A Letter to Chris Smith

By Ben Gibson

We asked Ben Gibson, former Head of Production (funds currently Frozen), to write about the history of the unit. He refused, saying it wasn't history. But he send us a letter he was writing to the Culture Minister.

Dear Chris Smith,

I’m writing to pass on some observations about the future of film and television making in Britain. I have some experience in this field and some passions I’d like to share.   How to address you? The only way to be clear is to write personally. I want to pay the government the compliment of assuming that it encourages open debate as part of exercising power, without getting upset about the disappointments it presides over, or vengeful over the ingratitudes of supposed allies who are “off message”. So I’m writing as one democrat to another, the difference being that you have some power. And this is a compliment; I was educated in the Seventies and I come from a family where not asking policemen the time and a distrust of American generals were signs of civilisation. I can’t change that approach because it contains truth. It may seem a shame to some cabinet colleagues, but you can’t have democracy without distrust. So I’m going to be direct.

Who am I? I’ve spent the last eighteen years working in British film, as an independent distributor and exhibitor and, most recently, as a producer. Until ‘97 I was Head of Production at the BFI, and I spent almost ten years there, so I know something about UK film policy. I’m interested in independent film making, and all other kinds too. Good things come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve commissioned low budget films, but I don’t belong in a special taste ghetto – you’ll find me frequently in Leicester Square being entertained. I’ve represented the UK on a MEDIA scheme, EFDO (the distribution one). You and I met in Cannes last year, in the ‘British garden’ behind the UK tent. No special reason why you should remember this. Of course I do.

As I recall, I expressed elation that maybe, after 18 years, we could have an informed discussion about the film and TV environment. Remember, I’d been made to stand in line for Virginia Bottomley in the same spot only a year before. Specifically, I yearned for a debate in which relations between “culture” and “commerce” could be as complex as they are in our real lives – not blunt weapons, as they’d been in Virginia’s cosy universe of ‘heroic’ capitalism. The opposition of these imperatives, I said, had been a bloody battlefield without any territory at stake. How so? Well, if Powell and Pressburger talked of themselves as artists, they would eventually get marginalised and punished for that posture, whether The Red Shoes was Rank’s biggest US export or not. Or: if Alan Parker attacked pretentiousness, that didn’t in itself increase his hit-rate with an audience – he needed his own skills and imagination to do that. “It’s an ideological thing,” I blustered on, “and not a strategic thing – something complex, to be confronted. Not science, but culture.”

As I remember it, you agreed with my ranting, and we talked for a little while. I’m sure that, in that third week in power, you agreed with lots of indigestible, breathless, elated speeches. What was to disagree with anyway? “Hmm. Keen on academic distinctions, those BFI Production Board people”, you could have noted as you were eased along towards another wet paint zone. If by that we mean “can’t be translated into known prejudices and assumptions”, then ‘academic’ is a good word. I suppose I was clumsily trying to offer you a role questioning one of our common inheritances: an indomitable island race who define their culture by ritually excluding artists and intellectuals. And it’s complicated because I too enjoy my contradictions and wouldn’t be without these familiar rituals, in the end. I’m bringing up this brief encounter partly because it may have been one of the last occasions when somebody without an official powerbase or a known name spoke to you directly about film in Britain.

As I type I’m leafing through a photocopy of the government’s first attempt at film policy. I’m very glad to see it arrive. Just to have a comprehensive policy review, this fast, is refreshingly new. After our meeting I expect something from it, not necessarily in new money but perhaps in new ideas. Perhaps too much. I want to honour these expectations by reading it carefully, hoping you’ll excuse the detail.

In the foreword to The Bigger Picture the chairmen, Stuart Till and Tom Clarke, declare that their first priority was to recruit “key players” to the team. These impressive people were brought in to represent the collective spirit of a new ‘renaissance’.

However this impressive film review group doesn’t seem to take in indy distributors, film educationalists, film-makers other than Ridley Scott, or broadcasters who care about film.

Or mavericks and trouble-makers in general. Your advisors have survived the insecurities of the business we already have happily enough that Tom Clarke can write admiringly about their “day jobs”. I was told that Chris Auty, Linda Myles and Wilf Stevenson were representing “the grassroots”. But did anyone tell them they had this job?

