Neil Young’s Film Lounge – A Failure of Vision

by Pat McCarthy

The Amber collective have never quite fitted in to the filmmaking establishment but have, nevertheless, occupied a particular vantage point for observing the ebb and flow of all the grand ideas to create a ‘sustainable film industry’. We have witnessed the short-term optimism and unrealistic expectations created by the occasional one-off British hit and launch of yet another scheme that is going to solve all the problems, and felt the despair that follows when optimistic hopes come crashing down among the media and public criticism. We do, however, question the basis on which the product is judged, believing passionately that the added value accruing from film production should go beyond the limits of commercialism. We have always held that film ought to be regarded as an art form but feel that such a notion has received a fatal blow under new structures that are dominated by commercialist values. Only the Latin countries really believe in film as an art form and have structures in place to protect themselves from domination of the American entertainment industry. Meanwhile, Britain wags its tail for America and growls at attitudes in Europe while claiming ‘ it is important to identify a film culture of our own’. A similar approach to our role in the Iraq war and international trade negotiations

The introduction of Lottery finance into the film industry seemed to us to offer particular hope. The rhetoric of the Lottery Act 1998 promised emphasis on film-making for ‘public good not for private gain’ and a funding strategy that would ‘ensure that all parts of the country have access to funding’, and that there would be ‘access to film for people from all sections of society’ creating ‘scope for reducing economic and social deprivation’ with ’emergence of commercially sustainable structures in the Regions’. This offered a philosophy that resonated with that of Amber and we were optimistic that the source of this money (lottery tickets), and the prospect of public accountability, could put filmmaking in Britain on to a realistic footing. In practice, however, one word in the Lottery rhetoric – i.e. ‘commercial’ – has been instrumental in the creation of funding structures. The rest of the rhetoric has little connection with the reality and seems like a huge confidence trick.

Recent structural changes implemented under the auspices of the Film Council have disadvantaged independent filmmakers. All the individual pots of money for film finance – nationally and regionally – have been gathered into one central pot, from where some of it has been distributed back to the regions. All film money is now governed by the Lottery Act 1998 and the procedures in place to access lottery funding. The regions have been inflicted with nine Regional investment funds for England – ‘mini film councils’- from where access to finance is increasingly governed by commercial considerations, removing any semblance of flexible funding that has, in the past, sustained independent filmmakers.

In the Northern region, responsibility for film funding has moved from Northern Arts to the Northern Film & Media ‘mini film council’. This has led to an extension of bureaucracy and increase in associated running costs. Although two people within Northern Arts handled film funding, Northern Film and Media require a chief executive, eight heads of department, numerous assistants, assessors, consultants and a board, and running costs that we estimate to be in excess of  £500,000 while there has been little or no increase in the size of awards for film production. Although in principle individual awards of  £40,000 are possible for production, in our region no awards of more than  £25.000 – with the mandatory matching funding in place – have been awarded. If our estimate of the Northern Film & Media expenditure is correct, and if the other eight mini-councils have similar administration overheads, the implications are that it is costing some  £4.5 million to administer grants of no more than  £25,000. Meanwhile central costs remain high. For instance, the Film Council’s accounts for 2001 – 2002 show that staff costs alone are  £3,922,000 [without freelances]. An expenditure account is not presented as permitted by section 230 of the Companies Act 1985, but one suspects that there will be little change from  £10 million. In addition,  £95.6 million has been squandered on the creation of three mini- studio franchises in London, supposedly ‘to foster an increase in the production of UK film of high creative quality and with good commercial prospects’.

The film industry is not completely responsible for the current situation. The overly-bureaucratic structure that has developed, has its roots in the ideology of the current government that gives more emphasis to setting targets, and measuring outputs, than on supporting creativity. This approach is stifling imagination in all aspects of life in Britain – education, health, youth services, community development, criminal justice to name a few. Incorporating such modes of thinking into the running of an industry that is essentially creative is abject stupidity.

