The British Film and Television Industries - Communications Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 376-423)

Mr David Pope

22 APRIL 2009

  Q376  Chairman: Mr Pope, I gather you are going to stand.

  Mr Pope: If that is okay with you. I would appreciate that.

  Q377  Chairman: Fine. I do not think we have ever had anyone giving evidence standing up. Okay. Let us begin with you. Could you, perhaps, first of all, explain to us a little about your organisation?

  Mr Pope: Yes. Good morning, and thank you very much for the invitation. The New Producers' Alliance, the NPA, is an open access membership organisation for producers, directors and screenwriters, and a training provider. The organisation has been in existence since 1993, and I have been with them for three years. Our operations are split between membership services and training. Examples of membership services would be structured networking events in the industry, providing what we would call a project guide before major markets like Cannes and Berlin. A project guide means members who were attending would be able to submit details of their project and that would then be sent out to financiers, distributors and sales agents who were attending the market. In terms of training, we offer a broad collection of training around those job descriptions—producers, directors and screenwriters. We have very broad constituencies within our organisation because we have open access, so we have short filmmakers, we have a very large constituency of filmmakers who are moving from making short films into looking to make their first feature film, and then we have more established members who are making feature films.

  Q378  Chairman: Your work is concerned just with (I say —just"—it is a big industry) the film industry, not so much with television.

  Mr Pope: That is correct, yes. That is where our focus is—on producers, directors and screenwriters who are moving into the film industry, whether that is as a new entrant (certainly we do have some people who come to us who are looking to bring in skills because they are making a transition) or whether it is from producing television to looking to producing film, or it is people working in other job descriptions who are looking to move up.

  Q379  Chairman: Basically, therefore, you are concerned with what is, in effect, quite advanced training. Would that be fair?

  Mr Pope: I think, within the training landscape, our main priority is what we would call continued professional development. So we are not a film school; we are not dealing with people who are new entrants looking to enter the industry for the first time, but we are providing a set of training and skills development which we try to keep in line with developments that are happening within the industry.

  Q380  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: Good morning, Mr Pope. I want to ask you about how the NPA is funded. We know that you work with DCMS, the Film Council, regional screen agencies and others. What other sources of funding do you have?

  Mr Pope: Our funding breaks down, roughly, into three areas: membership fees (because we are a membership organisation); our second major revenue stream is training (we charge for the training; it is not free, but you pay significantly less if you are a member of the organisation than if you are not), and then we receive some sponsorship. The only organisation out of that list that we receive any funding from is the UK Film Council, and we receive a sponsorship amount from them.

  Q381  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: The UK Film Council revenue is the most reliable, is it?

  Mr Pope: In what respect?

  Q382  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: Presumably, you have sources of funding where you cannot predict what it is going to produce.

  Mr Pope: Absolutely. Training and membership are subject to market forces. We have some other, smaller sponsorship deals which tend to be with service providers who seek to sponsor the organisation, but it is very small amounts.

  Q383  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: What about forward planning?

  Mr Pope: It is an ongoing concern. We are constantly looking for new revenue streams. The current revenue stream which is, I guess, most to the fore is looking to investigate ways of putting our training and information services on line. We are quite an old-fashioned organisation in the current landscape of film membership organisations. When the organisation started, which is not actually that long ago, the internet was practically non-existent, and now there is a huge amount of possibilities for filmmakers to exchange information on line. We are very good at the physical presence; we are very London-centric, and we are constantly trying to address that; we want to do more work in the regions, and more work internationally, and we see the possibilities of online training and online provision of the information that we gather to be a good move forward. Hopefully, that will extend into a bigger revenue stream.

  Q384  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: You do, obviously, have a website?

  Mr Pope: Yes, absolutely. We need to work on the website to be able to bring these services in.

  Q385  Bishop of Manchester: I am trying to make some sense of the figures from the UK Film Council on film production expenditure. These are the figures from 1992 to 2008. It does look, particularly last year, that in terms of co-productions there was a pretty significant drop, but even overall, if we look back over this quite long period of the 1990s and through into this decade, it does suggest to me that the film production expenditure and employment figures are probably stagnating at the moment, and I wonder if that is your estimation of the situation. If it is your estimation, have you got any suggestions about how things might be improved?

  Mr Pope: I think co-production is a particular issue because the figures you have will reflect there has been a steep decline in the recent years. I think that is a particular subject, and if you are going to come on to talk about the tax credit, that kind of links in with that.

