The last credit at the end of my film “The Criminal” (2000) reads “The Criminal was shot entirely on location in the UK. It was made with real money and no public funds whatsoever”. If that sounds like sour grapes, that’s probably because almost all of the grapes contained in the statement are at least a little way past their sell-by date. Our experience with the arts council funding bodies at that time (a previous incarnation of the UK Film Council) was discouraging to say the least. The film was apparently “too commercial” (although box office receipts would ultimately prove that to be incorrect) and we were told that funding is only given to those films that would not otherwise be made. The movie was about an innocent man who finds himself on the run from the police and the victim of an all-powerful quasi-government conspiracy. Perhaps, it was helpfully suggested, said innocent man might be given some kind of disability, to allow Arts Council funding to be forthcoming?
The following decade provided myriad other experiences of piss-poor development instincts, broken promises, missed deadlines and bureaucratic incompetence on the part of what had by then become the UK Film Council. These were not smart people. There is an aphorism concerning public defenders in the legal system: who would trust his life to someone who wasn’t smart enough to succeed in private practice? And perhaps this can be countered by the argument that people have higher aspirations; that public service is its own reward. But this is not the legal profession we’re talking about. Nor the medical profession, nor teaching or policing or putting out fires. The film industry (also theatre, dance, writing, art etc) is a commercial profession; you create something people want to see in order that they buy tickets in sufficient quantities to cover the costs, pay the participants and, hopefully, seed money into the next project. We would rightly assume that someone who entered the oil industry with the intention of not making a profit would be missing the point. Likewise the employee of the public arts fund.
So I am not going to miss the UK Film Council and I am certainly not going to be signing any petition or “liking” any Facebook page in a hopeless and misguided effort to stay its execution, regardless of my personal feelings about the government that axed it or their transparent anti-cultural agenda. And I’m frustrated by the narrow boundaries of the questions being raised, which seem to amount to “if the UK Film Council is not to administer public funding for British films then who should?” The real question, surely, is more fundamental than this: should the arts receive any public funding at all?
I don’t doubt that, for every one of my infuriating experiences with arts funding, there was another film-maker jumping for joy because his or her dream project had been made flesh by the very same people who had frustrated me. There are certainly a lot of examples of films that, it is claimed, would “never have been made” were it not for the UK Film Council. But really, if you honestly believe that the participation of the UK Film Council provided your only hope of getting your film made, you need (like those authors given to self-publishing) to take a long hard look at why no one else in the world was interested in investing in your project. And if you’re going to give up because the UKFC can’t or won’t fund your film, then you should find another profession post haste.
The Facebook page dedicated to battling the government’s decision name-checks Christoper Nolan and Ridley Scott as examples of fine British film makers (which they are) and implies a connection that simply doesn’t exist on any level between their success and the existence of the UK Film Council. The plain fact of the matter is that these are film-makers with determination and tenacity, who get their films made by hook or by crook. They didn’t need the UK Film Council, whether they in fact received help from them or not. (Worth noting, also, that both Nolan and Scott are invoked as British film-makers in this argument by the same arts funding apologists who more usually dismiss their work as glossy commercial studio product.)
Looking at the bigger picture, public funding for the arts has, time and again, demonstrated a cancerous effect on creative output. Those with the most success at securing this funding are not those with the best ideas, but those with an aptitude for completing application forms and for ticking the variously required special-interest boxes that are an integral part of those applications. In time, those people rise to be the heads of their production companies (because who wouldn’t promote the rain-maker?) and thus the company’s output becomes entirely that which is designed to appeal not to an audience but to a funding body. And so British film (and British theatre) becomes something which is paid for by the public but which wilfully fails to appeal to that public. Just how is that a desirable outcome for anyone other than those whose salaries depend on such ever decreasing circles of self-interest?
The British film industry, we are told, was in rude health until the government made their fateful decision to axe the UKFC. I think it probably was. And I think it probably still is and will be. Because the British film industry is not a handful of small Soho production companies growing fat on subsidies, it is a broad spectrum of talented, hard-working artists and craftspeople whose mortgages have rarely been paid from public funds but by productions like “Harry Potter” and “Pirates Of The Carribean” and “Prince Of Persia” and “Sherlock Holmes”; studio-funded product which shoot over here, fill our studios and create thousands of jobs and opportunities for training. The resurgence in scripted television will provide more opportunities for writers, directors and actors over the coming years than the Film Council ever could. Any producer smart enough to secure a good script, a good director and a good cast will always find the money from somewhere to make his or her film and that film, if it is successful, will reward the participants handsomely; creating more jobs and paving the way for those who come after. As it ever was, so shall it ever be.
And what of this public money? What of these tens of millions of pounds that “should” be administered by the likes of the UK Film Council? Well, what if that money was ploughed instead into schools? What if ordinary schools all over the country suddenly received funding for their arts and creativity programmes that would allow them to take pupils to see great plays and art exhibitions and ballets? What if those schools could mount their own productions and train their pupils in the means of production? What if that money could at least help to radically change how we educate our children and send them out into the world with a degree of creative confidence they currently lack?
Would those kids be happy to collapse in front of soap operas and reality television at the end of the working day, or might they demand something a little more challenging from their entertainment and, in so doing, change the face of mainstream culture and render commercial that which, back in the mists of time, required funding from the UK Film Council?