Review of the Two Year Review of the UK Film Policy Review

Film Policy Review Squared

Two years ago Lord Chris Smith convened a panel of industry experts to examine UK film policy and the work of the BFI. The result was a report that ran to 111 pages in length and out of kindness to you dear reader I read it all and condensed the findings into 10 key sections. You can re-read my summary by clicking here.

To give you some context the report was published in January 2012 shortly after the UK Film Council had been abolished and the BFI suddenly found themselves responsible for distributing National Lottery funds and became responsible for not just the cultural well-being of the British film industry but the commercial side too. The report gave the BFI some guidance as to what was expected of them as they ventured into new territory. The BFI was used to being an archivist, not a producer, and needed all the help it could get.

Two years on and the panel has reconvened and I am pleased to say that the findings are largely positive, the lovely BFI have done well in their new role with some areas for improvement. The full pdf of their new report can be downloaded here but I have once again summarised it all for you below.

1: Audience Development
“Public policy should be used to maximise audience access to films of every kind.”
As a result of the panel’s recommendations the BFI have launched the Film Audience Network and the BFI Player. Thumbs up from the panel. However the BFI failed to properly connect with the commercial side of the exhibition sector, including small and large cinema operators, which has lost them lots of potential support. Large cinemas account for 75% of screens and should not be ignored when it comes to developing audiences. Could this be a case of snobbery on the BFI’s part? In 2017 the BFI are expected to get more independent films into both multiplex and art-house cinemas. Finally I can recommend the smaller films without annoying everyone.

2: Film Education
“Film education can assist in growing the audiences of today and tomorrow, ensuring that more people have an improved understanding and appreciation of the value of different kinds of film.”
The BFI have established a new film education organisation, Film Nation UK (FNUK) to encourage 5 – 19 year olds to learn about film. Another thumbs up. The aim now is for the FNUK to gain independence from the BFI and be self-sustaining after 2017. FNUK needs to engage better with schools and teachers and to do so needs to work closer with the Department for Education. “FNUK can enable film to be recognised far more widely as a cultural peer of literature, drama and music, in terms of both artistic and educational value.” Also need to ensure that there is a clear path for young people to get involved in film as a career.

3: The Virtual Print Fee
This was established as a cost to distributors every time a film is played at a new cinema and has been used to fund the cost of digitising UK cinemas. This was a success in the sense that the UK has become a fully digitised sector, including a total of 300 digital independent cinema screens. On the downside this has meant higher distribution costs for smaller films which might have in the past used the same 35mm print at various cinemas as part of a slow, rather than saturated release. This fee is actually slowing the distribution of independent films. The panel are proposing to only charge for the number of concurrent digital “prints” in use or simply waive the fee on films released on a number of screens below a specified threshold (99).

4: Development, Production, Distribution
The panel gives a sympathetic shrug to the BFI for having to tackle new responsibilities and deal with a large cut to government funding. Despite this the BFI have implemented some of the reports recommendations including the Vision Awards, the recycling of development funds, a new animation development partnership, and supporting the development of family films. Lots of admin in this section so skipping along… Lots of complicated money stuff… Way over my head…

5: Broadcasters
“The Panel is frustrated there has been little progress on its recommendations concerning broadcasting”
The government gets a ticking off here as they endorsed the panel’s proposals to get BSkyB, ITV, and Channel 5 to do more to support the UK film industry but have failed to use their relationship with the broadcasters to prioritise the issue. “In particular, by the end of 2015, the Panel would like to see BSkyB investing at least £20m, ITV £10m, and Channel 5 £5m per annum in original feature film production, as well as acquiring a greater number of British and specialised films.” We all know that the BBC and Film 4 are major players in the film world so it makes sense to expect the same from our other big entertainment brands.