Those charged with compiling committee lists should perhaps be asked to read Will Hutton’s chapter on The New Magistracy from The State We’re In and think about it before picking up the phone. He explains how unaccountable advisors and nominees defended the new Tory establishment. What isn’t clear yet is which mechanisms there can be for questioning the vested interests of the new Labour army of eager committee members – who seem sometimes to be even more “party political” than their predecessors.

I can’t remember anyone asking for submissions to the committee, but perhaps I just don’t know anyone who received a reminder. They did get 57 unsolicited papers. These seemed to provoke the strange paragraph explaining why “the specifically cultural” wasn’t a fit subject for a review of British film, although words like “diversity” and “training” appear quite often.

The Report then defines its aims. They are laudable ones, and some of them quite new. But it never clarifies any terms. And there are some interesting new ones – “commercialisation training” sounds more like a gulag than an evening class to me. Older terms seem to be unchanged. “Production” is when Brits and Euros make films, mostly on Brit subjects, whereas “exhibition” simply involves local consumers buying tickets, almost invariably from Americans. The hidden assumptions, made before any meetings happened, tell me what kind of a report I’m reading. From my perspective it is both oddly unambitious and unreasonably hopeful.

I can imagine that some committee members weren’t properly briefed. They may have had the bad judgement to use the “culture” word quite often. Perhaps they tried to present specific examples of little-known films or small audiences. Maybe they wanted to talk in detail about geography and history – foreign models of film policy or the confusing results of previous UK initiatives. I suppose that someone pointed out the toughest obstacles. For instance that the US’s home market provides at least 60% of its audience, something not referred to in the report when exhorting us to take on the “US model”. Of course they will have been reminded of some ground rules: culture is a separate matter (although a close reading shows that for civil service purposes the word may now be synonymous with “training”); no local taxation or regulation for the statute books; no complex structures lobbied into place by passionate advocacy (described as “special pleading”); no new government expenditure (we call that “market distortion”); let the existing market live by its biggest boasts and most generous aspirations. The rulebook establishes, disappointingly, a continuity with the debates of previous booms: all differences will be accounted for in cash and not in kind. The walls between film and television, public and private, art and commerce, success and failure, seem to be already built and cannot be moved without the roof crashing down on us all.

You’re wondering “Why not ask for a specifically cultural committee to consider cultural evidence?” I suppose that such a thing could do useful work – if anyone had reason to listen. But wait. I’m reading something which calls itself “the most comprehensive review of film policy for many years”, and I definitely agree that “a wide range of film-making, from the shoestring budget to the blockbuster” should “flourish” here. Only I don’t believe in this as a thorough analysis of the needs of the industry. That’s my problem. So let’s stay on the subject of commerce.

And who am I to question Stuart Till? Well, how about a “toiler in the vineyard,” as Lord Puttnam is fond of saying? I’m a representative of the unexceptional face of British film. I want, as you do, the right environment for Polygram, Europe’s first real studio since Rank, to succeed, and a few more Full Monty’s, (perhaps commissioned in the UK next time). These things need attending to. But I can’t imagine basing a whole industrial strategy on these exceptions, however exciting they may be.

Exceptions, as we know, prove rules. And so, from my own experience, a few rules: making prototypes, connecting with audiences and building new ones, finding the genuinely new and making it work tend to be dirty, low profile, long term, misunderstood activities. These are activities without which the rest of a film-making infrastructure is redundant. The audience is smarter and wilier than you think. You can plan ambitiously but you can’t predict success. “Nobody knows anything.” Quite probably your cheapest pictures will hit bigger than your mid-price ones. An industry won’t be built by promoting a dependency culture or by listening only to the wildest boasts of the power players. Cultural industries are social organisms. Art and commerce live together.

There are big ideas at the start of this report, followed by what seems like a lot of begging and cajoling. I do strongly agree with the starting points. Local audiences, diversity, training, sustained investment, big exports and foreign investment are priorities we’d all agree on. After that the only one-line summary I can think of doesn’t take me far: “If only Goldcrest [the jewel of the UK’s last boom, a glorified production fund which made a few expensive bad choices and went under] had been a distributor too...”

