Snuffed out! Flickering fortunes of Scottish film finance
by Alan Bett
AS KUROSAWA, or even Tarantino would tell you, the best place to start is not always at the beginning. But in this case let us be simplistic and do just that, with cold hard facts. On the July 26, 2010 (word slipped out that the UK Film Council (UKFC) was to be quite simply shut down, possibly the highest profile quango to be axed by our new UK coalition government.
The key shock was that it was not downsized, amended or re-moulded, it was simply given notice that it will be abolished in 2012. The UKFC was set up in 2000 and has been responsible, amongst other things, for funding and part funding film in this country. Without their input there may have been no recent harvest from world class Scottish filmmakers (or at least filmmakers working here) such as Lynne Ramsay, David MacKenzie of Hallam Foe fame and Andrea Arnold. Arnold’s Red Road was lauded by critics and she is seen as perhaps a future Ken Loach. Here she gave us a voyeur’s view of the underclass life through a cold camera lens.
Lynn Ramsay creates images of stunning beauty with every frame coming as if from a great painter’s easel. Just take a look at Ratcatcher, a boy’s stunted upbringing in a Glasgow not too far from our own present. How can such deprivation be made so beautiful but still so real and without gloss? This is partly what has been invested in; the fruits of artists’ hard work and talent, but that which has found it necessary to be endowed with UKFC funds.
Defining a nation
So, this is obviously a financial amputation for UK film, but let’s look specifically at Scotland and how strong the lifeblood in its film industry runs. The question goes well beyond the UKFC. It’s just one more artery severed. Scottish Screen which also had responsibilities for assistance, education and funding for Scottish filmmakers has vanished within the confusing Creative Scotland, and their role is still an unanswered question in most quarters. Is it as simple as the government fist closing around its pounds and pennies? We are suffering recession, so is film more important than food and amenities? Try making that risky argument in the more deprived areas of our towns and cities and escaping with your life. One cannot eat film or feed children on it. It will not shelter you or pay the bills. I’m not entirely sure where it fits in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs but it’s definitely not on the bottom rung of basic existence. Is film, as part of Scotland’s cultural identity as important as the welfare of those within its borders. Surprisingly, those who I spoke to in the industry did elevate cinema to a level of importance almost equal to our survival needs.
These comments were sincere and came not from selfishness or fear at a perilous decline on their own shopfloor, but from a well thought out true belief in the power and necessity of film. Award- winning filmmaker Mark Cousins expressed a feeling that film helped define a nation and people and societies within it. His mention to me that Gregory’s Girl “captured what it was like to be alive in Cumbernauld in the ’80s” is a prime example. This was a permanent marker of a time and place within Scotland.
Mark’s worry was less of where the money was coming from, more that whoever held the purse strings had an understanding of film and an understanding of Scotland as a devolved nation and one with individual, geographical characters: “As long as they understand the nation and regions and that London is not the centre of the universe.” He went on to say, “The decisions have to be made by the right people who know the Lynne Ramsays, know the Scottish film culture.”
Mark saw this as a greatly opportunistic time for Scottish film with an amazing batch of current filmmakers at the very top of their game. His worry was that a funding gulf could lead to a lost next generation while the current talent could look elsewhere to create their art, or simply lose the opportunity. Films will not stop being made, this is a simple truth, but if funding is not distributed correctly then the true talent will wither or lie undiscovered.
A few days after this interview on the October 4, 2010 it was announced that Mark and his friend, colleague and cohort, Oscar(s) winning Actress Tilda Swinton had been made Creative Advisers of the Centre of the Moving Image (CMI). This is a new combination of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the Edinburgh Filmhouse and the Film Guild. They may not hold any purse strings but as Mark told me, it’s not the size of the pot of gold, it’s having the right people in the right places, passionate people who know Scotland’s communities and Scottish film. This certainly applies to both he and Tilda who work tirelessly within our film industry, even designing and hosting a mobile film festival which toured the Highlands last year. This could be a positive step, a glimmer of hope.
A measure of success
Success in cinema can be measured artistically, commercially or by defining the impact on a national psyche. If Government funding is not being used to push Scottish film forward then what will? One answer may be private donations and corporate investment. One issue here is that while some will fund purely as lovers of the arts, many will put money forward with a more commercial nature in mind and place return on investment of higher importance than a film of true social, cultural and artistic significance. This of course enters us into the capitalist trap. Pressure for profit would change the landscape of Scottish film considerably. Hallam Foe and Young Adam were never designed to have their makers rolling in banknotes; they are works of art.
