The State of the Art


by Lindsay A McGee

With this year’s closure of Scottish Screen and the stumbling launch of Creative Scotland, is the Scottish film industry dying a death or experiencing a rebirth?

Glancing at the current landscape it could be easy to assume the former. Money is scarce and the business of film-making is expensive and high risk at the best of times. We are in a country where the affordability of weekly refuse uplifts is on the agenda so where will we find the money to support the next crop of film-making talent?

Before attempting a feature film most film-makers cut their teeth on the short film circuit. Making short films is a great way to learn your trade and gather a core team of tried and tested collaborators from actors to make-up artists and clapper loaders.

Over the years there have been various schemes out there to help fund this process, Tartan Shorts used to be one and Scottish Screen released pockets of money or matched funding now and again.

Now the only established short film funding scheme left in Scotland is Scottish Digital Shorts (SDS) but it seems that this may be in crisis. The call for entries for 2011 hasn’t been launched yet even though last December it was well under way.

Other schemes, such as ENGAGE, a European initiative to foster collaboration between film-makers in smaller European countries has announced that the 2011 programme will take place and that a call for entries is imminent.

Support for emerging documentary film-makers seems to have remained constant with documentary funding scheme ‘Bridging the Gap’ entering its 8th year and recently announcing the short listed participants for 2010/2011.

Support for up and coming talent limps on but what is there for more established players?

Scottish Screen is defunct and after a hibernation period where the Scottish film industry was merged into an unidentifiable blob called the ‘arts’, Creative Scotland has finally come clean on what is out there for Scotland’s screen industries.

Four of the seven financial support initiatives for larger projects are ‘fully allocated’ and the ‘variety of funds and initiatives’ with which they support short film is actually only two.

It’s difficult to comprehend how Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop’s good news announcement two weeks ago to maintain Creative Scotland’s core funding at £35.5 million will filter through Creative Scotland’s multiple remits and translate into improved screen industry support.

So what else is out there and what constitutes a truly hopeful future for Scotland’s film industry?

The most important element is the creative people with a vision who are driven to tell good stories through film, whatever the financial climate and with whatever level of support is available.

We’re a long way off from the heyday of Tartan Shorts when it was normal for the budget of a ten minute short to be £50 000. Nowadays SDS offers up to £15 000 per short film.

Edinburgh Napier’s Screen Academy MFA students have a budget of £3 000 to make their graduation shorts. Film-makers are getting out and making 90 minute features for less than these figures.

‘Low budget’ has spawned whole new categories of low film financing low/mini/micro/no budget. Film-makers are coming up with ingenious ideas of how to distribute these micro budget classics and turn them into profitable ventures.

While digital technology is relatively cheap, film-makers will always be compelled to make film. How can they best be supported though so as to make the odd breakthrough talent the norm rather than the exception to the rule?

One suggestion is the development of a new film fund for Scotland funded by private investors with an interest in or a connection to Scottish Film.

Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins have done well with their mobile cinema project taking Scottish cinema around the Highlands and across to China.

But doesn’t Tilda have a bob or two to invest in hard cash and doesn’t she move in the kinds of circles where she also knows people who have money to play with? The same could be said for Sean Connery. Surely he has a couple of million to spare or plenty of friends who might?

A simplistic concept perhaps but no more so than funding a substantial proportion of our creative industries based on the premise of the general public playing, and losing, the National Lottery each week.

We could better use the money that is available. Instead of SDS funding around five films for £15 000, that is, supporting only five emerging film-makers with a total of £75 000, they could spread the funds out in order to give more new talent the support it requires.

£15 000 could be used to fund 15 new film-makers at £1000 per film. Or three new film-makers at £5 000 per film. 20-30 new film-makers could be given assistance, creating something approaching a real talent pool, instead of a talent puddle.

As well as the informal network of connections which are forged behind the scenes of the Scottish film industry there could also be a more formalised version of this via a film-maker mentoring scheme.

Established film-makers could mentor up and coming film-makers and nurture them throughout the life of a particular project over a period of 12 or 24 months. This could have the added benefit of encouraging newly qualified film-makers and recent graduates to believe that it’s worth remaining in Scotland.

Rather than participate in the mass migration back to their home country, home town or into the seductive vortex of London they might remain to assist in the creation of a more vibrant film-making scene.

There are plenty of options and ideas to debate on the subject and while that is the case the industry won’t die a death. However, unless conclusions are drawn and some ballsy action is taken the Scottish film industry isn’t going to experience a much-needed rebirth just yet either.