Yes, distributors should be at the heart of the business, thinking about what we’ll buy and taking a stake. The British producers’ habit of dismissing them as greedy cowboys without a creative role is based on ignorance and has cut a hole in the business where there could be a strategy. Arts Council Franchises are a good idea, even if bureaucratic machinery undermines their clarity. So are the tax breaks. So is a print and advertising fund, although it should be used to support real diversity in distribution as much as to beef up the mid-scale local release – the BFI running a schools’ education service isn’t going to create a diverse audience if there aren’t any ‘diverse’ films for them to watch. Most important is the new target of doubling the domestic box office share – much more radical than many of its proponents suspect. Like it or not, it’s a cultural idea. The old US-export oriented idea (“The British are coming!”) promoted a dependency culture as a sole option and never distinguished between different bums on different seats. That policy did more for folkloric tourism than for our pictures of ourselves.

So what’s my problem? For all its bluster, the Report seems to leave pretty much everything in our dysfunctional industry just where it was. Our exhibition problems, for instance, are barely mentioned. You’ll have to hurry to see most British films in their first (and last) four weeks on limited release here – better go to Paris, which is full of specialist theatres, if that’s your bag. The main answer to doubling their audience share seems to be a change to the statistical rules – I just can’t help thinking of Tory employment policy. Government expects television to commission all the low budget cinema films for their own reasons and then notes, via its breathtakingly predictable audience ‘survey’, that these films are too ‘gritty’ to work in theatres.

Often distributors can’t afford even to release good British films – because they can’t sell the television rights as they do on imported product. Television made the films, remember. But this long-standing problem isn’t mentioned. The “imported product”? Only in English. You can hardly see a foreign language film any more. TV night-time schedules are reserved for student kitsch, so BBC2 and C4 won’t buy, which means the distributors can’t sell on, and therefore can’t afford to release. Also not mentioned. The new distribution support money is to be mostly confiscated from the Lottery production fund. What’s left in the Arts Council’s pot (not government money, remember) is supposed to fund: producers making films outside franchises; all the cheaper and more ‘arty’ one-offs; and the Alpha Fund, an idea now delayed four years at the Arts Council, which was supposed to help regional and breakthrough work happen. All with no ideas offered as to which broadcast, public or commercial sources might have reason to match the investments.

The price of film-making keeps rising. I’m not against spending the money that’s needed – it’s just that sometimes what’s needed is plenty of thought and less money. We make over-budgeted films here as well as scrawny ones. Plenty of them. Yet everything about the report’s ambitions for British film-making is inflationary. All businesses work the same way, for big or niche audiences: “commercial” means “can be sold for more than it costs to make and market”. How are we to produce a viable or “diverse” film culture unless we attend to the “affordable”?

What else? The Lumiere cinema has already closed and other art cinemas and smaller distributors are in trouble, but there is no discussion of this sector because the individual companies fail to register as ‘significant’, having less than 6% of the nation’s box office revenues (a huge share equivalent to all British work in most years). Are these the businesses which are supposed to be re-financing a “diverse” exhibition sector of the future, with clean, well-designed, inner city four-plexes? The tiny talent discovery infrastructure is in mid-collapse – not just at the BFI (whose suspended budget was half the size of its Icelandic equivalent) but also at the Arts Council, where Arts Documentaries funding has been abolished. Where are the new films and new people supposed to come from? Also “outside the remit”.

Most of the problems I’ve worried over – as a producer, distributor or exhibitor – simply aren’t mentioned here at all. What about some areas where public policy could make a difference? Clever ways to encourage a wider range of films, to build a vanguard audience for new kinds of British work? What about regional films, Black and Asian film-making, film-making outside the middle classes, women making films, unorthodox methods, low budgets, counter-cultural cinema, new models for new generations? Is this a creative industry without R&D? It seems that none of this stuff is really important to the industry’s future. According to who? The combined wisdom, I must assume, of glamour-hungry civil servants and internationally well established producers. Outside the remit. Not mentioned. Surprised? I’m not.

What will the 0.5% “voluntary industry levy” be spent on if it’s received? Mostly distribution, which is a good idea. But again, despite the market problems facing the adventurous smaller companies, “a main criterion for selecting projects should be a previous successful track record, to encourage and reinforce commercial film-making.” Aren’t these the same companies that failed to ignite the local industry before? Don’t we need any new players? (The Arts Council’s recent discussion document suggests that films to support should be chosen by “test” screenings with response cards. For me this is final confirmation, if any were needed, that in British film even at the Arts Council, the good and the popular must be for ever conflated. Diversity? You must be joking). There’s education support, although it seems to be mostly school screenings and industrial training for script editors. Reasonable ideas, but whose film culture is being taught? Instead of always repeating “education” thrice, couldn’t someone define it once?

