Crisis in the Northeast

By Julian Petley

Once again the future of film and video workshops, at least those in the Northeast, is looking uncertain. In the first issue of Vertigo we noted that Channel 4’s ‘long-term commitment to individual workshops has ceded to a more conventional form of funding on a project-by-project basis’. This was cause for concern because it was precisely Channel 4’s continuity of funding which initially helped to build a permanent local film-making infrastructure.

Now one of the few remaining sources of the all-important revenue funding for workshops, Northern Arts, is reviewing its funding policies. At stake is the future of the five workshops Amber, Swingbridge (both Newcastle), A19 (Sunderland), Trade (Gateshead) and Siren (Middlesborough), which played the key role in creating the workshop sector.

Over the years the workshops’ traditional sources of funding have either dried up or shrunk considerably. Local authorities have been abolished or capped into impotence. Channel 4 and the British Film Institute have ceased revenue funding, and the Arts Council was never interested in the first place. Auctioning of the ITV franchises has siphoned off money from the regions to the Treasury, and the regional opt-out slots, which offer workshops a window of opportunity, could easily become casualties of the network’s increasingly market-driven, audience-led scheduling philosophy.

The Northeast has been hit especially hard by the consequences of the ill-conceived Broadcasting Act. The takeover of Tyne Tees by Yorkshire has effectively moved decision making to Leeds (and Bruce Gyngell) and shed a large number of production staff on to freelance and independent market, where they compete for the ever-shrinking pile of production funds.

The ITV Network Centre’s commissioning policy works to the disadvantage of smaller independents, as does Channel 4’s move towards a policy of pre-sales, while the appointment of Stuart Cosgrove as Commissioning Editor for Independent Film and Video – with his avowed ‘desire to overhaul Channel 4’s regional production strategy’ (Guardian, 6 Mar 1995) – raises all sorts of questions about the channel’s future relationship (if any) with the workshops.

However, it’s interesting to note that NYPD Nude, shown in the infamous Red Light Zone, was made by Margo Harkin, formerly of Derry Film And Video Workshop, and the director of Hush-A-Bye-Baby. The only bright spot is the fact that the BBC is moving some of its production out of London (it’s just awarded Amber a £200,000 commission) and into regional centres. But the regional centre for the North is Manchester, and BBC Northeast remains primarily news and current affairs-oriented.

Throughout this bleak period for the workshops, Northern Arts, in the person of John Bradshaw – its recently retired Head of Published And Broadcast Arts – has remained a key supporter or the sector, and this is why its current review has caused such concern. Northern Arts funds independent film and video production in the region in two ways.

First, there is the Workshop Production Budget (£135,900 in 1993/4, £125,000 in 1994/5). According to the Consultative Document published by the Northern Arts Film And Video Production Review in February 1995: ‘Revenue funding of workshops was designed to help build an infrastructure within which a production culture could develop and be sustained. Our monies have gone towards research and development of production projects, and gave some continuity of employment so that the workshop could develop an identity and produce work that related to the region. Continuity of employment also allowed workshops a greater potential to attract other funds and, ideally, revenue monies from other sources.’

From 1983/4 to 1992/3 the workshops received £1.27m from Northern Arts, and generated £4.64m from other sources; this works out at £3.65 for every £1 from Northern Arts. The workshops put out 122 productions including Trade’s groundbreaking Northern Newsreel, When The Dog Bites and Border Crossing, and Amber’s T. Dan Smith, Seacoal, In Fading Light and Dream On. The equivalent of 193 job years were created and the workshops played a crucial role in setting up the Northeast Media Development Council, which in turn created the Northeast Media Training Centre, now the European Media School.