6: International Strategy
“UK films earned a combined worldwide gross of $5.3 billion in 2012 – a 15% share of the global box office – with the twenty-third James Bond film, Skyfall, earning over $1.1 billion alone. The 2012 gross for UK films was less than 2011’s high of $5.6 billion, but more than any other year recorded.” The Film Tax Relief has kept a steady supply of films being made and the relief will be extended to high-end TV productions from April 2014 which is lovely. More needs to be done to promote the UK industry as a solid investment to international investors, particularly major US studios. Despite UK films success worldwide there is a lack of structured support for delivering UK films to the global audience. All sorts of companies and agencies need to work together to explore partnerships. BBC Worldwide in particular look to be a key avenue for getting UK films out to international sales.

7: Skills & Talent Development
“The future success of the UK film industry, and the vitality of its film culture, depends on the ability to nurture new talent and skills.”
Skills and talent development are two distinct strands but need joined up planning to make the best use of funds. BFI and Creative Skillset have worked together on a funding strategy for 2013-17 and the BFI and Creative England have launched a new Talent Network. All these agencies need to collaborate going forward and, along with the government, must support the BFI’s new Diversity Strategy to ensure opportunities in the industry are available to women, ethnic minorities, and socially deprived populations. As a straight white male I need to check my privilege.

8: Research & Knowledge
More research is needed into the UK film acquisition market and to the impact the Virtual Print Fees are having on independent distributors versus traditional print fees. All the new initiatives need to be rigorously measured and evaluated. The BFI Film Research & Statistics Fund (a very exciting set of words to a film and data geek like me) has been put out to tender which pleases the panel as it offers some separation between the research and those being researched but the relationship between the research and policy needs to remain strong.

9: The BFI as Lead Agency for Film
“The BFI seems to have been less confident in seizing the leadership of the commercial needs of British film than it has been in sustaining its traditional expertise in cultural, educational and archival work.” There is still work to be done for the BFI to truly represent all parts of the UK film industry. As the BFI matures into its role as lead agency for film in the UK it needs to act as a strong industry leader whilst also allowing partners enough freedom to deliver.

I feel like I’ve just read someone’s school report. Still, nice to see a good level of transparency and accountability.

I’ve saved my favourite excerpt for the very end, it is from the section on Education: “The Panel believes that by putting the needs of schools at the centre of its approach  FNUK can enable film to be recognised far more widely as a cultural peer of literature, drama and music, in terms of both artistic and educational value.”

Isn’t that a lovely sentiment? I think I was just moved by a governmental policy review. How unsettling.

Wallace and Gromit – British by Government Order

I’m wading into political territory again so am going to be treading very carefully to avoid highlighting my ignorance about things like “budget”, “tax credits”, or “things that happened yesterday”.

Yesterday George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer and owner of a villainous face) announced the Budget for 2012, a budget so important it starts with a capital letter. Whether this Budget is a good Budget/budget or not is for people with a better grasp on the contents of that red briefcase than me. What caught my attention was the introduction of tax credits for TV production in the UK.

Obviously anything being filmed in the UK is exciting news as there’s always the chance that I will stumble across something being filmed while ambling through London. But more interestingly is the reason Osborne cited for introducing the credit:

“It is the determined policy of this Government to keep Wallace and Gromit exactly where they are.”

Nice to know that our plasticine pals won’t be bailing from Bristol and that the Government is keeping a close eye on the duo. Clearly Osborne backed it up with other reasons, which you can read over at the BBC, but the fact remains clear; the MPs bloody love a bit of Aardman Animation and can’t wait to see what Wallace and Gromit get up to next. Bless.

Can’t wait for the Government to order an enquiry called “Whatever Happened to the Wombles?” or “Is There Room for Bagpuss in the 21st Century?”. Fingers crossed they forcibly bring back A Bit of Fry & Laurie, I miss those crazy kids.

The Future’s Bright, The Future’s British

Lord Chris Smith has handed in his homework in the form of a review of UK film policy. Despite David Cameron getting everyone in a right bother last week, it turns out that the review itself is balanced and considered and at no point looks to focus on the profitability of the films which receive public funding. Instead there is a focus on investment in training, distribution and restoration alongside simple film production. David Cameron gave us all the wrong impression, something which hardly fights against his status of prick. PLEASE NOTE: Mild Concern most definitely has a political bias.

