Brian Ferguson: Cinema golden age a bit of a myth

Under the Skin, the alien abduction sci-fi drama Scarlett Johansson, was filmed in Glasgow and the Highlands
Under the Skin, the alien abduction sci-fi drama Scarlett Johansson, was filmed in Glasgow and the Highlands
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In less than a week’s time the cream of the British film industry will gather in London for the first major ceremony of the awards season. Even a cursory glance at the nominations for the British Independent Film Awards leaves the impression that it could be a bumper year for Scottish winners.

Filth, the big home-grown cinema hit of the year, has no fewer than five nominations, but the big-screen adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s book could find itself overtaken by two Scottish productions yet to hit cinemas. Prison drama Starred Up and Under the Skin, the alien abduction sci-fi drama Scarlett Johansson famously filmed in Glasgow and the Highlands, are not due out until March, but won rave reviews after being unveiled in Toronto and Venice earlier this year.

That is not all. Two other Scottish films which – as with the others – won the backing of the national arts agency Creative Scotland, are also in the running for BIFA honours: Paul Wright’s feature film debut For Those In Peril, already a Scottish BAFTA winner, and The Great Hip Hop Hoax, the Edinburgh International Film Festival hit about the two Scottish rappers who duped the music industry with their bogus Californian accents.

With Sunshine on Leith giving Filth a run for its money at the UK box office this autumn and The Railway Man, a blockbuster partly set and filmed in Scotland due to be released in January, why is it that barely a week goes past without a fresh flurry of headlines about the film industry being in crisis in Scotland?

On the face of it, talk of film-makers being on the verge of quitting Scotland, the industry being in a “terrible” and “dire” state, and a inability to attract major productions appear to be reckless scaremongering.

It is no coincidence that much of the sabre-rattling about the failure to invest in a film studio, the poor treatment of film compared to other artforms in Scotland and a cap of just £300,000 for funding major features has come from Gillian Berrie, co-founder of Sigma Films, the Glasgow-based production company behind Under the Skin and Starred Up. She has long been at the sharp end of the reality of film-making in Scotland.

Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop may have been otherwise occupied when MSPs heard from Berrie and other leading arts figures a year on from the height of Creative Scotland’s agonising crisis but I do hope Ms Hyslop has taken time out from punting the idea of a new state broadcaster to consider the damning evidence given by Ms Berrie, which seemed to genuinely alarm members of Holyrood’s education and culture committee.

If it was uncomfortable listening for Creative Scotland’s chief executive Janet Archer, sitting in the public gallery before giving evidence herself, it was also fairly damning for the Scottish Government, which has of course been rightly praised for its championing of the arts.

Perhaps Ms Hyslop will also come into possession of the (as yet unpublished) review of the film sector carried out for Creative Scotland.

It does not make comfortable reading for anyone remotely connected to the film sector - from the Scottish Government, which does not provide any direct funding to the industry at present, and Creative Scotland, which seemingly has just two members of staff with any relevant industry experience, to the BBC and STV, both of whom are heavily criticised for failing to do enough to support indigenous film-making.

One key issue stood out for me – the need for many film industry workers to head outwith their home country to make a living, with seemingly fewer than 70 full-time jobs in film production in Scotland.

Yet there are genuine grounds for optimism out there. If Sigma Films and the rest of the production companies based at Film City Glasgow can do so well at present on such a relative pittance from public funders, surely there is huge potential for the future if a better financial deal can be carved out over the next six months or so.

The creation of at least one permanent studio complex seems closer than ever before, if you examine the words of Ms Hyslop and First Minister Alex Salmond on the issue.

But perhaps it is time for those holding the purse strings to stop pretending we are in the midst of a golden era and acknowledge the genuine concerns that have been aired. That would seem a simple starting point for a real cinematic revival.