With over 400 apps released every week, it’s hard to get attention so it’s especially pleasing to learn that the latest issue of Apps Magazine has a two-page feature on The Devil’s Plantation app. I was quietly amused to see it described as Thomas Pynchon meets Trainspotting but what’s more gratifying is the observation that –
Hmm – not even sure about that. The piece defines the app as ‘entertainment’ – a label I’m uncertain about but given that apps are at a relatively early stage of evolution, no better definition exists. Still, it’s surprising to find The Devil’s Plantation at the vanguard of interactive narrative when all screen content – be it film, TV, games, apps or forms yet to be invented – is ripe for progression. How people choose to consume this content over say, the next 5 years is unknown but one thing’s certain – we’ll always need stories.
Lately I’ve been thinking about my next project and how it can fit in this new world, particularly given the current climate for funding in Scotland. Recently I was invited to speak at Creative Scotland’s Open Sessions in Glasgow about the film sector as a ‘provocation’ amid the organisation’s efforts to forge better relationships with artists and creative practitioners following months of adverse criticism leading to the resignations of CEO, Andrew Dixon and Creative Director, Venu Dhupa.
As I state in the following speech, I have no relationship with CS. I’ve never sought funding for reasons stated below. But I agreed to talk because I felt it was important to express my concerns – not about funding per se – but because from long experience I recognise rejection is the majority position and for over 20 years I’ve had my share of it. Rather, I took my opportunity to propose an alternative because from my position, the sacred cow of state film subsidy – the theatrical feature film – is both unobtainable and increasingly redundant. The default position for most of my fellow filmmakers is a mode of working that is too capital-intensive, too risk-averse and, in this country, too doomed to fail.
On the flipside of this, however, is my resolute belief that a screen culture matters to Scotland because it’s an expression of national identity, as equally valid as theatre, opera, ballet and music – centuries-old artforms ringfenced as ‘national companies’ under current arts policy. Film has always been poorly served in Scotland, partly due to bad leadership, competing agendas from broadcast and academia and a lack of political will amongst producers who repeatedly fail to lobby effectively for change. That, and a resistance to the new.
This is what I said.
FIRST I WANT TO THANK PAT AND KEN FOR INVITING ME TO SPEAK AT THIS GREAT VENUE IN THE HEART OF ONE OF THE MOST DEPRIVED AREAS IN THE UK – WHICH MAKES IT ALL THE MORE VALUABLE.
IN WHAT’S BEEN A BUSY WEEK FOR THE ARTS, I DON’T DOUBT CREATIVE SCOTLAND WANTS TO IMPROVE ITS RELATIONSHIP WITH THE ARTISTIC AND CREATIVE COMMUNITY. I ALSO BELIEVE THERE’S A GENUINE DESIRE TO IMPROVE THE WAY THE ORGANISATION SUPPORTS THESE SECTORS. SO I HOPE MY CONTRIBUTION TO THIS SESSION IS POSITIVE – IF A WEE BIT PROVOCATIVE.
I’M HERE TODAY IN MY CAPACITY AS A WRITER AND FILM DIRECTOR. SINCE THE MID-80S I’VE WORKED IN FILM, BROADCAST AND COMMERCIALS AND18 YEARS AGO I SET UP A PRODUCTION COMPANY BASED HERE IN GLASGOW.
I SHOULD ALSO DECLARE THAT I’M A PAST BENEFICIARY OF BOTH SCOTTISH SCREEN AND THE SCOTTISH ARTS COUNCIL. BUT I’VE NEVER HAD BACKING FROM CREATIVE SCOTLAND BECAUSE UNDER THEIR CURRENT CRITERIA I’M INELIGIBLE. DO I CARE ABOUT THAT? ABSOLUTELY. NOT BECAUSE OF MY OWN SITUATION BUT BECAUSE I BELIEVE IT AUGURS BADLY FOR FILMMAKING IN THIS COUNTRY.
BEFORE I ADDRESS THE QUESTION SET BY CREATIVE SCOTLAND I WANT TO TALK ABOUT MY OWN SECTOR . YET I’M AWARE ANYTHING I HAVE TO SAY ON THE SUBJECT IS MOOT BECAUSE IN FEBRUARY CREATIVE SCOTLAND APPOINTED NO LESS THAN THREE CONSULTANCY FIRMS – TOGETHER WITH ITS OWN BOARD MEMBERS AND OFFICERS – TO REVIEW THE FILM SECTOR.
