Should we Defend the UK Film Council?

by Jack Newsinger

Jack Newsinger looks at the different responses to the proposed closure of the UK Film Council and makes the case for why we should defend it.

First published: 26 August, 2010 | Category: Culture

There have been a great many responses to the government’s plans to abolish the UK Film Council so far, including a Facebook protest group, a campaign website and a petition that, at the time of writing, has over 20,000 signatures (including my own). These responses can be divided into two categories.

Firstly, the industry view. This has been a combination of shock and incredulity. For example, John Woodward, the UKFC’s Chief Executive: “Having first seen the bus marked ‘Quango Cuts’ hurtling towards us two years ago, I was certain we had proved our value. But then, last Friday, the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt carefully backed the bus up, put his foot on the gas and drove it straight into us.” Or Tim Bevan the Film Council’s Chairman: “Abolishing the most successful film support organisation the UK has ever had is a bad decision, imposed without any consultation or evaluation”.

What is at stake for the industry is captured in a letter from Directors UK (a guild for film and television directors). It argues that the UKFC “helped to create a unified cultural and industrial film sector, and [spoke] much good sense to both government and to the industry. We welcome the proposed retention of film tax relief and the production fund, but we also want to see an effective environment within which they will operate, with no return to the chaos of the 1990s, with its conflicting bodies and departments and no single voice for the industry.”

The extent to which the UKFC has come to represent the entirety of British film culture in this discourse is interesting. This assumes that the British film industry is a single monolithic entity that has a single set of interests. But this is not the case. The “chaos of the 1990s” was the underfunded set of organisations – particularly the British Film Institute and the Regional Arts Boards with their broadly cultural remits – that had developed over a long period out of a desire to build aspects of film culture that were not catered for by the industry, such as minority cultural films, film education, political film-making, or community film-making. The UKFC subsumed these within its “unified cultural and industrial film sector” which was basically a subsidised industrial sector geared to the perceived needs of business, much in keeping with New Labour’s neoliberal restructuring of other parts of the public sector. And it did this very well with relatively large amounts of subsidy: it wasn’t funding, culture or art, but investment, economic development and multiplier effects. It must have come as a surprise to them to learn that they are part of the public sector, not least the executives judging by the salaries they paid themselves. Yet still they are tossed aside as if they are mere museums or libraries.

Which leads us to the second category, the view of the independent sector. These display a mixture of surprise, schadenfreude and tentative hope. For example, Undercurrents, an activist film group, posted on their blog: “When I find something that I agree with in a Tory Government, should I begin to worry?” Alex Cox has been one of the most consistently vitriolic critics of the UKFC. He argues that its closure is “very good news for anyone involved in independent film. The Film Council became a means by which lottery money was transferred to the Hollywood studios. It pursued this phoney idea that James Bond and Harry Potter were British films. But, of course, those films were all American – and their profits were repatriated to the studios in Los Angeles.” Equally consistent in criticism has been Colin MacArthur: “All sympathy to those about to lose their jobs, but the UK Film Council has been hoist by its own petard . . . it shovelled heaps of sterling into the already bulging pockets of the American majors”.

There is the sense that the chickens have come home to roost for the UKFC. Devoting themselves so slavishly to the market they are now the victims of its logic: the financial sector is more important to the ConDems than the film sector. So who is correct?

The UKFC, with its Board made up of industry movers and shakers, always represented the interests of the employers, the big money, more than it did struggling independent film-makers or those concerned with the less profitable aspects of cinematic activity. In fact, the UKFC presents an interesting case study into cultural policy under New Labour and the extent to which increased subsidy became instrumental in the neoliberal colonisation of the cultural sphere and the transfer of public money to the private sector. Take two examples: one of the most lauded capital funding projects the UKFC initiated was the Digital Screen Network which completed in 2008 after converting 239 cinema screens from film projection to digital projection, giving the UK the largest number in Europe (until it was overtaken by France in 2009). The potential benefits of this to cinema goers and smaller British film-makers alike were enormous. Digital distribution is about 90% cheaper than traditional film and lowering the costs of distribution could open up the market to independent production companies and increase the proportion of non-Hollywood cinema shown on British screens. However, the majority of the digital screens were installed into multiplex chains. In practice most of the savings accrue to the distributors, of which ten companies control around 90% of the market. Eight of these are American-owned, one French and one British. The Digital Screen Network effectively subsidised their already considerable share of the profits, further strengthening their strangle-hold over the industry. So while recent statistics show that the proportion of British films shown on British screens increased slightly in 2009, the main beneficiaries have been large international companies, not the independents.

Example number two: much has been made of the UKFC’s role in training and development, particularly money spent on creating inroads to the industry for those marginalised from the London-based mainstream. They pumped money into digital short film schemes, helped set up several Screen Academies and funded low-budget feature films by often first-time directors. This has allowed many people to make films who would not otherwise have been able to do so, particularly in the regions. At the same time, it effectively outsourced training, research and development – the sort of thing the industry used to do for itself – to the public sector whilst also providing publicly-funded products for commercial exploitation and a large pool of non-unionised skilled labour. While this needs to be seen in the context of overall growth in the film industry in the period, again the overwhelming benefits accrue to the existing broadcast and film sectors. For every Shane Meadows that has come through this system there are many more people working on low pay in short-term contracts with very little creative control over what they make. Research has shown that after ten years of such initiatives the film industry is still systemically racist and sexist.

In both these cases what was required was funding initiatives that shifted power away from dominant commercial interests in favour of smaller organisations through the creation of an alternative distribution sector and film production network (what Margaret Dickinson and Sylvia Harvey have called the ‘other cinema’ strategy). This could have provided a space for the production of films not made in the market place and created ongoing programs of work that kept film-makers in bread and butter when the international money dried up, as it periodically does. In turn, this would have provided an outlet for such work. It would, however, have involved interfering with the interests of the established commercial organisations, which New Labour were loathe to do, seeing them as the drivers of all things of value.

So is the UKFC worth defending? The answer is yes, and there are two reasons why. Firstly, the context of overall cuts in subsidy means that whatever system replaces the UKFC it is more than likely going to have less money, and will probably be worse. Secondly, the cutting back of commercial film production will have a large negative effect on the people that work in the film industry, whether through increased unemployment or decreased bargaining power, lower wages and poorer conditions. The ability to make a broad range of different films in this country, and to see as broad a range as possible from elsewhere, depends on the levels of public subsidy available and this is the issue at stake. Defending the UKFC is thus a position which, in the current climate, helps to defend the principle of not leaving culture to the market in general and defending access to film culture in particular.

Ultimately, then, defending film relies on reasons other than the relative amounts of profit different subsidy systems generate for private business. Those concerned with film culture in whatever sense need to join the dots between their campaign and the wider campaign to defend public services. And if the ConDems want to take British film back to the lean times of the 1980s then film-makers should take the lead and develop the sort of oppositional British cinema that the Thatcher era is best remembered for.

Jack Newsinger is a researcher at the University of the West of England. He can be contacted through http://www.montagusdaughter.blogspot.com

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