In Bed With The Film Council

Film still for In Bed With The Film Council

The Film Council's doors are open and the funds are rolling, but what will the new British films look like? Are they in danger of pleasing no one by trying to please everyone, wonders Nick James

Modern, functional, discreet, spacious, clean and security-conscious - and that's just the building. Visiting the new Film Council headquarters in Little Portland Street you are immediately made aware of the set-up's clean-slate intentions. The walls feature lime green and orange, the reception desk is personed by casually dressed youth - there's not a suit in sight. If it weren't an oxymoron, I'd say the atmosphere was simultaneously brisk and unhurried. That e-commerce kind of time-stretching going on. Perhaps it's the absence of baggage of a new organisation.

It's little more than a year since culture secretary Chris Smith asked the somewhat sour cream of the British film industry assembled at BAFTA whether they really thought it was better to have three separate organisations where they might obtain government-sourced production finance rather than the new umbrella organisation being proposed. "Yes," the dissident producers insisted through gritted teeth. "You're not shouting loud enough," said Smith, and the Film Council was born.

As chief executive John Woodward makes clear, the Film Council is "a creation of government not of the industry", though he maintains it has been "broadly welcomed". It's too early for producers to make an educated or even rude assessment about the new structure, because in production terms it's only just up and running. The general feeling is typically project oriented - never mind the structure, it's a good time to propose ideas as the new fund managers settle in, though it's also hard to get them to say quite what they want.

The FC came about because the new labour government decided it was going to have to make this cottage industry "behave rather more efficiently." According to Woodward, "Film in Britain is a relatively small, undercapitalised, underdeveloped business sector because it has never been able to organise itself to attract significant investment consistently. The existing structures where responsibilities were split between the Arts Council of England, British Screen, the British Film Institute and the British Film Commission didn't make a lot of sense. The purpose was to create a coherent approach to all film issues whether they were cultural or educational or hard industrial, to make sure what we are doing has an industrial imperative."

The bunching together of the BFC, the ACE funding element and British Screen's business and legal team under the Film Council's paw happened in May 2000. Simon Perry, the British Screen commissioning head who resisted the FC idea, departed audibly trailing his concern about what he sees as a narrow, nationalist agenda. The bfi retains its separateness but its funding is controlled by the FC (the bfi publishes this magazine and John Woodward is the bfi's former head). However, issues of education (primarily the bfi's responsibility) are not part of this article's brief.

Film production is our concern here, the thorny, corny anxieties around British cinema: what and who is it for? who gets to make it and why? It's the shiny new fund managers who came into their posts in September who'll be influencing these decisions. As one would expect, there's plenty of energy, enthusiasm and confidence about them. Robert Jones, a former distributor and the producer of Hard Eight and Simon Magus, now head of the high-profile Premiere Fund, seems reflective and easy-going; Jenny Borgars, formerly of British Screen and now leading the Development Fund, is bright if somewhat tentative; Paul Trijbits, the producer of Hardware, The Young Americans and Roseanna's Grave who's in charge of the New Cinema Fund, could talk the hind legs off an entire Donkey Derby. Each of them proves adept, however, at a guarded articulacy that comes close to a corporate style. Woodward himself sets that tone. He approaches matters in a painstaking structural fashion that seems suspicious of the mercurial and cautious of venturing an opinion - but then his is, in the strictest sense, a political appointment.

With £15 million worth of annual production finance already tied up with the three lottery franchises set up in May 1997 and run by DNA, Pathé and the Film Consortium, the FC had £22 million of its lottery pot left to reallocate to "new initiatives". The majority of this has been split as follows: £5 million to the Development Fund, £10 million to the Premiere Fund and £5 million to the New Cinema Fund. While in movie-business terms these sums may not seem a lot, the strategic use of government finance has always been crucial to the maintenance of a British film presence of any kind.

To explain why would necessitate the scratching of too many old sores. But just to recall such talismans of dismay as the ending of the Eady Levy in 1985 and the crash to earth of Goldcrest after the fiascos of Revolution (1985) and Absolute Beginners (1986), a combination which decimated the industry, is to realise the difficulty of the task the FC has set itself - not to mention the potential for hubris. Britain has a peculiar set of problems that are well rehearsed in these pages - sharing the same language as the US, having a television industry that provides good-quality film drama at home (both of which keep British talent prices relatively high) and a critical media that puts every British film release under a diagnostic microscope and cries national disaster if it's at all sub-standard.

