A New Era for Scottish Screen

By Christeen Winford


Steve McIntyre, Chief Exectutive, talks to Christeen Winford about the way ahead

The dawn of an indigenous Scottish cinema has been proclaimed so often in the last 30 years, only to lapse immediately into perpetual twilight, that the more cynical members of the film community have come to consider it an ideal as likely to be fulfilled as a Scottish victory at the World Cup.

Not so Steve McIntyre, the newly appointed chief executive of Scottish Screen, who has moved up after three years as the organisation’s Head of Production Development. He looks forward to seeing, in the near future, a Scottish film industry which makes, on a regular basis, between six and eight feature films a year. The style of those films and the stories they tell will not, he insists, be matters that Scottish Screen will seek to influence: “Whether these are films which illuminate Scottish society, which tell Scottish stories, tackle Scottish issues, or reflect Scotland back to itself is down to the passions and aspirations of filmmakers themselves.

This will be music to the ears of those who feared that, under its former leadership, Scottish Screen was promoting formulaic filmmaking which imitated previous successes, tailored to the supposed tastes of a mainstream audience. McIntyre sees this as a misconception, citing films like Ratcatcher, Orphans, My Name is Joe and Gas Attack, all of which Scottish Screen partially funded, as genuinely innovative works, providing gritty, challenging images of Scotland and springing directly from the passions and visions of the filmmakers themselves rather than being commercially driven. Not that he’s entirely happy with the use of that term: “Commercial is a weasely word, which purports to describe one thing when really it’s about another. Cultural work can be commercial (think of the new Brit-Art school) whenever the cost/value balance is got right.

It is in this area that he feels that Scottish Screen should become more proactive, working with film-makers to ensure that their budgets are appropriate to their likely audience, and helping them forge realistic development and production strategies: "Scottish Screen must tool up so that it has real and ongoing skills on offer in order to help people to develop projects. And we must be interventionist. Look, what's the point of offering money and editorial support for a project if, given a hard-headed commercial analysis, it does not stack up commercially and if, no matter how finely wrought the script, the figures would never work? Investment in that project is a waste of everyone's time. That’s a long way away from telling film makers what kind of film to make.

new-blood-clemont-ferrand-shorts-festival-2000.jpgPoster for Clermont Ferrand Shorts Festival 2000

When I remind him of the open clarion call by James Lee, Scottish Screen’s chairman, to give up making films based around “miserabilist” visions of Scottish life and to turn instead to more up-beat stories geared to the supposed taste of an international youth audience, he shrugs this off as an entirely personal and off-the-cuff opinion, not one that Lee has, in any way, sought to impose on Scottish Screen. Nor will it, he insists, form any part of future policy.

McIntyre feels that it is outside forces which will influence the type of films which are made in future. “Something interesting is happening in Euro film funding. There is a recognition that low concept, low value, cultural films with medium to medium-high budget are going to be increasingly difficult to accommodate. For small films, the budget has to be commensurate with the likely returns, and bigger films have to have enough of an edge to give them a chance in a hard, hard, hard commercial marketplace. The middle of the road (always an uncomfortable place to be) is thus likely to be evacuated. The practice of cobbling together a portfolio of soft money from the usual suspects cannot continue as those funds become more demanding about their market expectations.” However, unlike Rod Stoneman in the previous issue of Vertigo, he does not necessarily see this as a damaging trend: “An increasingly demanding marketplace does not mean the end of cultural work. It means that the makers of cultural work must be smarter than average in thinking about their audience and their market. And smarter than average about getting the budget right. What filmmaker can be interested in a project which no one sees? And what financier is interested in a film which generates no return on investment?

Far from seeing these trends as closing down opportunities for culturally significant or socially engaged films, he suggests just the opposite may be the case: “These are the type of low budget films with which we are probably going to become most involved in the future since, given the limited production resources available to us – £2.5 million – we are unlikely to become very involved in big budget features except, perhaps, at the development stage".

Where he does detect a problem is in the difficulty many film-makers face in getting established: “It is incredibly tough to break out of the short film – I hesitate to say ghetto, because Scottish short film schemes have a proud record in this and many other respects – and get a first feature film made. It was obvious that we needed some kind of bridge, and we’ve therefore set up a scheme with the Scottish Media Group which, every second year, will give two first- time directors the opportunity to make a 90 min low, low budget feature".

a-new-era-for-scottish-screen-3.jpgWee dug Grey, Scottish Screen logo 

It is significant that McIntyre stresses the training opportunity offered by this extension of the NewFoundlands scheme to all grades involved. For him, training is a vital component in the development of a film industry, and an area in which he insists that Scottish Screen has already made great strides. He points to the organisation’s record on across-the-board training initiatives which cover every skill – writing, production, sound, camera and editing – as one of the ways in which they have helped to strengthen the industry infrastructure, and feels that Scottish Screen has, in difficult circumstances, performed reasonably well: “Its birth was not easy. Institutionally and operationally, bringing four separate autonomous organisations together, with their own distinctive corporate ‘flavour’, staffing arrangements and different emphases on culture and industry took some time, but it's now in place.

He is, however, willing to concede that the organisation has, in the past, been weak in the setting of long-term strategies: “Too often in the past we have adopted goals and strategies without adequate analysis of their importance to the development of the Scottish film industry. It’s of vital importance that, in future, we get this right.” Here he may have in mind the time and resources expended in the past in setting up a film studio in Scotland – not a goal he himself regards as a major priority. It is also a mission statement.