The report is lengthy and gives in total 56 different suggestions for ensuring the future success of the UK film industry. The short version is that the BFI have a lot of work to do to, I’d hate to have been in their offices as they read through 56 items they will need to start addressing ASAP. You can read the entire report in a rather jazzy PDF or just read my summary of the recommendations below. I’ll try not to drone on.

Make Films for Everyone
Looking back to last Wednesday’s rant it seemed as if Julian Fellowes was speaking out against art house films, but a look at the review shows that the idea is instead to fund a wide variety of films. The review suggests funding a broad and rich range of British films, ensure a plurality of taste in funding, and specifically funding to support the “unique challenges” of animation and independent family films that parents can enjoy with their children. We get to keep our Tyrannosaurs but must support other film genres too.

Get Films to Everyone
Funding is not just for production, but for distribution too. Far too often I recommend a great independent film forgetting that in London we are lucky to have access to all releases while other areas don’t get a glimpse of treasures like Submarine. Suggested methods of ensuring everyone gets access to independent British cinema include coordinating local cinemas and film societies across the country, “enhancing social cohesion”, using new digital technology and broadband to get films to all areas and having smaller exhibitors exchange best practises. There is even a suggestion of funding screening equipment in community halls for rural areas, no one will be left out.

Promote the British Film Brand in UK and Abroad
The BFI is to spend plenty of time and money building the “British Film Brand”, possibly through an annual “British Film Week”. Another suggestion is for a UK wide film festival offering from the BFI to promote independent films, spreading the success of the London Festival to other areas. The BFI is also recommended to set out an international strategy for UK film, develop international co-production and BBC Worldwide is to continue to invest in and promote British films on a global level.

The Children Are Our Future
Lots of suggestions for the BFI to invest in educating young people in all aspects of film; every school should offer film education including making, seeing and learning about British films. Prepare to watch Kes everyone. A strategy is needed to ensure that production skills being taught are the “Gold Standard” and the three Skillset Film Academies are in need of review. The BBC and their like are to continue to invest in talent development and be the leading gateway to the industry for new talent. There should be a career ladder for any film-maker beyond their first film and any company receiving lottery funding should have a scheme in place to invest in developing new talent. Education should stretch beyond film-making and cover new media and entrepreneurship in the film industry. Talent should also be nurtured outside of the London area.

Let’s Get Digital, Digital. I Wanna Get Digital. Let’s Get into Digital
The review stresses the importance of moving to digital for a variety of reasons, and while the plight of the projectionist is sad it does seem to make sense. Digital distribution of independent British films will make it cheaper to transport for exhibition and allow access to more film for smaller venues. The report also recommends the BFI working with online distributors to help promote and invest in UK films.

There Be Pirates
The review loses me slightly in its recommendation of pushing forward the Digital Economy Act (something I’ve ranted about before, twice). Piracy may well be bad but censoring the internet is not the answer; Wikipedia will go offline for a day tomorrow to protest a similar move in America. Other suggestions to combat piracy are pro-copyright education in schools, for the Government to tackle file sharing sites and to make it a criminal offence to record films shown in cinemas.

Not All About Return on Investment
Far from being the money hungry beast David Cameron led us to believe this report might be, it instead suggests that the BFI relax recuperation targets for its investments. The report also recommends that any money returned to the lottery fund due to a film’s success be available to that film’s writer, director and producers and the funds be directly made accessible to whichever company made the successful film so that they can go on and try to repeat that success.

Protect British Heritage
The final suggestions from the report look at protecting the heritage of British cinema, looking to ensure the long-term safety of and access to the UK’s significant collection of films. It’s all about preservation and presentation. This includes the BFI forming new partnerships to get funding from outside investors to help digitise and exhibit classic British films and the BBC to maintain funding for archiving UK television.

Outside Investment is Key
While mostly advising the BFI on how to spend our money, the report also stresses the importance of the BFI drumming up outside support. This includes a call for all the major UK broadcasters (BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and BSkyB) to openly set out their financial commitments to British films, and suggest that the BFI incentivise private investment in UK film and encourage sponsorship and philanthropy for film culture.