Recently we've seen the critical massacre of a motley crew of British gangster films. Storeroom shelves are groaning under the weight of other British movies with concrete boots. In the last few years the majority of the British producers who gather at PACT (the Producers Alliance) got the new finance they'd been begging for from the Arts Council's lottery funds. But most now acknowledge what the unwatched junkpile makes plain - that too many projects were rushed into production when the scripts weren't ready.

This is almost a mantra at the Film Council. As Robert Jones explains, "We have well over 100 production companies making on average less than one film each per year, without sufficient resources to develop enough projects or to see them through until they're ready to be shot, so they're always forced to go into production as quickly as they can, without being able to negotiate the kinds of deals that will allow them to retain any ownership or stake in the film. So what we have are a lot of one-man bands which I don't think are businesses."

Script development is a culture of its own in the UK today, and if we've not quite reached the development hell levels of Hollywood, where it's possible to make a decent living for years writing scripts that never get made into films, the American model of three-act, character-driven storytelling utterly dominates. Given that the largely US-owned multiplex circuit is now the only viable means of distribution for films of any ambition, this development culture is inevitable. But it can lead to over-development. Watch the latest British success story Billy Elliot and you experience typical British social-realist subject matter structured as button-pushing entertainment that busts a gut for every emotional climax. Is this a paradigm for the way much British cinema is likely to go? The bookshops of Soho are full of screenwriting manuals couched in all-too-appropriate self-help language. If you're a producer, script development can dominate your life for years without you necessarily seeing an outcome (or, more pertinently, an income). And it's this state of affairs that encourages the production leaps in the dark that the FC says lead to all the Brit-à-brac.

The industry has now closed ranks on this issue. Scripts must be perfected with a specific audience in mind. This ethos is shared by almost every UK source of production funding from the television-owned film slates of FilmFour and the BBC to US outreach arms such as Fox Searchlight and Miramax. It's a highly managed project-by-project approach that pays less heed to what you may have already achieved as a director, writer or producer than to whether you are perceived as 'hot' at any given moment. The script is all. The doors may be open, but the hoops are held progressively higher.

More a Jacuzzi than a cold shower

No wonder, then, that Woodward and Jones, as well as Jenny Borgars, all give pride of place in interviews to the £5 million Development Fund. According to Woodward, "We came to the view that perhaps the single biggest factor affecting the quality of British cinema is the lack of time and money spent on scripts. Providing the industry with what, by British standards, is a very, very large amount of money - we think it's possibly the largest public fund for script development anywhere - will give it the luxury of being able to get the script right."

Quite how this will work within the FC remains obscure, since the two production funds will, by the current logic, have their own development concerns. Formally it will be a process of constant negotiation between the three funds. As Borgars sees it, "Bottom line the decision as to whether we invest money and how that's run comes from the Development Fund. In the same way that, if we are developing a project and we, with the producers, really want it to be one of our Premiere Fund or New Cinema Fund films, then when we think 'this script is kicking' we can push it over to them and they can say whether or not they're interested."

But the needs of the Premiere Fund are certain to involve a good chunk of the Development Fund's interest. As Jones sees it, "If we are involved at the inception of a project we will be a much more effective partner for the production company than if we get involved right at the end. I don't want to be a silent partner." The Premiere Fund has attracted most press attention because a key part of its remit, according to the FC's launch document 'Towards a Sustainable UK Film Industry', is to "facilitate the production of popular British theatrical films which are profitable and attract significant audiences at home and abroad." Since the Premiere Fund commands £10 million and trumpets its commercial aims in this way, its first films are sure to be intensely scrutinised.

"We're under the magnifying glass because we've got the most," says Jones, "but relatively speaking, the Development Fund is by far the biggest. To go from nothing to spending £5 million a year is a huge leap and to spend it on projects in this country is going to be very difficult. £10 million for the Premiere Fund is not very substantial."

Development, then, will become more of a Jacuzzi than a cold shower. It's not strictly true, however, to say that producers were never paid a development overhead in the past. Certainly there was some overhead allowed by British Screen, if not by bfi production or the Arts Council. The main difference now would seem to be that the Development Fund wants to be useful to a greater number of people than its predecessors. And again the emphasis is towards the bigger-budget and more popular end of the scale. According to Borgars, "At British Screen the development-fund resources didn't allow us to spread our attention across the range of talent. You need to be able to pay people the right rates to get them on to a project and get them committed. We were also working under a remit supporting first-timers and riskier projects, whereas now it's as wide as possible."

