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July 13, 2015

Film industry responds to falling UK film production

Last week I looked at the fall in UK film production, especially in the sub-£500k budget range where production has fallen by 50% in the past four years. On the day it was published, I reached out to a number of industry bodies and individuals and asked them two questions…

  1. What do you think is the cause of the drop in UK low budget production?
  2. Do you think that this will prove to be a good or a bad thing for the UK film industry? 

The answers give a fascinating insight into the different views of the industry.  I have included some longer quotes later in this article, but to summarise…

  • The unpredictability of the industry came through loud and clear.  Most respondents made reference to how fickle and changeable the film industry is.
  • Everyone agrees that the vast majority of the low budget projects made in the past five years have been of poor quality. Evidence quoted includes the box office results, lack of international sales and firsthand experience of watching them. 
  • Low / micro budget features are a good place for fresh talent to learn their craft and get noticed. The general view of sub-£500k films is that they’re not commercial products which the film industry has much interest in, but rather they are a place for first-timers and artists.
  • There was broad agreement that the raw number of films being made is not that important.  Instead, the quality and marketability of those films is what counts. Most respondents gave reasons why this trend could be both a good and a bad thing for the UK film industry.  Positive reasons included fewer unprofessional films, a chance to improve the image of film investment and fewer competing films in the marketplace.  Negative reasons included reduced employment opportunities, reduced funding opportunities and that represents a skills drain whereby feature films are losing creatives to other media.

Below are a selection of the quotes and feedback I received.  Thank you to everyone who gave me their thoughts and I’m sorry I couldn’t include them all.

Christopher Granier-Deferre is a British film producer as well as the Executive Producer of Creative England’s low budget funding scheme iFeatures.

I don’t think there is one single cause. It’s a perfect storm of initiatives such as iFeatures becoming more firmly established, equity funders becoming more savvy, and the rise and rise of exciting alternative formats for filmmakers to explore. It’s a very cyclical industry and in 3 years time we might all be wondering why there is a huge increase in micro-budget movies!

The only thing that’s good for this industry is making better films that an audience are willing to pay to see, regardless of budget, genre, style etc. How we get there is no small debate, but micro-budget films are a core part of our R&D as an industry, the lifeblood of nurturing careers. Not all of them will work, but that’s fine, as Grayson Perry says about art: “you don’t have to like it all”.

Rebecca O’Brien is a highly experienced British film producer at Sixteen Films.  Her credits include Jimmy’s Hall, Looking for Eric and The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

Anything I might say will not be empirically verified but I think it’s a wholly good thing that there is a decline in the number of films budgeted under £500K. Very, very few of these films have done box office business compared to their bigger budget relations. I suspect that those who are financing these have gradually realised what a risky investment they are. I agree with one of your contributor’s points too, that the first flush of crowdfunding has worked its way through, and again, the rare financial success of crowd funded features has begun to ring true.

Of course there are other reasons to make these films than making money – often the films are issue inspired, which makes them good crowd funding fodder. The main problem about the very low budget films is that often they just haven’t researched their market and haven’t discovered that one of the key reasons why they can’t get serious money for their films is that there isn’t a market. That’s what the distributors and sales people know and that’s why the films get made but not seen.

I think the drop is a good thing because the market just couldn’t cope with this load of aspirational fare. The “experiment” of the past six or seven years or so of low budget feature production has simply proved to me that even if the relative cost of making films from a technical point of view can be low it doesn’t mean that the quality can reach the heights of films made on better budgets.

It’s difficult to make a good feature film and to succeed you need a number of talented individuals working as a team to make it. That doesn’t come cheap, and nor should it. I think it’s extremely difficult to make a decent feature under £500,000 (although there are memorable exceptions – our own “Warbook” being one, IMHO) and to make one that has any sort of economic impact is even harder. They tend to be a burden on the potential funders and distributors and more often than not, a waste of their resources. Having said that, some very creative people have pulled off some clever wheezes along these lines and will continue to do so in an effort to learn how to make films and gain experience.

Jen Handorf is a producer experienced at making and selling low budget feature films.  Her credits include The Borderlands and The Devil’s Business.

I think the drop is a natural part of the cycle following the boom of prosumer filmmakers. It used to be that access to high end kit was all that was keeping filmmakers from making their projects. As cameras and other equipment got more affordable and easier to access, we saw a tremendous rise in low budget projects. But just because more are being made doesn’t mean more are being sold- quite the opposite in fact. So, following a deluge of such films in the marketplace, the buyers’ interest in these kinds of films have dropped massively, making them harder to sell, harder to finance, and harder to make. So it follows on logically that fewer people would be fighting to make their micro budget breakout. The gild is off the lily for filmmakers and buyers both.

