Taking council

I think this is the post that I’m most trepidatious making. Spellcheck tells me that ‘trepidatious’ isn’t even a word – that’s how trepidatious I am – I’m making up pretentious words.

I’m doing that because, for the first time, I get the feeling my blog is being scrutinised. The short rant I posted on Facebook and subsequently here when people started telling me non-Facebook people would like to read it got far more hits, tweets, re-tweets, emails and new followers than anything I’ve talked about before.

I do want to talk about it more but want to stress that this is personal opinion based on personal experience and discussions I’ve had. This is not researched and I’m sure you could fire a barrage of facts and statistics at me to prove that the UK Film Council is a wonderful organization. A lot seems to have been said in recent days about  how profitable they are and how many significant films they have supported and that might well be true or spin (and I personally believe that their skills have always been far more evident in the talent of spinning rather than doing), what I offer here is my personal take. Even the people involved who I mention might refute what I say or object to how their circumstances are portrayed – they are welcome to use the comments section to do so.

A little bit about me to give you some idea of my perspective. I’m one of the legion of lower-rung film-makers in this country. You wouldn’t have heard of me or probably anything I’ve done but I’ve worked professionally on-and-off for the last 12 years and my story is probably truer to that of most film-makers than the ones you’ve heard of. Film school trained, high aspirations, failed to deliver on either the aspiration or the potential so is perfectly happy ‘jobbing’. I worked professionally for a while as a screenwriter, most notably (if that’s the right word) on the TV show LEXX, but I didn’t ever manage to bring one of my own projects to the screen. A lot of my friends – lifelong friendships from the film school days – are in the same predicament. Producers, editors, cameramen on things you might have kind of heard of but none of us have managed to become ‘known’. In fact, the only guy from my whole film school who has become ‘a name’ was the guy who got sectioned for trying to stab some girls – he now directs some of those horrible British ‘thug’ movies. I owned a couple of indie video shops for the last 8 years so haven’t depended on film work for my living but have been back working freelance since February (and am already having to sue a famous author, pulling my hair out about filming industrial plants in hard-to-reach areas of Europe and spending full days auditioning people trying to pull condoms over their heads). I’ve also spent the last three years independently making a feature documentary about the Oxford music scene – more about that later, no doubt, I shan’t be missing my chance to plug.

Since 2001, I’ve taught various courses at Oxford Film and Video Makers (OFVM) which is a non-profit film workshop which has been running since the sixties. In the late eighties and early nineties, they trained me to make films. By the time I was 18, I could load and operate a 16mm film camera and edit film on a flatbed machine. I could also, thanks to OFVM and a long-gone workshop called Oxford Independent Video, operate video cameras and edit tape. I don’t really need to teach at OFVM and often find it a frustrating experience but I like teaching there. The point of it is that anybody can wander in off the street and say they want to be a film-maker and it’s OFVM’s job to make that happen. I’ve taught various courses there but my heart has always been in teaching screenwriting. I consider it the ‘worthwhile’ part of my life, I get to see the difference I make and feel like I’m doing my bit to enhance British cinema. Film education standards in this country are generally, I think, pretty poor and in particular few seem to put much emphasis on teaching or learning good screenwriting skills.

I think it’s important to stress  that I am not a Tory since I’m worried that people might construe my support of their decision as an endorsement in some way. No, I basically hate them and can’t see myself ever voting for them.  I don’t affiliate myself to any party – they’re all pretty vile now – but traditionally have voted Labour or Lib-dem.

The reason I felt I had to make my original comment was I was shocked to see how many people I know and respect bemoaning the loss of the Film Council. They were using it as an example of Tory evil, and far be it from my to defend the evil bastards, but it was like watching a shoplifter being arrested for GBH. I don’t doubt that the shits will cut arts funding left, right and centre but they seem to be being upfront about the cuts they’re making and the abolition of the Film Council is not being presented as a cut in film funding but a necessary removal of an overly-bureaucratic institution which has been diverting a lot of film funds into the pockets of over-paid charlatans.

