Demise of Film Council

There is something very seriously rotten in the State when the Government can decide to abolish the Film Council to save £15m a year at the same time that the head of BP is said to be about to take a severance package of approaching the same amount. The disparity is all the more striking when you register that while BP is writing off more than £20 billion to pay for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Film Council has been responsible for allocating a mere £160m of Lottery funding to more than 900 films which have entertained over 200 million people and helped to generate over £700 million at the box office worldwide, or almost £5 for every £1 of Lottery money thus invested.

Part of a raft of cost-cutting measures at the DCMS involving the merger, abolition or streamlining of 55 cultural organizations ranging from advisory bodies on libraries and museums to historic wrecks and ships, the move has angered a lot of people: a petition set up as soon as the news came out garnered 1000 signatures within two hours, as well as a couple of Twitter streams. [Latest: 3739 signatures.]

Anyone familiar with my opinions on the Film Council knows that I’ve been critical of its modus operandi, but I can only agree with Ken Loach when he calls the announcement an ideological move, explaining that ‘The UK Film Council was essentially the equivalent of a research and development department. In cutting it, it is destructive to our emerging young talent. There is no other organisation that could invest in the future as it did.’

It’s well worth quoting some of the choice Twitter comments:
Fourth Flight: Let’s brace ourselves for attack on the bfi and the BBC. Yes, these and the UKFC, all are flawed but all are essential.
Michael Hirst: The Tories are scum. So not only will there be no jobs, poor welfare and no police, we’re not going have films either?
Peter A Rae: Surely cancelling the Pope’s visit would save enough for a 1-year reprieve?
Nick Donaldson: Why not cancel Trident instead! Would save a shit load more money.
Matt Copson: Why? What is the benefit in destroying one of the UK’s finest outlets for creativity?
labellaraquella What is the saving on axing the ukfc? What is the point of it? Its like trying to pay back your mortgage by not going to blockbusters
Daniel Sheppard OMG! Tories need to get real! The 2 most important things in my life are school and films… Why are they destined to fuck both of them up?

In short, for not much money at all, the Film Council has promoted a digital screen network of 240 screens across the country; this includes giving rural audiences the opportunity to enjoy a modern digital cinema experience (including live opera, theatre and sport satellite events beamed across the UK). It provides support for over 200 film societies and independent regional film venues, as well as UK film festivals like Edinburgh, the London Film Festival and the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival; and has given over 20,000 young people the opportunity to get involved in filmmaking.

The UK film industry has a turnover of £6.8 billion. It contributes a total of over £4.5 billion a year to UK GDP, returns more than £1.2 billion to the Exchequer and supports a total of 100,000 jobs directly and indirectly. The UK box office has grown by 62% since the UK Film Council was created (in 2009 it reached record levels of £944 million), with British films accounting for 23% of all UK cinema takings over the ten years to 2009.
Recent figures show that in 2009 cinema admissions rose to 174 million, the highest figure for seven years; British films and talent won 36 major film awards, 17% of the total available; inward investment reached a record £753 million, up 111% on 2008; and UK film exports exceeded £1.3 billion, 92% higher than in 2001. (Details here)

But the arguments are not just economic. Even The Daily Telegraph’s David Gritten points out that ‘Without subsidy of some kind, our film culture will be completely overrun by Hollywood, and our sense of ourselves as a nation will be diminished, however subtly, by the absence of distinctly British films.’ But this is of nothing to a government which believes in sacrificing everything to the fickle gods of the money market, despite the arguments of the best economists, such as Krugman and Stiglitz and Blanchflower, that trying to cut the national deficit now risks the hope of recovery—bourgeois economists, never mind Marx, who long ago warned of the hostility of capitalism to art.

Of course many of the films the Film Council has supported are far from distinctly British and contribute little to any self-respecting sense of film culture, but that’s not the point. The politicians may be scared that the country will be bankrupted on their watch, and are therefore not prepared to face down finance capital, but imposing cuts like these—without consultation or considering alternatives—demonstrates only that it is they themselves who are morally and ideologically bankrupt already. In light of which it is time to say loud and clear that what gives value and meaning to life and society is not money but creativity, imagination and playfulness (and love, of course) outside and beyond the market, and these attacks on society’s cultural capacities are unconscionable.

We are told that the DCMS will do further work over the summer to finalise the details and timing of the changes proposed. It will also look at its other ‘arm’s length’ bodies and explore further opportunities to improve accountability and efficiency. As a charity, the British Film Institute was not within the scope of this review, and the Government says it is committed to its long term future, but it will now consider how to build a more direct relationship between the BFI and Government.

We are warned. This is an anti-Keynesian government, and it was Keynes who in helping to create the Arts Council in the 1940s, defined the ‘arm’s length’ principle: that government should not administer such affairs directly, in order to be free of any possible charge of partisan interference or political patronage, but should delegate responsibility to special agencies, of the kind nowadays called quangos (quasi-autonomous non-government organisation).

It’s ironic, really, since not so long ago I reported on the last government’s plans for a merger between the BFI and the Film Council to which I was totally opposed. I never imagined that the plan would fall by the wayside because a new government would come along and decide to get rid of the latter.

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