Opportunities Knocked: Regional Broadcasters and Grant-Aided Film Production

By Richard Taylor

Some 20 years ago, a number of London-based members of the recently established Independent Film-makers Association (IFA) met Aubrey Singer, then managing director of BBC television, to discuss the possibility of the BBC broadcasting their work. Singer is reported to have replied: ‘I’m not having that stuff on my television.’

The story may be apocryphal, but how have the broadcasters changed their relationship with the grant-aided sector of independent film-makers since then? In recent years most regional ITV contractors, and some BBC regional departments, have been involved in production schemes in partnership with many of the 10 English Regional Arts Boards (RABs) and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Film Councils, thereby offering opportunities for new local talent, principally writers and directors.

But what kind of work is being produced through these schemes? Who sees it? Does it have any common characteristics? Should public sector arts funding be used to ‘subsidise’ the broadcasters? Who controls the editorial agenda – the Arts Boards or the broadcasters? Who controls the editorial agenda – the Arts Boards or the broadcasters? Are these schemes about notions of regional identity, of indigenous voices, or are they about cheap television and token nods by the broadcasters in the direction of the regulators?

Then and Now

Twenty years ago film-makers had a great deal of freedom –t he kind of freedom always available to artists working with minimal control by a patron. Audiences for the films were to be found in a handful of cinemas – at the NFT, the Co-op, The Other Cinema, and at Regional Film Theatres (RFTs) and festivals. When, in 1982, Channel 4 established its independent Film and Video Department (a direct result of the IFA’s lobbying for specialist provision), a completely different order of production ensued from a sector which had developed its radical aesthetic and production processes during the previous decade.

The semi-industrialisation of the old independent sector, including the creation of entrepreneur producers (as opposed to artisan writer-directors) has had a profound effect on both the nature of the work produced – particularly its forms if not its content – and on the aspirations and expectations of a new generation of film-makers. Young film-makers now expect to get funded by television and they therefore expect their work to be seen on television. At the same time, due to numerous other influences and opportunities for young film-makers over the last decade (including the pop promo industry, digital video and changes in industrial relations), independent film-makers can now expect to make a living in the industry – if not with their own occasional gift-aided productions.

Today, the franchised workshops have been and gone – though their legacy remains throughout the UK in the form of access – oriented training and facilities businesses – and the brave, challenging first wave of Channel 4’s commissioning editors has moved on. What, now, are the opportunities for new, young film-makers to make their first films after leaving college? And, in particular, what opportunities are offered to those who choose to live and work outside London?

The Need for an Integrated Approach

A healthy independent sector can only derive from an integrated approach to 4 main areas of complementary activity: education, training, production and exhibition. Fifteen years ago it was common to hear independent film-makers discuss their theoretical commitment to a notion of ‘integrated practice’. However, due to the overbearing pressures of the production process and of the creative returns, the film-maker’s primary focus was always production. The independent sector was driven by producers, and those independents who worked tirelessly in education, training and exhibition were rarely accorded the same attention. Nevertheless, the independent sector was unmistakably characterised by its engagement with cultural debate. It was acknowledged, unquestioningly, that a critical context (both in cinemas and in print) was essential to the development of a healthy, ever-changing, challenging independent production sector. In that context, there was a clear justification for the use of public funds to support regional film theatres and other venues able to offer a choice of programming embracing a range of voices and views.

Before 1982, this ‘cultural exhibition sector’ fulfilled a clear role in stimulating critical cultural debate. Cinemas supported by public funding had a clear remit to show work that was distinct from wholly commercial output. That focus for debate has now been diluted by the multiplication of choice for the viewer through television and video. And there is a fundamental paradox in any discussion of the importance of choice and difference; it can be argued that there is so much variety of product now on offer that it is impossible for any critical disclosure to keep up with the flow of material.

Regional Arts Boards and the Broadcasters

The continued importance of an integrated approach in developing a vibrant and challenging grant-aided independent sector needs to be re-emphasised now. Almost every Regional Arts Board currently has one or more schemes in partnership with a local (sometimes national) broadcaster, with the primary purpose of nurturing new, local talent. But who sees the material? The very nature of the work is transmitted only within a particular area and is therefore unlikely to be seen by people who write and talk about the media, who are mainly based in London. And yet some of these films are seen by hundreds of thousands of people in a single transmission.

The growth of regional production schemes involving broadcasters is due as much to the pressing need to get new sources of money into the poverty-stricken grant-aided film sector as it is to any shared vision between the RABs and the broadcasters. Nevertheless, despite a lack of critical/cultural debate about the kind of grant-aided work now being produced, the schemes are overwhelmingly seen by film-makers as essential to the development of the grant-aided sector in the regions.