A smokescreen for commercialism

Here perhaps is the key to the FC's rhetorical approach. It's all about broadening the range rather than going gung-ho for commercial films. But many see this as a smokescreen for rabid commercialism. In particular the idea that the FC is going all out for big-budget Hollywood-style success has stuck. Woodward believes this is partly to do with a misreading of the fact that there are so many people on the board who have a track record in Hollywood: producers like Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Duncan Kenworthy. But the perception is surely inevitable given the populist stance of FC chairman Alan Parker and the accusations of Europhobia heaped on the council after Woodward's notorious interview with Agnès Poirier in Le Film français. There he was quoted as saying, "Take for example a story about an English family that wins the lottery, and one about a Croatian family that wins the lottery and has to cope with the guilt problems. Only the first story will interest the Film Council." Woodward claims these remarks were taken out of context. Poirier disagrees. Either way, in PR terms the damage is already done.

So is the FC going all out for Hollywood and is it Europhobic? It's the first of these questions that interests the tabloid press, but it irritates Jones. "It's stupid and inaccurate to suggest that we'll be giving our money to try to make big Hollywood films: first, it's not possible; second, it's not true. To say we're going to be turning our backs on British films is ridiculous." As Woodward sees it, "If we attempted to Hollywoodise Britain's film industry we would fail. We don't have the resources or the scale to compete. The history of the British film industry is about offering an alternative to Hollywood. We're smack in the middle between mainland Europe and the US, we've got this blessing and this curse of the English language - blessing because when we get the films right we have a much better chance of exporting them, curse because we are also wide open to the import of American films that don't need dubbing. All this does is emphasise how important it is to identify a film culture of our own."

But does the FC's "film culture of our own" include working with Europe? At a discussion at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival, Positif editor Michel Ciment was alarmed by the tenor of the FC's plans and by its discontinuation of British Screen's European Co-production Fund. His sweeping analysis of the different attitudes to film in European countries was illuminating if extreme. It's only the Latin countries, Ciment argued, that really believe in film as an artform and that want to protect it from the domination of American multiplex cinema. Britain, Holland and Germany think of film primarily as entertainment. That's why when international trade negotiations come around, these countries always take America's side, or want to, and the Latin countries always fight the US. No one reading British press coverage of cinema could doubt that Ciment's admittedly broad generalisation contains some truth in the British context. However, after the bashing the FC took over the Film français piece, all the fund managers were most anxious to address the European issue.

In Woodward's view, "The European Co-production Fund, which was £2 million a year, was not an adequate vehicle to bed the British film industry into the European film industry except at the margins. So what we did is to commit a minimum of 20 per cent of the financing of the three funds into European co-productions, which takes you up to £4.2 million. All I can say is, have a look in 18 months' time to see how we're doing."

"There's no debate, it's ridiculous," says Paul Trijbits. "I mean, I'm a Dutchman who speaks four or five European languages. Absolutely anybody is open to apply to us by law and by desire. Some of the films I'm involved with need to be funded with French producers, German producers and Spanish producers, and that's what we're going to do."

It's more of a thorny problem, though, for the populist Premiere Fund, given the resistance to subtitled films in the multiplexes. But Jones insists that, "A lot of European financiers and even some of the talent want to make more films in the English language - and I'm not saying no to films that aren't in the English language - so I can't see we won't be achieving at least the 20 per cent earmarked."

The key name in this regard seemed to be Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer, who was mentioned by both Borgars and Trijbits, with Trijbits suggesting the UK should act more like the US in seeking out European talent. According to Trijbits, "There's lots of European talent that tends to get overlooked by the UK. When it's good it gets picked up by the Americans. They fly over Britain and wave. The UK should have been involved with Run Lola Run and then maybe we'd have been involved in Tykwer's next film." Run Lola Run, then, a real-time based multiple-outcome thriller reminiscent of an interactive computer game, would seem to be one kind of European film the FC will get excited about.

The shock of the new

Given the blazoned commerciality of the Premiere Fund, it's likely the burden of any questions about the diversity of films on offer from the Film Council will fall on the New Cinema Fund because this is the division that most closely resembles bfi Production - that now defunct haven for the talented misfits of British cinema. Former head Roger Shannon, whose painful task it was to manage it into oblivion, has now left the FC and Trijbits leads a largely new team with extensive new plans for bringing new talent into the industry.

