For Want of a Cultural Film Policy

January 11th, 2012

Courtesy Sander Spolspoel under CC Licence.

Ahead of a visit to Pinewood Studios today, David Cameron has said that the film industry should support “commercially successful pictures”, in an attempt to prejudge the findings of Lord Smith’s review into the Government’s film policy, due out on Monday. To quote Mike Wayne (writing in 2002 in the print-defunct magazine Filmwaves, which has been revived here on the Internet), this is a reflection of the consensus amongst a section of the governing classes that “markets must be served, the popular is the final arbiter on what is valuable [and] competitiveness and international reach are the highest goals imaginable”. If Cameron’s comments are in any way reinforced by the upcoming report (if it is to advise that Lottery funds are to be channelled into mainstream films) now is the time to make the case for a film policy based on cultural value and not just exchange value. As Ken Loach argued on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, in response to Cameron’s comments, you don’t have to make a blockbuster to be successful. Low- or moderately-budgeted films high on ideas or aesthetic innovation can make money, as proved by the recent successes of films by Steve McQueen, Joanna Hogg, Lynne Ramsay, Terence Davies and Andrea Arnold (it is refreshing to see the names of talented female directors on such a list). Britain is also again becoming a desirable location for filming, with major international directors such as Tomas Alfredson and David Cronenberg pitching up in the UK to helm very British films.

It would seem that such left-field talents are not on Cameron’s radar. Instead he may have been responding to the top-grossing British films of 2011 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, The King’s Speech and The Inbetweeners Movie. Their box-office success is undeniable.  Yet the box-office performance of a film depends on the confluence of a wide variety of factors, both cultural and economic, the outcome of which is nigh-impossible to predict in advance. Even if it were possible to replicate such success, this narrowing of the focus for film policy would push experiment further to the margins of the British mediascape, removing the limited opportunities that exist for new and emerging talent. It would squeeze out the kind of new voices, visions and values that Channel 4 was tasked to nurture and project in its original remit.

Such a film policy would also accentuate the pre-existing trend towards a homogenous white middle class national (English) identity in our film culture. It might be argued that the current financial climate has meant that even independent or art-house films are subject to this bias, with the current trend towards period dramas/adaptations concerned with upper-middle class life (Jane Eyre but also Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Deep Blue Sea). (However, it can also be argued that films such as Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) have contributed to the evolution of a British ‘social art film’ tradition by locating Austen and Brontë within a British realist, rather than picturesque, tradition).

Such a trend may nevertheless indicate that if public subsidy is rationalised in terms of meeting needs not currently met in the market, then there is a danger of it largely being used to support the taste of the middle class. Perhaps a countering of this trend depends instead on vibrant ‘crossover’ hits which reflect the realities of multicultural Britain, like Bend It  Like Beckham (2002), which received just under £1m of National Lottery Funding, and went on to record a box-office gross 35 times the sizes of its Lottery grant. This film was struggling to find backers until it received the support of British Screen and the Film Council. In fact it took 8 years for Gurinder Chadha to get this film made after her first British feature Bhaji on the Beach became a word-of-mouth smash hit, despite initially only being released on 5 prints!

The Potter and Bond franchises have demonstrated that Britain may now have the kind of production infrastructure and tax regime that attracts foreign, and especially Hollywood, producers to make films in the UK. But this is not the same as being able to make indigenous bid-budget films that compete with Hollywood. The perils of trying to imitate Hollywood are as familiar to casual cinemagoers as they are to film historians. As Gurinder Chadha has observed in 2002:

What we are recognised for is our brilliant actors, directors, writers and technicians. Virtually none of our hits in recent years has featured stars – The Full Monty, East Is East, Billy Elliot. British audiences responded to their stories because they recognised themselves on the screen. The real problem for British films is that they are now being financed with a view to how they will work in the US.

What also unites all the films Chadha mentions, and nearly all of the films I have mentioned in this blog, is the financial support they have received from public-service broadcasters (BBC Films and Film4). The spate of recent newspaper articles heralding a revival of British cinema have consistently failed to note the crucial role played by television money. This funding has, to a limited extent, allowed the public service tradition and ethos to migrate from television to film. But has it managed to really take root in the film industry? During the early to mid 1980s the vital injection given to British cinema by Channel 4 meant that for the first time since the short-lived British New Wave of the 1960s, producers and directors could begin to deal with the peculiarly British themes which were crying out to be taken up. This provided the best basis for films whose popularity has been enduring both culturally and commercially (we can also think of the Ealing comedies here). The fact that recent British films have received critical adulation and modest commercial success on budgets of a scope appropriate both to their subject matter and the prevailing economic reality is to be welcomed. Yet the role of television money in this success has received very little attention in the press.

Although the UK Film Council had long stressed the cultural role of film in terms of representation, access, education and heritage, it had tended to devolve and delegate this role to the British Film Institute and its regional partners. With the dissolution of the Film Council in 2010, its functions were transferred to the BFI, including the distribution of Lottery Funding for filmmaking. The abolition of the UKFC was rightly criticised at a time when a modestly budgeted film that it had supported, The King’s Speech, was riding high at the box-office. However, the transfer of functions to the BFI should present the opportunity for the long tradition of the funding of new talent through the BFI Experimental Film Fund/Production Board (which was itself collapsed into the UK Film Council in 2000) to be revived. Experimental filmmaking badly needs such support; as Laura Allsop has demonstrated it has already been hit by the abolition of the UK Film Council and its Digital Innovation Fund, and the 15 per cent cuts with which Arts Council England has been faced.  This has meant that London-based commissioning agencies onedotzero and Animate Projects – the former promoters of technologically innovative moving-image and cross-media arts, the latter of experimental animation – have both lost their grants. This endangers an emergent and burgeoning art form; such organizations function can function like Research and Development for the creative industries. Funding streams that have been drying up for years are now further evaporating. To quote Animate’s director Gary Thomas, from Alsopp’s article:

Animation in the UK is not in a particularly good place…Channel 4 used to have animation coursing through its veins; it used to have three big animation schemes, of which Animate was one, and we were the last to drop off the schedule a couple of years ago. And the last big support from the Film Council was the 4mations Digital Shorts scheme, which ended about the same time. [See our previous blog for more on C4’s animation schemes]

It is certainly not the first time that a British Government has, during a time of recession, jumped to simplistic and short-sighted conclusions based on a much publicized but only modestly encouraging resurgence of the film industry. The industry has no chance of operating in an exclusively free and competitive market; the cultural aspect needs some subsidy, like opera and theatre, if it is to retain its vitality. If the Film Report does not recognize this, it is arguable that Britain will again become the only country in Europe that fails to consider the industry in a cultural context rather than merely a commercial one. Ken Loach suggested today that the government’s plans include the return of profits to the producers, instead of the funding bodies, as is currently the case. As Andrew Pulver of the Guardian notes, if this proves true, it will mark a sharp change from the modus operandi of the UK Film Council, which provided funding from lottery sources as a “loan”, and expected repayment from a film’s income. As Mike Wayne has noted, such a strategy would pour public money into the pockets of medium and big production companies, who would then live off the public purse just as parasitically as arms manufacturers. Lessons from history need to be heeded, as the Eady Levy, Britain’s system of preferential repayment of box-office receipts to home produced films, typically gave most help to the most popular films and little or nothing to the minority films that most deserved support. Much will depend upon the BFI’s new responsibility to allocate Lottery Funding according to cultural, as well as economic criteria.

Ieuan Franklin

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