A panel of industry experts led by former culture secretary Lord Chris Smith published its highly anticipated recommendations on revamping UK government film policy today. The panel, which included Sony’s Michael Lynton, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and Optimum Releasing founder Will Clarke, made suggestions with the intent of increasing audience choice and growing the demand for British films both at home and abroad. With calls for regulated film investment from broadcasters like BSkyB and ITV, the review also seems to be taking a cue from its neighbors across the Channel on certain points. Within the 56 recommendations that aim to boost the British film brand are a handful of proposals that, if heeded, would make the UK business more closely resemble the French model.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron made headlines last week when he called for British filmmakers to make more “commercially successful pictures.” The remarks left the local industry in a bit of a huff, with director Ken Loach telling the BBC: “If you knew what was going to be successful before you made it then we’d all be millionaires.” (It’s worth noting that Loach’s last several films have been made with French backing). Despite Loach’s initial take on Cameron’s comments and as some industry folks I spoke to late last week suggested, the review that’s been released today is not quite so incendiary as the prime minister’s statements led people to believe. After Cameron’s quips, Fellowes last week said, “At the moment it’s being presented as if there’s a sort of polarity, you either support mainstream films or minority pictures. That isn’t what this is about at all. It’s about broadening the base, so that money goes into all kinds of films.” Supporting Fellowes’ comments, the report’s first recommendation is that major organizations must recognize that a key goal is to connect the widest possible audiences with the broadest and richest range of British films. In comments today, Lord Smith noted that between inward investment that’s helping to boost the local economy (think lavish Hollywood pics shooting in Britain) and a run of strong local films at the box offrice (The King’s Speech, The Inbetweeners Movie), British film is in a strong place. But, “we need to sustain that.” The report notes that although the average Briton watches over 80 films a year on big and small screens, UK indies made up only 5.5% of box office from 2001-2010.
Notably among the review’s highlights is a call for major broadcasters to invest more in independent British film and the recommendation that the Lottery funding scheme should provide a “reward for success” by returning British Film Institute development funds back to companies which have used the monies successfully so they can then be funnelled into development. Those two suggestions are similar to methods which have firmly been in place in France for years and which have helped it maintain its strong local industry. In France, for example, broadcasters are bound to invest a percentage of their revenues in French and European film. Lord Smith today said, “Channel 4 and to a certain extent the BBC have done pretty well by British film over the course of recent years, but they could do better. And in particular we think that Sky and ITV could do a bit better because at the moment they don’t put any support into British film really at all… We hope the government will sit down with the broadcasters to talk about ways of achieving that.” Interestingly, Tessa Ross, Channel 4’s Controller of film and drama was a member of the Smith panel.
Lord Smith singled out the TV investment issue and the producers’ reward for success as among the most significant of the recommendations. He said it would be important to give “British independent producers who have a success the opportunity to use the proceeds of that success to make more movies. So we incentivize producers not to do just a one-off, but to carry on making good movies year after year after year.” This is another suggestion that calls to mind the French model. France’s film institute, the CNC, maintains accounts for producers and distributors which are made up of a portion of box office takings that can then be reinvested into future projects for a total of up to 50% of a film’s budget.
Gary Smith, CEO of the UK’s Intandem Films tells me he thinks the report is “good and measured.” He’s very much in favor of the call for rewarding success, saying he firmly believes money should go to successful producers, distributors and sales agents, but not to producers who are making films that flop. Especially in this economy, he says, “they can’t be funding people who just want to make their own narrow-minded films.”
The report also contains suggestions made to the BFI that it should implement a “robust, cohesive” international strategy for UK film. Work would include marketing Britain in new and emerging markets while more greatly engaging with Europe and co-production partners. Smith’s panel also called for collaboration between producers and distributors from the outset of a project “so everyone is thinking about the audience from the word go.” This would include financial incentives according to the report which can be found in its entirety here. Skill and talent development is also high on the agenda as are calls for better film education in schools. Further suggestions relate to combatting piracy, increasing digital exhibition for independent films, prioritizing inward investment and tossing around new ideas for theatrical windows that might better benefit indie pics.
Today, the BFI responded to the report with an official comment that reads: “Against the backdrop of a record year for British film and film talent, we welcome this report which rightly places audiences at the heart of future UK film policy. The BFI has enjoyed a fruitful dialogue with Chris Smith, the panel, and with the industry, as we have all engaged with the development of this report which looks at the film sector completely in the round. We share the exciting ambition to drive a vibrant and prosperous future for British film and offer audiences excellence and choice. We look forward to considering the recommendations in the report and the Government’s response to it. The recommendations will help inform and define the BFI’s forward plan in support of the whole film sector.”
Also responding was Directors UK (the local equivalent of the DGA), PACT which reps independents and the Writers Guild of Great Britain who jointly said: “We welcome the review’s clear intention to move film funding towards the creative entrepreneur, incentivising success across a range of British films, and serving a wide variety of audiences and tastes.”
The government’s response is expected within the next few months.