Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Film Council Abolished!

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the running battles Starsuckers has had with the UKFC, and their dogged attempts to stop our film being released because we upset the media elite. On monday 26th of July the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that the UKFC was to be abolished which is something I and many other indie producers have been campaigning about for years. I've done several pieces in the media about this, but my views are probably best summed up by a piece I've done for The Times. It's sitting behind thier paywall but hopefully they won't mind if I reproduce it below:

No one under 35 will mourn the UK Film Council, argues the director Chris Atkins

There has been much wailing about the demise of the UK Film Council, but many producers and directors are delighted that it’s finally been axed. My sentiments are not motivated by sour grapes — far from it — as a producer I had four films funded via the UKFC and so had the opportunity to observe their failings close hand, and, in my shame, help them to waste public money.
The first problem? The choice of films. They cared more about promoting diversity and fulfilling social quotas than about strong scripts. For that reason Nina’s Heavenly Delights (the worst film that I or anyone else has produced) was given £250,000 by the Film Council via Scottish Screen, not because it was a good story — far from — but because it was about Asian lesbians making curry in Glasgow, and so the perfect PC trivector. It was a critical and commercial flop, but no matter; we ticked the boxes.
The real scandals, however, came out of the UKFC distribution fund. This doled out more than £4 million a year in grants to help to release finished films (to pay for posters, advertising and so forth) and Pete Buckingham, the head of the fund, has given public money to some unlikely choices. In 2007, the impoverished rock band the Rolling Stones and the unknown director Martin Scorsese collaborated to make the forgettable Shine a Light — essentially a piece of marketing to plug the Stones’ album. The Film Council handed over £154,000 to promote Mick and Keith despite the Stones being worth more than £100 million. Furthermore, the grant went directly to a distributor that is part of an American studio. U2-3D, (also derided as a 90-minute album plug) got £164,496, generously helping out a band that rarely pays tax in Ireland, let alone the UK. That year I made my first half-decent film, Taking Liberties (four-star reviews and a Bafta nomination). When we applied for a similar grant our distributor received £5,000. While the UKFC was helping Jagger and Bono, my mum was going round her village handing out fliers.
But the distribution fund’s greatest balls-up was the Digital Screen Network. In 2004 the Film Council announced that it was going to invest £14 million to install digital projectors in more than 200 cinemas. At first glance this was manna from heaven for low-budget film-makers. The costs of physically distributing our movies on celluloid film were crippling. Digital distribution could bypass all these costs, as hard drives could be made and shipped for a tiny fraction of the costs of film prints. But rather than make the technology “open source” (meaning that anyone can render a Quicktime on a hard drive and screen it) the Film Council decided to listen to the anti-pirating lobby, and set up an expensive encoding network. This meant that to get our film to cinema we had to go to just one company that had the monopoly on managing the Digital Screen Network. Getting a film out this way takes ten days and costs £5,000, even though you can encode a film at cinema quality on your Macbook free. The derisory £5,000 that the UKFC gives to every indie film suddenly doesn’t seem so generous.
The real disaster, however, came with the council’s placement of the digital projector in cinemas. In the majority of cases the theatre owners put them in their largest screen, which made perfect sense to them because they could maximise revenues. But when independent films were being released, they would get placed in the smaller screens, with no digital projector, so we still had to spend money on prints. Meanwhile in Screen One, the publicly funded digital technology was screening Toy Story 2, which no doubt delighted the Hollywood studios that have had their costs subsidised.
Then comes the running costs of the Film Council itself: 75 people in a five storey building, with a rent of £300,000 a year. Their top ten execs all earned more than £100,000 and the UKFC running costs were at one point listed at £7 million a year. Film4, which basically does the same thing as the UKFC (reads scripts and dishes out money) manages to operate with a staff of ten.
The Film Council’s statistics department was a running joke among friends. They produced reams of reports, including posting box-office takings four days after they were available on a dozen other websites, and expensive studies that concluded that the Film Council was doing a jolly good job.
It was doing a good job with its expenses claims. The CEO, John Woodward (salary more than £200,000 a year) was rumbled by The Times last year for spending £16,000 on lunches. More than a dozen members decamped to Cannes for the festival. My greatest hour came when I was producing A Woman in Winter, backed by the UKFC. I was flown to New York, first class, accompanied by four UKFC execs, on an all-expenses-paid trip and stayed in a top hotel for five days to pitch the film. It didn’t matter that the script was so esoteric that hardly anyone in Britain understood it, never mind any US studios. I did a handful of meetings with American execs who passed on the script even before I sat down. But I bought some cheap DVDS and got to run down the steps of the library they used at the start of Ghostbusters, so I wasn’t complaining. This is why there has been precious little criticism of the Film Council over the past ten years — no producer wants to cut off a source of potential funding.
Getting funding from the Film Council was about knowing the right people, not having the best script. The council’s 2008-09 financial statement reveals that more than £13 million was awarded to films or companies in which members of the Film Council had an interest. The Film Council hated taking risks, so it was always easier to dole out more cash to the same tiny elite. Much of the wailing about its death has come from creaky industry figures who have been lucky enough to get some of the cash. While I admire Mike Leigh enormously, he has had more than his fair share of public funding, so it figures that he is a bit miffed.
I have yet to hear a bad word about the end of the UKFC from anyone under 35, because it is the up-and-coming film-makers that the council has neglected over the years. A survey by Shooting People (the excellent website and newsletter that does cater for the independent up-and-coming film community) found that only 50 per cent of its members think it’s a bad decision. A new film-maker starting out with a cracking script and barrelful of talent was as likely to get a meeting with the UKFC as he was the head of Paramount. Once you’re in that sacred clique, you just pick up the phone and book in lunch at the Groucho.
The Film Council represented the worst form of new Labour wastage, with layers of meaningless bureaucracy. Once the chairman, Tim Bevan (who works for Universal) started using the word “stakeholder” it was clear that this ship was on course for an iceberg. BBC Films and Film4 saw which way the wind was blowing, and slashed their costs and survived. The Film Council lumbered on and, with the coalition gaining power, it was an obvious target for cuts. I’m a big supporter of the Government giving limited cash to fund British movies, and I’m praying that this will continue. What we do not need is a fat, ineffective quango leeching millions away from the film-makers.

