I was just in the middle of my last post about Fritz Lang when a rather surprise bit of news came my way, namely that our new(ish) Conservative-LibDem Alliance government are scrapping the UK Film Council, established in 2000 by the Labour government to develop and promote the British film industry. You can read more about this on the BBC website, which quotes Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt as saying he wanted to establish a “direct and less bureaucratic relationship with the British Film Institute” and UK Film Council chairman Tim Bevan calling it “a bad decision”.
What will this mean, I wonder? Well, there’s a few issues surrounding this. I’m no Tory apologist, believe me, but after the complete mess our last government left this country’s finances in, it’s clear that a bit of streamlining was in order. There’s been spending cuts across the board, as we knew there would be whoever was in government, and most from far more significant areas than the arts – notably in areas such as the health service. The UK Film Council’s £15m budget to invest in British films is best considered a drop in the ocean compared with the cuts that will be made elsewhere, but one wonders to what extent it will effect the UK film industry.
There are several issues worth discussing here. Firstly, to what extent should the population of a country be expected to support the concept of “a national cinema” through money that its government could be spending elsewhere? The hardline argument is that cinema is a commercial industry, and like all arts, if it has to be supported from outside, then how relevant is it to the general public? Should cinema be considered an art or an industry, should films only be considered successful if they make a profit, and does the success of Film Council-backed titles have indirect economic effects by promoting British culture overseas?
The other point is that where else are British filmmakers expected to raise money?
But what seems to be more the case is that it is not the film funding that is being axed but the layers of bureaucracy that decide how it gets allocated – exceedingly well paid bureaucracy too, compared to the actual creative agents involved in directly making the films. The UK Film Council was very good at promoting a certain type of British film, but its critics were keen to point out that it didn’t really encourage much in the way of spontaneity and experimentation.
Last year in the July 2009 issue of Sight and Sound magazine, a number of British filmmakers forced overseas to look for financing for their projects voiced their criticisms of the Film Council, few more vocally than Soi Cowboy director Thomas Clay:
“With Soi Cowboy we reached a DVD cut of the film for 75,000 Euros, and with that we submitted the film to Cannes last year and were invited. But we didn’t have the money to get the print and finish the film, so it seemed like a natural moment to go to the UK Film Council’s Completion Fund. [It didn't work out.] A month after Cannes, in June 2008, the UKFC said they wanted to be involved in my next film. I met Lenny Crooks [head of the UKFC's New Cinema Fund] and it seemed very positive, but after that- a complete disappearance, Crooks refused to take any of our calls or emails.My overall feeling towards the UKFC is that their policy of ‘creative partnership’ – of extensive, often fruitless, development periods, executive supervision, multiple editors and withholding final cut from the director- is not conducive to a culture of serious arthouse cinema in the UK. It is scandalous that these civil servants are paid six-figure salaries out of the public purse to sit around and not give money to Terence Davies, myself and others; to drag a director as eminent as Nicolas Roeg through years of development, resulting in a homogenised product. Serious UK cinema would be much better served by the creation of a separate entity – most simply, the reinstatement of the BFI Production Board – that awards smaller amounts of money in exchange for greater creative freedom, on the basis of proven merit and international profile, as opposed to ideological ‘correctness’ and deluded commercial concerns.”
There are many countries’ film industries that do not have the luxury of funding and assistance from government agencies such as this. One might argue that these are not as strong as the British film industry, although one only has to look at the case of Japan for a dynamic film culture that is not in any way State funded. But what I wonder is whether in the economic climate Britain finds itself in at the moment, will our cinema be able to find adequate funding from private sources, or will it revert to the same impoverished situation it found itself in under the last Tory government, when in the early-1990s one could have been forgiven for assuming that British cinema was dead and gone forever?