There’s provision for “Generic promotion”. What kind? If it were a broad export umbrella it could be useful. What frightens me is the memory of British Film Year. While films like Nil by Mouth, TwentyFour/Seven and Under the Skin take on the often demoralising but truly important job of re-building a cultural audience, do we all have to wrap ourselves in the flag again, and make a hasty dash for the “mainstream” without the global film muscle to support it? Instead of an export umbrella there will be an office in Los Angeles, which by my reading is the only investment offered by the Department. Also a London Sales Market (a good idea, but not a government initiative) and a Sales Agents’ “trade body” (ditto).

The report sets out a policy in relation to Europe: “led by companies able to compete globally”. Sounds dynamic, but what does it mean? I imagine the job is to permanently replace the old programme of loaning small figures to diverse companies, based on their own accounts of their problems, with a new system: one-stop handouts to “integrated” companies whose promotional efforts will impress – even if they don’t really need the cash. This was the Tory policy which helped make a bureaucratic mess of the few small initiatives in the MEDIA 1 programme that worked. And high profile British producers flew club class between European capitals, at Brussels’ expense, delivering the message that it was really a sin for taxpayers to invest in film-making. What’s happened since? The markets have re-nationalised completely, with a boom in unexportable comedies, American films (and a few Polygram British ones) are the only pan-European product on view, and other Europeans are paying handsomely for UK-based “commercialisation training”. On the US side, Screen International reports that Jack Valenti, ambassador of the Studios, welcomed the film review before it was published. Perhaps he decided it contained ideas they could buy into. And he might mean that quite literally.

But there are still those solid aims of the review group, which I support. Why is there so little for someone like me to applaud in the campaign to pursue them? I can’t see much public policy there. The ultimate aim in Trafalgar Square seems to be that almost the same number of people keep their jobs without considering laws, regulations, grants, taxes or interventions of any kind. How do they spend the day? (After years at the BFI I have some of my own answers: they are business consultants. And they organise parties to launch things. Their speciality is behaving as though other people’s money, whether it’s the punter’s Lottery pound, the Channel Four Films budget, or the returns from a voluntary film trade fund, is their perfect tool for an ideal policy which pleases everyone.)

I think there are other things that you’d like to see happen in British film which are also dear to me. Just what am I saying could be done? A real public-private partnership in which audience and industry are fully represented by their ministry. If showing foreign language films, and paying fixed minimum prices for local films, will make TV support the “diverse” film culture you want, then get them to do it. Don’t ask them. You’re the government. If you want exhibitors to subsidise a broadening of their business, take some money. Don’t ask for it. You’ll need it. There’s a crisis of choice there. If we need more specialist screens and a healthier indy distribution scene, make life easier for those businesses. Take a look at the whole film and TV environment, and its contribution to our lives. Are broadcasters supporting innovation, or are other pressures squeezing it out?

If Simon Beaufoy, writer of The Full Monty, writes telling you he would never have got into writing that film if the public sector hadn’t given him £25,000 to make a short, perhaps you should listen to him. You’ll need more like him. Would the private sector have done it?

Consider what the very idealistic charter of the BBC has done for cultural export. These things aren’t against business; they feed business. You’re the one at the table who can afford to have a long view. That’s what politicians can do. Because film can make money and broaden the culture. Let’s be really ambitious. And try to give support to those who can demonstrate a need. Overall, don’t worry too much about what Jack Valenti thinks of your plan. Worry about what I think. I voted for you, he didn’t.

The UK film industry’s on a roll. Ask a taxi driver. Try a tabloid. Try “film renaissance” at a party. You’ll get a spin without facts. But the boom is built on some real signs. There is everything to play for.

Order books at Hertfordshire studios bulge with US bookings, and there’s more work around for actors and technicians. There are the beginnings of a star system here, complete with the tabloid journalists rifling through the actors’ dustbins. What else do you need for a “renaissance”?

Big ambitions, a long view, a habit of thinking the unthinkable, a passionate belief in your own instincts, a determination to give to Caesar only what is Caesar’s, a little unconditional patronage and plenty of room to really experiment. If the team has problems with any of this, they should find another word. “Renaissance” is taken.

