Robin McAlpine: Lights, camera, action

Filming Brad Pitt`s World War Z in Glasgow was big-budget Hollywood stuff. Picture: Robert Perry
Filming Brad Pitt`s World War Z in Glasgow was big-budget Hollywood stuff. Picture: Robert Perry
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THE most important first step towards making great films in Scotland is to make films – even if some of them are utter rubbish.

‘There’s only one casting call in Scotland for a paid acting job. And it’s for a dog.” The next time policy wonks develop another strategy for the Scottish film “industry” this Facebook comment from a friend would make for a good starting point.

My partner is a film-maker with international experience, and five years ago we started a small production company. I declare this not to present my credentials or to imply that we are “players”. Quite the opposite; my observations stem from my initial naïvety – film-making in Scotland is held together by enthusiasm in the face of the odds.

The film-makers training in Scottish universities largely expect to have to leave this country to find work. Those that stay will make their money out of high-volume cheap TV and some corporate work. If they’re under 30 they’ll very possibly have a second job.

Not that many are left after the age of 30. Actors make a living from corporate training gigs. If you want to make a film you generally accept that 
no-one will be paid properly – if at all. Make-up, costume, set design, grips, gaffers, sound recordists, cinematographers, editors; these are the workforce of a film industry. Few if any could survive in Scotland making only films. Many will never get close to high-quality drama.

Our film industry consists of a small number of independent film-makers working on 
low-budget movies and caterers providing tea and coffee to big productions which pop over for a couple of days. In commercial film-making, “low budget” means something like £2 million to £20m. Creative Scotland deals in the tens of thousands.

Having great film-makers and having a great film industry is not the same thing. We make a romantic comedy here, a horror movie there, the occasional great piece of arthouse cinema, all through the dogged determination of a small band of committed people. Without Ken Loach, the world would have forgotten we exist.

Scottish film-makers seem demoralised, and the real problem is Scotland’s economic development philosophy. At some point in the 1990s,
policy types shook off the 
post-industrial blues and decided that from now on everything in Scotland was going to be exciting, dynamic, world-beating. Everything took on the Rosy Hue of Unlimited Success. We are always just some marketing material short of inevitable world domination.

In this world, there are two kinds of new business; those that are only one basic factor away from utter brilliance and others that it’s not worth bothering with.

The end point of this delusion is the Scottish Enterprise strategy for 
high-growth start-ups; if you persuade them you’ll be worth £5m in five years they’ll help, not by investing or providing seed funding but by “developing your business plan” and “building your management and non-executive teams”. How could such a strategy possibly fail?

Meanwhile, over in Scandinavia they too were in the business of transformation. But they decided to be patient and saw their economy as a system of linked enterprises and institutions that could only grow if they grew up together. In this Nordic view, there was no point in a world-class bacon industry if you don’t produce any eggs. They put in place all-industry strategies from primary schools to corporate boards. Starting from an honest assessment of their state of development and free from the delusion of definite success, it worked.

In Scotland, we’re trying to skip over the “developing” bit straight to brilliance in the mistaken belief that one glorious failure can lead to five wonderful successes. In the real world, every success is predicated on lots and lots of mediocrity – Hollywood has a business model which assumes 75 per cent of its films will fail to make back their budget because it’s the only way to make the 25 per cent that does.

Meanwhile, Creative Scotland has created a pseudo science in which art is “content”, funding is “investment” and culture is “return”. Using this formula means no-one will ever make a bad film again as nervy middle managers are offered the illusory promise of inevitable success. Presumably the model would still work if no-one made films at all.

It’s nonsense, and it’s killing any chance of a Scottish film industry. No-one has a giant success every two years without a single dud. The most important first step towards making great films is to make films. The Equity Make it in Scotland campaign is an important step towards rescuing the industry we have, but we also need to take steps towards the film industry we want.

We need to build an environment where people working in the film industry can learn and grow up together over time. And before we can do that we need people working in film, not in Tesco. People have to be able to make a movie and survive to tell the tale. We need a critical mass of film-making.

Taking the cost out of 
film-making is much easier with developing technologies. Just build some industrial units in a couple of places away from too much noise and put in some kit – a couple of good digital cameras, some lighting, a room with a couple of decent computer and some software. Call them studios, put in a couple of technician-mentors and let people use them for nothing. Make location shooting easy and inexpensive. Back all this up with some modest grants to help cast
and crew get out of their 
shelf-stacking day jobs for a few months.

Then provide a showcase for these films. The ideal solution would be a Scottish digital channel commissioning perhaps 20 micro-budget feature films a year to be shown in a regular slot. A few will be great, a lot of them patchy, some utter rubbish. But that’s how the world works. At this stage for Scotland it is the learning that counts – while a couple of films might break through to gain wider exposure, the important thing is for the makers of all the rest to get a chance to understand why theirs didn’t. This time.

Offering free infrastructure with some new cheaper technologies and some fairly random bungs with no assumption of a great outcome never mind a business plan might cause an administrator to choke on his tea, but it is pretty close to how the French New Wave came to happen, a film movement that remains as powerful and influential today as it was 50 years ago.

It is a philosophy sometimes known as “provisioning”, providing elements necessary to the functioning of a society, community or industry sector where markets are not. It’s how we build roads.

Unfortunately policy-makers are still hung up on the idea of universal market discipline, a philosophy which just doesn’t work where markets are over-developed like the banking sector or under-developed like Scottish film. Getting to a viable market is the goal, not the solution.

Do we really want a film industry in Scotland? It creates a real buzz and creates lots of rewarding jobs. And the global impact of others seeing your nation on the big screen is enormous. This doesn’t have to be expensive; it would only take a few millions to get started. Or we could not bother. We could dump one more Scottish ambition into the pit signposted “didn’t tick sufficient administrative boxes”.

What we can’t continue with is the current approach – pretending there is an industry when there isn’t. This is simply sapping the life out of everyone. The hope of a real Scottish film industry lies in the hands of the next generation. It’s the kids. It’s always the kids. But they need to grow up with cameras in their hands, not business plans.

•  Robin McAlpine is director of the think tank, the Jimmy Reid Foundation.