I think it will be a very good thing, but over time. Fewer films means, broadly speaking, better films. (If it’s harder to make a film, then it follows to reason that only those who are extremely passionate and qualified will be able to push their way through). Fewer films means fewer jobs, but I don’t think that will have a terrible effect on the industry. There aren’t a huge number of people making a living out of micro budget films- the pay isn’t great, as one could guess. It’s really the on the job experience people will be missing out on. But really, micro budget film sets are a crapshoot for work experience. There are a lot of shoddy and quite frankly dangerously run micro budget film sets because the crew (both above and below the line) haven’t trained for long enough to be safely attempting their set ups. So, really, I would hope this would ultimately have a positive effect as well, weeding out the dilettantes on both sides of the line.

More than the quality of the films and the loss of jobs, I think this will really benefit the market. Fewer films means a more competitive sellers market- buyers have had too strong an upper hand for too long. Hopefully, what we’ll come out the other side with is fewer films made by more highly trained individuals that prove to have a higher value in the marketplace.

Mark Vennis runs Sales Agency Moviehouse Entertainment and has seen his fair share of low budget British films.

As you point out in your article there are a whole number of reasons why there has been a drop in production of low budget films (non-recoupment, the rise of web series and high quality TV shows, under the radar etc). However films are a commercial artform and I think ultimately most of these low budget films are not commercially viable.

This is for a whole range of reasons – but boils down to the rather subjective point that many of these films are not very good. Either they are acted terribly, or the scripts, dialogue and plots are unoriginal and banal or they just simply do not reach a professional level of production quality that consumers quite rightly expect. Even when all these boxes are ticked it is relentlessly hard to get a film distributed either domestically or internationally, and that would be true in a buoyant market as well as the current tough market we deal with now. 

And this is a by and large good thing for the film industry. As we live in a society dominated by market economics on a base level too many films mean more competition mean prices are lower meaning less likely a return on investment. If many of those films are below par then the less rubbish films the better right? The very good ones that go on to make money – I reckon they would be made anyway. 

Peter Buckingham currently runs Sampo Media and was previously the Head Of Distribution and Exhibition at the UK Film Council / BFI and Deputy Chief Executive of FilmFour.

What do we definitely know – That the film value chain is declining in total – specifically in home entertainment. In general more and more films are being made globally. Therefore more films are being made in a declining market.

What we probably know – Film is perhaps not as important to consumers as it once was, witnessed by levels of engagement in other forms of entertainment such as games, high end TV, event theatre. Abundance and the easy availability of films everywhere is likely to lead to films being less valued in the popular mind (as opposed to a world of scarcity and exclusivity)

In the more rarified world of independent cinema there is a lack of energy, a staleness of approach. or put another way a lack of ‘movements’ that might indicate an energy and commitment to the art culture and politics of cinema.

So what might all this mean?

I think you kind of covered it in your article but here are my reinforcements.

  1. There is less money in the system, therefore the risk in independent film production is higher and there are less ways to lay off that risk.
  2. The huge increase in films being made and released in the past 10 years means more competition in a declining market and less opportunities for your film to be seen or be profitable
  3. Young people looking for creative careers have more exciting choices such as games, apps, theatre, digital innovation, transmedia. Anyone who has been to sxsw interactive festival and then compared that to the traditional, tired and often elitist film festivals in Europe such as Cannes will see the difference in energy levels and excitement.
  4. Consumers are drifting away from film. Again more exciting entertainment possibilities have opened up, and film, especially independent film, is not reinventing itself or being sufficiently bold.

Put all those together and it is not really surprising that less lower budget films are being made.

Is this a good thing? Yes and no. Yes it’s a good thing as the last thing the world needs is more films. Abundance is a curse and consumers when faced with overwhelming choice turn away. Its also a bad thing as it means that the new vision and energy that film needs to survive is going into other mediums. it is therefore potentially a symptom of a growing disenchantment with cinema from both creators and consumers.

David Wilkinson is a long-time distributor of independent British films through his company Guerilla Films.

This has all come about for one reason and one reason only – piracy.

It is killing films but has a great effect on low budget films than any other sector. In the old days you could roll a film out for 12-18 months. Now once it is released in one country it is released everywhere online. Distributors in other countries know it’s not worth releasing them no matter how good as sales will be poor. Broadcasters globally are not buying many of these films anymore.