Not all Regions Are Equal

Film in England is still a desperately underfunded art form, receiving something like 1% of Arts Council expenditure in England. The BFI funds regional work through the RABs but, again, the sums available are wholly inadequate. Yorkshire, a major region of 5 million people, has a combined Arts Council/BFI film budget of about £200,000 – or 4pm per head. This £200,000 has to cover all film work: revenue support for 4 workshops, a number of theatres, and production funding, which stands at only £30,000 a year. These stark statistics are not untypical of most of the English regions. So it’s of little surprise that hard-pressed RABs have been eager to form funding partnerships with their local broadcasters.

But note how impoverished the English regions are in grant aid for film compared to their counterparts in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland and Yorkshire provide an interesting comparison as they are equal in population size. The Scottish Film Council, directly funded by the Scottish Office, has a budget this year of £1m. This funds the national archive, support for film theatres and educational and cultural work. The industrial aspects of film culture in Scotland are equally well served with grants totally another million pounds for various public sector training, production and promotion activities.

Small wonder, then, that there is such a healthy independent film culture in Scotland. Put bluntly, you only get out what you put in – in this case about 40p per capital. With higher funding levels small but symbolic achievements accrue (such as this year’s Oscar for a Tartan Short) and the cultural sector progresses in tandem with the commercial sector. The progress is due entirely to the level of public sector investment, a lesson to which the arts funding bodies in England seem oblivious. We are now celebrating the centenary of cinema, but our 100-year-old art form is still not adequately recognised as such be the people who continue to pour significant sums into the performing arts – dance, drama, music and opera.

Reasons to Collaborate

Now compare England with the Republic of Ireland. Leaving aside the well-known feature film investment boom stemming from fiscal incentives offered through Section 35 of the Finance Act, the state-funded Bord Scannon na hEireann (Irish Film Board) has a budget this year of £3m to invest directly in the production of Irish films (a full range from features to shorts and animation). There are 3 million people in the country. British Screen Finance, on the other hand – providing for the UK with a population of 55 million – has only £5m. For the English regions, the driving force behind partnership schemes with broadcasters is the lack of money for film in the public sector. But there are other reasons why RAB officers spend time negotiating and setting up schemes with broadcasters.

The volume and range of production in the regions has, in some cases, been determined less by the availability of production funding and more by the breadth of work with which a regional film officer has to deal. The English regions have developed unevenly over the last decade. A region like Yorkshire, with a number of ‘infrastructure’ clients (workshops, film theatres), may have a bigger overall film budget than another region such as the South West, but the Yorkshire officer is more likely to spend time on developing that infrastructure than on working with individual film-makers. A region with less infrastructure can enable the officer to spend more time in an executive producer capacity, helping to nurture new film-makers with very small production budgets.

Another key factor in the success of schemes with broadcasters is whether the RAB officer themselves is a film-maker, and therefore able to bring particular expertise and influence to this area of their work, particularly in sometimes difficult negotiations with the broadcaster on behalf of local film-makers. Judith Higginbottom, for example, was an experienced film-maker before becoming an arts administrator, and has played an active role in a number of production initiatives. However, unless a senior executive in the broadcaster displays interest and imagination, it can be extremely hard for an RAB officer to establish a healthy scheme.

South West Arts was involved in one of the first regional production schemes with a broadcaster, under the title Shoot First. The partnership provided several positive spin-offs for both the broadcaster, TSW, and the film-makers. Some of the experimental film-makers went on to produce title sequences for TSW arts programmes or public service announcements. TSW was pleased with the freshness of the product it was getting from the sector – the methods, techniques and the risks taken were clearly not coming from within established television culture. TSW was positive about the ‘community’ element of its independent film-makers scheme as it had always fostered links with its local communities; this is largely why TSW was a very popular company. And TSW paid well: SWA had advised use of the ACTT regional ‘code of practice’ scale, but TSW offered the Shorts and Docs agreement to the film-makers because the rates were better. The generosity of spirit shown by this broadcaster does not characterise many of the current schemes.

Whatever the nature of the details of each production scheme – and happily they are now many and varied – most RAB officers, as guardians of the public purse for regional film production, would agree that production partnership schemes with broadcasters bring a number of common advantages in addition to the simple ability to make meagre budgets stretch further. Probably the most important elements are provision of training opportunities for new film-makers – training in creative and craft skills, and in business skills – and the chance for film-makers to learn about the broadcasters, something generally absent from film school courses (as opposed to media studies course). Learning how broadcasters think and operate is crucial for anyone who intends to make films in the UK – increasingly, there is no film production at any level without a broadcaster’s involvement – and the fact that this type of contact can now be found on the lowest rungs on the ‘ladder of opportunity’ (the BFI’s definition) is generally to be welcomed.

