Move is 'big mistake' says chairman Tim Bevan

Blighty’s film support body the U.K. Film Council is to be shuttered, although the British film biz will continue to receive coin from the National Lottery and tax relief that the council had administered.

The government’s Dept. for Culture, Media and Sport informed the UKFC Monday that the org will be abolished and apprised Parliament of the decision.

An internal email from UKFC CEO John Woodward told staff members that the decision was imposed with no notice or consultation, nor any indication of what agency would take over the film council’s responsibilities.

“There appears to have been no evaluation inside government of the strengths and weaknesses of the U.K. Film Council,” it said. “Put simply, late last week we suddenly found ourselves on a list that will enable the DCMS to help meet the Treasury’s targets for cutting the total number of public bodies.

“I think we can all agree that this is short-sighted and potentially very damaging, especially as there is at present no road map setting out where the U.K. Film Council’s responsibilities and funding will be placed in the future.”

The UKFC, which has 75 staff, planned to spend £61.7 million ($95.4 million) in this financial year, including $23.2 million through its production fund.

It has invested $248 million in the production of more than 900 films since it was set up in 2000. Jeremy Hunt, the government’s culture secretary, said it would transfer key UKFC functions to other bodies “to continue to support our sectors and preserve the necessary expertise.”

Hunt said this would apply to the UKFC’s responsibilities for distributing lottery funding for films, as well as support for the certification process under which films have to pass a cultural test to qualify as British before they are eligible for tax relief.

Members of the U.K. industry had mixed reactions.

John McVay, CEO of independent producers org, Pact, said the UKFC was created during an era of more generous public sector spending and has many successes to be proud about but this era has come to an end.

“We strongly welcome the coalition’s commitment to the two most important interventions in the market, namely the National Lottery funding and the film tax credit,” he said. “These both ensure that we can produce indigenous feature films and also attract inward investment which, combined, sustain our vibrant, dynamic and successful film industry.”

Pact has been lobbying Blighty’s public funding bodies for months to relinquish more film rights to the U.K.’s independent producers, indicating many filmmakers haven’t been happy with the existing structure.

“The UKFC receives around 200 applications a year and, by their own admission, fund around nine titles from that submission, which tend to be the same films over and over again and the same small band of directors with the same regular faces appearing on screen,” said Jonnie Hurn, who produced “Do Elephants Pray?” “It’s almost impossible for any producer outside of that small clique to get funding.”

Hurn added, “A new funding body might actually produce something other than a period drama or gangster film.”

But Tim Bevan, chairman of the UKFC and joint head of Working Title, took the opposite line. “Abolishing the most successful film support organization the U.K. has ever had is a bad decision, imposed without any consultation or evaluation,” he said. “People will rightly look back on today’s announcement and say it was a big mistake, driven by short-term thinking and political expediency.

“British film, which is one of the U.K.’s more successful growth industries, deserves better.”

A DCMS rep agreed that the screen agencies do an “excellent job” in promoting film production, vidgame development and other skills. “For a relatively small investment, they have encouraged investment of over £50 million ($77.5 million) in the audio-visual creative industries in all regions,” the rep said.

Nonetheless, “Deathwatch” producer Mike Downey said many will welcome the news. “It has been widely agreed amongst industry practitioners … that the cost of distributing the UKFC funding for production and distribution was far too high,” he said.

Film Distributors’ Assn. prexy David Puttnam said the closure of the UKFC would “take some time to digest fully.”

“Over the past decade, the Film Council has been a layer of strategic glue that’s helped bind the many parts of our disparate industry together,” he said. “It is sure to be widely missed, not least because the U.K. cinema industry is in the midst of a fundamental transformation at the heart of which is digital roll-out.”

Minister for Culture Ed Vaizey aims to close the organization and transfer its assets and duties by April 2012. The move follows last week’s news that the Treasury had told the DCMS, labeled the Ministry of Fun by its right-wing critics, to cut budgets by up to 40%.

The British Film Institute has escaped the ax and is likely to take over many of the UKFC’s responsibilities.

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