What Value the Quality of the Screenplay?

This BCre8ive blog looks at the importance of the screenplay in the debate about creating independent films, and why it is so often overlooked.  The example of independent cinema discussed is the UK, but the issues equally apply in the US, European cinema and all countries where there is no strong commercial base for making and distributing independent films.

The bfi have set up an enquiry to look at the problem of distribution and exhibition, where there is a distinct problem, but is it really looking at the wrong end of the film-making processes?  However, first let us look at the current position of independent(indie) film making in the UK.

The State of UK Independent film.

In 2016 the market share for UK independent films was only 7%, its lowest level in five years and below the ten year average. This 7% market share for local films compares to 63% in Japan, 36% in France, 28% in Italy, 18% in Spain and 16.5% in Germany.

At the same time the number of domestic films produced in the UK has declined from 282 in 2012 to only 129 in 2016 (based on non-final numbers). The total independent film spend being £206m, the lowest in three years. This includes a drop from 119 in 2015 to 55 in 2016 of films budgeted under £500,000, which formed 40% of UK Indie production. (Note: these numbers may be revised upwards over the next two years.) Of these films under 50% secured theatrical distribution according to latest available research.

These statistics obviously open the questions of why the UK share is so small compared to other countries, why the UK spend and number of productions is in decline and what is the future of low budget/micro films if they cannot achieve distribution.

Past Efforts

From the 1990’s to mid 2000’s the focus of UK public policy, and film investment, was on increasing the number of UK productions, and lead to the number of production companies, growing from 1,745 in 1996 to 5,276 in 2004. This approach was criticised in 2002 by Alan Parker, UK film director, then chair of UK Film Council, who argued for an industry with an emphasis on distribution, skills and infrastructure to build a sustainable global, UK-based film industry.

Since then, there  has been a shift in government policy to tax-incentives;  a reduction in government support for Indie productions; a massive expansion in studio-based inward investment e.g. Star Wars etc; calls to expand the technical skills base, the arrival of online distribution e.g. Amazon and Netflix and a substantial decline in UK production companies. The later highlighted recently by Deloitte Metric Report on the Creative Industries, which showed that of the 13 UK-based film production and distribution companies in the top 100 creative companies all were foreign owned or foreign subsidiaries.

In addition, nothing was ever undertaken to address the simple fact that UK indie producers, nor the rest of the creative team, ever saw financial returns from their successes of a scale to to re-invest in future productions. A factor now compounded by the one-stop distribution deals being offered by the major US online distributors.

Current Efforts

Alan Parker’s three changes appear to being addressed to some degree. The infrastructure of the industry has been massively improved with far more up to date studio spaces, the creation of world leading post-production houses, and the modernisation of the exhibition chains. In addition, the government recently announced a new Skills Investment Fund directed at maintaining and improving the production skills with the aim of spending £32m over the coming years.

Finally, the last of the three elements distribution is now to be addressed as part of the new bfi enquiry chaired by Zygi Kamasa, CEO of Lionsgate UK & Europe it involves 12 industry representatives, including two bfi staff. An enquiry heavily weighed, judging from the make-up pf the team, towards distribution and exhibition issues in the UK.

However, does this new approach really address one of the key factors undermining all the efforts to date?

“To make a great film you need three things, the script, the script, the script”  Alfred Hitchcock

Failures in Independent Development

It is an old adage that you cannot make a great film from from a bad screenplay, but you can make a bad film from a good one. However, despite major investment in development in the early 2000’s the UK  Indie sector has failed to deliver enough financially successful films to ensure its place at the international table. The question is why, if the screenplay is the foundation of successful film making?

The key factors appear to be

  1. Attitudes – these have been identified in previous BCre8ive blogs – 4 Phrases which limit creativity  and how do we make content development work
  2. Development Skills –  almost everyone in the film business has now read a book on screenwriting or attended a seminar by McKee, or similar gurus of screenwriting. Unfortunately, such ‘training’ does not equip anyone to develop a great screenplay or help in the art of development.  The mono-myth which dominates such ‘training’ only applies to a limited number of films, and is counter productive in many genres e.g. romances and horror. In addition, it fails to address the ‘soft skills’ vital to a creative team – see Creative Collaborations – starting out  and 10 Steps to Creative Collaboration
  3. The ‘Auteur’ still rules – despite decades of this theory of film creation being debunked, and the UK’s own experience, the convenience of giving money to a writer/director rather than creating a great collaboration between a screenwriter and a director still dominates most Indie film making.
  4. Development Finance – this has always been a problem for people working outside a studio system. Here is the simplistic answer – vast amounts of money which a company can afford to waste in order to develop the few projects it needs.  The smart answer is develop great creative teams, with enough time and money to develop  a few great projects.
  5. Effective Investment – creating great screenplays take time, if there is not the money this is the writer’s investment in R&D, as such it needs to be rewarded with meaningful shares in the Intellectual Property rights, as it does in science and engineering projects.

The Foundations of a New Indie Cinema

Only if all the parts of the film-making process are addressed will we see success in the future. Addressing only distribution or exhibition and ignoring development will inevitably spell failure.


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