Brit budget crunch hits film schools

Campuses caught between government, corporate cutbacks

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In a climate of budgetary belt-tightening, the U.K.’s network of Screen Academies has been cut back to align it more closely with the needs of the film industry. Of the seven film schools originally granted academy funding, only three — the National Film & TV School in Beaconsfield, the London Film School and Edinburgh’s Napier U. — had their status renewed this year.

The network was launched five years ago by the U.K. Film Council and training body Skillset, designed to identify existing centers of excellence, then provide them with funding to improve the practical value of their programs to the industry and broaden their intake of students.

Then came the credit crunch, the recession and the crisis in public finances. Skillset’s own budget was slashed by 50% this year. The org decided to focus its reduced support on the three specialist post-graduate film schools, capable of delivering the next generation of directors, producers, writers and heads of department, ready to step straight onto the set as soon as they finish their studies.

“Across the seven academies, there were 2,500 students, and the film industry employs only 15,000 people. Looking at the three, they have about 350 students a year, which is a much better match to the potential demand of the industry,” says Neil Peplow, Skillset’s head of film.

“It was confusing for the industry to compare the output of the NFTS, which has a very small cohort of post-graduates making much better funded films, with the 50 or 60 undergraduates from Newport whose final-year projects were not of the same standard or quality,” he adds.

NFTS director Nik Powell agrees. “I’m a great believer in investing in excellence. In times when there’s a lot of money in the system, you can pilot new things, but when money is tight, you have to concentrate resources where it counts.”

Even with their academy funding renewed, however, the top schools face tough times ahead. The advances of the past five years will be hard to sustain.

“We’re facing a perfect storm of challenges in financing, when core public funds are being cut and individual and corporate funding is being slashed,” says Robin MacPherson, professor of screen media at Napier. “We’re trying to provide a premium film school experience without the level of funding required to do so in a sustainable way. If we can survive the next two or three years, we’ll probably be OK, but it’s a critical time.”

Recent NFTS grads include Spanish d.p. Eduard Grau, who went straight from the school to lense Tom Ford’s “A Single Man.” Recent successes from the London Film School include Duncan Jones (“Moon”), Oliver Hermanus (“Shirley Adams”) and Iranian helmer Babak Jalali (“Frontier Blues”).

With the Napier post-grad course only five years old, it has far fewer alumni to boast of. But it had an early success when a student short by writer-director Catriona MacInnes was selected for competition at Venice two years ago.