More than a month after Blighty’s new coalition government shuttered the U.K. Film Council, officials are closing in on a new plan of action for the biz.
Inside sources have confirmed that pols will unveil their proposal by the end of September in hopes of settling a controversy that has roiled the industry and subjected the government to criticism both locally and from abroad.
As Brits await the new plan, a look at UKFC’s 10-year life reveals a strong list of successful projects, some of which have had global impact and brought artistic acclaim. But there also is criticsm that the council became too internally focused and reluctant to take risks that might have resulted in more breakthrough cinema.
Some producers have been alienated by its aggressive efforts to take back funding. And for all the money spent, many of the problems that plagued the industry remain largely unresolved.
The council, most recently chaired by Working Title’s Tim Bevan, was set up by Tony Blair’s New Labour government in 2000 to provide a one-stop shop to encourage cultural and commercial films in Blighty in response to criticism that state-subsidized pics — while boasting artistic panache — lacked commercial mojo and had little chance of making money.
UKFC’s manifesto was clearly set out by its first chairman, Alan Parker, in a statement: “Identify the endemic problems that plague our industry and start to develop a set of policies, which, over time, can create a framework for sustained success.”
“When the film council was set up … it inherited this notion that public money was being put into films that no one wanted to see so our specific remit was to concentrate on films that had the potential to reach audiences globally,” said producer Robert Jones, who headed up the Premiere Fund, which allocated some £10 million ($15.4 million) annually to features.
And there’s no doubt that the UKFC has backed some globally successful projects in the past decade: Of the 900 pics it funded with $246.3 million donated from the public lottery, one of the first and most robust was Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park,” which took $87.8 million worldwide.
Other shining examples are “Bend It Like Beckham” ($76.6 million worldwide), “28 Weeks Later” ($64.2 million) and this year’s teen dance sensation “Streetdance 3D” ($42.4 million and counting).
Culture didn’t go by the wayside — UKFC backed Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake” and Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop,” which both received Oscar noms.
It nurtured new talent. Christopher Nolan and Paul Greengrass launched their Hollywood careers off the backs of UKFC-funded films, while helmer Andrea Arnold, currently making a feature adaptation of “Wuthering Heights,” received about $720,000 for her BAFTA-winning “Red Road.”
The council also put $54.2 million into Skillset, Blighty’s entertainment industry training org, and $28.9 million into P&A for films that might otherwise not have reached as wide an audience across the country.
Optimum Releasing received nearly $140,000 to help distribute Shane Meadows’ “This Is England,” which grossed $3.2 million in Blighty. Revolver Entertainment was given $170,000 to distribute Gallic pic “Tell No One” in 55 cinemas, which went on to gross $2.5 million.
“UKFC definitely has been a big help to independent producers across the board and that debate seems to be missing here,” said Optimum topper Danny Perkins. “They had an idea that they wanted to encourage cinema-going in the U.K. and the distribution and P&A fund helped do that. What UKFC offered as a whole goes beyond production finance — people need to realize that.”
Icon topper Stewart Till, who chaired UKFC for five years, said the body’s influence made a significant impact on the Brit biz by the way it lobbied government to get the right subsidies in place, specifically the 2007 20% tax rebate on up to 80% of U.K. spend for bigger-budget pics.
“There’s no doubt the British film industry is in better health than it was 10 years ago,” he said. “U.K. studios, like Pinewood-Shepperton, are full and the subsidies that studios rightly take advantage of only exist because of the way the UKFC lobbied the government.”
But it hasn’t been all rosy. Many argue that UKFC became nepotistic and failed to promote riskier projects, preferring to stick with auteurs such as Leigh and Stephen Frears. Other indie producers lobbied against the body for better recoupment terms for projects.
“In the Loop” producer Kevin Loader argues that while the council was good for unifying various tentacles of a complicated film biz, there “is not much love lost between the producing community and the UKFC.
“The commercial terms that they took were extremely aggressive,” said Loader, who added that the UKFC found ways to claw back its funding.
In April, local producers body Pact lobbied public bodies (including the BBC and Film4) for better terms for recoupment, asking that they be allowed to keep 70% of funds from successful projects to put back into future productions, instead of 30%, which public sector investment offers.
UKFC was abolished before a dialogue with producers began.
Producer Chris Atkins points out on a video on The Guardian website — “U.K. Film Council: Out to Lunch?” — that money from its P&A fund was, at times, squandered.
UKFC gave $270,000 to fund distribution for Morgan Spurlock’s “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden,” a Weinstein Co. venture, while $237,000 of public money went to Fox to release Rolling Stones docu “Shine a Light.”
Also, digital projectors given to exhibs through UKFCs Digital Screen Network initiative have so far been installed in the largest screens in each venue. These usually play blockbuster pics from studios that can afford the cost of physical prints. Critics say this is hardly a way for struggling independent producers to benefit from the cheaper costs of shooting digitally.
“The film council is only part of the industry,” said Jones. “And it can’t change things that other people don’t want to change.
“The problems in 2010 now are still largely the problems that we faced in 2000 — there is very little continuity of production and we have very few production companies of any size or substance. But I don’t think the film council was capable on its own of doing this.”
He cites TV producers’ struggle to retain rights to their work, which were previously kept by the broadcasters that had commissioned them.
“It took an act of Parliament to change the terms and because of that you’ve suddenly got production companies of substance becoming saleable and owning asset,” Jones said.
Producer Mike Downey, whose F&ME worked on more U.K. productions from 2007-2009 than any other, said the key to any new biz plan is speed.
With the new plan due to be unveiled by the month’s end, perhaps the Brit biz won’t have to wait long.
“The industry needs to know what it is doing and know soon,” said Downey. “There has to be a handover that is orderly and puts the industry first. If this is done — and done well — then we will be able to assess objectively the legacy of the U.K. Film Council.”