Nokia-isation of Scottish Film Policy

By Mark Cousins

flying-scotsman-douglas-mckinnon.jpgFlying Scotsman, dir. Douglas McKinnon

On November 20th 2003, the First Minister made a key speech to address what many felt was a culture gap in the ruling New-Labour–Liberal Democrat coalition’s policy portfolio. Many of us argued that this address saw culture as too much of a means to an end – a deliverer of national identity and personal confidence – rather than an end in itself, but it set in place a cultural policy review, whose outcome was a massive, contested report and the pledge to merge the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen into an arts uber-quango, Creative Scotland.

At the same time, a new reformist Chief Executive of Scottish Screen, Ken Hay, was appointed. From the start, Hay talked delivery systems rather than films, value chains rather than Bill Douglas. Those of us who travelled to film festivals and culture events around the world, had heard such talk elsewhere. The idea that the mobile phone was the new site of moving image consumption spread amongst film policy makers around the world like a flash-fire. Everyone wanted to Nokia-ise their culture policies. It allowed them to put what Scottish producer Bob Last calls The Enterprise Agenda at the heart of their moving image policies.

hallam-foe-david-mckenzie.jpgHallam Foe, dir. David McKenzie

It took the Scottish film producing community a while to respond to this Nokia-ised Shock of the New, but Scottish Screen’s tardy, botched revision of its short and feature film funding policies – re-named Investment Guidelines and finally published, unhelpfully, the day after the end of this year’s Cannes film festival – galvanised action. In June, a protest letter signed by 45 of the key film producers and directors in Scotland – who had collectively made 150 films – was published by The Herald newspaper. It argued that Scottish Screen’s new guidelines did not understand the business and legal imperatives of producing films, were a dereliction of the agency’s specific duty to film and, more generally, that the folding of Scottish Screen into a pan-arts agency, Creative Scotland, would, amongst other things, render Scottish filmmaking invisible to international production partners.

Scottish Screen has countered with a series of open meetings, and the Scottish Executive is, surely, beginning to feel nervous that the entire filmmaking community – including the big names like Tilda Swinton, David Mackenzie, Kevin Macdonald, Andrew Macdonald, Andrea Calderwood, Gillian Berrie, etc – is up in arms. The official line from ministers and officers alike is that Creative Scotland will go ahead, though polls suggest that at the elections next May, Scottish New Labour will lose seats, and the Scottish National Party is making noises about a rainbow coalition to oust them from power which could mean that Creative Scotland would be a dead duck. If this does not happen, some kind of standalone audio-visual office within Creative Scotland seems like an inevitable compromise.

dear-frankie-shona-auerbach.jpgDear Frankie, dir. Shona Auerbach

The first detailed proposal I have seen is for a Scottish Film Office, focussing on film production, with a budget of £5m per annum, and a staff of about 6 people. The simplicity of this appeals, but it raises a number of key questions: Why ring-fence production? Why ring fence film? A proposed agency which draws a line between cinema and other types of audio-visual culture (TV, gallery-based, etc) is being isolationist and somewhat conservative. The splitting of production from exhibition, education, archive, etc, is also problematic. I have long believed that an agency which is charged with the production of innovative film will, inevitably, be forced to see that such films need cultural cinemas in which to be screened and discussed, and will need cine-literacy programmes in order to produce the kind of cinephilia in which such work will be valued. In order not to fail in its production task, it needs to develop a support policy for exhibition and education.

ratcatcher-lynne-ramsay.jpgRatcatcher, dir. Lynne Ramsay

The Scottish Film Office document is good on figures. It notes that where Denmark invests €22.5m annually in film production, Portugal spends €21.9m and Finland spends €8.9, Scotland’s figure is a mere €5m. There is a strong case for doubling this – the authors of the paper ask for £5m. And the case is not hypothetical. Talk to film critics around the world and again and again they make the point that Scottish film seems to be amongst the most vibrant in the UK. Now, surely, is the time to invest more in those achievers.

A fuller rethink starts to feel like re-inventing the wheel. I have long argued that cinema buildings need revolutionised. The multiplex-art cinema split is divisive, no new cinematic architectural idiom has emerged, the programming of cinemas has to be rethought in the light of new cultural formulations such as MySpace and the availability of so much on DVD. Why does Scotland not have an innovative policy for cinema, its relationship to community activity, sports events, book groups, lifelong learning policies, etc? There is good media education in our Scottish schools but why not emphasise from primary school onwards, the idea of visual thinking and visual imagination? What, surely, is needed is a joined up education-production-exhibition strategy, which is what Scottish Screen had, and which Creative Scotland will, in effect, wreck.

last-king-of-scotland-kevin-mcdonald.jpgThe Last King of Scotland, dir. Kevin McDonald

Scottish Screen had lots of problems but a degree of sophistication had evolved out of its basic structure. Latterly it seems to have lost its confidence and passion, and it has never been a font of new ideas, but those who are wrecking it need to understand that its report card scores B+ or better, that its broad structure is admired internationally (or has been), and that what they are proposing to replace it with – or the gap left instead of a replacement – could destabilise Scottish film for a generation, lead to a brain drain, and hasten a return to the bad old days.

Mark Cousins writes and broadcasts widely on all aspects of cinema. The Story of Film was published in October 2004.