This is from an article in prospect magazine last year:

One area where Woodward has succeeded is in setting financial records for the quangocracy. A DCMS written reply this summer confirmed that four executives are earning more than a cabinet minister (that is, more than £144,520). Others argue that, if bonuses are included, the figure is actually seven. These figures bear no comparison to salaries in the industry itself: the head of development is on a cool £165,000 a year, at least three times the industry norm. Given these salaries, it is not surprising that the last four year’s accounts show overheads running at a staggering £8m—more than the total government funding for the bodies the UKFC replaced. The accounts also show that these overheads make up 25 per cent of the income that the Council derives from its lottery income. In 2008, for example, the UKFC received £29.7m in direct lottery grants and another £5.7m in recoupment from previous lottery investments. Besides spending £8m on itself, the UKFC put not one penny of its return from films back into film production, a feat it has managed every year that it has existed.

In fact, you should read the whole  article: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2009/12/breaking-the-british-movie-myth/ because it nicely sums up my feelings and suspicions but is journalism rather than opinion – which is what a blog will always be. Mine, at least. It was nice to see in print what I had always felt.

People are rallying like they did when the BBC announced it’s plans to shut down 6music. The Film Council is not a hallowed, wonderful institution – it is merely a flawed and, I feel, corrupt method of distributing lottery funding.

Here, in no particular order are my experiences and observations of the Film Council and Screen South – their agency in my region.

1. My friend Hank and I decided to write a short film and apply for funding. The script was a simple little film called Mugwump about a guy who hated his father but had to care for him since he’d had a stroke. It’s not as kitchen-sink as it might sound and was actually about the pair of them getting lost in the forest on a mission the father couldn’t convey to his son. It’s hard to be objective but it was a solid script. Honestly, I teach screenwriting, I’ve been through film school and I work as a script editor – it was a good script. We submitted it and got shortlisted. I was told that to progress to the next stage, I would have to attend a one-day workshop on screenwriting. I pointed out that I had been trained by the Film Council to teach their 22-week screenwriting course – which I was delivering twice a year – so, could I maybe sit this one out? They said no. I had to attend. I went and I behaved but was shocked to find that the lady teaching it had no professional experience as a screenwriter and was not teaching screenwriting in the official Film Council sanctioned manner. In fact, she didn’t really know what she was talking about. Why would they spend so much money creating a whole course, training tutors in how to deliver it and then not only not use those tutors or even the course basics to train applicants but hire a complete yahoo? We got onto the final shortlist for funding and had to attend a meeting in London. We were ushered into an expensive looking boardroom and faced about 8 or 9 people – who didn’t see fit to introduce themselves – who grilled us as to our project aggressively. One old man ranted at us about the film being ‘NOT FUNNY’ and ‘mocking the disabled’. Hank and I both spoke eloquently about how it was in no way mocking and how we thought it was funny (one lady actually really defended us on this score in the meeting) but humour is a very personal thing and a lot of the funnier moments are visual and maybe he didn’t pick up on them. The project got rejected. Two weeks later, I got a phone call from the person running the scheme offering me the choice of several of the chosen scripts to produce. I told them they were probably trying to get hold of Hank – he was the producer – but they said, no, they thought I should try producing a film. I told them that I was a writer and a director but not  producer and they explained to me that their remit was to ‘develop’ people and they saw huge potential in me as a producer. I agreed, purely because I wanted a look at the scripts that had been selected for production. The scripts were awful.

