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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

question of the day: Is the shutdown of the UK Film Council good or bad for British film?

If you watch British films, you’ve likely seen the little notation on some of them among the production company credits for the UK Film Council, and that part of the production costs of this film came from proceeds of the country’s national lottery. The UK Film Council has, for the last 10 years, operated, according to Andrew Pulver at the Guardian’s Film blog:

like a mini studio, allowed to invest in big films (Gosford Park, The Constant Gardener) and also help out with small (Better Things, Red Road), as well as funding ancillary activities like the Independent Cinema Office, print and advertising assistance, and digital projection. The Film Council was essentially the most sophisticated method found so far to deal with the lottery money…

But this week the British government announced the shutdown the UK Film Council. Pulver calls the decision “nothing short of a hammer blow” and “tragically naive”:

Are we seeing a return to the early 70s, when the sudden removal of US studio finance saw a catastrophic drop in the number of films made in the UK? What will happen to the films already in development and production that are reliant on Film Council money? The tabloid view of British film-makers may be of goateed beret-wearers sucking down cappuccinos in Soho, but the truth is every film is comparable to a three or four-year small business enterprise, with its own traumas of cash flow and income generation. If a large chunk of cash suddenly goes missing, the whole edifice will collapse. This decision could prove devastating to an entire generation of film-makers; for all its ups and downs, the Film Council has got involved with the likes of Armando Iannucci, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Peter Mullan, Sam Taylor-Wood, Kevin McDonald and Pawel Pawlikowski. How much credit the council can take for their film-making is up for debate, but it has at least functioned as the connective tissue between such disparate talents.

Daniel Trilling, also in the Guardian, agrees that the shutdown is

particularly bizarre as it was one of the few areas of the arts that actually saw a return on its investment.

But he sees an upside:

[A]s Ryan Gilbey argued in the New Statesman last year, the industry has become hooked on recreating hit films modelled on the likes of Four Weddings and a Funeral or The Full Monty. From Bend it Like Beckham to Calendar Girls to Slumdog Millionaire, the tendency has been towards feelgood, aspirational stories (not unlike the sentiments expressed in New Labour’s theme tune Things Can Only Get Better, in fact) aimed at a primarily American audience.

This is where an enlightened funding body should step in to promote riskier projects, but the box-office successes have arguably come at the expense of more innovative film-making. According to the critic and producer Colin MacCabe, the UKFC’s “aggressive commercial strategy” has frequently stifled creativity. Organisations like the British Film Institute Production Board, which funded experimental films, were abolished to make way for it, and the UKFC has often insisted on having the final cut on films it funds.

The past decade has not been a creative desert – Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and Steve McQueen’s Hunger are wonderful examples of daring British films with political bite and potential mass appeal. But the praise deservedly showered on their directors also serves as a reminder that others have been allowed to fall by the wayside.

I think Trilling counters his own argument there at the end, and I’m on Pulver’s side: this is a nightmare for British filmmakers, and for film lovers who value British films. (And you don’t have to love all of them to see the value in the UK Film Council. The fact that films catering to varied tastes were supported by the Council suggests it was doing its job well.) Lottery money will continue to be distributed, we’re told, but with the best mechanism discovered so far for doing so now gone, it looks like British filmmakers are in for a rough road.

Is the shutdown of the UK Film Council good or bad for British film?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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