Funding UK Filmmaking

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How the UK Film Industry needs to change to survive in today’s tough financial environment.

The upper end of the film industry in the UK seems to be in a healthy state. The Harry Potter series of films are doing well on both sides of the Atlantic and companies such as Working Title continue to secure funding for major international successes like with the Bridget Jones movies. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz also did very well, showcasing the best of British acting and directing talent. These were all American studio backed successes and had traditional mainstream appeal that was always going to do well with cinemagoers.
For many UK movie productions though, without big names, box office lure and lower budgets at around the £2 million to £4 million mark, often it is the case that these films do not make enough money to realise their costs. It is also the case that European and US movies of equivalent scale and ambition can cost far less than their UK counterparts. This has major implications for UK producers and directors, who will often find making a feature film to enter the mainstream market quite difficult due to funding problems, where as elsewhere in the world filmmakers will have more opportunity to showcase their talent without having to strike deals with major American film studios rather than independent filmmakers.

Why do UK movies cost so much to make?

Compared to elsewhere, the UK film and television industry is quite small, which has meant that established technicians and equipment can end up very expensive due to high costs and wages due to fierce competition. Also, although lottery funding and tax breaks have been overall a good thing for UK film, it also meant that for a little while films with budgets over £3million were fundable whereas before producers knew that they had to keep budgets below a certain level. Many producers have struggled to rein in their costs since then. Another factor is that many UK technicians and studios now work with big budget US films and although in most cases they would love to work with UK films on a smaller budget, there is a limit to the how much of a pay cut that they will be willing to take. This is a problem because many producers and directors feel that they need to work with these people because of the prestige but it would end up cheaper and without much of a cut in quality if they worked with new UK talent that might be available.
Films made in the UK without big budget studio help are often financed by a number of different sources and this means they will all have their own editorial input and rights to the filmmaking process. This means that producers will very often take their eye off the ball and release control on what’s happening with people on the floor. Delays and funding withdrawal can also hit a production hard, and also means that it is difficult to budget carefully. Similarly to big studio movies but with a much bigger effect to films made on a low budget, executives and financiers also have the right to require additional cuts or scenes. This will extend the post-production and editing process, which is very costly.
Factors such as the dominance of big budget movies in multiplexes and the threat of piracy have made all films more difficult to sell which means investors will have more problems in channelling their money to these low budget and in many cases high risk productions. In the US and Europe though, many films of appreciably similar quality are made on lower budgets. There are various reasons for this, like the fact UK shooting days are often more expensive than elsewhere, probably due to the higher price of technicians and camera equipment. Once films go over a certain budget in the UK, actors fees rise exponentially, and production, the film crew and the art department are also often more expensive to employ. Location facilities in the UK and especially London are also often difficult to hire and equipment and crew to transport. Even post-production tends to cut into film budgets.

Supporting Low Budget Film

The British Film Institute (BFI) came up with a scheme to try and solve the problem of expensive crew and technicians in film by creating a protective environment named ‘experimental art filmmaking’ in which films were all subsidised and not linked to the fierce mainstream marketplace. As well as directors being able to be more creative with their movies as well as avoiding production interference, the film crew wouldn’t be inclined to demand mainstream feature film salaries. This has the potential to create breakout movies made on low budgets. An example is when Channel 4 first started on television and they made a film called My Beautiful Laundrette, which was directed by Stephen Frears and featured Daniel Day Lewis in one of his first roles. This was made on a tiny budget due to the fact that it wasn’t expected to reach the standard of a mainstream movie and avoided all the costs that came with this. The film resulted in international success and its hard-hitting screenplay scripted by Hanif Kureshi, resulted in an Academy Award nomination. Today, the BBC and New Cinema Fund have joined forces in creating television films while Channel 4 and the Film 4 lab produce roughly 4 £1million films a year.
There will always be talented filmmakers who manage to push their films through thanks to digital filmmaking and the advent of the Internet, which allows people to show their films for free to a wide audience. American filmmakers such as Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith showed that you can make micro budgeted films which can do massively well thanks to studio support and awful lot of guts, luck and hard work. But how can low budget films financed by British studios and offering the best opportunity for creative movies to break the mainstream decrease their costs and compete with the rest of the world?
Although in the 50’s and 60’s most films were made in the big studios we know today, much of the time scripts were written with a set budget and look in mind. This applies to today in which from the start, producers, scriptwriters and directors have to work together and have in mind what they want to achieve and how they will able to afford it. The alternative way to make a movie would be to cut corners on what comes up on screen to go within a set budget, would result in the quality of the film being severely affected. This point continues into realism on how long a film should be. A short 90-minute feature would be more attractive commercially as well as avoid the wastage of film on the cutting room floor.
One of the best things to do to keep costs down, as well as finding new jewels in the system, is to work with talented people who don’t necessarily have feature film experience but would be hungry to work for less wages and with more spark than people who may be jaded from mainstream film. New talent would also breed more creativity. Another factor is the design of films. Foreign filmmakers like called Lars Von Trier working in Denmark created an avant-garde movement called Dogme, which was supposed to purify filmmaking expensive effects and postproduction gimmicks. What it also did was to decrease costs in the face of more and more expensive production and showed that is possible to make worthwhile and internationally successful films without much in the way of costly set design. He has now discovered international success with films like Dogville and Breaking the Waves, films also made on reasonably low budgets. Also true is the fact that Digital Video and 16mm film allows cheaper filming due to lighter and faster shooting techniques than typical 35mm cameras. The recent whiz kid of low budget cinema, Robert Rodriguez, swears by DV.
One factor which would help subsidise film and has already had an effect on UK cinema is lottery funding, which can be quite substantial and allow producers to be able to make films without the problems already outlined from third party financiers. You can already do this in four ways – through the UK film council or through film franchises DNA, Pathé and the Film Consortium. Films can be fully or partly funded in this way.
If the UK film industry learns some of these simple ways to cut costs then the wide pool of talent in filmmaking in the UK can graduate to feature films and create a thriving independent scene such as in the USA and parts of Europe where movies can recoup their money and make talent internationally famous due to their originality or quality. It would also mean that we wouldn’t be so reliant on the big American studios for financial support, although the likely best scenario is that there would be no studio interference. There is an awful lot of filmmaking talent in the UK, and if they are good enough, they must have the opportunity to allow as many people in the world as they can to see their work.