Reasons not to Collaborate

What are the downsides to this involvement with broadcasters? Terry Morden, Head of Broadcast and Published Arts at Yorkshire & Humberside Arts (YHA) comments on his scheme New Voices (3 half-hour television plays – writer-led – for YTV; they form one-third of a scheme for 9 plays co-funded by Granada/North West Arts and Tyne Tees/Northern Arts): ‘Some local film-makers have argued that the scheme has stopped YTV commissioning other local independents, cutting them off from a small but important source of work.’

It is important to note that New Voices reflects the widely differing priorities and job descriptions of those charged with developing film in the English regions: this scheme is about new writers, not directors or film-makers. The crews on 2 of the 3 plays in the first series were in-house YTV people benefiting from the experience of working on drama rather than on factual programmes. In this case, the question of whether RAB funding is subsidising a broadcaster becomes an issue. Another planned YTV/TTTV scheme is New Visions: a showcase for ‘independent and amateur film/video-makers’ in the two regions. YTV has a franchise obligation to transmit such programmes, but it is not inclined to pay film-makers to show their work, so the scheme has been stalled for the last two years.

The Bottom Line

Two main points should be clear. First, production partnership schemes with broadcasters must generally be seen as a positive trend. Far more opportunities for film-makers are created in this way than would otherwise be possible, and the sometimes prescriptive nature of the schemes or the dominance of the broadcaster as the more powerful partner is not a huge price to pay for expanded opportunity.

The second point is that grant-aided film production in the English regions is woefully underfunded. The emphasis on indigenous culture (even nationality) and the expression of that identity through film, which is enjoyed by people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is likely to be replicated in England only when there is proper regional government in England. It is only by working in small regions (or the larger cities) that arts administrators can forcefully make the case to local authority officers and politicians for a level of public sector support adequate to sustaining a thriving local film culture – for both creative and commercial reasons. These arguments are rarely heard and never understood by Whitehall civil servants – and that is where the work still has to be done in England. The next 10 years will be crucial for the arguments to be made for the long overdue English regional assemblies.

Production Schemes with Broadcasters 1995

Regional Arts Board Scheme
South East Arts none, but some co-funding with 10x10 (BBC)
Southern Arts Debut (Meridian)
South West Arts HTV film awards
East Midlands Arts First Cut (Central)
Eastern Arts First Take (Anglia)
(C4) Violent Britain
Yorkshire & Humberside Arts New Voices (YTV)
(YTV) New Visions
North West Arts New Voices (Granada)
Northern Arts New Voices (TTTV)
London Film And Video Development Agency London Production Fund (Carlton and C4)
Scottish Film Production Fund Tartan Shorts (BBC)
Northern Ireland Film Council Northern Lights (BBC)
(C4) Violent Britain

Population and BFI Grants

1993 UK population figures by region and 1995 BFI grants to Regional Arts Boards for film (includes production, exhibition and workshop support.

Region Population BFI grant (total) BFI grant
(pence per capita)
London LFDVA 6.9 £459,090 6.7
North West Arts 6.4 £214,470 3.4
Eastern Arts 5.5 £86,790 1.6
West Midlands Arts 5.2 £130,970 2.4
Scotland (SFC and others) 5.1 £2,000,000 (no BFI) 39.2
Yorkshire Arts 5.0 £111,980 2.2
South West Arts 4.7 £71,510 1.5
Southern Arts 4.6 £95,814 2.1
East Midlands Arts 4.0 £108,606 2.7
Northern Arts 3.1 £432,028 13.9
Wales (WFC total) 2.9 £500,000
(£130,000 BFI)
N. Ireland (ACNI total) 1.6 £180,000
(£20,000 BFI)

These figures (with the exception of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) refer only to the BFI contribution to English Regional Arts Boards’ and LFDVA’s film spend. All RABs supplement their BFI film funding to some extent with their other (or main) source of revenue, the Arts Council of England. However, it is difficult to extract from available figures exactly how much each RAB spends on film overall. However, it is reasonable to assume that none of them is able to do more than match the BFI’s money.

The figures for England understate the amount of public sector funding for film in each region because every workshop in every city receives a broad mix of revenue funding from local authorities and, often, EU sources. Certain cities within RAB regions (e.g. Liverpool, Sheffield, Nottingham, Newcastle) have relatively well-developed local media initiatives, with a broad base of public sector funding.

In addition to grants for RABs, the BFI also spends £0.5m (in 1995) on direct grants to 18 Regional Film Theatres.

The important point about the BFI/RAB per capita figures above is that, whatever the relative strength or weakness of individual regions, no English region receives anything like the levels of public sector subsidy for film that are provided in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. And it is self-evident that the health of the film industry and film culture in Scotland is directly related to the level of public sector subsidy in that country.

Richard Taylor is Director of the Northern Ireland Film Council