2. Hank went on to write a truly fantastic screenplay. it is genuinely one of – if not THE – best short screenplays I’ve ever read. Brilliantly, he got selected for funding. He was then given some kind of script editor who forced him through multiple re-drafts. I should state again (although it might start to sound braggy) that I work professionally as a script editor and this script – the first draft he submitted – was PERFECT. The changes she demanded were petty and ludicrous and her reports read to me like somebody who was just stirring the pot to prove they had made a contribution. I don’t know how much she was being paid but Hank followed her guidance and each draft lost more an more subtlety, character and nuance. They assigned the script to a director who really didn’t understand it and it appeared to me that Hank was under a lot of stress. He had written the script as a personal exercise. It was a personal story for him and I could see so much of him in there as a human being. Hank eventually withdrew the script from the scheme. Thank god. It would have been heartbreaking to see how his personal vision had ended up.  What should have happened? What would I have done? If I had been sent such a personal and obviously unique script, I would have told the screenwriter that he should think about directing it himself – since it was so obviously filled with meaning and raw talent. I would have funded him to go on a short course in directing, given him a modest budget and surrounded him with upcoming talented people who could help him realise the film and also learn and benefit from the experience themselves. I believe the budgets for films on this scheme are between 3k-10k. Add on top of that the cost of all the consultants and the marketing of the scheme and the films it produces and it sounds like a lot of money to produce a handful of short films by first-timers. I’ve made short films my whole life and know that you make them on the cheap. You call in favours, you muddle through. Give someone a budget of even 1k and they should be able to produce something spectacular. Especially since digital production has taken off. You do not inspire burgeoning talent by editing them and forcing restrictions on them. They learn through their own mistakes and if you really care about their development, you give them space and encouragement to make those mistakes and learn some lessons and produce some raw but excellent short films.

3. I had been teaching the OFVM screenwriting course for a year or so. It was a workshop-style discussion based practical course where I’d lead a class of four people at a time and, over 8 weeks, develop their screenplays. It was quite bespoke, and catered to their individual needs. Each week I would present relevant material to study for their specific projects and give focused advice. Then the Film Council talked to me about their plans to overhaul film education. I adored their vision. As I remember it, it was this simple; they were to create three big introductory courses. One in Screenwriting, another in Directing, a third in producing. These were to be 22-week long courses, taught by tutors trained by the Film Council themselves and delivered through all of their separate regional agencies. The idea being that if anybody said they wanted funding to develop as a film-maker – they would have to attend one of these courses (often on full bursaries) before applying for money. This would mean that everyone applying would be of a standard, have the backing of their tutors and somewhat trusted. it seemed like the perfect way of creating a solid film industry in this country – a clear progression route which would be fair and open to all who displayed commitment and graft. Talent would be recognised and rewarded.

The Film Council paid for me and the OFVM production co-ordinator to attend the training course. They put us up in hotel rooms and paid our expenses. The course was developed and explained to us by the excellent screenwriting academic Phil Parker and it was wonderful. There were about 25 other tutors there for the training and, at the end, Phil told us that we would reconvene after the first run of our courses in our regions to discuss and alter the course as needed. I believe only three of us in that room ever delivered the course at all. The Film Council never once asked for feedback from us and Phil later told me that they refused to fund any further development on the course or even pay him to chair a meeting to follow up on it. As far as I know, the directing and producing courses were never even designed.

Last year, I attended a day aptly entitled ‘Nobody Knows Anything’ at the London Film School where they invited screenwriting tutors, students and funders from around the country to have a supposed symposium on screenwriting education. It was just a bunch of keynote speakers uselessly pontificating and refusing to engage with an audience who could have put the whole issue right. It concluded with two women from the Film Council who just whinged about the amount of work they were put under to read scripts. I stood up and pointed out that they had a roomful of screenwriting tutors here who would – for free – tell them exactly which scripts to produce and which screenwriters to invest in developing. They didn’t like that. I pointed out that I was the only person in the country teaching their own screenwriting course. not only had they not thought to consult me but they didn’t even know of my existence. I was quickly silenced by the chair and they left the room hastily as he crowd seemed to demand proper answers.

