James Lee, former chairman of Scottish film agency Scottish Screen, has written to UK culture secretary Jeremy Hunt proposing all £15 million of lottery funding be injected into a single distribution label. BBC Films and Film4 would be obliged to release all their films through this “British National Distribution Company.” Indie producers would then apply to have their films fully financed. This is a revival of an old idea. Back in the late 90s, a government report recommended that all lottery funding be spent on a distribution-led studio aping the Hollywood model. Fine in theory but the government immediately saw the impossibility of using public money to fund a commercial rival to existing film companies. John Woodward, current CEO of the Film Council, was one of those who shot the idea down. Woodward, then CEO of UK producers’ lobbyist Pact, realised that the Middleton Report proposal would leave too many of his producer members hungry for cash.
Michael Grade has also weighed in to the UK Film Council debate, suggesting producers get to be the ones distributing lottery funds. “Could we introduce a system whereby internationally established UK producers, who have had success in both commercial and cultural terms, play a role in distributing lottery funds?” Grade wrote in the Times of London. “Surely they are more likely to pick winners than the bureaucrats.” But wait, the government has already tried that. Back in 1997, the UK government awarded three film franchises £92 million of lottery funding precisely with the idea of creating three producer-led mini movie studios. Producers running the franchises included Duncan Kenworthy (The Eagle of the Ninth), Andrew Macdonald (Sunshine) and Timothy Burrill (The Pianist). Woodward was one of the prime movers behind the lottery film franchises. The experiment did not create the mini-Working Title powerhouses they were expected to. DNA Films and Pathe continue to produce movies though, while what was The Film Consortium reinvented itself as sales agent/distributor The Works, which is still in business today. But the lottery film franchises didn’t become heavyweights, despite being pump-primed with £92 million of cheap money.
Here’s my modest proposal. The more I think about it, the more I think there was nothing wrong with British Screen Finance, the funding organisation which the Film Council replaced. British Screen backed 144 films over a 10-year period with a development and production staff of just four people, compared with 21 for the three UKFC funds prior to their recent cutbacks. (The new Film Fund has 11 staff.) The annual overhead for British Screen was £1 million. What was wrong with British Screen was that it just didn’t fit into the then Labour government’s plans. New Labour wanted to have a single film button on its speed dial. Another problem was that a personality cult had emerged around British Screen’s head Simon Perry. Indie producers complained about not being in the inner circle. The UKFC reformed this by appointing all three of its fund heads for fixed 4-year terms. Problem solved. British Screen made half of its money back — around same percentage as the UKFC’s Premiere Fund today — one of the highest recoupment rates of any film subsidy body in the world. The UKFC expects its Premiere Fund to recoup around 48% of total investment. And British Screen still lies dormant inside Companies House as a UKFC subsidiary, waiting to be revived by Jeremy Hunt’s kiss. It could transfer across to the British Film Institute, becoming its arm’s-length commercial film investment arm, much like BBC Worldwide operates for the BBC. And hey, Simon Perry is about to exit as head of the Irish Film Board, what if he… but no, the irony would be too delicious.