It’s All About Balance
Recommendation number 17 pretty much sums up the report by stating that, “The Panel recommends that BFI funding for film should be broadly balanced between filmmaking and distribution activities (development, production, P&A) and activities related to film culture (audience development, film education and training, film export, lifelong learning, archive and heritage, activity in the Nations and Regions, economic cultural and policy research); and further recommends that within the two broad categories as much flexibility should be available to the BFI as possible to respond to the needs of audiences, the film industry, and film culture.”

It looks mostly good to me, any emphasis on improving distribution is key, and it looks like there isn’t too much emphasis on profits over art. Good on you Lord Chris Smith, and shame on you David Cameron for getting me worked up over nothing.

David Cameron is a Prick

Consider this a sequel to when I called James Cameron a prick, these Camerons rile me right up. A report is to be released on Monday by Lord Smith reviewing the government’s film policy and David Cameron has spoken out ahead of its release and said the following:

“Our role, and that of the BFI, should be to support the sector in becoming even more dynamic and entrepreneurial, helping UK producers to make commercially successful pictures that rival the quality and impact of the best international productions.”

It is only appropriate to behave like the rest of the internet and focus on one part of what he said and extrapolate this beyond all recognition, making sure to ignore the fact that he was probably only saying what he had been advised to say and that he probably cares very little about what films we make. Cameron has annoyed me in the past so I’m happy to get subjective about this.

Let’s focus on that key phrase “commercially successful pictures” and bring in the fact that the BBC suggest that “Lord Smith is also expected to recommend developing an export strategy to increase the profits of British films”. To rile me up fully let’s hear from Julian Fellowes, screenwriter and contributor to Lord Smith’s report, who says:

“There has been the thinking in the past that public money should only go into films that can’t get any investment anywhere else. When you actually analyse that it means it should only go into films that nobody could conceivably want to see and there’s no logic in that – you want to make a film-friendly, audience-friendly industry.”

All of this suggests to me that too much emphasis is going to be put on the financial viability of a film, rather than the film’s quality, when it comes to deciding whether or not it deserves public funding. Britain has a reputation across the world for making quality films of substance rather than vapid, effects-laden blockbusters and to put this second to profitability is foolish and not really something a politician should be getting involved in. We’re talking about art not policy, and the mere idea of being able to predict a film’s future success is laughable.

I would actually argue against Julian Fellowes and say that the perfect reason for a film to receive public funding is that it is a film worth making, but is at risk of not receiving funding elsewhere. A mainstream British film with broad appeal can presumably find finance elsewhere so doesn’t need the BFI to help coax it to the big screen. Looking back at my Top 20 Films of 2011, eight films on the list are British films and of those only The King’s Speech can really be said to have set the international box office on fire. Other films such as Tyrannosaur, Attack the Block, Submarine and We Need to Talk About Kevin are examples of fine British cinema which showcase our talents without ever finding huge commercial success. I realise that not all of these films received public funding, but it does go to show that our finest productions may not be those bringing in the big money.

Julian Fellowes might not find the finer British fare to be something anybody “could conceivably want to see”, but for me these are the films we should be making and public funding should support this without so much as a sideways glance towards profitability or any other words which lead creatives away from their vision. The BFI has long been celebrating and protecting the history of British cinema and now that it is in charge of its future too, the BFI should not let return on investment get in the way of funding worthwhile projects.

My final point is simply that the highest grossing film of all time is Avatar by my arch nemesis James Cameron. I could not be more proud of the fact that Avatar is not British and hope we can continue to fund films which never use the word “unobtainium”.

Another Rant About the Digital Economy Act

We had a bit of a rant about the Digital Economy Act back in March last year when the UK government were proposing to block websites and cut off internet users. As fans of various art forms we obviously believe in supporting artists and have the DVD collection to prove it, but don’t necessarily see all forms of piracy as objectively wrong. It’s a bit of a grey area in which you can’t assume that every file downloaded is a theft. One thing we certainly don’t agree with is anyone having the power to block websites (barring the obvious foul sites of course).

