Somewhere over the Rainbow

By Holly Aylett

Last year, of 400 cinema releases 19 could be classified for children between the ages of 3 – 12. Of these 5 were not in the English language, and only 3 were classified as British – Valiant, Lassie and Wallace and Gromit – all of which were co-productions with the United States.

What is at stake here is the chance for children to engage, empathise and reflect on their own culture by traveling alongside fully developed characters in all the illuminating contexts of a good film/drama script. This journey is impossible unless the UK continues to produce long form drama and features, alongside the range of other forms available. Equally important, not least given the diversity of the diasporas within, is that children should travel through their screens to the furthest places under the rainbow, and see the wealth of children’s films produced in the rest of the world.

The UK’s utter lack of commitment to children’s production was exemplified by a recent letter from Skillset to PAL, the Performing Arts Labs, turning down their application for funding on the grounds that there was so little interest from the industry in production for children that the money could be better spent elsewhere. Since 2002 PAL has enabled the UK to take part in the only European training programme to develop projects for children. What was at stake was a mere 40,000 Euros. Fortunately, at the time of writing this decision is being reconsidered, but Skillset’s rationale is indicative. It’s not only that there is no independent production for children in this country, but that this neglect is considered of no significance.

The only agency which has the public funds to change this situation – the UK Film Council – has no coherent policy. It has set up a one-off partnership with the BBC to enable The Children’s Film Foundation, (established in 1950 by Lord Rank and a significant player until its principal source of funding ended with the Eady Levy in 1985), to develop 6 projects, and money is going into First Light, but this last initiative is for young people over the age of 14.

The neglect of provision for children is in spite of the major role which government wishes culture to play in delivering the aims of its consultation exercise “Every Child Matters” the results of which informed the 2004 Children’s Act. By its own admission the Department of Culture Media and Sport has a central role to play in enabling the outcomes for children particularly in “enjoying and achieving and making a positive contribution”, ensuring diversity and providing after-school activities. Yet a search for film produces only one result on the dedicated website, and the UK Film Council is not even listed as a partner alongside other cultural players such as the Arts Council of England.

The situation is surprising given the boom in children’s literature, and the confidence of the publishing industry whose resources should surely be harnessed. In Germany, the adaptation of key German authors such as Eric Kästner and Cornelia Funke has been a key factor in boosting audiences and interest in children’s film. Amongst the top ten box office successes for children, five are German productions this year. The Government has been behind this success, supporting production through a raft of measures including an annual fund of 1.2million euros a year, a Children’s Film Award of 250,000 euros, and support for distribution.

Many of these German productions receive financial support and exhibition windows on television. In this country, the recent controversy over junk food advertising on television has highlighted the reluctance of commercial broadcasters to sustain any commitment to the children’s sector whatsoever. But input into production and distribution is essential if we are to be able to offer a pluralist and diverse selection of films. Access to 23 children’s channels is not synonymous with choice, and neither commercial terrestrial, nor online services, should be exempt from making an investment. Otherwise we are accepting that major corporations have the right to reap profits out of a continuous stream of cheap product, without investing in return for the privilege. France Telecom reinvests 10% of its turnover from video-on-demand into film production, so this imperative is not without European precedent should our present Government discover the political will.

Equally important is Government support to ensure the promotion and circulation of titles from world cinema, in cinema, on television, and from new digital platforms. Absurdly, none of the specially selected films for the Barbican’s London Children’s Film Festival in November had found a distributor for this country. Neither were there any English productions in the programme. Speaking at an event convened by the Independent Film Parliament, “Are Children Being Served” , Catharine des Forges of the Independent Cinema Office indicated that she believed the solution to the blocks for distribution would need to come through multiple, related initiatives. Margaret Albers, Director of Germany’s successful Golden Sparrow Festival added that marketing initiatives would not be enough without a major shift in the audiovisual landscape, and one which sees public funding as essential to ensure diversity of expression in an essentially American marketplace. The event confirmed that there is plenty which could be done. Suggestions included a DVD label dedicated to world cinema for children, both past and present; increased P & A funding for children’s titles; a campaign to set the record straight on children’s willingness to read subtitles; subsidies to get children’s films into the cinema; and changes in the British Board of Film Censors’ system of classification.

Our children are not being well served today, and from the evidence it would seem that they don’t matter – enough that is to be funded. Good fairies cannot change the mindset of either children or government, but if Gordon Brown could find his own Yellow Brick Road, perhaps he too could discover the way home, and crucially, new priorities for children in the forthcoming spending review. Or is this only a dream?

Report from The London Children’s Film Festival, by Zack Harris

Hello, my name is Zack Harris. I'm 14 years old and I was a First Light Young Consultant for the London Children's Film Festival, November 2006. The closing gala was last Sunday and the festival went great!

There were loads of films from all around the world, all designed for kids. Film for kids is really important to me. I believe that film is an important part of peoples' lives, and not enough films are being made for children. Films are great for a number of things like enjoyment and even learning. I've been using films for learning since Year 7 and it's way better than just reading books all the time. You get to focus on more than just words.

There are a lot more films made for adults than children. That's what the festival is all about and it's what the important people in the film industry need to start thinking about. If you think about it, kids enjoy film much more than adults do (well, most adults anyway).

There are several films that I love. My favourite is School of Rock because I really liked the music in it. Another was Flushed Away, which I saw recently. This was a great film for my whole family, and we all really enjoyed it. Film is definitely a great part of life and we need to see more varied films for kids.

Holly Aylett is a writer, lecturer in film and founder / director of The Independent Film Parliament.