The Film Council is dead: long live film funding
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The Film Council is dead: long live film funding

Adam Pugh on the death throes of UKFC (Part 1)

Let us be clear from the outset – quite apart from the forthcoming cuts to the arts, and the wholesale disassembly of the mechanics of central government in favour of X Factor-style self-governance – any government which manages to maintain a £45bn defence budget at the cost of new schools and hospitals must be disingenuous at best, and if not visibly corrupt then at least thinly veneered and radically self-interested. So it is harder than it would usually be to accept that one or two of the smaller decisions it has made might actually have positive ramifications, not least the discontinuation of the UK Film Council.

The fact is, the UK Film Council didn’t do much. At least, it didn’t do much to foster a filmmaking community which was distinctive; which could survive long enough to make good work without having to justify itself as a social enterprise or a ‘creative industry’; which was boldly internationalist and uncompromising in its vision without having to fit a mould of ‘British film’ engineered by executives. The UKFC functioned – as did its regional satellites – under the illusion that it was a private enterprise, propping up the status quo, waving its own money around in a bid to impress the big players and spooning cash into already-bloated stomachs. Rather than realise that ‘industry’ and ‘community’ were incompatible and seize the opportunity to recognise, with action, that distinctiveness often lies at the periphery, it forced the community to industrialise and chose to do nothing to upset the established order, representing its clients according to their existing wealth: studios and technology corporations on top, individual filmmakers on the bottom.

It is bewildering, therefore, to have witnessed the chest beating and wailing which followed the report of the UKFC’s demise. It feels altogether like an orchestrated response – a death of Diana – in which the protagonists repeat a script devised by the media. We’re told – indeed we tell ourselves – that it’s a tragic loss; that things will never be the same again. Journalists write articles that are misinformed, emotive, or at best, selective with the facts (as with this piece by Armando Ianucci in The Guardian) and we all fall, inevitably, into the trap of bemoaning the decision to cut the UKFC just because it is a cut, and not looking at what it might (were we to be optimistic, admittedly) make possible. Prune certain branches and the tree is healthier: think not of the dead wood on the floor but the new shoots on the branches.

Where is the loss? It can’t be a loss merely because the UKFC funded activity: after all, it only distributed public funds that existed already: it existed by virtue of public funds, not the other way around). It could only be a loss if the judgement exercised by the UKFC in allocating those funds was of value.

Certainly, the UKFC funded plenty of projects, some of them of the highest quality; some which did push filmmaking and film-going into new and exciting places; and many, which individually did address the marginal, the experimental, the distinctive. But, first of all, such projects were far too few in number and unsupported by rigorous strategy or long-term development funding; and secondly, it is not enough to have funded these projects, flotsam as they were on a heaving sea of bloated Hollywood-lite studio productions, expensive digital cinema systems for already-fat ‘independent’ cinema chains and remorselessly dire Digital Shorts (with this in mind, ex-CEO of UKFC John Woodward’s new job is entirely unsurprising).

What was missing – and what we should expect from a quango, which, after all, consumed a significant amount in its administration alone – is a decent strategy; that is, a brave strategy, an insightful strategy, an honest strategy. Without one, it almost makes a case, despite itself, for the Lib-Cons’ ridiculous ‘Big Society’ pitch, in that at least a nutty quasi-meritocratic system drawn up by old Etonians is cheaper to implement than quango machinery that fails to come up with a decent strategy – and that decision ends up hurting filmmakers and filmmaking more.

Where the UKFC had a chance to robustly support the real ‘emerging talent’, to use its own words, it created its own, easier-to-manage simulacrum of a filmmaking community: a blister-packed world of hip young creative industrialists. We seem to have forgotten that the UKFC was an agency initiated by the government, funded by public money. Its overpaid managers were merely the custodians of these funds, and they had a duty to invest in filmmaking and film-going.

In any case, now that we know that the fate of the lottery funds themselves is secure, having been handed to the BFI, the only thing to go is the architecture of the UKFC itself. Assuming that the BFI is at least a conscientious and relatively sympathetic organisation, we have to regard this as an opportunity. Rather than spending energy bemoaning the demise of a slow-witted and nepotistic quango, we must now focus on ensuring that those working with the moving image are represented robustly and the funds themselves administered efficiently.

About the Author: Adam Pugh is an independent curator and writer based in Norwich, UK. Until recently, he directed AURORA, an annual festival which focused on artists’ moving image. He is currently working on an exhibition for the Barbican, and on writing for Animate Projects, Artesian and others.

Adam has contributed articles to the German film magazine Schnitt, Vertigo and other publications, and to the annual AURORA publication, which he edited alongside its DVD edition. He has also delivered talks and curated programmes for various festivals and events worldwide, and served on the international jury at this year’s Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen.

Thursday, November 18, 2010 | Tagged with , , ,

  1. Jim Barratt says:

    On the contrary, the UK Film Council *did* a great many things. Whether or not you agree it actually *achieved* anything of lasting merit depends on the sphere of activity you choose to talk about.

    In part one you’ve opted to focus on feature film production, as did most of the news media coverage following July’s announcement. But as Laurence Boyce make clear, writing over on the Netribution site (, what about the future of public support for distribution and exhibition? Perhaps you’ll pick up on this in part two.

    But staying with the present topic, I’d also be interested to hear how a “distinctive filmmaking community” able to “survive long enough to make good work without having to justify itself as a social enterprise or a ‘creative industry’”, and which is “boldly internationalist and uncompromising in its vision”, will be achieved if the Prime Minister has anything to say about it.

    “There is a great tip and key for film-makers here,” the PM noted of the Harry Potter franchise last week during PMQs. “That is, we have got to make films that people want to watch and films which will benefit beyond themselves as they will also encourage people to come and visit our country.”

    That’ll make a natty new mission statement for the BFI.

  2. Adam Pugh says:

    I agree entirely that, if anything stands in the way of achieving the kind of distinctive and vital filmmaking community, it is the coalition government; and the thought that Harry Potter, or indeed any ‘franchise’, is being used as a yardstick of creative endeavour is worrying and altogether depressing, not to say slightly beserk. But to use this to absolve the UKFC is absurd. It was the UKFC which paved the way for this Harry Potterisation, in its – as I see it – disingenuous and cowardly insistence on the importance of a ‘film industry’ at the cost of all else. Effectively, the UKFC has armed an incoming Tory PM to be able to quote Harry Potter in this context because it, and it alone, engineered the situation in which Harry Potter et al have become synonymous with the ‘British film industry’: it has spent 10 years funding ‘films which people want to watch’. To turn this on its head now is laughably, preposterously disingenuous: had the UKFC been bolder, braver, more rigorous, Cameron’s trite soundbite would have no basis in fact.

    I touch on the exhibition problem in Part 2, notably the BFI’s far-from disinterested status as far as festivals, in particular, are concerned; but really, whether or not the problem is solved or exacerbated now, festivals were far from safe under the UKFC, prodded and poked as they were into ever-smaller boxes. It’s not even a case of *disagreeing* with the UKFC’s policies so much as not being able to unravel them, so vague and sloppy they were.

    In the article you quote, Laurence Boyce spends as much of his time bemoaning the UKFC’s festivals policy as he does defending it, the overall inference being that even though the UKFC wasn’t much good, it was better than nothing, which is entirely depressing to read. It’s exactly why we – that is, the moving image community – need to regard this lacuna as an opportunity. We have to make sure that, even though the situation is far, far from perfect, our voices are heard — which will be an immediate improvement in itself over the UKFC era.

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