JUDGING BY THE PARTIES INVOLVED MY CONCERN IS THIS LATEST REVIEW AT BEST WILL LOBBY FOR THE STATUS QUO AND AT WORST, LOOK FOR WAYS TO REMOVE FILM FROM THE CURRENT FUNDING EQUATION ENTIRELY.
THE CURRENT SYSTEM OF SUPPORTING FILM, LIKE ALL PREVIOUS SYSTEMS, HAS FAILED TO HELP DELIVER FILMS DEEMED AS EITHER CULTURALLY OR COMMERCIALLY SUCCESSFUL. IN FACT INDIGENOUS PRODUCTION HAS REMAINED STATIC FOR OVER 20 YEARS.
BUT WHAT CONCERNS ME MORE ARE THE MANY COMPETING AGENDAS – ESPECIALLY THOSE OF BROADCASTERS, ACADEMICS AND TRAINING BODIES CLAIMING MORE RESOURCES FOR TV PRODUCTION AND FOR SKILLS TRAINING.
ON THIS LATTER POINT – SKILLS – THE OPERATIVE QUESTION IS WHY? BECAUSE ACCORDING TO CREATIVE SKILLSET THERE’S CURRENTLY 528 COURSES IN FILM/TV AND MEDIA ON OFFER IN SCOTLAND.
IN JANUARY CREATIVE SCOTLAND SUPPORTED CREATIVE SKILLSET’S ‘STEPPING UP’ – AN 800K INITIATIVE FOR THE BROADCAST SECTOR. THE BENEFIT OF THIS JOB CREATION SCHEME IS DOUBTFUL FOR SEVERAL REASONS – NOT LEAST BECAUSE 26 INDIVIDUALS AT CREATIVE SKILLSET WERE INVOLVED IN THE CREATION OF 28 PLACEMENTS.
THIS RAISES QUESTIONS – NOT ONLY ABOUT THE VIABILITY OF THE 500 PLUS COURSES ALREADY ON OFFER AND THE FATE OF THOUSANDS OF GRADUATES BUT ALSO WHY TELEVISION CONTINUES TO OBTAIN SUCH LARGE SUBSIDIES FROM FUNDS PREVIOUSLY RINGFENCED FOR CINEMATIC, NOT TELEVISUAL PRODUCTION.
I BELIEVE BROADCASTERS ARE ANTITHETICAL TO FILM. IF THEY WEREN’T, THEN BBC SCOTLAND WOULD BE A REGULAR, VISIBLE CO-PRODUCTION PARTNER WORKING WITH THE INDIE FILM SECTOR. BUT IT’S NOT. SO WHATEVER THE OUTCOME OF THE REVIEW ONE THING’S FOR SURE – IT WON’T HELP THE CAUSE OF SCOTTISH FILM AS A CULTURAL ASSET.
IN FACT NO AMOUNT OF PUBLIC INVESTMENT CAN PUT A SCOTTISH FILM ON A CINEMA SCREEN SINCE PRODUCERS HAVE NO CONTROL OVER EITHER SUPPLY OR DEMAND. UNLIKE OTHER CULTURAL ACTIVITY, SCOTTISH FILM HAS NEVER CONTROLLED THE DISSEMINATION OF ITS OUTPUT.
HERE IT’S WORTH LOOKING AT HOW WE ARRIVED AT THE CURRENT SITUATION.
IN 2003 THE THEN FIRST MINISTER, JACK McCONNELL, IN HIS ST ANDREW’S DAY SPEECH STATED
“THE CULTURAL SECTOR NEEDS TO LOOK AT ITSELF CAREFULLY AND FROM A CITIZEN-FIRST PERSPECTIVE.
OUR ORGANISATIONS NEED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR DELIVERING TO THE PEOPLE OF OUR COUNTRY IN AN EFFECTIVE AND ACCESSIBLE WAY”
THIS SPEECH WAS THE STARTING GUN FOR THE CULTURAL COMMISSION, CHAIRED BY JAMES BOYLE, WHOSE REPORT – TITLED ‘OUR NEXT GREAT ENTERPRISE ‘ WAS DELIVERED IN JUNE 2005 – NOTABLY THE YEAR YOUTUBE WAS LAUNCHED.