We need to think of another way to ensure a return on investment. There is so much out there looking to invest in all manner of ventures. We crack the key to filmmakers/ distributors/ investors getting a return from illegal online screenings and we will once more have a vibrant industry.

Elliot Grove is the founder of the Raindance Film Festival and of the British Independent Film Awards. When he established Raindance in 1992, there were just 47 feature films shot in the UK.

What distinguishes a great film producing nation is not how many films are produced annually, but how many truly memorable films are produced. I for one here at Raindance Film Festival see a vast number of ‘well-produced’ but dire British films at all budget levels because of British filmmakers total misunderstanding of what makes a good visual story. so in this case more films could be detrimental.

On the other hand, Britain has an excellent record as a service industry for films coming in from abroad and utilising the tremendous facilities and craftspeople this nation has trained. In this case fewer films would mean less work for this talented group.

Matt Gallagher runs thecallsheet.co.uk and has his finger on the pulse of professional film employment.

I think you are correct to suspect the volume of films are under-reported. I’m aware, although have no involvement with, of a number of micro budget feature films that don’t appear to be distributed anywhere, despite the best efforts of the filmmakers.

There also appears to be a wariness and weariness of High Net Worth private investors towards film. They didn’t exactly swarm to the EIS tax initiative when the cap was raised a few years ago and the prospect of being the first in and the last out isn’t that appealing to investors either. Some of the investment vehicles also have controversial relationships with the HMRC, which might have put off a number of investors.

Is it a good or bad thing for the industry? On the one hand, it hasn’t affected employment levels by the same measure as we are almost reaching capacity. On the other hand, it means there are less opportunities for first time directors and producers to cut their teeth and develop their craft.

Helen Johnson is the Director of Talking Point, who provide film training.

Recent attention seems to have been focused upon large scale, inward investment productions which is understandable – they ensure significant employment for crew and facilities companies, which grows and strengthens the UK industry and increases input from creative industries to the economy. But this does come at a cost to the indigenous industry – the focus on large scale production can often result in lower budget productions struggling to get green lit and if they do, they struggle to confirm skilled and established crew which can be detrimental – new producers and directors and their productions benefit hugely from working with experienced practitioners.

The approaches to filmmaking have also changed – anyone with a phone and laptop can make a film, so the more formal, traditional methods of film production have shifted towards a more meritocratic filmmaking culture. Less formal approaches for investment will no doubt be reflected in any statistics collated, as these more ‘guerrilla’ styles, working without public funding, will go unrecorded.

Whilst this may not accurately capture the scope of the industry, it does allow for more filmmakers to practice ‘without licence’, which means we have a larger body of producers and directors working, hopefully one which is more representative of current UK society. This can only be for the good.

Is it good? Having a busy industry is positive – it creates a buzz, more employment opportunities and a greater choice of projects and creative options for filmmakers and crews.

Higher production levels also create more opportunities for new entrants and those considering a career in film, particularly those from under-represented groups. This is critical if we are to continue creating opportunities for everyone, irrespective of background, and a far greater gender balance across the craft and technical roles.

There are however some negative aspects to these high levels. Busy periods demand greater number of crew; demand often outweighs supply and consequently teams are forced to bring in unqualified labour. The concern is that craft and technical skills, for which the UK is renowned, become diluted as productions take on more transient, unqualified crew to meet their needs. We need to be mindful of this and continue to cement industry skills programmes to train and qualify the workforce, pre-empting any skills gaps as they occur by identifying meaningful solutions.

Al Carretta is a rarity: someone who has made numerous projects in the sub-£500k budget range.  He has written, produced and directed eight low budget UK feature films since 2006.  

The funding streams have got the distribution of cash all wrong – too much goes on too little and as the director of a film festival that has just received 2101 submissions, in England the pit of dead money that goes on unmarketable films is shocking!

My advice to anyone making a film is make it on £5k or £500k as £6k – £499k is too much (to make something on nothing) and too little to effectively launch a product into the market place. The funding stream ‘iFeatures’ sums this up perfectly. I think it’s a £325k budget – if you ever get through to see the cash – but regardless of the cloistered industry only producer access to the competition (see the credit list of anything chosen) it isn’t actually enough money to make a campaign for your film so it’s an ineffective amount of money.

Is this a good or bad thing for the UK film industry? It’s actually good. So many knock-on industries are involved in film but so many false economies are involved and created by over supply. Film locations are the best example. Previously, a location could be sourced and negotiated, now the mention of the word ‘film’ and an inflated price tag appears. Who’s benefiting? Your crew gets cut to accommodate the more valuable ‘aesthetic’ but you’re now short on key roles. Catch 22 when in the first place, the unsung gem you’d found would have happily welcomed you in and watch their profile rise organically on the additional interest generated.

