Monday, 26 July 2010

The End of An Era

In 2000, the Labour government created the UK Film Council in the midst of a frenzy of spending in the arts that was welcome by every creative person in this country after the Thatcher era, in which the arts were left to wither in the marketplace. Of course there were complaints about the projects funded, the distribution of the funding, and the quality of the content that was created in its aftermath, but the idea was a good one.

Script development, post-production, prints and advertising, digital projection, were among the things that the UKFC funded, and the Digital Screen Network, was, in my opinion, the single best capital project they ever financed. It created an advance post for digital projection in the UK, giving us an advantage over our European neighbours, the effects of which we can still feel in the specialised sector to this day. They also created the Statistical Yearbook, an invaluable resource filled with facts and figures about the film industry that was a godsend to people like me.

While the dissolution of the UKFC might seem like a small dot in the larger scale of cutbacks that are yet to come, with millions facing unemployment and reduced benefits, the UKFC had a multiplier effect, as it promoted (through the P&A fund) foreign language films, documentaries and British cinema that might not otherwise be able to reach a wide audience.

That said, I have been one of many critics of the UKFC – you can see my track record here. There are certainly elements of a safe, generic approach to filmmaking that produced some awful (and often unreleased) films. It also spent far too little on exhibition (about 5% of its total spend). The UKFC was also its own best advocate, and sensing impending doom, last year spent a lot of time and money preparing a document on the economic effects of the film industry. The Statistical Yearbook too, was full of self-promotion, and hid some of the uglier sides of the industry: the consolidation of the multiplexes, the decline of the arthouse sector, the precarious state of the independents, and the lack of a sustainable production industry.

For a far more eloquent breakdown of everything that was wrong with the Film Council, read Colin McCabe’s article here. On the other hand, you can also read Charles Gant's defense of the UKFC here. They both make good points.

So a whole decade and £300 million later, the UKFC disappears in the wake of an aggressive Tory plan to cut all public bodies, leaving behind some good movies, some digital projectors (including one for the Duke of York’s) and quite a few unreleased films. What will replace it? I understand the BFI has had to resort to major corporate sponsorship to ensure its survival and of course its dreams of a major Film Centre will have to be postponed indefinitely.

As always, we’re faced with a false choice – a dysfunctional organisation or nothing at all. Why not a third option, a properly funded BFI, with wide consultation in the film industry, producing both commercial hits and experimental work, supporting distribution and exhibition, and with a less London-centric view? If the BBC can do it, why can’t they?

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