AS ONE OF THE FEW PEOPLE WHO’S ACTUALLY READ THIS 540 PAGE REPORT WHAT STRUCK ME WAS A GLARING OMISSION – FILM DIDN’T WARRANT A MENTION.
THE CONCLUSION TO BE DRAWN HERE IS THAT FILM WAS NEVER IDENTIFIED AS A CORE CULTURAL ACTIVITY. AND IN BOLTING A QUASI-HOLLYWOOD MODEL FOR FILM SUPPORT ONTO CREATIVE SCOTLAND I BELIEVE THE ORGANISATION’S REMIT WAS FATALLY FLAWED FROM THE OUTSET.
AND IF PROOF OF THIS IS NEEDED, LET ME CITE A FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUEST I MADE TO THE SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT IN 2006. MY QUESTION WAS THIS –
OF THE £2M AWARDED TO KEN LOACH’S LONDON-BASED PRODUCTION COMPANY FOR A SERIES OF 4 FILMS HE MADE IN SCOTLAND IN THE LATE 90S AND EARLY 2000S. HOW MUCH WAS RECOUPED BY SCOTTISH SCREEN?
AND THE ANSWER? ZERO.
KUDOS TO KEN LOACH’S PRODUCER – BUT IF AN INTERNATIONALLY-ACCLAIMED DIRECTOR FAILED TO MAKE A RETURN ON PUBLIC INVESTMENT – THEN EITHER SCOTTISH SCREEN STRUCK A BAD DEAL IN TERMS OF A RECOUPMENT CORRIDOR OR KEN LOACH’S FILMS WERE A COMMERCIAL FAILURE. AND IF KEN LOACH’S FILMS CAN’T TURN A BUCK, WHAT HOPE FOR RELATIVELY UNKNOWN SCOTTISH FILMMAKERS?
THE GREAT LIE OF SCOTTISH – INDEED UK – FILM – IS THAT RETURN ON INVESTMENT IS ACHIEVABLE. SO WHEN CREATIVE SCOTLAND DREW UP ITS CRITERIA FOR SCREEN INVESTMENT, RATHER THAN ADDRESS HEAD-ON THIS MARKET FAILURE, IT SIMPLY IMPOSED BARRIERS TO INVESTMENT TO EXPLICITLY EXCLUDE THE VAST MAJORITY OF INDIGENOUS FILMMAKERS – RESULTING IN EVEN FEWER FILMS BEING MADE OR BEING SEEN.
IN STRATEGIC TERMS, THIS GOES TO THE HEART OF CREATIVE SCOTLAND’S FAILURE IN RESPECT OF FILM. AND HERE IT’S WORTH RESTATING WHAT’S FUNDAMENTAL.
CREATIVE SCOTLAND IS A PUBLIC BODY CHARGED WITH SPENDING PUBLIC MONEY FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD.
IN THE CONTEXT OF FILM, THE PUBLIC GOOD SURELY RESTS ON ENABLING THE SCOTTISH PUBLIC – AND A WIDER, INTERNATIONAL AUDIENCE – TO SEE SCOTTISH FILMS.
SO WHEN IT COMES TO MY VISION FOR CREATIVE SCOTLAND’S RELATIONSHIP TO FILM – AND BY IMPLICATION ALL THE ARTS– I BELIEVE THE FOLLOWING FOUR PRECEPTS POINT THE WAY. NOW AT FIRST HEARING THEY MIGHT APPEAR ABSTRACT OR EVEN ABSURD BUT I CAN CONCEIVE AN HONEST FRAMEWORK FOR THEM THAT OFFERS A TRULY EXCITING WAY FORWARD FOR CREATIVE SCOTLAND’S FILM STRATEGY.
CONTINUING TO SUBSIDISE THE DEVELOPMENT AND PRODUCTION OF THEATRICAL FEATURE FILMS DOES NOT SERVE THE PUBLIC GOOD – SO WHY NOT SPEND THE BUDGET MORE HONESTLY, EFFECTIVELY AND DEMOCRATICALLY ON THE MANY OTHER FORMS OF FILM? BUT NOT BROADCAST. IF THIS MEANS LOWER LEVELS OF INVESTMENT SO BE IT BUT THAT WILL AFFORD THE GREATER REWARDS OF RISK-TAKING.