To push Peter Mullan, a Scot we must remember who has been awarded the Best Actor award at Cannes, into reforming his masterpiece Orphans as a commercial cash cow would have deprived the nation of a true depiction of brotherhood and family in modern Glasgow (I imagine Mullan would have given an unprintable answer anyway and we would have been deprived of any vision). The advent of television saw the three great powers take very different paths.
The USA of course as a privatised source of entertainment and commerce, the USSR as a Government owned communicator of culture and politics and the UK taking the Goldilocks (just right) berth in between. It seems that this has transferred into film with Hollywood a cash creator, the USSR in past decades taking the communist Government dominated approach of producing artistic (but political) wonders such as Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying.
The UK has shaken up a cocktail of government and private funding which has resulted in artistic gems but with freedom of expression. Will the changing financial situation have a deep effect on the cinematic output of Scotland in years to come? A step to the right?
A lost generation?
One possible affect of funding cuts could be that the lost generation of filmmakers in fact become an underground punk legion making films their own way and bringing a whole new freshness to Scotland’s film. This may seem a romantic notion but Hannah McGill, film writer, critic and recently resigned Creative Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival told me “I would say that a spirit of free enterprising in filmmaking – self-financing rather than sitting around waiting for a grant has produced a much healthier low-budget indie scene in the States than we have here.” There are of course the logistics of available and affordable equipment but as Hannah simply states “Artists produce art whatever the circumstances.”
I would never compare the slender and articulate Hannah to Michael Winner, but he is one of the few directors who took a similar view and basically said – stop your whinging and find your own finance. Without Michael’s approach we would never have the regular pleasure of Deathwish 4 on late night cable channels. To every action there is a reaction. Could this be Scotland’s reaction to film funding cuts and would it make for an exciting future of underground discoveries or a deluge of B movies and low quality fare? Would our current crop of filmmakers, who can easily be mentioned as world class, silently vanish? These are all questions we have no answers to as yet.
Edinburgh producer Nigel Smith of Forged Films has been in the industry for decades and has witnessed a sea change. He has produced everything from short films to micro-budget films and up to the million pound budget mark. Nigel creates his own productions. Over a coffee he told me that his first port of call for developing new works would be Scottish Screen and the UKFC, both now defunct or on death row. When asked where he would look for finance now he simply shrugged, “Good question …you look for a private investor.” The issue with this being that “You’re very much at the holdings of them and their money.” Nigel had no horror stories to impart of egomaniac financiers but the possibility is there; somebody who wants to buy their own film, the director’s vision washed away by the persona of the private money man. One positive Nigel drew from the funding hole was that people would now be forced to consider the market as commercialism took precedence. “In Scotland’s past it’s really successful films have been comedies, Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero, those are the ones that troubled the box office.” A fear of lost profit is a key ingredient in cinema output when there is less government money to burn. This fear could possibly focus filmmakers towards a financially successful model. Those filmmakers of course need to break into the industry in the first place and Nigel, a fan of short film, mentioned that this format is no longer seen (as it once was) as a viable calling card for new directors.
Only a full feature is seen as adequate proof of the ability to take on a project in the ‘real world’ of filmmaking. Advanced and cheaper technology has made this more feasible but time is also a commodity and this limits the type of person who has the background and the energies to produce such a piece. Imagine trying to putsomething together of this magnitude with a 9-5 and full family. In a way it mirrors university fees. Access to an industry is being affected by social background.
A performer’s view
It is not only those who wish to make films that will be affected by changes to Scotland’s quantity and quality of film. 25-year-old actress Hanna Stanbridge made her breakthrough performance in this year’s Outcast alongside veteran actors Kate Dickie and James Nesbitt. A very Celtic but urban horror which shows Edinburgh as it’s never been seen before. The grime, grit and sense of foreboding is exceptional and from my viewing I saw an actress with a real future, but this will be a more arduous future to realise in a cash strapped industry.
Hanna admitted to a gossip culture of alarm within the acting community, like panic in a factory with redundancies on the horizon. Scotland’s actors realise their opportunities will soon be thinner on the ground. Hanna mentioned that she (and she felt most performers) were shielded from budgetary concerns but there are times when these issues can slip through and of course this affects the performer. “If you feel the pressure … that entirely affects the quality of the acting and you think, why are we not making a film to the best of our abilities? (because of budget issues) …It’s not the theatre, film is forever, somebody could watch it 100 years from now.”
