The UK Film Council is dead. Let's give the British Film Institute a chance
The closure of the public body which put money into films like 'Hunger' and 'In the Loop' is a sad thing. But might this be an exciting new time for British cinema, asks Dave Calhoun?
Without doubt, the end of the UKFC is a blow, and directors like Mike Leigh and Mike Figgis have understandably spoken out against the move, not least because it creates huge uncertainty at a tough time. But should we run along uncritically with all this surprise and shock? The end of the UKFC is being portrayed as Tory axe-wielding, but the truth is, firstly, that the trouble started under Labour and, secondly, that a new approach to how and where we spend public money on film could be a good thing for British cinema.
To understand last week’s move, you need to know that last August Labour culture minister Sion Simon proposed a merger of the UKFC with the British Film Institute, the country’s other big film body, which manages the National Film Archive, runs BFI Southbank and organises the London Film Festival. The plan was to cut costs and prevent overlap. It’s now clear that the Tory solution is to run away with Labour’s plans by getting rid of one body entirely – and the UKFC was always more vulnerable. The UKFC was a New Labour quango and the sort of bureaucracy for which the Tories have been sharpening their knives for ages. Moreover, the BFI is a charity, protected by royal charter – it can’t be dismantled. Even more importantly, the BFI is a cultural body; too many of the UKFC’s activities existed to help the industry turn a greater profit – is that really the job of money designated to promote culture? Neither did it help the UKFC’s cause that so many of its execs were on high salaries compared to those doing similar jobs at the BFI. It looked bad.
Behind closed doors, the BFI and its canny chairman Greg Dyke will be thrilled. Not only have Dyke and his colleagues fended off talk of a merger but they find themselves back in the pre-2000 position of being funded by government rather than in the pay of the UKFC, an organisation too often embarrassed to treat film as culture. In the end, that was Chris Smith’s biggest mistake: to subjugate the BFI, a cultural body, to the UKFC, a trade one. That mistake has been corrected.
Yet this is no time for dancing on tables. Whatever its faults, the UKFC performed a crucial role in developing and producing British films. There has been wild talk about the UKFC only producing box-office disasters like ‘Sex Lives of the Potato Men’ or big films in no need of support. Neither is true. Filmmakers like Andrea Arnold and Steve McQueen needed government help and received it from the UKFC. It’s these filmmakers we should now be most concerned about.
However, let’s not call time on British independent film just yet. The Tories’ announcement last week suggested that the money given to film by the UKFC – £15m a year – is safe (even if the exact figure is not clear). The big question is: who will dish it out? Will the BFI be asked to manage a production fund, as it did pre-2000, producing films like ‘Under the Skin’, ‘Gallivant’ and ‘Love is the Devil’ ? Will the Arts Council assume a role? Or will a new body be established, with key roles for BBC Films and Film Four?
I think the most exciting – and daring – result would be for the BFI to take on the most essential of the UKFC’s work – meaning that a cultural body would be putting money into film as culture. But at the same time we must redefine what needs support. If the demise of the UKFC means that films on the level of ‘The Constant Gardener’, ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ – all of which received UKFC help – have to go without, so be it. With its archive and twin focus on heritage and education, the BFI celebrates film as an art form, a principle that should apply to future funding. Our culture needs raw visions, new talent, difficult stories. We need to take risks. We need to be prepared to put money into films that might not make a single penny but which nurture and develop both talent and audiences and which progress British cinema rather than just repeating past successes and chasing foreign awards. Let’s ask ourselves why we give public money to film. Is it to provide support to an art form? Or is it to provide extra capital to an industry? I’d argue that it’s the former – and no organisation is better placed to honour that approach than the BFI.
Author: Dave Calhoun
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