Why the U.K.’s Struggling Indie Film Business Is Only Getting Tougher

A startling one-two punch of new statistics from the British Film Institute and industry body U.K. Producers’ Roundtable have revealed the stark challenges facing the country’s independent filmmakers. 

After a BFI study published in late January revealed that spending on U.K. independent film production fell by 45% to £175 million ($228 million) in 2019, a recent U.K. Producers’ Roundtable report shows that many independent producers earn less than £6,000 ($7,800) a year for their film production work. Most had given up their producing fee multiple times to get their films made.

The unforgiving climate for independent filmmakers was last investigated in 2018 by a BFI commission, which put forward recommendations such as maximizing the value of rights as well as setting up more commercial development funding that involves private investment.

However, the new figures underline that the independent film financing landscape is only getting tougher. 

Digital disruption, increased competition for audiences and the collapse of the physical video and TV market for features have all contributed to the decline in international value for U.K. independent films — making it harder than ever to presell projects and sell completed features around the world.

Along with rising talent costs and changes to the U.K.’s Enterprise Investment Scheme tax rules, the result has been budget shortfalls that many independent producers have tried to plug by deferring their own fees.

The Producers’ Roundtable research into pay levels, in particular, reveals what many have known but few have talked about in public. “We were really overwhelmed by the response and how much people have been sitting on this problem,” says Delaval Film’s Loran Dunn, a co-founder of the collective with Sophie Reynolds and Helen Simmons. “Producers are at breaking point, [but] we adopt this role of being the people in charge, so nobody wants to appear as though they aren’t actually able to make ends meet, and that they are struggling.”

Worse, if producers aren’t paid properly, they can’t afford to develop more commercial projects as their careers progress, explains Simmons, who also runs Erebus Pictures. “How can you have a growing business that requires commercial international product if you don’t have the means to develop it or to own it?” she says. 

Reynolds, founder of Sona Films, says many producers are “feeling the pull” from scripted television, where fees are often higher than for features. “Most production companies are having to diversify intoTV [because] very few can survive from film alone.”

Ben Roberts, chief executive of the BFI, echoes Reynolds’ point: “As the Producers’ Roundtable survey makes clear, we know how difficult it is for producers to earn a living making independent films, and TV is proving to be more lucrative for many filmmakers, which goes some way to explain the recent [BFI] production statistics.” Those figures show high-end drama production hitting a record £1.66 billion ($2.27 billion) in 2019.

However, the TV boom also makes it harder for those who remain committed to independent feature production. Wellington Films producer Al Clark, whose credits include the thrillers “Calibre” and “London to Brighton,” says the drama boom has led to high demand for crew, driving up wages for indie projects. “We just get priced out of the market,” he explains.

Clark says it has always been hard to get films made, but it’s getting harder. “You’ve got to get BFI, BBC or Film4 money behind a project to get it made now. But they haven’t got [enough] money to go around.”

At the BFI, Roberts points producers to initiatives that can support them beyond individual project funding, such as the Locked Box scheme, Vision Awards, the U.K. Creative Content EIS Fund and the Insight New Producer Program. 

Still, the odds remain stacked against independent producers, argues Phil Hunt, managing director of sales house Bankside Films and investment firm Head Gear Films. “It’s no longer you win or you lose,” he says. “It’s now you lose — and you’ll be very, very lucky to win.” 

Hunt maintains that headlines about multimillion-dollar acquisitions at this year’s Sundance Film Festival mask a grim reality about the independent film market: Many great movies are simply not being bought at all. 

“You can go to market and get no sales — none. So if you’ve got an independent movie that cost £1 million to £5 million [$1.3 million to $6.5 million], how do you make that work?” 

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