In the last month PACT have published a report highlighting the problems with UK independent film production. Last week Screen International published interviews with UK sales agents talking about a system that is broken. The number of UK independent films has declined steadily over the last few years, with the vast majority now budgeted under £500,000, and receiving no theatrical distribution, over 700 from 2003-13.
In addition, Stephen Garret, a leading UK TV producer, in a British Screen Advisory Council panel discussion stated that UK television was under attack, and likely to not be able to make shows like ‘Happy Valley’ in a few years time.
With the problems arising from Brexit, and the probable withdrawal of MEDIA funding for development and distribution, the future is not looking good for future UK graduates in screen content creation. The one area where there is still some hope is obviously games, but is this the only option for future screenwriters, directors, animators, producers, and camera people? After all games companies are generally far smaller than film or TV production teams, and have less need for freelance creatives as these are generally the founders of the company.
The Current Situation
At Cannes in 2017 the only Brit directors are the established actor Vanessa Redgrave, Welsh/Zambian Rungano Nyomi and Lynnne Ramsey (An Amazon Studio Film) with the first of the three stating she does not want to direct again. Now Cannes is not the only guide to UK feature success but it is Europe’s major International festival and for this to be the UK presence is some indication of how far we are from other countries. Germany for instance is involved in five films ‘In Competition’ with another eight screening out of Competition.
Film and TV production in the UK is booming with studio space from Pinewood to Titanic booked out, the resurrected ITV Studios in full production mode, and the BBC drama department commissioning new dramas every year. This means craft based skills and production graduates should do well in the foreseeable future.
However, the vast majority of these productions are dependent on US based finance, and projects tend to be only greenlit if US monies are available – even in documentaries. The question then arises as it has in the past, what if the US companies decide to take production elsewhere?
“I don’t think the old rules apply anymore” Alison Thompson, formerly Focus Features International Chief, now co-founder of Cornerstone Films.
Many, if not the majority of, UK courses are still geared to the pattern of production and distribution/exhibition, which existed until ten years ago. So how do they adapt to the new situation? What should we be teaching the next generation of screen creative? How will UK voices reach global audiences if the theatrical route is closed off and TV is internationalised/Americanisation.
Future Industry Solutions
Inevitably some are arguing for more tax breaks specifically for UK independent productions, and there is in place, in principle if not in practice, an agreement that this should be treated as a UK producer’s equity in a production. This almost certainly would boost production, but would it create a long-term stable screen content sector, based upon Intellectual Property Rights owned in the UK? This s unlikely, without some major changes in the distribution and exhibition space, which is being steadily colonised by Netflixs and Amazon.
However, as has been stated in previous blogs the issue is not just one of production money. It is also about content development itself; support for the freelance and micro-companies which dominate the creative sector; and a new approach to direct marketing on the web. Changing the mode of distribution/exhibition, and thus creating replacement revenue streams does not affect the quality of work or guarantee an audience.
If the new T-levels and apprenticeships work then the technical skills, which underpin studio productions and the large screen service sector should be in place for the foreseeable future. The bigger problem is what about the creation of new IP, new companies, and careers for creative graduates? In this context, the Tick system of industry approval for courses is probably due for an overhaul. However, a bigger issue is how to ensure the next generation of graduate creatives are able to compete in the global market?
In the area of content development we need to move away from the simple feature film narrative structures, and the ‘auteurist’, theories, which have dominated teaching over the last thirty years. Narrative theory has moved on, and more complex approaches are required for a very screen literate audience.
UK support for directors is now reduced to a handful of low budget options, which are potentially besieged by thousands of graduates. Directors have been commissioned on the basis of global video submissions by Machinima for online TV series for over eight years. The launch of Amazon Video Direct provides an another alternative to YouTube, but also all national broadcasters, who potentially will lose out in the race to make new drama series.
Producers in the UK face a diminishing area of operations as the ability to finance UK Indie films continues to decline. Graduates of production courses, including creative industry masters degrees, need to be able to not only build teams, work across multiple platforms, and use different funding models e.g. crowd funding etc. but also crucially be able to develop global content, as making a deal on something which does not work is not a business.
In the context of these needs there is clearly a need to re-think our future educational plans.
We are clearly living in very challenging times, and educational institutions are finding it difficult to adjust to the rapidly changing climate. Many staff learnt their skills in the old systems, and still yearn for a past age. Students still buy a myth of instant success, and point to music and YouTube stars as exemplars of their own ambition. There are lessons to be learnt and taught from both of these arenas and mobile games etc. This is our challenge.
The Creative Industries has grown as a sector faster than most other parts of the UK economy in the past seven years but this has largely been based upon some star players and ‘unicorn’ companies. The future needs to be based upon graduates who can create in the new landscape and be flexible to face the challenges ahead.