If we want a sustainable industry, it is important to allocate revenue funding to filmmakers. Access to such funding, which was in the past available from Northern Arts, has been a crucial factor in Amber’s survival. The money involved was never large – the maximum revenue grant we ever received was  £25.000 – but it provided a bridge between productions, afforded us time for reflection and planning and helped us bring other finance into the region.

We need to ask why the grand schemes for promotion of British Cinema inevitably fail, and how the contradictions between sustainable development, distribution, exhibition, public funding and creativity might be addressed realistically. Perhaps, we need to begin by accepting that we will never be able to compete, on commercial terms, with the massive US-based entertainment industry and develop different priorities for state funding that will give indigenous British filmmaking a unique identity. The fantasies around becoming a world force in the film industry, coupled with the current governments emphasis on measuring achievement rather than supporting creativity, have to be addressed if any semblance of a British film industry can be maintained on the back of the notion of good causes and the public funding leading from sales of lottery tickets.

The Amber collective has had to give priority to developing a commercially sustainable enterprise since without it we would not have survived for so long. We have, however, also endeavoured to promote access to film for socially-excluded groups, allow underrepresented groups to engage in film production, build up a film culture in the North East, develop local, national and international audiences, devise our own exhibition strategy, distribute our own work, operate a non-profit distribution structure and to work under trade union rules. Each of these elements has been crucial in the production of a significant body of film work that represents life in our region. For us, the most important audience is the people whose lives we are attempting to represent and we dedicate a lot of effort into taking our work into their communities and engage in debate about our interpretations. This serves to raise the associated political issues and provides essential feedback that enables us, the filmmakers to reflect on what we are trying to achieve. We have never wanted to work with high budgets, follow fashion, develop other people’s ideas, work with stars or become famous or rich. Nevertheless, we desire a viable structure for the British film industry, and use of public funding in ways that stimulate creativity and develop public interest in British films.

There is a need for the industry to recognise that the most important commodity is not the films themselves but the way that they are received and responded to by audiences. Film is the most popular art form and a medium with the potential to raise issues that stimulate debate about the kind of society we want to be. One of our aims when we make a film is to provide the occasion for people to find themselves, speak about their own problems and to find solutions. This is something that we feel justifies state funding in ways that promotion of private profit does not. The revenue provided by the Lottery could enter the realm of ‘good causes’ if it were used to encourage regional filmmaking that addresses issues that are central to the way that people in various parts of Britain live, and encourages a film-viewing public to engage in debate about the issues that films raise. Such an approach can address some of the problems of disengagement in public life, stimulate greater involvement in politics, encourage involvement in community activity and help to enhance cohesion in our multi-cultural society. This approach offers the potential for a direct connection with the original ambitions of the lottery.

While it is important to maintain a commercially viable film industry, that should not be the sole priority of state funding. Film is a medium that can outline important issues in an accessible, and indeed entertaining, way. Its impact depends on the creation of structures that facilitate its connection with the public realm. At the very heart of this industry must be the nurturing of filmmakers with the capacity to create stories that inform, inspire and challenge audiences. The capacity to touch hearts and minds is the magic of cinema. But how do we nurture the creative potential of British filmmakers? We would argue for firm but minimalist guidelines based around trust and respect, which afford filmmakers the freedom to develop ideas and to experiment. We need to encourage new talent while making sure that committed filmmakers are not lost to the industry.

To achieve any of this radical reform is required: revenue funding for new and established filmmakers needs to be a priority; commercial ambitions need to be directed to the sustainability of low budget production and we need to establish an exhibition network that is independent of American control. There should also be a renewal of commitment to equality funding across the regions, and termination of bias towards London and redirection of such expenditure into nine regional investment funds with real freedom to identify and nurture local talent alongside real accountability to the public who make this funding possible.

by Pat McCarthy

For an interview with the Amber Collective click here
For a review of the film Like Father made by the Amber Production Team click here