Thursday, 12 January 2012

Film, Football, Banks - must money follow money?

Forgive this blogger a brief political piece. However, yesterday saw a pair of announcements which cause considerable concern about the trend for the flow of money intended to support the culture through industry.

First there was the PM's brief statement designed to coincide with a visit to Pinewood Studios, which came with this footnote about the expected findings of the Chris Smith led review of film policy
The Review is expected to say that Lottery funding should, in future, be used to reward success and incentivise UK film-makers to develop projects that have the potential to deliver commercial and cultural success. The Review is expected to propose that the BFI should re-invest returns back into successful companies... In so doing, an even more successful industry can be built by empowering proven film-makers
This could hardly be plainer: identify commercially successful filmmakers and give them more money to make even more commercially successful films and then re-invest the profit with them once again. Even from the narrow angle of 'sure bet' this can't hide the whiff of exclusivity. Worse, it cannot hid that this is money chasing money, rather than money given to the pitch of ideas, vision, invention. It tacitly acknowledges the impossibility of identifying a formula for making a successful film but it does admit to investing in the production situation that appears to have it, a posteriori, on the basis of a balance sheet.

Unfortuately this strikes me as part of a trend for government. On the same day I saw a low-key report about a statement made by the Culture Secretary. In it he suggests that, in a bid to boost grassroots sports, he would consider giving money to Premier League Football clubs.

This is such a close analogue to public money being poured after successfully invested private money that it barely merits the term metaphor for the projected film industry review recommendations. And, like those likely recommendations, it's a treacherous idea.

A large, established studio production company must be like a Premier League club. Plenty of dedicated, professional staff, but everything contingent on the whim of a small group of wealthy dictats at the top whose decisions about film content/players and strategy are increasingly dictated by the market. Again, the balance sheet is the best adviser.

There is only one area where the balance sheet cannot lie about the content of the business and that's in money management itself. The frightening news is that even the bankers managed to make wrong decisions in that area - and the government still invested public money in that, calling it a 'bail out', claiming the institutions were too big to allow to go under. Is giving money to a Premier League club to run sports programmes creating a situation in which they can become too institutionalised - too 'big' - to be allowed to fail? Might today's poor profits results from retail behemoth Tesco cause government to consider action to preserve jobs in such a ubiquitous employer? Will there be one or two production companies that simply are the UK film industry in the near future due to their market dominance and bias of investment?

Clearly we aren't so much slipping on the slope as careering down it headlong. I just hope that the BFI commission for allocating public money (which has taken over from the now-disbanded UK Film Council) can maintain sufficient independence to award money on the basis of potential for creating good work rather than creating good figures. Yes, of course it's difficult to know how to invest money in art. But a body like the BFI, immersed in the industry are incomparably better placed to decide on what that criteria might be than a government who - especially in the current climate - see the balance sheet as the primary arbiter. Which it isn't.

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