Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Film Policy Review Notes

Here’s my take on the new Film Policy Review after having read it all. First of all, it strikes me as a mistake to include two heads of companies who benefit from the current disfunction. The CEOs of Sony Pictures UK and Vue Cinemas are part of the problem and can't be part of the solution.

As pointed out by Jim Barratt in Bigger Picture Research, this review treads upon previously debated points, initiatives and former reviews, like A Bigger Picture from 1998. That report led directly to the creation of the UKFC). So while the 56 recommendations contain lots of common sense ideas, there is nothing revolutionary about it.

What this writer would have liked to see is a radical approach to the lack of British success in cinemas like a quota system, or a tax on audiovisual product, or a network of publicly funded cinemas (or at least public support for companies like Picturehouses, who open cinemas in city centres across the country).

The report acknowledges the market failures presented by the film business but then recoils from presenting honest ways of dealing with them, i.e. government intervention and protectionism. Where in other sectors the government will happily protect medical research, automotive industry or agricultural exports, film is seen to have to live and die on its own feet.

At the same time, what little intervention is allowed is concentrated on the production end, with no attention to the other ends of the film value chain.

One dangerous statement: ‘ensuring filmmakers start with audiences” – anytime a government agency prescribes where and how filmmakers should operate it’s a slippery slope to committee-agreed films that are neither art nor commerce – just products.

If commercial success is what we want, then the current (not classic) US studio model is the best bet: pre-existing properties (TV shows, sequels, best-sellers, comic books) turned into generically made films that appeal to the widest international audience. This is how studios control international markets, combining the safest possible material with a carpet-bombing approach to marketing.

If we decide that this is the way forward, we have a lot of catching up to do – Hollywood has over 100 years of experience.

If, on the other hand, we look the the continent for inspiration (France for example) we find a successful industry, producing a wide variety of films, from small aueterist pieces to big blockbusters. How did they achieve it?

- With protectionist policies, like excluding culture as a commodity from the WTO negotiations, despite heavy pressure from the US. Allowing culture to be traded as freely as any other commodity would only further intensify the US’s grip on worldwide cinema culture and markets.
- Taxing all audiovisual products, creating a fund (the CNC) which helps all layers of the industry, from production to exhibition. This ensures a steady flow of capital to the industry.
- A quota system that applies to all cinemas, meaning there is a steady demand for French product.
- Intense film education throughout the whole educational system, which creates film-literate audiences who then becomes customers for homegrown cinema.

That Hollywood will dominate film culture for the foreseeable future is a given. The only thing countries that wish to preserve an industry, a culture and an identity can do is put in place defenses that will slightly tip the balance in the other direction. In France, American films still account for the majority of the market – but somewhere nearer 60%, not 90%, like the UK.

But what’s good about this report? There are some good ideas here:

- Reccomendation no. 3 is the best thing in the report “creating a UK-wide film network”. Too bad it’s not too specific.
- Recommendation no. 5 is more detailed, saying film socities and film clubs should receive more support. Absolutely.
- Recommendation no .7 is a small step towards doing what I say the French have been doing for decades…teach cinema in schools!
- Recommendation no. 13 identifies the problem with the current VPF model but offers no solution.
- Recommendation 32 – asking, then forcing, TV and cable providers to support British cinema is brilliant.

What’s outright awful?

- Recommendation no. 2 (and the heart of this review) – building a British ‘brand’ sounds like a bad idea. What is British? How do you identify it? Because the British brand that sells abroad is not one we want to be proud of internally. Also ‘British Film Week’ is gimmicky.
- Recommendation no. 24 – encouraging test screenings is a bad idea. They don’t even work in Hollywood.
- Recommendation no. 55 – why not encourage private investment and philanthropy in distribution and exhibition as well?

Of course the Government might choose to ignore all of these ideas. We’ll have to wait a couple of months to see what their response is….

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