Trijbits outlined a wide-ranging and complex plan, aimed at setting up a career ladder for newcomers that will provide a seamless progression towards the Premiere Fund. It's clear, then, that much of his activity will be not about providing an alternative to the commercial remit, but a training ground for it. The bottom rung of this ladder is a talent-scouting operation that will be devolved to the UK's "regions and nations". New local film bodies will be organised by the Regional Arts Boards, all of which have had their funding boosted to help gather together their film activities into what the FC is calling "mini Film Councils". Trijbits anticipates 12 programmes, each making between eight and 10 films a year within the following rules: 1) they must be all digital; 2) they must be run by the regional FCs; 3) they have a cap of £10,000 per film.

On the next rung two or three shorts programmes run in partnership with broadcasters will explore specific themes. "Six horror shorts or six that push the narrative boat out," were the examples given. These programmes will be restricted to those who've progressed from the first rung or to "targeted people". As with most of the FC's planned activities, there's a compulsory training element attached: before each shoot the commissioned candidates will attend a one-week module involving relevant mentors. Taken together the two shorts schemes will account for £1.7 million of Trijbits' £5 million.

At the features level Trijbits wants to test ideas before investing by having new film-makers shoot two or three scenes of a prospective feature for £7000. "It's a great tool for convincing other financiers," says Trijbits, "and if we don't invest, then the film-makers will still have the pilot to help them." The next level up hopes to tackle the difficulty of getting British films distributed by not even trying: three DV features will be made to be shown on television, though Trijbits insists they won't be television movies. The scheme, he says, is aimed partly at encouraging mainstream talent to try something different. (Michael Winterbottom shooting a horror film was the example given.) Only then do we come to features made for theatrical release, and Trijbits is hoping to leverage enough money from other sources to make six of these a year.

Given that this looks like a 'ladder to the stars' of commercial cinema, there's a lot of critical anxiety about the future of arthouse projects. Woodward has said he thinks the arthouse sector will be "pleasantly surprised" by what the FC does. And Trijbits was most anxious to assure me that, "If the question is, would I fund a Peter Greenaway, a Ken Loach or a Terence Davies, then the answer is yes."

Putting commercial cinema at the heart of the FC project in this way has prompted many to question what is meant by commercial. It's part of the overall confidence of Woodward and his team that they seem to feel they know. To Jones, "It's a recipe between originality and familiarity. It's a film that's original enough to make people think that if they go and see it, it's going to take them somewhere they haven't been before. But it has to be combined with something familiar. It may be the director, an actor, a genre, or a song; it's something that gives the audience a frame of reference."

So what kind of films will the FC make? When pressed about the range of cinema he envisaged supporting, Trijbits suggested, "From Beautiful People to The Spider's Stratagem", then changed to, "From Beautiful People to Harlan County U.S.A.", adding that he was particularly interested in feature documentaries. Jones ventured "From Orlando to Gladiator" but then swapped Orlando for The Crying Game. Borgars wouldn't be drawn on titles but said: "I'm often very intrigued by projects which provoke a violent reaction, a violent like or dislike."

Woodward's overall spin emphasises scope: "What we're trying to do is set up a genuinely broad mechanism that should provide for different types of films that hit a different range of audiences." Couched in these politician's terms, it doesn't exactly add up to a new vision, more that clean slate the building speaks of. There's a sense too that the FC may have to skip a generation to get things 'right' - so expect an emphasis on youth. At present it seems to be trying to please too many constituencies, a woolly strategy, though as Borgars says, "You have to be woolly to keep the doors open."

Woodward talked a lot about training and education initiatives that fall outside this article's brief and both he and Jones bemoaned the UK's lack of ciné-literacy. For me this points to a paradox at the heart of the FC's project. If we agree, as they seem to, that a generation of filmgoers with very narrow tastes dominates cinemagoing in the UK, then surely tailoring films to suit that audience is a recipe for lowering, not raising, the quality of British cinema? Woodward's response was to talk about finding a range of audiences, placing the problem firmly in the distribution and exhibition camps. (The FC is still in the process of formulating its approaches to these areas.)

Given the partial Anglophobia of the exhibition sector, it would be wrong to see the FC funds as a great cure-all. But anyone with an interest in a flourishing British film culture must wish the fund managers good luck and good judgement because they're now the only source of government funding for new and up-and-coming film-makers. As for the organisation itself, other culture industries have discovered this government puts more emphasis on measuring 'achievement' than on supporting activities. The Film Council may find that in the long run that it has its own higher and higher hoops to jump through.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012