Funding shortfalls roil U.K. film biz

Cuts to arts, including the end of the U.K. Film Council, have roiled the Blighty film biz, and regional screen agencies across the U.K. have not escaped a shakeout.

Last November, culture minister Ed Vaizey’s blueprint for film policy included the reassigning of regional screen agencies — which promote filmmaking and film development within their prescribed areas — into one national body, Creative England, with hubs in the North, Midlands and the South.

John Newbigin, who served as chair to Screen England, a partnership of the regional screen agencies that includes Film London, had been appointed chair of Creative England.

The original idea was to have Creative England up and running on April 1, the same day the British Film Institute was scheduled to take over the defunct film council’s duties. But merging the seven existing independent regional bodies — Film London will still operate independently, while Screen East went bust in September — into one has proven a tall order. The new deadline for Creative England to be in full operation is now Oct. 1.

But there’s the official line, and there’s the line behind it.

Screen agencies have been paramount over the past decade in supporting local biz and the creative community of producers and filmmakers working within a specific region, and have all strived to maintain creative bases for talent outside London.

“Getting seven agencies into one with three subsidiaries is a difficult process,” Newbigin says. “What I’ve been asked to do is not drive by dictate, but drive by discussion.”

According to Newbigin, when the initial announcement about the formation of Creative England was made, all chief execs and chairs of the regional agencies agreed that the three hubs should be based in Manchester (Creative North), Birmingham (Creative Central) and Bristol (Creative South).

However, these three cities, which all house big BBC centers, raise a geographical conundrum, as all are based in the West of the country.

“The elephant in the room is that there is nothing on the eastern spine of the country,” says Sally Joynson, chief exec of Screen Yorkshire, which sourced locations and crews for pics such as “The King’s Speech” and invested in “The Damned United” and TV trilogy “Red Riding.” “Presence on the ground and focal points of these hubs sends out a very important message about where one can build a career.”

Joynson says the strength of the U.K.’s creative industries is the extent to which they reflect and talk to the communities they come from. “If we consolidate everything in the western spine,” she adds, “there’s a real danger that we decrease opportunities for new creative talent and voices from the whole of the east of England.”

“The fear — which may prove to be without foundation — is that with the number of regional centers shrinking from eight to three, a pool of local talent will be overlooked,” says Cameron McCracken, managing director of Pathe U.K., who also sits on the Screen Yorkshire board. “The benefit of a regional agency to a London-based organization is not just the detailed on-the-ground practical and financial support it provides when we work in the region, but also the support it provides in the longterm nurturing of local talent — such as writers and directors — from whom we all ultimately benefit.”

But with so little money available — regional screen agencies were handed a 29% cut in funding in the last financial year — it is proving difficult to get a proper geographic spread.

“There is a level of (strategic) uncertainty coupled with economic uncertainty,” says Debbie Williams, CEO of Nottingham-based EM Media, which has co-financed 42 feature films, including Anton Corbijn’s “Control” and Shane Meadows’ “This Is England.”

But Williams adds that change should not necessarily be resisted; rather, it can provide an opportunity to evaluate what works, and be used as a starting point for a new enterprise. In fact, Williams says her biggest worry is not changing enough to create the kind of fresh nationwide model government is demanding.

Some argue that because screen agencies also act as developers of material, the East, which is more fragmented and diverse and lacks the natural clustering of key TV and media hubs, would better benefit from a such an org.

Another insider says that shortly after the Vaizey announcement, the heads of the three regional agencies in the allocated areas — Screen West Midlands in Birmingham, South West Screen near Bristol and Vision and Media in Manchester — had declared themselves as spearheads of the hubs.

In December, Suzie Norton, CEO of Screen West Midlands registered the name Creative Central at Companies House, which left a bad taste in the mouths of some other screen agency toppers. Norton resigned her position on April 18; reasons were not stated.

However, Newbigin argues the geographical focal point should not be the issue.

“This (idea) that if you have an office in Manchester, it is only going to benefit Manchester is ludicrous,” he says. “We’ve been emphatic in saying that their (purview) is for the whole region.”

Newbigin also stressed that until Creative England is fully operational, the process of selecting future heads of the three hubs would go through a rigorous, transparent process.

“It’s not a matter of shoe-horning in other CEOs from existing screen agencies,” he says. “We want to get people who have the vision to look across a wider landscape.”

Tom Harvey, CEO of Newcastle-based Northern Film and Media, which has facilitated locations for the “Harry Potter” franchise and “Atonement,” says that time is short and Creative England needs to think of itself as a new company rather than a merged entity. It’s a startup, not a legacy project, he says, adding that Northern Film and Media plans to sit outside the Creative England structure but maintain a relationship with the body.

Meanwhile, South West Screen chief exec Caroline Norbury, whose outfit has facilitated locations for Edgar Wright laffer “Hot Fuzz” and Working Title’s “Pirate Radio,” says that too much time has been focused on geography rather than on making sure there is continued support for regions outside of London.

“My biggest concern is that we have a fantastic opportunity to build upon something new, and I would hate for us to spend all of our time worrying around where certain people are going to sit rather than focusing on getting out there and selling our companies,” she says.

In a bid to seek answers from the biz, Creative England solicited strategy plans to be filed by March. The new agency got more than 500 submissions, including from orgs such as Pinewood Studios and Channel 4. Newbigin then announced that Elstree Studios managing director Roger Morris would head a group of industry reps and “cultural voices” who can speak for the East of the country.

He also defended concerns that Creative England was focused too narrowly on film, since regional screen agencies also support TV and the games industry.

In a letter to industryites, Morris said Creative England will get some $3.3 million from the BFI as well as additional grants, and that money will be used to leverage more coin from public and private sources.

Morris argues that while the screen agencies have been instrumental in incubating productions, there may have been too many in the first place, duplicating administrative costs, and that it makes more sense to have one nationwide body.

“Some agencies have turned to competing against each other,” he says. “But what it should actually be about is growing the wider U.K. film, TV and games industry.”

Morris likens the idea of fewer screen agencies to that of pruning a tree. “A tree grows better when you chop things back that have grown beyond their (bounds),” he says.

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