4. My documentary. After years of being on and around the Oxford music scene, I decided it was time to tell it’s story. The story of the shared roots of Radiohead, Supergrass, Foals, The Young Knives, Ride, Swervedriver, Talulah Gosh, The Candyskins and many, many more bands – successful and not. All of the bands (except The Young Knives) supported the film and I got long, exclusive interviews with everyone. Talking about things they had never even been interviewed about. Radiohead in particular got enthusiastic about telling the story of this little music scene that went on to shape music globally but has never been credited as such. It’s filled with never-before-seen footage and photos of all of the bands involved and, frankly, it fucking rocks. OFVM gave me a bursary of free digital camera and light rental and some DV tapes. Good nepotism! I could have made it without, but this made it way easier and cheaper – since I was self-funding the whole film. I looked at some of the Film Council funding opportunities but the film was dependent on being filmed in a short period of time (between the closing of the independent club The Zodiac and it’s re-opening as a Carling (now 02) Academy and the volume of paperwork and hoops to be jumped through made it impractical. It took a couple of years, but I finished the film myself. It is edited, approved by those taking part and ready to be released. I have a distribution deal in America which is dependent on the two things that I can’t do by myself. I have completely made this film off my own back and brought it to the end of post-production but now I need money. I need about 10k to get the final sound mix and film online completed (not something I can do on my laptop) and about 30k to legally clear all of the music and footage used within it.

So, I went to Screen South. I figured that an entirely indie finished feature documentary coming through one of their own centres (OFVM) about subject matter that promotes their own region with a clear commercial bent considering the volume of exclusive Radiohead, Supergrass and Foals content, might interest them. They gave me 12 minutes with their temporary head whilst he ate his lunch. He said it ‘sounds great’ and he’d love to see it. I sent him a DVD, he didn’t confirm receipt. He didn’t respond to phone calls. I sent him another one. Again I heard nothing. Hank, who had more dealings with Screen South (I’m resisting the temptation to abbreviate) tried to contact the man on the subject but to no avail. Yeah, I could have been more persistant and, if I wanted funding, should have filled in all of the paperwork and applied for every scheme. But shouldn’t they also have been trying to encourage me? I’m going to get the project out there in the next couple of months through crowd-funding (email me at info@scriptguru.co.uk if you want to know more about the film. Fuck you, I’m allowed to plug it, I’ve just written over 3,000 words about the fucking Film Council)

So. To end this. I always hated the Film Council. It has appeared to me to be inefficient and baseless. From the expensive ‘networking breakfasts’ they paid OFVM to host (which was just a free breakfast for their employees and a couple of randoms) to their shameless ‘buying on’ to any high-profile British film which is being made, I’ve sneered. But what I HATE is that this has been the least interesting decade for British cinema in film history. So few new voices coming through, so little quality, and with the advent of digital technology – there is no excuse why the cinemas and dvd shops aren’t filled with wonderful quirky raw little indie films. If you gave me 35.4 million quid to get British films made and promoted, I’d get that education programme up and running and then get groups of screenwriters/producers/directors who had graduated from it to show us what they can do with a 10k budget and free equipment hire. I bet we’d get a whole new generation of incredible film-makers who, in turn, would re-vitalise the industry.

And I wouldn’t expect a salary of 144k per year to do it.

Published in: on July 28, 2010 at 1:19 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I studied Screenwriting for Film and Television at Bournemouth University (a Ba(Hons) course) and we were told, well into our second year, that it was virtually impossible to break into the film business in the UK, and you had better luck going abroad, or trying to get into TV. (Not necessarily because TV is a better environment in this country, but only because you get more roles of the dice.) We had a long module in the third year about how to write a script-reader’s report and told that this was a good way to ‘break into’ the industry. The end-of-course exam was to write a reader’s report which you were graded on. I got out of the game at that point and started writing novels (now have a 3 book deal in the US).

    Jon is right — money is needed, but it needs to go to the right people, and it should only be given in as much as it frees creativity. Filmmakers are being systematically frustrated in this country, and the UKFC, are only adding to the problem. We could easily have the sort of successes that we have musically, if only we didn’t try to keep all these guys under our thumb. My impression of the industry, filtered through a HE course, is not that it is ruled by fear, which chokes creativity, and not passion, which makes it flourish.

  2. Surely they should reform the UKFC rather than shutting it down? Similar things happen with the NZ Film Commission but I would be horrified if they closed it down as a solution.