  Q386  Bishop of Manchester: That is coming up.

  Mr Pope: The UK film industry is the sort of industry where it depends who you ask. Obviously, in the public domain there are success stories. We continue to produce a good amount of film and we continue to maintain the market share. There are challenges to the industry, and if that is what you would like me to speak about then I am happy to do that. Obviously, the recession affects all industries. In the case of the UK film industry the contribution to the financing of films the banks were making has, for all intents and purposes, gone. This is essentially gap funding, which is very much money coming in late in the financing stages and is required to be given back early in the recoupment process, and so that last 20 per cent of the budget has gone. I do not think it is going to be seeing the effects of that for a while because I am sure you are aware of how long the projects take to put together, and how long films take to evolve and come to fruition.

  Q387  Chairman: How long would you say that was? Is there an average?

  Mr Pope: I would say two years. Let us say a year for a decent draft of a script to be ready to go into financiers, three months in production and post-production. So a minimum of two years for a project.

  Q388  Chairman: Many take much longer than that.

  Mr Pope: Yes, yes, definitely, and some very well-known projects—very famous films in the public domain—have had very long development processes. Linked in with that, in terms of the current economic climate, all businesses have got cash flow issues. If your product has that kind of development time and you are looking to get a return on that, obviously, cash flow in your company is a significant issue. So it is not news to anybody, and it is affecting all industries, but those are two quite significant things. One is bank funding of films which, obviously, has taken a hit.

  Q389  Bishop of Manchester: Presumably, if this goes on for too long there will be very serious implications in terms of the creative resourcing for the film industry because people will not want to come into it if they feel there is no future.

  Mr Pope: I would agree with that. Also, you will have migration of talent and skills from the industry.

  Q390  Bishop of Manchester: Has that already started?

  Mr Pope: I do not think it has started yet. I think that there are some issues that need to be resolved, and obviously that is a big macro-economic set of issues. The second issue is that there are going to be cuts in public funding to the UK Film Council and the film sector, so as my membership apply for funding from the production funds of the UK Film Council and to the regional screen agency production funds, that is of concern to my membership. In terms of just going on to the co-production issue, the NPA membership has been hugely in support of the tax credit. Is it appropriate to move on to that?

  Q391  Chairman: We will come on to the tax credit. You speak, really, with two hats; you also have your own production company, Advance. How do you see it from that point of view? How do you see the economic position at the moment for films?

  Mr Pope: Currently, the film projects that we have in development are—all of them except for one—to be produced in the UK. So they are being written here to be shot and post-produced in the UK. So there is a certain set of economic incentives there.

  Q392  Chairman: The exchange rate, presumably, helps, does it, a bit?

  Mr Pope: The exchange rate helps for inward investment. I think that is something that is very important, and the exchange rate changing is obviously more attractive to the American companies to come and shoot here, and that is very important for sustaining our workforce and our industry. One project is written to be shot in the United States, and that has a slightly different economic structure.

  Q393  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Just thinking about your membership, presumably there is a significant number of your members, or possibly the majority, who are making small, low-budget films, some of which do not get captured by the kind of official statistics about what the film industry in this country is producing. Can you talk a bit about those people who are either making very cheap films because that is what they want to do, or because that is all the finance they can secure and they are just starting up, or whatever? Who are they? What proportion of your membership do they represent? What kind of contribution is that level of filmmaking, in your view, making both economically and culturally to the film industry as a whole?

  Mr Pope: Yes, we have a large constituency of those filmmakers, and thank you for recognising that. I think low-budget filmmaking—its definition and its place in the film industry—has changed in recent years, to the extent that there are public bodies that have low-budget film schemes. So Film London has a micro-budget scheme where they are shooting films for around £100,000. One of those films has just been released in the cinemas (it is called Shifty and it is on all the posters), and the NPA, because we have a constituency of filmmakers that work in low-budget independent feature filmmaking, are very happy to see that. So we have a large constituency of our members engaged in that area. Budgets have been shrinking; any producer that comes in will tell you, even from their experience that budgets have been shrinking. I think that there is a recognition in terms of talent development whereby it used to be that you made short films, or you worked in television, and then you would go and do a feature. Now there is this middle ground where micro-budgets are seen as an effective training ground to bridge that gap between short films and bigger budget films. I think changes in technology in the last 10 to 20 years—in the main, access to production and now distribution—have changed the landscape.