It was a relief to read this week that the government seemed to be taking a more modern look at piracy and copyright. The government is going to drop any attempts to block copyright infringing websites and there was even talk of allowing people to legally make digital copies of their CDs and DVDs for use in other devices.

What an enlightened government, which has finally realised how the modern consumer operates and that it doesn’t make sense to turn the majority of Britons into criminals. We won’t have any websites blocked and freedom of speech will truly reign as it should in a modern civilized society. I mean, we don’t want to become the next China do we?

The celebration didn’t last long as it turns out the only reason this part of the Digital Economy Act is being dropped is because the Motion Picture Association have gone ahead and gotten a judge to force BT to block a website without any need for the Act. That’s right, no need for legislation as all a company needs is enough money and they can get websites blocked by ISPs.

Funnily enough UK Music, a body representing musicians and record labels in the UK, think this is a bad move too, but for different reasons. UK Music would prefer it if websites were blocked by government without them having to pay the legal fees first.

Regardless of whether you consider piracy to be a real crime or not, surely the fact that a private organisation can effect what we can see online is criminal? BT’s CleanFeed was designed to stop the circulation of child porn, not to stop people sharing copies of Avatar.

Anything that pisses off James Cameron has got to be a good thing, right?

Arts Groups Lose Funding, Thanks David

With the UK Film Council disbanded, and partially reformed over at the BFI, you might think the British film scene had lost enough funding for now. Sadly not. With the Arts Council England’s budget cut by £100 million back in October, more casualties were revealed yesterday as the various grants were announced. Plenty of bad news for arts groups.

Some fared well, the Young Vic had gained 15.8% in it’s funding, so it’s not all grim news, but for every extra penny one group received, another is losing that penny from it’s funding. One of the hardest hit is the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, losing between 37% and 43%, depending on which news source you believe. The ICA covers all sorts of art but most importantly is our source of bizarre Portuguese films, and is where I once saw Hot Fuzz before release with Wright, Frost and Pegg in attendance.

I realise that every sector is feeling the pinch and plenty of people I know and love are losing their jobs but this is a blog about the arts, or 3D films with gore and nudity, so it’s our job to highlight our loss when such severe cuts are made by the government.

Some might say tax money shouldn’t be spent on the arts, but that’s just silly.

House of Lords Passes Piracy Bill

After that burst of culture we are going to get political as the House of Lords has passed the highly controversial Digital Economy Bill which could disconnect people from the internet and block web pages following mere accusations of piracy.

The bill has been essentially written and strong armed into parliament by the music industry and the entertainemnt industry at large. Their claim is that internet piracy is costing them billions of pounds each year in lost revenue and so want those that do pirate neutered so they will in future have to pay to get their entertainment fix.

This is a problem for so many reasons, one being that proving exactly who has been downloading what is not as easy at it might seem as many internet connections are shared and wireless networks left without password protection. Allowing courts to block websites is also a step in the direction of internet censorship for which China received a lot of criticism during the Olympics two years ago.

The big problem is of course that this is a bill written by the recording industry in order to make their flagging business model remain viable. They want to be able to make money the same way they always have in an ever changing world where bands are increasingly finding live performances and merchandising are bringing much more profit than simple studio albums. The main fallacy in their complaint about piracy is the assumption that every downloaded file is a lost sale when so many people download to test a film or song before deciding to buy. Alternatively someone might spend all their spare cash on CDs and DVDs and still supplement this illegally, you can’t say that if someone can’t get something for free illegally they will happily pay £7.99 to get it in store.

Of course there are always ways to operate online without a trace which is what it is expected pirates will do if the bill is passed by the House of Commons. In fact the UK intelligence community is apparently against the bill for this very reason as it will make it harder to spy on people if internet users are forced to cover their tracks.

The Digital Economy Bill is expected to be rushed through the House of Commons before the general election with minimal debate so start kicking up a fuss now!