New Direction for British Film Funding

Article  by  Dovilé DAVELUY  •  Published 30.03.2011  •  Updated 01.04.2011
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[NEWS] In a tense economic environment, the British government is reorganizing film industry funding in an attempt to optimize decreasing resources.

The British film industry breathed a sigh of relief when the Mayor of London’s office announced last week that it would continue its financial support for Film London, although with a 22% cut compared to last year. Film London is the only survivor of the network of regional film agencies created by the UK Film Council. In its press release, Film London confirms that the continuing funding will allow them to attend to their core activities: attracting productions and generating investment to maintain London’s image as one of the cinematic capitals of the world. The agency also promises to utilize the funds to ensure that the film industry can best exploit unique opportunities offered by the 2012 Olympic Games.
In an article in The Guardian, London’s Mayor Boris Johnson stated that he was delighted to continue to support the industry, which contributes almost £4 billion to the London economy annually.
From now on, Film London’s role in the British film industry stretches beyond the promotion of England’s capital, as it was recently enhanced by the government’s decision to abolish the UK Film Council. The latter was established in 2000 as the government-backed lead agency to create a self-sustaining film industry in the UK, and to ensure that the economic, cultural and educational aspects of films are well represented home and abroad. Recently, it has been particularly concerned with the industry’s transition into the digital age. The Film Council was also in charge of distributing the lottery funds to filmmakers. In its decade of existence, it has given away £160 million to more than 900 productions. Among these, critics note that some have been more successful than others. The triumphant Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, which has won numerous industry awards both at home and abroad this year, was also supported by the Film Council. In 2010, the agency saw its budget reduced by £25 million.
British Minister of Culture Ed Vaizey’s announcement of the Film Council’s closing last November met with various criticisms. The Guardian’s film editor, Andrew Pulver, estimated that “the UK Film Council was rather obviously the best organised, and most serious attempt to make proper use of the lottery windfall.” Veteran producer David Putnam claimed that the Council was the necessary “strategic glue” binding various industry players. Fifty actors in the UK signed a letter of protest, and some key American film figures, including Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg, weighed in against the abolition.
The government justified its decision by pointing out to the allegedly exorbitant costs generated by the agency. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt specified that the Council’s overhead expenses amounted to 24% of revenues, and that it paid its executives six-figure annual salaries. The Council itself nevertheless recalls on its website that its investments in British films have always been very successful, generating £5 at the box office for every £1 invested.
The Film Council’s core functions have been transferred to the British Film Institute, which from now on, will be in charge of distributing the lottery funds. The BFI has been mostly known for sponsoring largely experimental, rather than popular films. The Film Council’s inward investment work has been transferred to Film London in a public/private partnership with the Production Guild, UK Screen, Pinewood Shepperton Studios and others in the industry, thus transforming the previously regional agency into a key player in attracting foreign investment to British film industry.
Despite a gloomy general economic situation, and decreasing public funding to the film business, inward investment has been booming, making the UK a sought-after location for filmmaking. Filmmakers are entitled to tax breaks worth 16-20% of their film budget, provided that the film qualifies as British by using UK skills and talent. The Oxford Economics 2010 report, The Economic Impact of the UK Film Industry, strongly defends this film tax relief by claiming that without it, the industry would contribute £1.4 billion less to the UK's GDP. According to the same report, in 2009, the film industry directly employed 36,000 people, supported another 10,000 jobs, and contributed a total of £4.5 billion to the British economy.
Not everybody, however, rejoices in the current situation. The Guardian’s lead writer on media and technology, Dan Sabbagh, points out that beyond the peaking foreign investment, the British film industry no longer exists in the sense that there are virtually no British film companies left. In his words, cinema has been reduced to “job creation.” Other observers also agree that the British film industry is still far from its ultimate goal of self-sufficiency and independence vis-à-vis the powerful Hollywood system.
Further reading:
Ronan BENETT, “Axing the Film Council: A move that impoverishes us all”, The Guardian, July 26, 2010.
Xan BROOKS, “Where now for the British film industry?”, The Guardian, Oct. 7, 2010.
Mark BROWN, “Economists defend UK film tax breaks”, The Guardian, June 7, 2010.
Charlotte HIGGINS, “British film funding takes a new direction”, Mar. 31, 2010.
Andrew PULVER, “Ed Vaizey restarts the film funding merry-go-round”, Nov. 29, 2010.
Dan SABBAGH, “British film emerges largely unscathed - but is that fair?”, Nov. 29, 2010.
Dan SABBAGH, “Film-makers to be asked to help with funding shortfall”, The Guardian, Nov. 28, 2010.

Photo credit: garryknight / flickr
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