Notes

I have edited quotes to correct typos and for length.  Other than that, they are as they were provided to me.

I approached many of the public bodies and industry groups in the UK but so far only Creative England gave me a quote (see above).  As it stands right now…

  • The BFI, Film London, Creative Scotland and the British Film Commission declined to comment.
  • Creative Skillset, Film Export UK, Directors UK, PACT, Northern Ireland Screen and Ffilm Cymru Wales did not respond to my inquiries.

I will add any additional quotes I receive after publication.

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16 Responses

  1. Alexandra Boyd July 13, 2015 at 9:22 am #

    I’m a filmmaker with my first feature (a ghost story set in Suffolk called WIDOW’S WALK) in development. The perceived wisdom is to make it low budget/genre in order to just get it made and sold.
    “No-one’s going to give you £10million to make your first film. You have to prove yourself first”

    OK. Fair enough. I’ve tried creating a budget under £500,000 and have had many ‘wise’ colleagues say I could sooo make it for less. But I hate asking favours and want to pay (something at least) to my top crafts – DP, art direction and actors in particular. The budget sits at £850k at the moment, but I’m seriously thinking of pushing it to £1 Million so that we make a truly exciting, beautiful and MARKETABLE film.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the comments above that this is a business and none of us should be making expensive art at the expense of investors, who in good faith give you a large sum of money to follow your dream – but with a bit of ROI too! Isn’t that what we all want after all the hard work and blood, sweat and tears involved in actually making the darn thing!!?

    Alexandra Boyd

    • amy July 13, 2015 at 1:41 pm #

      I think you are doing the right thing Alexandra. I particularly like Al Carretta’s quote on being wise with budget –

      ‘My advice to anyone making a film is make it on £5k or £500k as £6k – £499k is too much (to make something on nothing) and too little to effectively launch a product into the market place.’

      Yes there are the low budget anomalies – Gareth Edward’s Monsters – but best to play safe than to romanticise over sundance glory. I know directors who have spent 5 years making their ultra low budget film, only to see it fail to make any impact, now disheartened they are unlikely to make a film again.

    • Mike Shepherd July 17, 2015 at 4:30 pm #

      Hi Alexandra, increasing your budget won’t necessary guarantee a hit film, you only have to look at some big Hollywood movies that have crashed and burned over the years. If it was that easy everybody would be making hit movies. The main problem first time film makers make is they fail to do any market research. Film making is a business and like any business to be successful it has to have a unique selling point.

      Walk down any high street and your see plenty of clothes shops. Many of the clothes appear to be the same, take Matalan and Marks & Spencer they both sell T-shirts but different prices, one sells them cheaply the other sells on quality, their unique selling points’ for all their clothes. You mention you want to make a beautiful and marketable film, but your first mistake is the title, ‘Widow’s Walk’ that doesn’t tell me it is a ghost story?

      Here are a few tips, write out some alternative titles. Look carefully through your script, are there any lines of dialogue that are memorable, i.e. ‘I’ll be back,’ ‘Show me the money?’ Also are there any visuals that stand out, i.e. ‘the head of the Statue of Liberty’ bowling down the road in ‘Clover-field.’ If you haven’t you need to write them in, that’s if you want your film to stand out.

      Now here comes the fun part, armed with the list of titles and a short synopsis of your film head down to your local multiplex. Pick the week-end, get down there early and stand by the list of films hanging on the wall. Many young people who go shopping at the week-ends’ go and see a film after. If you listen to them your notice they don’t always know what films are on and what they are about, hence the title is most important .

      Pitch them your titles and once you have their attention pitch your synopsis. Of course the more people you ask the more accurate the results. You can use social networking sites but you have to be careful of spoilers, people who deliberately give false information because they think it is clever. Open your film with a good visual hook, remember communication is 55% visual. If you haven’t thought of it already, give the film that bleached colour look. It gives that cold shiver down the spine effect. Of course you don’t have too use any of these suggestions it is your choice.

  2. Mark J July 13, 2015 at 9:32 am #

    In terms of whether sub-500k films are financially more risky, I think if you analysed the figures the average performance of sub-500k low budget films are not that different to 500k+ films overall. But if you back a low budget film that “pops” you get a huge return (eg Gareth Edward’s Monsters).