The other source of monies for independent film and video-making is the Media Investment Fund which was set up in 1988/9 after a campaign directed at the BFI by the workshops and the Northeast Media Development Council. Its budget was £98,000 in 1993/4 and £137,000 in 1994/5. Again, according to the Consultative Document: ‘It was designed to fund production on a project basis, to open up new opportunities for individuals and groups, and to attract additional finance as it was recognised that Northern Arts’ funds would be inadequate to care for the production needs of the region... The Fund tries to influence development of a professional practice that will encourage fresh and diverse ideas that are feasible and are likely to reach the intended audience. The Fund looks for proposals that are innovatory and that would not easily find financial support from other sources.’

During its first five years the Fund has allocated £442,324 in grants, which in turn have generated another £3.93m. Thus for every £1 invested by Northern Arts, another £8.88 has been raised. At first sight, the outside monies attracted by the workshops might appear to compare unfavourably with this figure. However, it must be pointed out that the figures are massively skewed by the fact that the Fund granted £3,000 to the script which eventually became the commercial feature Shopping; if Shopping is excluded from the figures, £8.88 drops to a more modest and realistic £3.70. Furthermore, it needs to be borne in mind that Northern Arts funding to workshops goes to support permanent jobs, while the Investment Fund supports particular productions, script development and time-limited projects.

It’s difficult to read the Consultative Document without feeling there is an implicit suggestion that funds should be shifted away from the workshops and into the Media Investment Fund, an impression heightened by the fact that since 1993, monies allotted to the former have decreased and those to the latter increased.

The signs are also there in the Northern Arts Media Production Audit carried out by Roger Wollen before the review took place. This states that: ‘Work with the region’s workshops is clearly central to Northern Arts’ activity but there would seem to be a prospect of greater involvement with the region’s non-television, non-workshop production houses.’

Similarly, the Consultative Document notes that it is ‘important to have a structure, a role that the film and video workshops have fulfilled over the last 10 years’, but adds that ‘the structure should be reviewed to ensure that it was appropriate for the next decade’ and that ‘there should be a mechanism to allow for a change in any future structure’.

One possibility mooted is the franchising of a number of ‘production units’ for three to five years; another is to make awards to small production companies such as Pilgrim Pictures and Ipso Facto Films to enable them to spend more time researching and developing production projects. In theory there’s nothing wrong with either of these ideas, as long as the former includes the workshops, and the latter does not preclude the funding of workshops.

But at the heart of the problem lies the fear that permanent production bases with distinct commitments to their local communities will be sacrificed in favour of one-off productions here and there from the mushroom growth of ‘independent’ (actually highly dependent companies which now characterises the fragmented, casualised and pauperised production sector.

Indeed, the Wollen Audit itself testifies to the ephemeral nature of much of the work supported by the Media Investment Fund when it notes: ‘The limited number of grant recipients receiving two to five grants over time suggests that more needs to be done to help film-makers develop their careers and build up a body of completed projects.

Similarly the Consultative Document noted ‘the need for the training of new entrants and to upgrade skills’ as well as ‘a lack of opportunities for people working in film and video production to meet and exchange ideas’ and that ‘distribution was still a problem and there was a need to look for imaginative ways of distributing work’. All of these represent, surely, arguments for not simply retraining, but actually developing the workshop sector with its unique commitment to ‘integrated practice’.

The workshop’s fears about the future direction of Northern Arts’ policies were not allayed by the fact that they had no representative on the Film And Video Production Review Committee. Repeated requests for such a representative were turned down on the grounds of vested interest. However, this did not stop two recipients of monies from the Media Investment Fund serving as members of the Committee in its early days.

The workshops were also concerned that other members had tenuous connections with the region and that there was a preponderance of television interests. This last, it was felt, was unfortunate, given what the workshops perceived as an ‘undue emphasis on television in the past few years’ on the part of Northern Arts, an emphasis which had a ‘distorting effect’ on the workshop sector and had been a source of strain between the workshops and Northern Arts, not least because of television’s changing role from enabler to service contractor.

