The Very Model of a Funding Agency: Reflections on the London Film and Video Development Agency

By Steve McIntyre

As usual, we live in interesting times for the arts. A time of undreamed riches promised by the National Lottery and all its works while at the same time more and more arts organisations are struggling to patch together project and operational monies to enable their mere survival. A time when more and more television channels (not to mention the Internet and its siren-call utopianism) offer new forms of distribution and delivery while budgets are being relentlessly pushed down and down, in some cases to the point of vanishing completely. – Steve McIntyre

Possibly more intriguing than all of this, however, is the way in which these shifts, opportunities and threats are apparently taking place in a cultural environment that lacks a shared and coherent vision of what might (just) constitute a progressive cultural politic. In a very real sense, the National Lottery is pivotal. Central to its founding legal framework is a focus on individual organisations rather than larger-scale, longer-term investments in what used to be called cultural infrastructure. While that infrastructure will inevitably be built up and developed via Lottery funding, this will perforce be in a piecemeal and fragmented way. While an organisation like the London Film And Video Development Agency (LFDVA) – and its partners in Regional Arts Boards (RABs) etc. – might strive for co-ordinated and coherent programmes, this will be working against the grain of the Lottery structures.

But the real point is this: what kinds of overarching cultural ambitions might most productively be pursued? Or, to be more precise and focused: is such a cultural framework possible or even desirable in the mid-90s? And the answer, of course, has to be yes. And, of course, no.

Just raising this sort of issue leads on to the terrain of cultural nostalgia – for the heady days of the 70s when practice and theory marched confidently forward hand in hand, scattering all before them and offering a series of unfailing antidotes to bourgeois cultural practice in a strange brew of anti-realism, access, process not product, ahedonism and so on. I don’t want to romanticise this nor do I want to trash it. Unwatchable as much of the work produced then now appears, much was achieved which should be cherished and celebrated. But the long march from The New Social Function Of Cinema book or doc title (how quaint even the title sounds now) to the ‘Red Light Zone’ has happened and we can’t go back. Much has been lost but much has been gained. The point now is to find ways (the plural is crucial) of making sense of and exploiting new opportunities. Of developing an approach which might be designated ‘principled opportunism’.

All of this is by way of a preamble to a much more parochial question: what is the role of an organisation like the LFVDA in all of this (and, in their own ways, of the BFI, the Arts Council, the RABs). This is a question of more than academic interest as these are the bodies primarily responsible for advising on National Lottery bids. Their (our) gatekeeping function has never been more important. For this reason, if for no other, it is vitally important to refresh the debate as to what the ‘principled’ side of this hybrid might constitute. The following sketchy thoughts from one of those gatekeepers are as much a request for input and guidance as any final word on the subject.

A few words about the LFVDA. Set up by the BFI in 1992 (but constituted as a fully autonomous organisation) to replace the film and video activities of Greater London Arts as it mutated into the London Arts Board, the LFDVA provides funding (its annual turnover is about £750,000), advice and assistance. It lobbies (local government, other funders etc.) on behalf of... of whom? Well, see below. And now it is advising the National Lottery on film and video applications from organisations in London. In much the same way as the RABs, it works to support production (the London Production Fund), training, exhibition, media education.

Unlike traditional funders, however, the LFDVA also undertakes activity itself. Thus the rehousing of London Electronic Arts and the National Centre for Artists’ Film, Video and Electronic Media in east London will see the LFDVA (with BFI support) taking the lead on the core development, while the two bodies take responsibility for their own spaces. Similarly, 11 O’Clock High, a programme of artists’ film and video broadcast by Carlton in June and produced by the London Production Fund with funding from Carlton and the London Arts Board, involved a comparable mixture of partnership and autonomy. So will bids panned by the LFDVA itself to the National Lottery.

This takes us back to where we started because it could be argued that this approach is setting the LFDVA in competition with the independent sector it is there to fund. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that there is still such a thing as a coherent ‘independent sector’, with its own agenda and plans. There isn’t. Perhaps there never was. The usual (usually unspoken) basis for defining this entity is current or historical grant aid, but there is something horribly circular and self-serving about defining independence around receipt of funding, and then defining funding policy around that definition of independence. Instead of this, an adequate cultural policy must start from the recognition that there are many varied (and often transitional) sites and support their work. In other words, the notion of ‘independence’ can only be saved by rigorously attaching it to work and not to institutions. It is, after all, the work facilitated that is the most important, not the institution itself.

