Brian Pendreigh: Betting against a bright future for Scottish film

FILM-MAKERS tend to be liberal-lefties.

And yet an odd coalition of SNP and Labour thinkers have pulled off a remarkable achievement in promoting in film circles a feeling of nostalgia for the final days of the last Tory regime in Scotland and former Conservative secretary of state Michael Forsyth.

Think back to 1994 and you may remember the rumpus that greeted the news that Mel Gibson would shoot most of Braveheart in the Republic of Ireland. The Tory government was attacked for its alleged indifference to the film industry and opposition to tax incentives.

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I was closely involved in the story from the start – talked about locations with writer Randall Wallace before Gibson came on board, was there when the Oscars were handed out. Gibson told me the tax incentives were wiped out by the costs of relocating to Ireland and that the main reason for the move was the availability of horses for battle scenes – which was not such a good political row story, of course.

Nevertheless, when Gibson returned to Scotland for the premiere in Stirling, Mr Forsyth invited him to Edinburgh Castle for dinner and brainstorming. The result was the creation of Scottish Screen, which brought together various film bodies in a single new agency specifically dedicated to film.

The lottery money had just started coming in, but the film cash was administered by the Scottish Arts Council, which seemed to be handing out a million quid a time to anyone who wanted it. Their choices came in for a lot of criticism and the rumpus intensified when I revealed that one beneficiary grossed just 4,438 from its UK cinema release.

Responsibility was transferred to Scottish Screen. They backed the likes of The Last King of Scotland, Hallam Foe, Young Adam and Sweet Sixteen, and emphasised the importance of short films. It seemed to work.

After Braveheart, Scotland was on a roll, with Scottish Screen, lottery funding, the international success of Trainspotting, and ambitious plans, involving Sean Connery and Sony, to build a film studio on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

But the studio was eventually strangled by red tape, Scottish Screen's budget has been slashed – with cash diverted to the London Olympics – and the agency has now unexpectedly announced the closure of its feature film production fund, with immediate effect. They have run out of money.

Paul McGuigan, who has directed Hollywood movies with Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman, declared the film scene in Scotland was dead, suggesting Scotland has been overtaken as a production centre by Wales, which is home to Doctor Who. It could also be argued that Scotland has fallen behind Northern Ireland, where former shipbuilding premises were transformed into a studio.

Scottish Screen admitted the worst-case scenario was no more money until the next financial year. But by that time the agency might have disappeared as the government pushes ahead with plans for Creative Scotland, which will unite those wildly creative people at the Scottish Arts Council with the more business-minded people at Scottish Screen.

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Creative Scotland was a Labour government proposal, but it was so good that the SNP endorsed it. The only people who could not see the benefits were the arts world and the film industry. Kevin Macdonald, director of The Last King of Scotland, said, back in 2006: "Film is a complex medium, a very difficult mix of art and industry and many other disciplines, and you need to work with people who specialise in film."

Little has happened to reassure them. After news of the production fund closure, Eddie Dick, a producer and a former head of the Scottish Film Production Fund, one of the bodies that amalgamated into Scottish Screen, spoke of "crisis": "It is a clear indication of their underfunding and makes a nonsense of the supposed 'bright new future' which the move into Creative Scotland is supposed to represent."

Apart from the arts world, and the film industry, there were other critics too, including, rather worryingly, Mike Russell, who is now the government culture minister, the man responsible for seeing the proposal through to fruition.

With a background in film and television, he was possibly best placed of anyone in Holyrood to judge the proposals. In 2007, just before the election, he said: "I'm not a great fan of the Creative Scotland idea. My thought is that it shouldn't go ahead."

Alex Salmond initially appointed Linda Fabiani as culture minsiter. Her minders promised to arrange a meeting for me as soon as she familiarised herself fully with the brief. The meeting never took place and she was sacked. The inference was clear.

Anyone attempting to familiarise themselves with the film scene via Scottish Screen's website would struggle. Details of lottery awards used to be announced soon after they were approved. Not any more. There was 1.7 million in the production fund for this financial year, but there are no details of where it has gone.

Scottish Screen argues the information is commercially sensitive while producers complete funding packages. But there is nothing in the "Awards Made" section of the website even for Valhalla Rising, which is long since finished and has screened at festivals. And that means no public scrutiny or accountability.

Meanwhile Mr Russell took over as culture minister earlier this year, saying: "When you become a minister you have to take collective responsibility." It meant the SNP had a more articulate advocate for Creative Scotland, and had silenced one of its critics at the same time. It did not, however, silence the opponents outwith Holyrood. It simply ignored them.

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It is difficult to predict anything with any degree of certainty in the film business. I am not a betting man, though I did put a tenner on Braveheart to win the best picture Oscar when it was 5-1 against. And I would be prepared to have a small wager that in a few years someone will recognise film is an industrial process and needs its own specialist agency. By then the horses, which played such an important role in the Braveheart decision, may have bolted once and for all.

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