Is the Market always Right?

Posted November 22nd, 2010 by David Skynner


I know I said in my last blog I was going to explain what ideas lay behind the creation of Oodle, but I’m going to divert this week to discusss something that is exercising me more and more each day, the market!

Since I was a lad of about fourteen, I have known that what I wanted to do with my life was make films, films that are shown in a large dark room filled (hopefully) with people eager to see said film.  This desire came with a belief that I also had the goods to achieve said dream.  But it isn’t so easy.  I used to think that the best way to succeed was make the best work you can, that is your stall; people will come along, gaze upon it, appreciate the skill on display and choose to partake in some way.  Like I said, it isn’t so easy.  One of the best things I ever made, a children’s comedy series that I put my heart and soul into, won a Best Drama Bafta in 2006.  I haven’t even had so much as an interview for any TV directing gig since and am unrepresented as my agent finally threw in the towel.  So much for quality being your calling card.

I love the process, but I am rather less impressed with the business.  I attend scriptwriter’s conferences where senior representatives of TV broadcasters proclaim they are desperate to find the next Dennis Potter, while refusing to contemplate a commission for anything beyond the most mundane and risk free programme.  I don’t believe them anymore, in fact as a culture that celebrates soap above most other drama forms has held sway in TV for some fifteen years now and these senior executives have come up in that time, would they even recognise the next Dennis Potter?  Or might they think, this writer’s barking mad?

To be fair though, drama is extremely subjective.  One person’s masterpiece is another’s fish wrapper, but to allow the great works to come into being, there needs to be a market with sufficient breadth for all to develop, where producers can take chances on work and succeed or fail and earn a living in the process and though there might be pockets of that in television, in film in this country that doesn’t exist.   Every few months in one paper or another, someone is agonising about the UK film industry, that it’s a cottage industry, that producers can’t find investors because investors never make their money back, so can’t get their projects made, so can’t earn a living, so are giving up, yadda yadda yadda.

You think it’s complicated?  The solution is not complicated, the solution is allowing the producers to sell their product to their own market and earn money from it.  Everything else flows from that and in the UK the Americans own our market and they will not let us in.  It’s our market.  Let me say that again.  It’s our market!  If it was supermarkets and like Asda is owned by Walmart, they were all owned by Americans and they refused to sell anything but American food and UK food producers were all going to the wall and local food types disappearing, would we still sit idly by?  Ok film is not a staple of life, the analogy is not perfect, but it does illustrate the placid acceptance of another dominant culture over our own and I have to wonder why?  Why is a product that we have enormous skill at making, with such immense global value so completely neglected. I should probably state here that I have nothing against American film, I love an awful lot of them and admire their incredible breadth, but I want to make films in my country and it is nigh on impossible because the control of the distribution system by foreign owners denies me the economics that makes it possible.  I really would like to see that change.

It may be a dirty word to some, Thatcherite economists mostly I suspect, but quotas seem to me to be the only real solution, yes, it’s an artificial intervention, but the playing field is not level, we are not allowed to compete on anything like fair terms and a quota would go some way towards levelling the field.  We had an industry when we had quotas and it’s disappeared since they were abolished.  France has always had quotas, 15% of films in cinemas must be of French origin and they have a flourishing industry.  Not all of their films are brilliant by any means and you wouldn’t expect them to be, but they regularly release over 100 indigenous films; we are having a great year if we manage 10 and I’m not including films like Harry Potter, films made here with American money are not British films.  Though I appreciate there is a desire to exert some ownership over the skills involved in making those films, that is a double edged sword, it can lead us into the notion that we have a film business and in the respect of delivering the resources to make those films we do (and in some respects thank God as it maintains our skills base), but the money those films make goes back to America, they are still just American films made over here.  In Germany the quota is also 15%, in Spain it’s 30%.  German film is a resurgent success story with money to spend; Spain’s industry has exploded into life almost over night.  Market economics dictate that whatever the market chooses must be the best for all, but surely that is a very blunt instrument?  It is simply survival of the fittest, but in a developed society we also apply morality and intelligence, we protect and support everyone, recognising that all have something to contribute and brute strength is not the only value.  A quota is not a dirty word; it is just a government exercising its very considerable strength to provide a breathing space so that a less powerful, but valued contributor to the market may survive.  The Americans will continue to make billions from our market, but some of the money generated from people sitting in large dark rooms will stay in the UK to generate more films and if the coalition government are serious about supporting entrepreneurs, so that they will build business and help dig the UK out of it’s debt mountain, then they should seriously think about this.

I would really love to know what other people think about this and see a dialogue develop, there is a real argument to be put here and something really needs to change somehow, so please share your thoughts.

DS

  1. Dylan

    This is not just an issue of industry and commerce, but one of cultural domination.

    I am not suggesting that it is in any way the Americans’ fault that people tend to vote with their feet and buy tickets to their films in overwhelming numbers, but that doesn’t mean it should be cause for concern.