Though what McIntyre seems to be promoting is an indigenous Scottish film industry rather than a Scottish cinema, he remains passionately committed to film as a cultural medium, and is dismissive of those who see any inherent contradiction between cultural and industrial approaches: “Scottish Screen is a cultural and an industrial body and I'm completely comfortable with this. Without a bona fide industrial basis for film and programme making in Scotland, there will be very limited opportunities for cultural innovation; without a cultural function, support for the audio visual sector becomes problematised – why this industry and not others? One of the joys of working in this field is finding a way of understanding and turning to advantage this particular tension.

The innovation of which he seems most proud is the Business Development Scheme that funds companies with a slate of film projects: “We need to build sustainable businesses and a sustainable industry. This will mean reconfiguring current structures where too many film and programme makers struggle to survive from one project to another with no sustainable business.

While there will always be a place for a one-person operation, it is increasingly against the grain of new and existing industry paradigms. We need to retool the industry with new business skills and understanding to enable the entrepreneurial zeal that undoubtedly exists to work effectively.

McIntyre is also keen to point out, however, that support for individual projects has also improved, with second-stage development money now being available to bring projects to the point at which they are truly ready for production and attractive to funders.

Film-makers in Scotland may still complain about "development Hell" but it is a considerably better funded and potentially more fruitful Hell than existed three years previously: “It’s probably true to say that the situation back then, when the only development money available was for script writing alone, with perhaps a grudging thousand or so thrown in to cover producer expenses, meant that in a number of cases we were setting up film-makers to fail as projects were rushed into production or taken to funders before they were ready”.

There is genuine support for McIntyre within the Scottish film-making community: a sense that he is bringing transparency, energy and a greater sense of focus to the organisation, but many feel that, without some restructuring of the wider infrastructure, it could prove impossible to achieve his stated aims. In particular they argue that there are specific obstacles to getting a Scottish film into production which the measures proposed by McIntyre, though welcome, can do little to overturn, and they point to the number of film-makers, many with proven skills and experience, who have been unable to draw down grants awarded by the lottery because they have failed to obtain sufficient funding from other sources. The particular obstacles which they identify are: a continuing metropolitan bias, a Scottish Executive curiously indifferent to the economic and cultural potential of a strong film industry, and the fact that Scotland has no control over its own broadcasting institutions, thus robbing film-makers of the dynamic synergy between television and film which they feel operates in London.

a-new-era-for-scottish-screen-4.jpgBoy at Scottish Students on Screen Festival 2001

Though McIntyre remains upbeat about what can be achieved within the status quo, he has some sympathy with this analysis, agreeing that:“It’s certainly true that the Scottish film industry does not enjoy a proportionate share of broadcasting opportunities and this has a very negative impact on film-making in Scotland”. On the other hand, he is not about to become the scourge of the Establishment: “I would see it as our role to alert the politicians to such obstacles and inadequacies within our structures and institutions, and to see that they are well informed about the potential for improvement. It's not our role to adopt a robust campaigning position.

This recognition of the interdependency of television and film is reflected in McIntyre’s continual emphasis, since he took up his new post, that Scottish Screen is not just concerned with film: “Scottish Screen is a screen agency, not a film agency, and, as such, has an interest in the whole of the screen industry – film, television and new media. The industry is fluid and work increasingly will be cross-platform. We need to position the Scottish industries (and I mean plural) to exploit the business and cultural opportunities of the twenty-first century and not assume that the models of the last century will continue.” When asked about this obvious contrast with the Film Council, which very much concentrates on film alone, he continues: “We are only now beginning the task of trying to understand the cultural and industrial implications of technological convergence. While the remit of the Film Council has a very attractive simplicity, it is not immediately obvious what the implications of convergence will be on that simple and focused remit.

However, although McIntyre may not consider leading an attack on the Scottish Executive, he is soon to be involved in presenting a robust defence to it. A review of Scottish Screen was ordered by the Scottish Parliament following the departure of John Archer, the organisation’s initial Chief Executive, and a virulent and sensational press campaign alleging cronyism and incompetence in the awarding of Lottery money. There are real fears that this hostile and ill-informed coverage (a ‘story’ that Late Night Shopping had failed to recoup any of its Lottery investment within its first week of opening was deemed worthy of front page exposure) has seriously damaged the organisation's reputation and it is under genuine threat.

McIntyre insists that although they are not approaching this review complacently, he sees it as a structured opportunity both to set out the wide-ranging, integrated scope of their work, what they have already achieved as well as their potential for the future, and also to analyse their own goals, strategies and operational arrangements, as well as to define their relationships with other agencies.

It is a crucial test which McIntyre knows he must not fail. If he can convince the Scottish Executive that it is only an organisation such as this, which sits at the interface between industry and culture, that has the potential to construct a coherent overview of the diverse forces which fuel or impede the development of film-making in Scotland, and the ability to devise and drive through robust and targeted strategies, then we may not spend the next few years mourning the loss of a historic opportunity to build a vibrant Scottish film industry. If, along the way, he manages to persuade them to address the deeper issues and to tackle the wider institutional barriers, then we could soon even be proclaiming another dawn of Scottish cinema - one which, for once, makes it into the light of day.

Christeen Winford is an independent film-maker, of documentary and feature films, who lives and works in Scotland.