  3. I sympathise with your personal experience of the UK Film Council. I have friends who have written many movies who have had very bad experiences of their development process. There was obviously a massive issue there and I think they simply had people in those areas who were not up to scratch. As someone who has previously worked in development for 10 years I can say that in my experience most development people I come across have very literary backgrounds, tend to prefer theatre to movies and are not passionate enough about the medium. Thus they do not watch enough movies, study enough screenwriting theory and read enough scripts. The best background for development people is through script readers. Before I want into development I had written over 1000 script reports. However, I take issue with your opinion that this has been the least interesting decade for British film and that the video shops should be full of little indie films. The UK Film Council or any subsidy body should not be funding films that no-one wants to see. It should be investing to make the UK a sustainable territory that has it’s own internal ability to make home-grown-films that can make a profit like France and Japan. We are always at a massive disadvantage because we share the same language as the USA and they consequently dominate our business. That was the point of the old Eady levy to subsidise British films. It was to protect us from being swamped by American imports. Comedies, rom coms, horrors, crime thrillers, musical dramas etc. This is what we need to be making. In the last 10 years we have produced some really good films: Slumdog Millionaire (you may remember it ;-)), Billy Elliot, Sexy Beast, Calendar Girls, About a Boy, Bridget Jones, Dog Soldiers, Dead Man’s Shoes, The Layer Cake, Shaun of the Dead, Millions, The Descent, The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, The Escapist, London to Brighton, Hot Fuzz, Happy Go Lucky, Mamma Mia, The Duchess, Son of Rambow, Moon, Hunger, Eden Lake, Harry Brown, In the Loop etc. I’m not even mentioning the studio franchises like Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter. In a decade that has seen the talents of Edgar Wright, Kevin MacDonald, Duncan Jones, Matthew Vaughn, Rupert Wyatt, Paul Andrew WIlliams, Steve McQueen, Garth Jennings etc emerge. That’s a pretty good decade in my opinion and most likely better than the 90s. Here’s one question for you though. Why is it that people who are very good at teaching screenwriting theory can rarely convert that knowledge into writing or producing good films? Can you name me any of the famous masters (Robert McKee, William C. Martell, Christopher Vogler etc) who have written or produced a half decent film?

  4. Just a comment about the RSAs and your experience in not getting any completion money from Screen South.

    The Film Council’s policy is that the film industry is based in London, but they want to know if there’s any ‘talent’ out there in the provinces; so each RSA gets about £120,000 pa for ‘digital shorts’ and for feature script development. What the RSAs are supposed to spend most of their time on is ‘encouraging inward investment’, not filmmaking.

    We had the same illusion as you did. We’d made a feature, “Diary of a Bad Lad”, on virtually no money, but we needed all that final post-production in order to complete it. The British Council were so impressed that they’d submitted it to Cannes.

    We approached Northwest Vision & Media and their ‘head of production’ took us to lunch and was very pally. He followed this up by inviting us to other NWV&M little all expenses paid events and offered to pay for one of us to go to Cannes.

    But we could never pin him down on any completion money.

    Ultimately we came to the realisation that he didn’t actually have any money, and he didn’t have any pull with the UKFC – he was just there to administer ‘Digital Shorts’ and the script scheme – and, in most cases, impose on successful applicants patronising self-styled mentors.

    All the ‘high-level’ lunches, and the ‘events’ we were obliged to attend at Cannes, were actually for NWV&M’s benefit – i.e. making it look like they were doing something for us, when the reverse was the case.

    After having wasted a lot of our time we did try ourselves to get some completion money from the UKFC, who refused to watch a screener, told us they didn’t provide any completion money, and, when challenged were both rude and threatening.

    Oh yes, Ed is wrong about one or two things. The USA does not dominate us because we share the same language – language is of no importance to Hollywood – they dub their films into the languages of any market with the potential to turn a profit.
    The Eady levy never protected us – quotas did. The countries today with sustainable film industries of their own are all protected by either overt or covert subsidies.

    Best wishes

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