Like posing for a photo and finding you’ve blinked, Hanna mentioned that actors are very self critical and look back on their performances as if they are imperfect images which they are unable to change. Luckily this was not an issue she felt on the set of Outcast, and it showed in a tough but vulnerable performance. I’ve a true belief that acting jobs may be harder to come by or need more graft to source and obtain. Surely one who will have less trouble coming across roles of creative depth and interest will be Hanna Stanbridge, and hopefully they will be on the silver rather than small screen.
A creative producer
Eddie Dick, producer of the aforementioned Outcast met me over whiskies at the beautiful Society in Edinburgh’s Queen St. A perfect location to discuss Scottish film while drinking the holy water and looking through the cloudless sky towards the glistening Forth. He has been involved in different capacities with high level productions such as True North, Ken Loach’s Carla’s Song and with award winning performers such as Peter Mullan and Robert Carlyle. He simplified his producer’s role magnificently by stating, “I put the lights on and then when everybody’s left the building I switch them off again.” In relation to Outcast I was told that the director had finished it nine months ago yet Eddie was still working on it. His participation had taken over two years as producer with around three year’s pre-production. This explained his comment, “You can see why I’m saying that I have to love the idea and I still have to feel as enthusiastic on December 3 when it comes out as I did at the beginning…and with Outcast I do.”
The diversity of his function struck me as extensive, preparing final audits, film certificates in Ireland and the UK as it was a co-production, raising finance. And this was all after bringing the script and idea to a workable stage. The Irish co-production aspect led me to question comparisons with film industries worldwide. Eddie has experience in film productions involving multiple countries and industries. When asking for comparison with other nations output “Well, we’re underfunded…Denmark which is not dissimilar in terms of culture, psyche and population size produces five times more films annually than we do. Ireland produces between two and three times what we do. The problem thatcreates for us is that each and every film which might be defined as Scottish comes under greater scrutiny than it should and the expectation of success both culturally financially, is higher.” When asked if there is another country’s system he would like to mimic the answer was clear, “I don’t want to become like anybody, I just want a fair crack of the whip….I just love representing Scotland, Edinburgh in particular in film. It’s incredibly cinematic and we’ve not mined the visual resources it offers at all.”
His financing models were complex and involved raising public and private money, pre-sales, tax credits, minimum guarantees which are loans hedged against a bank’s confidence in the film’s sales.
He also echoed Nigel’s comments that there would quite simply be less funding for film and this would have an adverse affect on both the current and new generation of Scottish filmmakers. The demise of the UKFC would make money more difficult to come by or at least make its origin more puzzling.
A key question on the death of the UKFC was did they solicit their own destruction, or at least speed up the process. The board and management of the council hired a lobbyist to lobby against the Government position when only the possibility of its demise was being discussed. An inept response it would seem, coupled with their spending in excess of a quarter of their turnover on themselves rather than the films they should have been financing made the council an easy target and stuck their head above the parapet.
A ray of light
or a dark future?
One possible ray of light is the advent of Creative Scotland, an amalgamation of Scottish Screen and the Scottish Arts Council. They tell us that they are ‘the new national leader for Scotland’s arts, screen and creative industries. It’s our job to help Scotland’s creativity shine at home and abroad.’ With key positions filled and Sir Sandy Crombie as Chair, it has still to convey to the public its plans for culture in Scotland and remains tight lipped for now.
We all await with baited breath to see what Creative Scotland does and plans to do for Scotland. We are told however that they will lobby for a percentage of the funding being taken from the UKFC to be used specifically in Scotland. But to end on a pessimistic note (from the usually optimistic Hannah McGill) “Suffice to say that I would not advise any filmmaker to expect any public body to fund his or her film any time soon – any more than I would advise a painter to await funding for an exhibition or a fashion designer to expect a collection to be bankrolled.” It would seem that the artists are on their own for the foreseeable future.
As a sub note to all readers – If you have not seen any of the Scottish films mentioned in this article please do make the effort. They are wonderful pieces of cinema and show the class and artistry we Scots can achieve when we put our minds to it.
Red Road (2006), Ratcatcher (1999), Gregory’s Girl (1981), Hallam Foe (2006), Young Adam (2003), Orphans (1997), Local Hero (1983), Outcast (2010),True North (2006), Carla’s Song (1996)
Alan Bett is a freelance writer on the subject of film specifically and culture in general. Although a keen lover of Scottish film he loves Hong Kong cinema from the 1990’s alongside 1970’s Japanese cult classics. As a true Scotsman Alan is a lover of fine malts and samples regularly at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.