    A quota needn’t be one stipulating that say UK films need to represent X% of the total. I think it would also be a valid approach to look into a rule whereby say no more than 50% of the commercial screenings in any cinema could be films originating from any one country. You would probably have to add that this applies to screenings during times when people normally go to movies (e.g., 4 to 11pm) in order to keep them from scheduling all the European films in odd hours to “beat the quota”.

    The Americans would scream bloody murder of course, and it would probably never see the light of day because Hollywood’s lobby is simply too powerful, but I don’t think that it would be an unreasonable rule — socially speaking. Not even getting into how it might benefit the production environment for non-US films, I think there’s a powerful case to be made for considering a relatively modest measure of this nature in order to promote diversity of content which is *actually* available to the public.

  2. Charles Wood

    The issue of distribution seems to me to be a matter of applying existing laws in the countries concerned. America actually has some very clear anti-monopoly laws of its own, so does the EEC and the UK itself. So why are these not being applied with vigour?

    The answer is probably that no one has any responsibility or funding to do that, to champion British product.

    I suspect it simply comes down to money, and dirty sales tactics. I know for a fact that local cinemas in our area MUST accept an agreement that is a block of films, including blocbusters they will make money from. To get these at all, they have to accept an agreement contractually that ensures the screens are in use all the time for that distribution operation. This is how the monopoly is impossed in practice.Thus no independant operation gets a look in.

    There have been other things going on, I have never been able to get to the root of what happened with digital screens: the arts council put a HUGE amount of money into this, and as far as I can find out they are entirely used to screen American films. Even in “independant” cinemas (such as the Duke of York in Brighton), the cost of use of their projector is pretty well the same as the cost of hiring the main cinema. Did they buy that projector, if it was subsidised, why is that not apparent to users and reflected in the hire cost.

    The obvious question is are our promotors of culture simply very, very stupid, or are they in the pay of these monopoly distributors? It looks to me as if both may be the case. perhaps someone should study and publich the FACTS about what is going on here?

    Who in this country has the funds to promote the interests of the independant film industry? Shooting people shouts a lot, and so do others, but where is their actual financial or practical clout? The obvious promoter should be the BBC and CH4, it is even in their brief…but the evidence of such promotion is damming of both organisations. Is it their lawyers who insisted on wide ranging multi funding agreements (so difficult to implement they are mostly going to fail!)…or is it just the standard employee situation of not wanting to take full responsibility of a failure of a particular film product? This then forcing the organisation to be ineffective. This has happened with journalism in the BBC and I suspect it is the root of their inability to channel major funds into British grown product.

    There was a very good documentary done about how excess American milk produce, channelled into “aid” was used in Jamaica to first flood and then kill completely the home grown produce. Jamaica was independant in milk production until this was done. Now it has no home milk industry, and American imports rule. Was it deliberate, probably, but no one really knows!

    The very same scenario is going (maybe has gone) on in the UK film industry…so the only independants getting any useful screening time…are American ones.

    As you say, with a closed, big self sufficient home market, what chance do independants like you have?

    None at the moment. Go and work in Tescos.

  3. Jon Williams

    Bombard the DCMS with the facts: Without quotas we have nothing but pointless handouts to make films which most people will not have the chance of ever seeing.

    To France, Germany and Spain you can add S. Korea which didn’t have a film industry until quotas made local investment worthwhile, Argentina, Brazil. Oh yes, you can also consider Mexico which, before 1992, produced over 100 features a year, thanks to quotas. But the US insisted they were scrapped under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Immediately Mexican production plummeted to single figures, and only began to recover when the government re-introduced a low-level 10% quota.

    Thatcher, as a present to Reagan, scrapped UK quotas in the 1980’s. Since then we’ve been vassals to the USA, with even US studio bosses and their legal and financial representatives being the dominant block on the UKFC.

    Quotas would be very simple to operate. All cinemas are licensed by the local authority – to whom they would be obliged to annually submit proof that they had conformed to quota requirements – say initially 10% of screening days.

    And, as in France, stricter quotas should be imposed with regards to films on public service television.

    Don’t forget, Hollywood uses its monopoly position to effectively impose a 95% US quota which doesn’t just keep foreign films and distributors out of ‘their’ market, but US independents as well. Still, at least you can release films there as ‘Unrated-18’, and thus avoid the farce of having to pay £thousands to the BBFC for theatrical and fully-loaded DVD rights when your film will be virtually unavailable to anyone under the age of 18.

  4. David Skynner

    Regarding the issue of digital screens, which as we all know was paid for by the Lottery with the intention of making cheaper distribution available for UK films. It was alleged to me that during roll-out, rather than making those receiving the equipment sign up to an agreement that would have locked them into using those projectors for indigenous films, there was a watering down of the wording so it suggested they would do their best, or some other such worthless language and of course the end result is that we have paid to install immensely expensive projectors in cinemas so that the standard fare can be screened at less expense and so generate greater profit for Hollywood. Perfect result!

  5. Only quotas can make British cinema great again

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