Central to the workshops’ argument throughout this process has been the need for a permanent local film and video-making infrastructure. They have stressed their success in adapting to changed conditions and their wiliness to search out new sources and forms of funding. But they also argue that Northern Arts’ revenue funding (about 25% of each workshop’s annual budget) has formed the crucial basis for further fundraising, and that the work of finding new markets and new production/distribution partnerships can only be done by properly funded cultural producers based in the region, not by ‘consultants or by one-off film-makers using a one-off grant as a stepping stone to a career outside the region’.

At the heart of the workshop’s case is a strong assertion of what makes the workshops unique, special and worth defending. Here it’s worth quoting at some length from their response to the Consultative Document:

‘The workshops maintain and sustain a space for production – where people can make work which is not constrained by commercial or broadcast criteria, where a counterpoint to the establishment view can develop. One-off production does not sustain this space for what we might call “an independent voice”. This independence develops work which is not defined by television or by the profit-led needs of the industry... This independence leads to a diversity of programmes, from feature films to low-budget community production, but whatever is produced the process of production differs from that of television in most cases.

‘Workshops, with their regional emphasis, offer opportunities to people marginalised by television and denied self and/or collective expression. They also provide skilled support services – both people and technical – to realise local programmes of high quality. Workshops are able to develop relationships with local people and communities precisely because of this “independence”. A genuine access and accountability that is often clearly seen on the screen, and is apparent from this sector’s past production...

‘For new cultural producers, workshops can offer the benefits of experienced and skilled producers willing and able to offer advice, production assistance, equipment and/or company structures. They counter the isolation of commercial production, the unemployment, discontinuity, and collective heartbreak that too often characterise the freelance sector. No other structure so effectively provides for the long-term working relationship between cultural workers and the region.’

It’s abundantly clear from the above that the workshops are built around a very specific conception of independence. According to the Northern Arts Consultative Document: ’10 years ago the term independent still tended to refer to those individuals who were determined to produce work based on their own ideas (in the same way as poets, painters and other artists operate) and who sought “independent” finance, usually a mix of their own and arts funders’, to finance their work. The meaning of the word has now changed. Almost any company that is not owned by a TV company can now claim to be an independent.’

Well maybe, but can a term so broadly applicable really mean very much? This we’re-all-independents-now attitude was displayed by Stuart Cosgrove in his above mentioned Guardian article, where he stated that: ‘Any attempt to highlight one notion of independence serves to disguise and delimit others; any attempt to crack the enigma of independence is destined to satisfy only a fractured sector of the creative community.’

This sound all very up-to-date, postmodern even, but in fact the UK’s independent sector has always contained extraordinarily diverse elements – just think of the differences among the British documentarists of the 30s, or the space between the London Film-makers’ Co-operative and Cinema Action in the 60s. So, whilst not laying down some sort of template for independence, it’s important to understand what kind of independence the workshops stand for and, if one thinks it’s important, to defend and argue for the spaces in which it still exists.

The workshops are in no doubt about what independence means to them. As their response to Northern Arts puts it:

‘Independence has long been a contentious term, but editorial control coupled with some form of public accountability is a cornerstone of workshop policy. This may or may not result in programmes suitable for broadcast, but workshops by their nature are answerable to their constituency, rather than tailored to the conventions of broadcasters.

‘The history of independence is littered with the conflicts of editorial compromise. What is crucial is that the final say does not rest with the broadcasters, and that alternative distribution can be sought for work which stands outside the boundaries of much conventional programming. We would suggest that it is this independence combined with a flexible production process that makes our work distinctive.’

The workshops’ response, however, seems to have fallen on deaf ears, to judge from a widely leaked document written by Northern Arts’ new Head of Published and Broadcast Arts in the summer of 1995. This states from the outset that ‘the current arrangement of funding five workshops... needs to be reconsidered’ in the light of the fact that ‘there are now hundreds of independent companies in Britain offering programming to all the terrestrial channels, and the competitive edge that the workshops had in the early days of Channel 4 is no longer relevant’. In this situation the workshops’ revenue funding is deemed to put them at an unfair advantage to the 40 or so independent companies based in the region; thus that funding is to be discontinued and a new ‘product-led application procedure for company support and individual projects’ will be introduced. The total budget of this new Northern Production fund will be in the region of £265,000 per year.

