U.K. Film Council axed

Council is one of 55 public bodies government wants to cut

LONDON -- The U.K. government's decision July 26 to put out the lights at the U.K. Film Council, the government-backed agency set up 10 years ago to support the movie industry here, played out like a horror story for some and a revenge thriller for others.

For Council employees it was horror as staff gathered Monday morning to learn of the Government's decision to shut down the entire agency in the year it is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

"No one knew, and the fact that the whole thing is to be closed is a shock," said one longtime staffer. The questions outweigh the answers but one thing is for sure, whether you liked [the Council] or not, there's going to be a vacuum in the film industry as to who to come to for funding, or help."

Current chairman of the Council Tim Bevan, whose day job is as Working Title Films co-chief, described the government's action as "a bad decision, imposed without any consultation or evaluation."

Bevan signed on as the organization's chair last summer, and in November oversaw a private sector style implementation of cuts at the organization, amid what he described at the time as "the most challenging times ever for the film industry."

The economic downturn and the funneling of funding from the public sector to the London Olympics shaped the changes the Council made and meant the Council had £8 million ($13.4 million) annually less expenditure from April this year, before the change in government.

The decision to shutter the organization, with 70-plus staff in line for pink slips, came Monday as part of the freshly-elected coalition government's review of so-called "arm's length bodies," with the U.K.'s culture minister, Jeremy Hunt, wielding the axe for 55 organizations.

But the government's Council axe fell with a promise: "DCMS will do further work over the summer to finalize the details and timing of these changes."

That said, the industry here needn't hold its breath to find out how the government promise that "key activities currently carried out by the U.K. Film Council will continue, including Lottery funding and work in support of film certification for tax purposes."

That's because July 27 sees the start of Parliament's summer recess, so who will do what and where will unlikely be decided before September this year.

"People will rightly look back on today's announcement [to close the Council] and say it was a big mistake, driven by short-term thinking and political expediency. British film, which is one of the U.K.'s more successful growth industries, deserves better," said Bevan. "Our immediate priority now is to press the government to confirm that the funding levels and core functions that are needed to underpin British film are locked in, especially at a time when filmmakers and film companies need more support than ever as they make the challenging transition into the digital age. To that end, we will work with the DCMS over the summer to identify how they can guarantee both continuity and safe harbor for British film."

Hunt said he aims to establish "a direct and less bureaucratic relationship with the British Film Institute."

That, said Hunt, "would support frontline services while ensuring greater value for the money. Government and Lottery support for film will continue."

Since its creation in 2000, the Council has invested over £160 million ($248 million) of Lottery funding into more than 900 films, according to its own stats.

Film Distributors' Association president David Puttnam said of the closure: "Over the past decade, the Film Council has been a layer of strategic glue that's helped bind the many parts of our disparate industry together. It is sure to be widely missed, not least because the U.K. cinema industry is in the midst of a fundamental transformation at the heart of which is digital rollout."

Puttnam, a former Columbia Pictures chief and movie producer who sits in the House of Lords here as a voting lawmaker, added: "On the welcome premise that government and Lottery support for film will continue, I look forward to discussing ways in which a new, coherent plan for film can be developed and implemented to benefit audiences throughout the U.K."

Playing a role betwixt and between the industry and government means the Council has always enjoyed a controversial relationship with movie makers, policy makers and tax payers alike.

And with the anonymity of the web and it looking likely there will be no organization to keep on side, some industryites reacted with unfettered glee.

"Good riddance. Just an old boys club looking after friends and funding people they hang out with," said one not untypical contribution. "And it's not just because it turned my project down for funding."

Several producers contacted by THR simply summed it up by describing the decision as a reflection of "the times we live in."

Said one: "It's tough times [economically] for everyone right now and with government cuts everywhere, perhaps it was to be expected. At least there's a pledge to continue with the tax credit."

Still the shutdown leaves some very important and as yet unanswered queries.

The DCMS declined to expand further on its pledge to find ways to more directly continue to channel lottery funding in to film or to suggest who might look to administer funding recouped by the UKFC from its cash pools. Nor would it expand on who will administer the network of regional funding agencies.
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