Link to article on The Times site


  1. Excellent piece.
    I do wonder whether the Film Council couldn't have been REFORMED rather than abolished wholesale -- this might have been cheaper than setting up some new body to dispense funds, and a revised UKFC might be better qualified to judge movies than an Arts Council panel of opera buffs and painters, which is what we may get.

  2. The UK Film Council is dead - long live the British film industry!

  3. Yes, Chris, let us all pray that government funding of British films continues at current levels or better.

    As the abolition of the UKFC is about saving money rather than improving the system, I fear those prayers will go unanswered.

  4. An excellent article, and while some good has come out of the UKFC, it appears that there's been a dreadful amount of waste, bureaucracy, and 'in-crowd' exclusivity.

    As a struggling freelance filmmaker looking to get into feature films, I didn't even know where to start with the UKFC, and contacting them generally was no use. I've had poor experiences with small, but similarly publicly funded bodies, who are supposed to help filmmakers - but it's nothing but money getting spent on documentaries (sometimes the handwringing kind) that nobody ever sees - rather than helping someone like myself, an eager young filmmaker with ideas, but no industry contacts, who wants to establish a rural community feature filmmaking project - the idea being, "let's make a feature film and provide work for local talent" - but frustratingly this has fallen, and continues to fall, on deaf ears.

    Then when it comes to scripts, what is someone like myself to do?! You need an agent, but can't get one until you're "somebody" ... it seems only the BBC Writersroom is open to unsolicited scripts, but the competition is so insanely tough.

    What on earth do I, and others like me, do?!

  5. Get this blog post out there as much as possible. Up here in the North East we've had the cliques hand wringing over the loss of their gravy train. It's time someone injects them with a hard dose of reality.

  6. I've just heard your interview on Radio 5 Live and I can't believe how patronising and one sided the whole thing was. Stephen Wooley needs a slap for lecturing down to you like that, and he's yet another leech who's been milking the system so i'm not surprised he stoop so low.

  7. Well said. Like you, I don't think ill of the UKFC due to sour grapes, but 2 years ago they turned down my feature film CrimeFighters for funding so I raised the money from private investors.

    The result? The film is now touring the Picturehouse cinema group - who saw the film's potential - after a sellout screening at this Edinburgh International Film Festival. Much as I hate
    arts cuts, it's hard for me to mourn the UKFC because I'd been painfully aware of most of the above points.

    The future for me as a filmmaker is represented by the way CrimeFighters has gone; private funding, strong commercial projects, screening deals with cinema chains. It seems like good business to me.

  8. Unrelatedly, congratulations on spoofing the media with your "urban fox attack" video. One small thing: in your video laying out the hoax, you refer to the Koupparis fox attack as fact. Besides statements from the parents, is there any evidence that this was in fact a fox attack?

  9. Hey Chris, I had a similar experience of the Distribution Fund and Digital Screen Network to you. Pete Buckingham basically told me if I had a big commercial movie they'd fund me and if I had a small art house pic they'd fund me but because EXAM was a small commercial film they probably wouldn't -- and they didn't. How completely absurd.

    I got the 5k for digital prints and nothing more -- and as we couldn't afford prints and were up against Avatar for the 1-2 digital screens available in every multiplex we opened on 8 screens nationwide instead of the 25 we were offered if we had prints. I got a BAFTA nom for a film that nobody saw. Thanks for backing your own, UKFC.

    They've done some good work here and there, they're not all bad, but on balance Hunt has definitely made the right decision. Bring on the new streamlined structure.

    Stuart Hazeldine