    Take Jimmy’s Hall (illustrated above), the BFI funded £1m of this so I guess the budget is approaching £2m? Theatrical would have at best been break-even if not small a loss. It has not quite done 16,000 DVDs so maybe £60k of net revenue, whereas Monsters was 230,000+ units? So Jimmy’s Hall is hardly a great showpiece for higher budget films.

    From an investor point of view, if ROI is the factor, I’d rather go for a film budgeted at a level that can deliver a high return to offset the general risk of film investment.

    • Stephen Follows July 13, 2015 at 9:52 am #

      Mark, thanks for your comment.

      I totally see your point, and the outliers on low-budget are certainly much better paying that the outliers on big-budgets (i.e. Paranormal Activity and Napoleon Dynamite returned a MUCH higher % of their budgets than, say, Avatar or Jurassic World).

      But overall, it’s a lot safer for an investor to take a small % of a big movie than all of a small one. For UK films made between 2007-10, only 22% reached cinemas and of those which did few performed well (https://stephenfollows.com/what-are-the-highest-grossing-low-budget-british-films).

      Low budget films are rarely commercial products and even rarer are they sound investments. For filmmakers they’re places to learn their craft, meet people and get noticed. For investors they are a chance to support a person / story / issue they believe in or a place to take an fun, extreme gamble.

      • Carl Frohn July 13, 2015 at 4:03 pm #

        I agree with “Mark J”, if you are not too bothered by the aesthetics, but looking at the P&L, lower is better (ie you have a chance to get back more of your investment or make a profit). I know of a few £1-2m+ EIS films where you can see from the accounts the investors have got back about 10-20% (ignoring tax relief). Carnaby Films made several films for £1m+ via public EIS offers and have never reported ANY income in their PLC accounts! But there are films being made BELOW 500k (even 300k) that look fine to Joe Bloggs the average audience/ buyer, and they are turning a profit based on modest DVD sales, VOD/PPV and a few overseas sales. If you look at companies like Richwater Films they are making several films back to back so have economies of scale. And their investors come back to re-invest which says it all. Real businesses, not reliant on public funding handouts to exist.

        I think Peter Buckingham is right in that consumers have so many choices now, film has a lot of competition, both for consumers money and time.

  3. Dan Lawson July 13, 2015 at 2:01 pm #

    Really interesting article – although I work for Creative Skillset now, I won’t speak for them here (state secrets…or something), but having spent a number of years working with ‘up and coming’ filmmakers through schemes like Digital Shorts, one observation is that many of the best and brightest from those cohorts have ‘stepped sideways’ and progressed through to commercials, promos and high-end TV. It’s not to say they’ve abandoned dreams of film – most would still say their ultimate goal is to direct feature films – but perhaps speaks more to a savviness in response to the UK’s abject rate of first-to-second-time feature directors. Rather than blow their first, best opportunity to make an impression with an under-developed, under-financed micro budget feature, many opt for plying their trade and upping their game in complementary (and, hey, better paid) sectors, hoping to ‘graduate’ back to film once they have a chance of being entrusted with budgets to match their ambitions. (Where this leaves the aspirational producers coming up with them through shorts is an interesting question in its own right…)

  4. Carl Schoenfeld July 15, 2015 at 1:23 pm #

    I agree with Christopher that these films are the ‘lifeblood of nurturing careers.’ Granted, of the hundreds of low budget films I have seen last year, many don’t feel worth a Curzon Soho admission price – but always worth checking out on e.g. on terrestrial TV. The question is what we as filmmakers can do, by offering publicity support around transmission, including ‘360’ events that broadcasters are asking for? And perhaps stepping up some pressure through institutions, as we know the heads at BBC and C4 have their eyes on other big issues. Maybe pumping more British Cinema lifeblood would help them demonstrating their contribution to the nation, and thus enjoy some degree of public service protection a little longer?

  5. Simon July 21, 2015 at 4:32 pm #

    There’s a key thing that affects budget and sales here that no one has mentioned. Unless a producer/director gets very lucky or the director has some cache already – they’ll have to pay to get an actor that has some value in terms of what an investor is looking for and what sales companies want. Inevitably that comes at a cost which precludes ‘low budget’ films.

  6. DNACowboy January 14, 2016 at 9:30 am #

    I feel this type of debate is well overdue, I wring my hands at the fact the British film industry is hanging on Hollywoods coat tails and no, this isn’t some sort of anti-American bias, rarher an understandable desire to see the British invest, produce and market quintessentially British films.

    We only need to look across the channel to see a thriving home-grown film industry, one with its own markedly French approach to see that it can be done, my concern is that there seems to be little that divides Hollywood from Pinewood and Leavesden, I mean of course Warner Brothers Leavesden.

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