One of the founding myths of the ‘independent sector’ was that it was precisely, ‘independent’ (and, somehow, oppositional, unsullied by commerce etc.). Always dubious, this is now completely inconceivable – perhaps the only place where this genuine independence actually obtains is the bedroom cinema of groups like Exploding Cinema and other ‘just-do-it’ bodies, a thought which should stop proselytisers of the ‘independent sector’ in their tracks. Not only can’t ‘independent’ work stand alone, it should not. It must stand in relation to, say, the media industries we have now, and reflect upon them, enrich them, challenge and interrogate them.

These two ideas (work not workshops: relationship to industry and broad partnerships) structure the approach of the LFDVA and mean that there is no real problem in undertaking a slate of work ranging from supporting the establishment f a London Film Commission to funding artists’ video installations; from promoting National Vocational Qualifications to producing 11 O’Clock High; and from assessing Lottery Bids for low-budget feature films to sponsoring multimedia packages.

It is the kind of package that might look messy from the outside, but isn’t the world like that? The aspiration is to enrich and broaden British audiovisual culture, and empower audiences. Thus it must include Empire as well as Vertigo, Batman Forever as well as London.

Postscript – The National Lottery

The Lottery Department at the Arts Council anticipates receiving approximately £250m a year as its share of the proceeds of the National Lottery. In the first instance, this was for the capital funding of projects (equipment, bricks and mortar etc.) So far, 4 film and video projects in London have shared approximately £650,000 from the National Lottery; BFI Production, the ICA, Half Way Production House and Raw Materials Music And Film.

Guidelines for applications to the National Lottery for funding for film productions were issued by the Arts Council for England in April 1995, and the first applications are now working through to assessment stage. Inclusion of film production within the funding rubric of the National Lottery derives from Treasury rules which define expenditure on film production as capital expenditure.

Following the publication of the guidelines, the then Arts Minister, Stephen Dorrell, indicated that more than £70m could be spent on film production in the 5 years to 2000, although the origin of this figure has never been clear and, strictly speaking, the Lottery legislation does not allow for particular areas of work to have ‘ring fenced’ funding attached. Many industry commentators expect (or at least hope) that this figure might be a huge underestimate.

The Lottery legislation does not permit the Arts Council to delegate decision-making powers to third parties, which means that money cannot be passed over to outside bodies such as the BFI or British Screen, or to regional funds such as the London Production Fund. Instead, a complex advisory process has been established.

All applications go to the BFI for comment (apart, of course, from those actually originating in the BFI). They also go to the Film, Video and Broadcasting Department of the Arts Council (which, of course, will not be making applications itself). Note: Remember that this is the system only for England: film production is handled in quite separate ways in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Mainstream features and large-budget work go for comment to an Advisory Panel convened by the British Screen Advisory Council (BSAC) and chaired by producer Marc Samuelson. The rest of the panel are Stuart Till (Polygram), Lyndsay Posner (Chrysalis), Mark Shivas (BBC), Colin Levanthal (C4) and Romaine Hart (Mainline Pictures).

Low-budget work (perhaps £500,000 and below), non-mainstream work, and short-film production will go for comment to a second Advisory Panel convened by the LFVDA, made up of Martin Ayres (Eastern Arts), Jane Gerson (Southern Arts), Keith Griffiths (Koninck Productions), Judith Higginbottom (South West Arts), Marc Karlin (Lusia Films), Jan Matthews (independent producer), Steve McIntyre (London Film And Video Development Agency), Howard Rifkin (North West Arts), Roger Shannon (Moving Image Development Agency), Johnnie Turpie (Maverick Television) and Kath Worrall (Border Television). This second panel had its inaugural meeting on 1 September. Projects are also assessed internally by Lottery officers and, at the other end of the chain, they go to outside assessors for comment. This year is a pilot year and the operation of the process itself will be assessed at the end of 1995.

Steve McIntyre is Chief Executive of the London Film & Video Development Agency.