Notwithstanding the workshops’ reservations about broadcasting, the document is almost wholly geared to the perceived opportunities offered by television; in particular it is argued that ‘an emphasis on film and television drama will ensure that the limited resources available through the Northern Production Fund are used to their maximum effect’. On the other hand, the importance of creating and maintaining a permanent regional production infrastructure is at least addressed, in that the document notes that ‘establishing a pattern of regular work and increasing levels of production experience will ensure that a regionally based industry with ambitions in drama production will be able to flourish and thrive. The strategy will be founded upon the growth of small and medium sized companies driven by creative producers’. But there’s a sting in the tail, since the document continues: ‘in view of this, support should be offered for work which would not necessarily be defined as cultural production. The aim will be to grow (sic) the region’s infrastructure and ensure that companies of sufficient strength and experience exist to provide regular work to the technicians and creative grade individuals based in the region’. In other words, never mind what they produce as long as they produce something, preferably something profitable.

This is what is clumsily described as the ‘economic regeneration driven approach’, whose downside could well be a significant cultural degeneration. Or as Amber’s Murray Martin puts it: ‘the business plan becomes a more significant indicator of a proposal’s worth than the imagination of its execution. Arts funding becomes accessible only to the most financially literate. Script-based, product-led initiatives offer both power and control to the funding agency. But there is absolutely n evidence that this results in better and more imaginative work. On the contrary, script-based production and its attendant funding process is often characterised by escalating costs, censorship, safety, and a conventional product’.

At the same time as I received my leaked copy of the Northern Arts document I also read an article headed ‘Geordie director hits No. 1 in US’ in the Newcastle paper The Journal. This turned out to be Paul Anderson, director of the above-mentioned Shopping, whose new film, Mortal Kombat, had been at the top of the US charts for three weeks. The same article also reported that: ‘Tyneside movie mogul Ridley Scott is to make a sequel to his 1982 sci-fi epic Blade Runner’. Now that’s what I call economic regeneration – the only pity is that it’s not on Tyneside! Anderson clearly did rather well out of Northern Arts’ £3000 – but what did Northern Arts, not to mention the region as a whole, get in return (apart from yet another US movie in local cinemas)? Northern Arts’ policy to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ sounds all very democratic in theory, but if it’s simply going to provide wannabe directors with their ticket to London or passport to Hollywood then it’s a sad misuse of even the pittance that passes for regional funding for film and video in this country.

John Bentley is 32 and has built up a firm from scratch worth £25m. It’s a conglomerate called Barclay Securities. He Created it in 1969 and it’s risen by series of dramatic take-overs, digesting the good bits and spitting out the bad... Last year he was the biggest toy maker in Europe, selling £12m worth of toys a year. His pharmaceutical companies had sales of £20m. He’s now found himself in films, having bought British Lion for £5.5m. It’s like playing Monopoly for real.’ – Profile of John Bentley in the Sunday Times

‘Next month the film industry will start celebrating British Film Year. But the Government’s film policy will cast a gloom over the proceedings because it is handing over the major responsibility for film finance to a fragile private sector; and legislation that has propped up British film-making for more than 30 years is being scrapped.

‘The celebration of British film is an attempt to arrest a catastrophic decline in cinema attendances – from a peak of 1.6 billion in 1946, admissions fell to 66 million in 1983 and dropped further last year...

‘The National Film Finance Corporation, a state agency set up by Labour in 1949 to provide film producers with risk capital, is to be replaced by a consortium of private interests with minimal state support, and the Eady Levy on cinema admissions, which has been a steady provider of film finance, will stop...

‘Without any assurances that this privatised film production company will preserve the NFFC’s tradition, British Film year could be an exercise in pure nostalgia, looking back on a renaissance that was stifled at birth.’ – Sarah Street in The Guardian

Julian Petley is Head of Communication and Information Studies at Brunel University.