A bigger, more European, more digital picture: 1998 to the future

In document Stories we tell ourselves: the cultural impact of UK film 1946 2006 (Page 80-82)

cultural impact

9.7 A bigger, more European, more digital picture: 1998 to the future

After the abolition of traditional UK film policy measures, Channel 4 seemed to offer a new springboard for film policy in the absence of large-scale government intervention, although British Screen had replaced the NFFC as a modest vehicle for seed-funding British production. Two factors, however, led to the creation of a new platform for UK film policy at the beginning of the new century. The first of these was the growth of European media policy through a series of MEDIA Programmes from 1991 onwards, designed to incentivise cross-border cooperation in film and television. The UK has automatically participated in these (though not without some official resistance), giving access to training, development, distribution and exhibition support schemes. The UK initially participated in the Council of Europe’s Eurimages production initiative, but withdrew in 1996. However, British film and media policy has increasingly become subject to EU priorities, and UK films have benefited considerably from various kinds of EU support, including capital and support for infrastructure through the the European Regional Development Fund, to become the most successful export cinema within Europe.109

A second new development emerged as a result of National Lottery funds being made available to arts activities in the mid-1990s. Initially, this funding was handled by regional arts councils across the UK, and included some large allocations to groups of film producers organised in franchises in England. Amid a mounting chorus of industry criticism, a number of government-led working groups were convened and prepared their

recommendations. In July 1997, the new Labour Government created a new tax relief (Section 48), a 100% first- year write-off for the production of films costing £15m or less. The effects of this took time to work through but eventually had a very significant impact on levels of domestic production.

108. On the workshop movement, see Margaret Dickinson, ed.,Rogue Reels: Oppositional Film in Britain,1945-1990 (1999), pp69-71.

109. Two UK productions (The Queen, Notes on a Scandal) and one co-production (Irina Palm) are among the ten highest-grossing films in the Europa Cinemas network for 2007-08.

In 2000, a new film agency was created – the UK Film Council, charged to promote film culture through education and access, and to help develop a sustainable domestic film industry. Its formation followed the publication of two significant reports:Making Movies Matter, published in 1999 by the BFI Film Education Working Group; and the Film Policy Working Group’sA Bigger Picture(1998). The main financial instruments favoured by the Labour Government were the Section 42 and Section 48 tax incentives, supplemented by Lottery funding. Funding for exhibition was transferred from the BFI to the UK Film Council and partly delegated to the national and regional screen agencies. A major initiative to install digital projection (the Digital Screen Network) was announced in 2004, to support the exhibition of British and specialised films in a range of cinemas across the UK. While it is too early to arrive at any overall assessment of the UK Film Council’s various strategies, there can be no doubt that having one single body to co-ordinate policy and initiatives across the full spectrum of activities in the UK increases the likelihood of their success.

In April 2007, two new tax reliefs for British film production were introduced, one for films costing £20 million or less, the other for films costing more than that. These replaced the Section 48 and Section 42 schemes, which had been increasingly bedevilled by investors’ propensity to use them as tax avoidance opportunities. The new reliefs, which were designed to go directly to production companies and had much lower transaction costs, were accompanied by the introduction of a ‘cultural test’ for British films, to ensure compliance with EU state aid rules (Article 92 of the EU Treaty).

The history of British film policy has shown that, throughout most of the 20th century the film production sector has required some form of state support, either through a national quota or by providing some kind of production funding. Between 1949 and 1985, these two mechanisms operated in tandem, and effectively secured a continuing national element in production as well as exhibition, despite the sharp decline in cinema- going. In today’s very different media landscape, the central challenge – just as in the 1920s – is still the saturation of cinema’s cultural space by Hollywood. That domination has if anything increased since the 1920s and ‘30s, and needs to be addressed, as European policy-makers have acknowledged and as UNESCO’s recent Declaration on Cultural Diversity recognises.

New media technologies and forms offer enormous opportunity for individual choice and for access to a wide range of audiovisual products. Digital restoration is creating marketable new versions of classic films, and is overcoming the invisibility of old movies. DVDs and forms of Video on Demand (VOD) are making British cinema heritage accessible as never before. Film and media education is also flourishing, although relatively little of it actively addresses issues of national culture within a global context. More positively, the FILMCLUB initiative launched in 2007, supported by the UK Film Council, the BFI, LOVEFiLM and other industry partners, aims to spread awareness of the diversity of cinema in UK schools. The partnership between UK-wide and regional film bodies, Film: 21st Century Literacy widens this strategy to young people in general, aiming to equip them to appreciate new films in the context of film heritage and history.

All the evidence suggests that UK film is popular and achieves wide cultural impact when it becomes visible and accessible in an otherwise crowded marketplace. UK films have been strikingly popular in certain eras: in the 1930s, after the quota system began to work effectively; in the 1940s, during the war; in the 1960s, after US finance helped relaunch UK films; and again in the 1990s, when new cinema building helped films to reach wider audiences. When, it might be asked, are we going to begin to teach cinema history as an essential part of UK history? When will we include leading directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, David Lean, Ken Loach and Gurinder Chadha, and influential film entrepreneurs such as Michael Balcon, David Puttnam and J Arthur Rank in the national curriculum? The evidence of the existing cultural impact of UK film presented in this study suggests there is a considerable potential to enhance and deepen such impact through public policy.

In document Stories we tell ourselves: the cultural impact of UK film 1946 2006 (Page 80-82)