven. These figures bear no comparison to salaries in the industry itself: the head of development is on a cool £165,000 a year, at least three times the industry norm. Given these salaries, it is not surprising that the last four year’s accounts show overheads running at a staggering £8m—more than the total government funding for the bodies the UKFC replaced. The accounts also show that these overheads make up 25 per cent of the income that the Council derives from its lottery income. In 2008, for example, the UKFC received £29.7m in direct lottery grants and another £5.7m in recoupment from previous lottery investments. Besides spending £8m on itself, the UKFC put not one penny of its return from films back into film production, a feat it has managed every year that it has existed.

Whatever happens, government expenditure is going to have to be slashed in the very near future. Now is the moment to think of reforming in combination with cutting. The Tory leader David Cameron keeps on saying that there is an immense amount of wasteful government expenditure. If he wants to demonstrate that he means business, then having a businesslike look at the UKFC would be an excellent first step. The moment could not be more propitious. The proposed merger of the UKFC and the BFI allows a real review of film policy. Initially it was proposed as a simple takeover of the BFI by the Council, no doubt designed to provide some cover for an institution that has no basis in statute or public political debate. The fact that the BFI has a royal charter—which enshrines its mission to “encourage the development of the arts of film, television and the moving image throughout the UK”—must offer tempting security to UKFC executives fearful that their gravy train might be about to hit the buffers. But, after a decade, the BFI worm has finally turned. With Greg Dyke as its new chair and a board that shows more spirit and intelligence than its predecessors, the BFI has proposed an alternative plan in which it takes over needlessly duplicated functions from the Council, such as education.

One further activity must be taken over by the BFI. At the moment, the UKFC acts as the research body on which the government relies for its industry statistics. But the statistics we see tend to reflect rather too well on the Council. The most egregious example was the much touted claim that 15 per cent of films seen on world screens last year were British. No breakdown of this figure was given, making it impossible to distinguish between Hollywood studio pictures made in this country, like the Harry Potter films, and those films actually made by British independents. No government can make policy on such misleading statistics. It is, of course, the case that British actors, in particular, and talent in general continue to attract Hollywood. This is a delight and has been true since Charlie Chaplin; it owes little or nothing to the Council.

Shorn of these superfluous functions, the UKFC could finally focus on how best to fund films. The key figure here will be Tim Bevan, its newly appointed chair. Unlike his predecessors, Bevan is a producer. Indeed he is not only the most successful producer of his generation but also, arguably, the most successful British producer of all time. Twice nominated for Oscars and with many of his films having set box office records, his nearly 100 film credits include My Beautiful Laundrette, Four Weddings and a Funeral, United 93, Shaun of the Dead and the Bridget Jones films. Throughout the 1980s, before his company Working Title signed up first with Polygram and then with Universal, Bevan worked as one of those small producers who have been so downtrodden and patronised by the UKFC in this decade. His hand can be seen in the new consultation on the UKFC’s future. From now on, producers are guaranteed favourable equity positions; now, too, all film revenue will go back into production.

But Bevan has two problems. The first is his chief executive, Woodward, whose credibility may be undermined if he has to mouth policies that contradict everything he has said and done in the past ten years. The second is that Bevan has publicly expressed belief in the failed model of the Council itself. How long his belief in a publicly funded monopoly will last is anybody’s guess. The consultation certainly understands that there is a problem, promising a plurality of “gatekeepers” for the public funds on offer. But such promises mean little if these gatekeepers are all within the same institution. The real question is whether the money should be distributed through franchises or whether we should revert to previously successful models. It remains to be seen whether Bevan will crown his career as a producer by devising a new and lasting settlement for the public finance of film.

Read a response to this article, defending the British film industry, by screenwriter Charles Gant in the February issue of Prospect