Scottish film industry is in permanent crisis

The success of 'incoming' films such as Skyfall is not enough on its own. Picture: SWNSThe success of 'incoming' films such as Skyfall is not enough on its own. Picture: SWNS
The success of 'incoming' films such as Skyfall is not enough on its own. Picture: SWNS
STRUCTURAL changes are needed to allow Scotland’s creative sector to fulfil its potential, writes Robin MacPherson.

In recent months the words “Scottish film” and “crisis” have been seen and heard together increasingly frequently, especially in evidence to the Scottish Parliament economy, energy and tourism committee’s inquiry into “how Scotland can grow sustainable TV, and film and games industries”.

A feeling of crisis is nothing new however. As far back as 1958, Sir Alexander King, then Scotland’s film exhibition baron (when we could boast such a figure), quipped that “for the last few months we have been having our annual crisis”. As then, the barriers to growing Scottish film today are deep-rooted and intertwined with both commercial pressures and public policy.

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The UK film financing, production and distribution industry has for the better part of a century concentrated in and around London. Only grim determination by filmmakers aided by sporadic public policy saw the beginnings of an industry in Scotland with sponsored documentaries in the 1950s leading to the first tentative public investment in feature film in the 1980s. In 1995, the introduction of between £3 and £4 million in Lottery funding annually boosted output to half a dozen home-grown features a year. It may surprise readers to know that statistically a similar proportion of those turned out to be hits as in much bigger film nations – from Shallow Grave and Trainspotting to Sunshine on Leith and Filth. But at just six films a year, the hits come on average only once every three to four years. And six films is not enough to build a production sector or support even a single distributor. Not enough work to keep actors and crew employed. Not enough business to sustain specialist suppliers from lighting-hire and props-makers to special effects and sound dubbing studios.

The problem is, as the experience of every other European country confirms, that you cannot increase either quality (measured by awards, critical reception, long-term impact) or commercial returns without increasing output. That requires investment directly into the films, in the companies that produce them and, as importantly, into the people who conceive and execute them.

Of course there are television drama like Shetland and incoming productions like World War Z or Skyfall are critical to maintaining the ecology of the sector. Except we don’t see much – and determine almost none – of the former, as broadcasters’ taste, commissioning power and crucial professional relationships remain overwhelmingly London-centric. And while in the wake of increased UK tax incentives for film and high end TV we have benefited hugely from the recent arrival of, for instance, Sony/Starz’ TV epic Outlander (more or less doubling production spend in Scotland for two years), we still have little in the way of local incentives to reliably attract other high-spending series or films beyond our natural assets and skilled crews. Here the long-standing absence of a suitable sized studio continues to loom large.

Indeed The Scotsman first called for a Scottish film studio back in 1935 and it’s as true now as then that a studio could generate a great deal more work for cast, crew and related businesses. But local producers will see little of that benefit unless we are able to offer location incentives dependent on both spend requirements and the involvement of a local co-producer. This would give Scottish companies crucial leverage in hiring and spending decisions, helping to extract more value from incoming productions, creating opportunities for local talent, building expertise and relationships at all levels and raising the profile of Scottish companies internationally.

However, that in turn would require Scottish producers to have the kind of stability which depends on consistent levels of domestic production, both in feature film and high-end TV drama. So until we address the equally deep-seated problem of UK broadcasters’ marginalisation of Scotland as primarily a source of net license fee income or advertising revenue without a corresponding requirement to source production locally, our film companies will continue to struggle for survival.

Yet the opportunities for growth in Scottish film and TV are considerable. UK-filmed entertainment revenues are forecast to rise at a compound annual growth rate of 3.4 per cent annually between 2014 and 2018. In Scotland, Channel 4’s new ten year licence requires it to increase its “nations and regions” production from 3 per cent of volume and spend to 9 per cent by 2020 and it has made additional voluntary commitments to see this as a base and to do more to develop the skills and genre expertise that will aid growth. UK film and Video production revenues and exports more than doubled between 2002 and 2012.

One catch is that historically much of our enterprise and innovation strategy have been focussed on targeting support to individual “high growth” companies and not webs of interconnected small companies. Yet the potential aggregate growth in employment, revenues and other impacts are comparable. The interconnected “ecology” of film, TV and games with each other and with other creative businesses – music, theatre, design, audio, publishing – requires a different approach to that historically adopted in traditional sectors, one which can address both their commonalities – talent, skills – and differences – the speculative high risk/reward overwhelmingly one-off film nature of production against the commissioner-driven, series-orientated TV production.

The deep and complex ecology of the entire creative industries sector needs to be understood much better so that both investment and returns are seen holistically – investment in expressive arts education or professional writing and drama talent are part of the mix. Investment in, for instance, studio infrastructure without parallel investment in skills development and talent retention would be a serious mistake. Our national film school, Screen Academy Scotland, is one small but significant part of that mix. We train some of the key talent – writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, editors – and provide a wide range of professional development opportunities.

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However, too many of our graduates leave Scotland to pursue their careers because too little effort has gone into understanding and growing what could be a much larger sector if only we work together to make it so. Better co-ordination between higher education and industry is of course essential but without a concerted programme of investment, incentives and broadcasting reform to remove the structural obstacles to sustainable growth we may continue to hear talk of the “crisis” for years to come.

• Robin MacPherson is professor of screen media at Edinburgh Napier University and director of Screen Academy Scotland