Film in Cornwall

By Antal Kovacs

hwerow-hweg-4.jpgHwerow Hweg, 2002

Across the Tamar, an energetic film community is striving to develop an indigenous cinema

Is Cornwall a county of England or a country in its own right? Opinions are divided on this, particularly amongst the people who live here, and until we manage to answer this question satisfactorily, there is little point in discussing the future of a Cornish film industry. Without a local broadcaster to commission Cornish drama and documentary programmes and, without a subsidy to support films made in Kernewek on the Welsh or Irish model, there shall never be a Cornish film industry. Without a conscious political will at the highest level, nothing much can be done by the filmmakers alone.

Let me quote from my company’s mission statement. ‘Encouraged by the number of talented people who live in Cornwall and have ambitions to start a film industry, we have decided to make feature films using cutting-edge digital video technology. Cornwall is often used as a location but there are no indigenous production companies based here making feature films. With the advent of the digital revolution, this has become possible and at a relatively low cost. Production methods have changed, the way films are financed has also changed, and distribution is undergoing a revolution with the arrival of digital projection. For the first time in the history of film making, any place on earth can aspire to be a production centre. A great number of talented writers, directors, musicians, film and video makers live here, and we intend to make full use of their creative genius.’

A lot has happened since that was written in 1999. With the collaboration of the Cornwall Media Resource and Cornwall College, we have made the first full-length feature film in Kernewek, the Cornish language, with crew and cast all living in Cornwall. Hwerow Hweg (Bitter Sweet) was premiered in the House of Commons in the spring of 2002, and it attracted a lot of media attention. We have had a number of screenings in the West Country. The film was selected for the Montreal World Film Festival last summer, and it was also Cornwall’s entry for the Celtic Film and Television Festival in April 2003. For the past six months or so, I have been trying to get a distribution deal but with little success. It is a specialist film, and I can only hope that it will find its audience eventually.

hwerow-hweg-1.jpgHwerow Hweg, 2002

In the meantime, Cornish film and video makers lobbied Cornwall County Council for a slice of the European Union’s Objective One money. There was a buzz in the air and we were full of expectation. There was talk of a £5 million fund, which was then reduced to £2.8 million. A director was appointed, Colin Rogers, who set up offices and immersed himself in legal battles with an army of civil servants. Eventually, the first tranche of the fund, somewhere around £ 800,000, was released.

Feature film scripts were commissioned, short videos received the cash injection they needed and some of the money was spent on project development. Things were on the up and up. The first Cornwall Film Festival was held in the autumn of 2002 (Alex Usborne highlighted some of the talent on show in Vertigo 4).

The second Cornwall Film Festival was held this November, and it was bigger and better. Over fifty locally made drama shorts were screened, as well as around thirty documentaries. The quality of the work showcased is of the highest of standards, and we are all astonished by the range and depth of talent within Cornwall. Naturally, the feature projects take a little longer to emerge, but they are all making progress.

The South West Film Studios in St Agnes (a ten acre site with two sound stages, a water tank and full production facilities) are up and running: Cold & Dark is their first production. Who knows, from small acorns...

Now, to the bad news. Phase Two of the Cornwall Film Fund seems to have gone into limbo. We may be successful in drawing down the second tranche of the money, or we may not. Naturally, some of us feel abandoned.

hwerow-hweg-2.jpgHwerow Hweg, 2002

I worked on a script (set in Cornwall) for two years, hoping to tap into some project funding and eventually some equity investment in the production. We were talking about a maximum of £200,000 per film. It seems this “soft money” is not going to be available in Cornwall. I wish now that I set the film in Wales, Belgium, Luxembourg or France, where one can get 40% of the budget from tax breaks (and that on top of the British Section 48 Sale and Leaseback money). Trying to get my next project off the ground, I had to go global. Making films is a global activity, and to be successful in making a product that appeals to an international market, a producer has to spend a lot of time in London, as well as attending film festivals and markets around the world. Now that I spend almost as much time outside Cornwall as in Penzance, it looks like I will be able to make my film.

I asked Michael Wiese, a director-producer who lives in Cornwall for responses to several key questions. He is currently developing a number of Cornish-set feature film projects.

Antal Kovacs: What is needed to kick-start a local sustainable film industry?

Michael Wiese: The skill base is very low in Cornwall and an enormous amount of training must be offered. There are few crews. There are fewer experienced young producers who know how to put projects together and get them made. And there is, perhaps outside of Carlton television, very little airtime available for regional programmes. National projects certainly find their way to Cornwall but these, for the most part, originate in London from experienced and trusted producers. Local filmmakers must develop projects that can be marketed nationally or internationally in order to sustain careers in film-making.

Regional film work barely pays the filmmaker a few thousand pounds fee. Clearly, very few film-makers will find a career sustainable at this fee level. The reason I’ve been able to make the occasional film is that I have several decades of contacts in film, PBS, pay television and video but right now it is not really a business for me. My real income comes from my film book publishing business in the US.

hwerow-hweg-3.jpgHwerow Hweg, 2002

AK: Having made some short films in the past, was it a help or a hindrance or did it make no difference regarding your desire to make feature films?

MW: A short film is purely a portfolio piece. Shorts screen at festivals and perhaps lead to relationships that may assist filmmakers on their next projects. They do demonstrate a director’s visual style and a producer’s ability to get something done, which is important. However, shorts will not generate any income for their makers, are hardly ever expanded into features and most will never be seen again a year after they are made.

Shorts are only a hindrance in that they may take a filmmaker off-track. Spending time making a film in a format that is unmarketable could be considered a waste of time. Of course a filmmaker gains experience on a great many fronts when making a short, but film-makers may want to learn on formats that are marketable, such as features, commercials, television dramas, reality based programmes, documentaries, educational films etc. That said, in a few months we are releasing The Ultimate Filmmakers’ Guide to Short Films by Kim Adelson, which offers a thorough investigation of the pluses and minuses of short film-making (for more information visit

AK: For a feature film maker, is living in Cornwall an advantage or a disadvantage; or does it make no difference?

MW: It’s easy to shoot and off-line your film in Cornwall but 90% or more of the financing still has to come from outside Cornwall; from London, Los Angeles, New York. Only if a filmmaker has already built a base of relationships among financiers, investors, distributors and broadcasters, will real feature film-making in Cornwall be feasible on anything but a micro-budget. A filmmaker can live in Cornwall but still must travel to the major film markets (Cannes, American Film Market, Toronto Film Festival, MIPCOM, and MIFED) to maintain and develop relationships. And for relationships to work there must be an exchange. A Cornwall-based film-maker needs to be able to answer the question: what do I have to offer the other party?

Antal Kovacs is a writer-director and producer.