And why is it still, after those hundred years of cinema, so unusual for these ideas to get an airing at industrial roundtables? I think part of it comes down to the special culture of what we might call “official” cinema in Britain. The non-conformist independents, the “unofficials”, have always been there, and have always annoyed those who talk about a “real” industry by making things more complicated. And these “unofficials” have helped everyone think there was an industry, simply because there was a periphery they could point at. The “unofficials” include most of the important international names in British film. They’re eccentrics who make outside bets, and their successes tend to be long term, hard to measure in cash or promote in catch-phrases. They help us to have an interesting industry, and provide a way for the profitable stuff to be invented. Why else would the UK do so well in advertising, or pop promos or “new media”? I sometimes get the feeling that’s where they are supposed to stay.

To those in the film industry who’ve learned to live in the imaginary world of macho struggle between commerce and culture, the one we talked about in Cannes, many of these indies are “off-message”. The “officials” really believe that cinema’s camp followers, and those who talk about “film culture”, can do terrible harm to Britain’s chances of having a competitive film industry. They might even condemn this letter for “breaking ranks”. Hard to believe in the age of Tarantino, the Sundance Film Festival and the great classics divisions like Miramax, but there are still producers in Britain losing sleep over the “arty” myth: that there are professional film-makers out there who just don’t want contact with an audience at all, who are beyond reach of “commercialisation”. This image has been in use for many years, to drum up enemy aliens for rousing attacks on European “auteur” film, or the “old” BFI, or any distraction to the circulation of bigger budget dreams. (Paranoid you say? I’ve been advocating offbeat, cheap film-making in this environment for eighteen years. It doesn’t mean we don’t have enemies...)

What is there to lose in the short term? A new generation of free thinkers can either be the shock troops of a genuine renaissance, or be discouraged into a return to literary fiction, advertising, forming a band, or just lying to the dole office. These people might not recognise my tiring litany of fears, because they haven’t any business dealing with the question of a national cinema – their hope is simply to make films they can be proud of without passing Heathrow. Why would they abandon or postpone these hopes? Well, because this “real” film industry might not be what they think of as a creative place. At its worst, you start with a list of ideas you refuse to consider ( based on export experience), a handful of inappropriate orthodoxies imported from the US market (uplifting endings, urban settings, wealthy characters) and the task of second-guessing a very few powerful gatekeepers. Not a very healthy way to get an idea, is it? To be creative you must treasure passions, not denials.

I suspect that some of these ideas matter to you and your colleagues. My point is that by separating such concerns out from this “real” industry you cannot defend culture or promote commerce. Culture and experiment aren’t there to be tolerated, as a democratic extra at the margin. They exist to change you, and to change everything. Of course it’s trouble. Otherwise it would be fake.

In her compelling book on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A.L. Kennedy reproduces a well-known letter Emeric Pressburger wrote to Wendy Hiller, letting her know which kind of company wanted her services (in the end the Edith/Barbara/Angela role went to Deborah Kerr). In April 1998, looking about at the big ideas of what is now officially the second UK film “renaissance” since Dick Lester met The Beatles, it reminds me how the boardrooms of our “official” cinema still buzz with echoes of the purposeless battle against ambition and eccentricity which marginalised The Archers – until their rediscovery by the French and the Americans. And that perhaps there will be a time for manifestos, again. Here’s what Pressburger said, to cut out and keep:

“One, we owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss.

“Two, every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else’s. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.

“Three, when we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.

“Four, no artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.

“Five, at any time, and particularly at the present, the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on. They will fight or intrigue to work on a subject they feel is urgent or contemporary, and fight equally hard to avoid working on a trivial or pointless subject. And we agree with them and want the best workmen with us; and get them. These are the main things we believe in. They have brought us an unbroken record of success and a unique position. Without the one, of course, we should not enjoy the other very long. We are under no illusions. We know we are surrounded by hungry sharks. But you have no idea what fun it is surf-bathing, if you have only paddled, with a nurse holding on to the back of your rompers. We hope you will come on in, the water’s fine.”

These are the kinds of ideas which will provide Britain with a healthy film production sector, an audience and a real film culture into the bargain.

Or as my friend Tony Kirhope, boss of The Other Cinema and Metro Pictures, used to say whenever a film year or a new slogan was unveiled: “There’s no business like no business.” Amen to that.

Yours Sincerely

Ben Gibson

(Ben Gibson’s recent films as Executive Producer include Carine Adler’s Under the Skin, John Maybury’s Love is the Devil, Coky Giedroyc’s Stella Does Tricks, Andrew Kotting’s Gallivant and Patrick Keiller’s London and Robinson in Space.)