OBJECTIVE CRITERIA FOR FINANCING
AS I WROTE IN REPLY TO PAT’S BLOG, FILM IS UNIQUELY SUBJECT TO AN UNCONSTRAINED DEGREE OF CREATIVE INTERVENTION BY THE PUBLIC SERVANTS AT CREATIVE SCOTLAND. THIS IS AT BEST DEMORALISING, BETRAYING A DEEP LACK OF TRUST IN THE PRACTITIONERS.
THIS INTERVENTION IS BELIEVED TO BE NECESSARY IN ORDER TO – AS THEY SAY – BACK WINNERS. BUT AS I HAVE SHOWN THIS IS A POLICY THAT IS PROVEN TO HAVE FAILED. WHAT IS REQUIRED IS TO REWRITE THE TERMS OF INVESTMENT TO SHIFT THE BALANCE OF EVALUATION BACK TOWARDS THE PROVABLE AND NOT THE GUESSABLE. IF THAT MEANS LOWER LEVELS OF SUPPORT , GREAT – MORE MONEY TO GO TO MORE PEOPLE.
TARGET THE AUDIENCE YOU ALREADY OWN
CREATIVE SCOTLAND COULD BE A CATALYST, STIMULATING A GENUINE SUPPLY OF INDIGENOUS PRODUCT. BUT IT SHOULD ALSO BE A DRIVER OF INDIGENOUS DEMAND, AN ENABLER OF NOVEL, CONTEMPORARY FORMS OF DISSEMINATION. ONLY WHEN WE FIND THIS DOMESTIC CONFIDENCE CAN WE HOPE TO DISCOVER IT ABROAD.
WHICH LEADS ME TO MY FINAL PRECEPT –
NOWHERE IN THESE SESSIONS – APART FROM BRIAN BAGLOW’S PREVIOUS TALK ON THE GAMES SECTOR – HAVE I SEEN AN ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF HOW TECHNOLOGY HAS RADICALLY CHANGED THE LANDSCAPE. NOWADAYS MOST PEOPLE WATCH MOST FILMS OUTSIDE THE CINEMA.
THIS TRUISM AFFECTS HOW WORK IS CREATED, HOW IT’S DISSEMINATED AND HOW AUDIENCES CAN BE FOUND AND NURTURED ACROSS A DIVERSITY OF PLATFORMS. NOWADAYS ALL FILMS ARE EQUAL. SCOTLAND SHOULD BE THE FIRST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD TO TRULY GRASP THIS FACT.
TO CONCLUDE – CREATIVE SCOTLAND OPERATES WITHIN A SMALL NATION. IT HAS ALL THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING CLOSE TO THE GROUND – AS THE RECENT STOOSHIE DEMONSTRATED. SO I WOULD URGE THE ORGANISATION TO EXPLOIT THAT ADVANTAGE WHILE IT STILL HAS THE GOODWILL OF THOSE OF US WHO CARE ABOUT THE FUTURE OF OUR ARTISTIC, CRAFT AND CREATIVE TALENTS.
Before, during and after my speech, there was a small flurry of interest on the Twittersphere, quoting some of my content. Whether or not anyone really grasped the implications of what I proposed is unknown, just as I’m uncertain if any of my proposals will ever be picked up and seriously debated. What I do know is that for anyone in Scotland who cares about the future of film ought to disavow themselves of the notion that the status quo can prevail. But until a new CEO is in place, all bets are off. It would also help if much of the original board were replaced – to offer real confidence to the tragically few, but vocal, dissenting voices.
And for what it’s worth – no one from the largest film and TV sector outside of London came to Easterhouse to engage with the room, notably those who’ve benefited the most – according to the CS spreadsheets I’ve seen which only underlines the problem of complacency and a sense of entitlement which I hope, sooner rather than later, will get them thrown off the gravy train.
At this crucial event – and for all the arts/creative industries darlings who demanded a Glasgow session when originally one wasn’t scheduled – depressingly only half the expected numbers in a ‘fully-booked’ session turned up. Still, good things happened – the lovely Tam Dean Burn invited me to his table where I met up with an ex-BBC colleague, May Miller, a recently appointed Board member of CS and also on the Film Sector review committee, who I spotted taking copious notes. I got a lot of support too from Robbie Allen, also at CS and a passionate supporter of film talent. Thanks too to Kenneth Fowler and to Pat Kane, for inviting me to speak when they could so easily have gone for a safer bet.
Let’s see, but whatever happens, I know one thing for sure – my next project is going ahead – with or without CS support. And that’s what excites me most.