To the Independent Film Parliament

By Alex Cox

It is interesting to observe that the Film Council, which last year failed to spend £73 million of Lottery money, has just spent a bit of dosh re-branding itself. Out goes the old, un-kool and decidedly retro Film Council. In comes the new, exciting, twenty-first century ‘UK Film Council’, with retitled website and letterhead to match.

Rebranding exercises generally suggest the brand in question is in trouble. But it is hard to see how the name change will affect the institution. In a couple of years, building on the roots of the old British Screen (with a dozen employees) and the old British Film Institute production fund (with half a dozen employees), the Film Council has acquired grand premises just round the corner from the BBC and hired 100 full-time employees, plus more than 100 consultants.

Its mission, self-imposed, is not just to dole out the dosh to filmmakers (something British Screen and the British Film Institute did very well, even profitably) but to define the British film. The results of this attempt at definition can be read in Mr Parker’s bonfire night BAFTA address.

The British film industry, Mr Parker told the Batfans, “needs nothing less than radical re-invention... We need to abandon forever the companies delivering parochial British films”, he went on. “It’s time for a reality check. That ‘British’ film industry never existed, and in the brutal age of global capitalism, it never will”.

The head of the Film Council went on to call for British films and distributors to “compete in the world marketplace”. The way to do this, he said, was to redefine a British film. Right now, to qualify for Lottery funding (via the Film Council) or tax benefits such as sale-and-leaseback, a film has to be overwhelmingly British in content. Something like 80% of the case and crew have to be British for a film to receive British tax breaks. Similar European content restrictions apply to Lottery/Film Council funds.

Mr Parker proposed doing away with these restrictions, so that any film – for example, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, with a UK director and actor – would qualify for Lottery funds. The inevitable result of this proposal? The slow or speedy death of specifically British (or ‘UK’) films, as investors are able to put their money into American blockbusters instead.

A couple of months ago, the DCMS committee invited working filmmakers to come to Westminster to discuss the Film Council and British film policy. They allotted one afternoon for this. I couldn’t go because I live, and work in the film industry, in Liverpool and I had duties there. Instead I answered a list of questions on a piece of paper. One of the committee’s questions was: “is it important to seek to preserve a capacity to make British films about Britain in the UK?”

The question was so strange I thought perhaps our parliamentarians were taking the piss. Nevertheless I answered it as seriously as I could. This was my answer. “It is crucial. Our culture is not the same as that of the USA. The great British film successes – whether Billy Elliot, The Full Monty, Trainspotting, Women in Love, If, Kes, Brighton Rock or Brief Encounter – talk about our own unique experiences. They cannot be replicated in the USA or in Prague. Nor are these stories even set in London! These films are our cultural patrimony, and the – often regionally based – creative people who made them its custodians. To lose our capacity to make British films about Britain in the UK is like losing our capacity to paint or to write poetry. It is impossible; to contemplate it is a cultural crime.”

What we’re going to do today, I hope, is begin the creation of our own New Model Army: a patriotic army that will fight for the rights of the culturally dispossessed 52 million, who live and work in parts of the UK other than London and Los Angeles.

It is a fight on three fronts: 1) to separate policy making from funding (there should be separate bodies for these two functions); 2) to create a radical restructuring of film funding that favours the regions and original British films (a ticket levy on American feature films? A regional remit? What if 70% of all Lottery funds were spent on regional production, and only 30% in London, whose filmmakers have been fattened-up for far too long) and 3) to create a regional distribution network which will support the independent exhibition of genuine, original British films.

I don’t expect the Film Council to be overjoyed with this. I don’t really care. If they won’t mend their ways, I think that we should turn our backs on them, accept that they are just the London/LA Film Council, another unresponsive quango that won’t be around forever, and – as (the late) Alexander Walker said repeatedly in his parliamentary testimony (Parliamentary Committee 17th June 2003) – look not to America but to Europe, for that is where our natural financial partners – and the cultural exemption to America’s overwhelming might and dominance – lie.

There is much to do. Much to be fought for. Many hardships to endure and sacrifices to be made. Films are going to change out of all recognition soon, just as they did when sound came, and colour came, and wide-screen came; as theatrical features, games and the internet begin to merge.

London won’t be able to handle this because it looks to Hollywood for its orders, and Hollywood can’t innovate. Hollywood trundles along, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his humvee, dragged down by huge budgets, bogus accounting and restrictive practices. It intimates the independent sector, and always lags ten years behind. We can do better than they can, as ever, given the money and the opportunity. We will not do this by emulating ‘Notting Hill And A Funeral’ or ‘Harry Potter Dies Another Day’” We will do it by being ourselves. So as one of the best Americans once said in a similar revolutionary context, we’d better all hang together or we will certainly hang separately.

Alex Cox is an independent filmmaker based in Liverpool.