  Q394  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Can I just interrupt you there for a minute? Is there a parallel in the film industry with what has happened in the music industry, where independent music producers and creators of content have actually bypassed the traditional distribution mechanisms and gone, for example, straight on to the internet, and allowed their work to be seen that way? Is there a parallel group of filmmakers who are doing something like that, and making their work accessible that way?

  Mr Pope: Absolutely.

  Q395  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Is that work giving rise, then, to those people becoming more conventional filmmakers of the kind that we are used to hearing about, or are they a separate group?

  Mr Pope: I would say it is early stages for what we would term —DIY distribution". Some areas of the industry would not really recognise it. It used to be that self-distribution was a bit like self-publishing; it was that nobody else would distribute it so you had to do it yourself, instead of it actually being an economic model whereby you look to recoup as much as possible from your endeavours. Obviously, the internet has changed everything, in terms of that. Lessons from the music industry: I think people should look at that model of what has happened to the music industry very carefully, but it is another way of distributing content. Theatrical is there, theatrical is not going to go away; any of my filmmakers would want their film in the cinema in some shape or form, whether it is a very broad release or if it is geared more towards a marketing exercise for the launch of a DVD or the content going on line. However, there are very entrepreneurial filmmakers out there who are looking to investigate ways of using the internet, because the internet is a global market. Obviously, there are huge concerns about rights and piracy and those issues, but from an economic point of view you can reach very large audiences.

  Lord Maxton: Leading on from that, one of the problems that your members must have is that, in a sense, we are all now film producers on the internet; we can all make films for Facebook and YouTube, and all these other things.

  Chairman: Facebook, you say? You and the Prime Minister.

  Q396  Lord Maxton: Do you find that difficult? Are your members finding now that people can watch almost what they want to watch and it does not have to be produced commercially, in a commercial way?

  Mr Pope: A lot of the arts and cultural endeavours are facing the same issue: music, journalism—it is affecting a lot of different industries. My personal opinion is that quality will out and there is a certain amount of types of material that people will watch for a certain time, but then captivating stories, well-told, will engage people.

  Q397  Lord Maxton: I agree it is not necessarily in the creative area, but if you take the news area, some of the best news video that has been around—the landing of the 'plane on the Hudson River, the car on fire driving into Glasgow Airport—has all been delivered not by professionals but by amateurs on a 'phone.

  Mr Pope: In answer to your question, our organisation's responsibility in that area, I see, is to present people with opportunities and current trends and things that are changing, and get our filmmakers to think about whether that applies to the stories that they are trying to tell. If your story is a period drama, you are going to adopt a certain model of production, you are going to be reaching a certain audience, and you are going to look to distribute it in a certain way as well. If you are making a film that is all shot in three rooms and it is an urban environment, modern day, your production model may change; your audience may be different, your audience may be viewing content in different ways and you may not want to put so much of your emphasis on to a theatrical distribution because you know that your audience is going now to buy it on DVD, or download it. We encourage our filmmakers to look at the story, think about the audience, adjust their budget accordingly and then look at how they want to distribute it after that.

  Q398  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: Can you tell us, Mr Pope, about First Light and your own involvement in it?

  Mr Pope: First Light is one of the huge success stories for the UK film industry and the future of the UK film industry. My engagement with First Light has been not extensive. I was actually privileged to be asked to come in and be what they call an industry mentor, which means that organisations apply for funds to make films with children and young people, and then First Light attaches people from the industry to the organisation to provide advice to them on a broad range of issues—so accessing crew and equipment, and production logistical issues like permits. I basically worked with, I think, three schools and a production company on different projects, depending upon the experience of those providers. In the schools there was a lot more for me to do but in the production company there was not as much for me to do because they were experienced filmmakers within their own right. I could go on for a long time about how important I think it is because it is, basically, building future generations of filmmakers.

  Q399  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: You say they apply for funds from the UK Film Council.

  Mr Pope: From First Light.

  Q400  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: Where does First Light get its resources from?

  Mr Pope: I could not speak for First Light but I believe its funding is from the UK Film Council.

  Q401  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: To what extent? Do you know?

  Mr Pope: I would not know, but I think it is an initiative that is generated by the UK Film Council.

  Q402  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: Was it a direct initiative of the UK Film Council?

  Mr Pope: I believe so.

  Q403  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: In what way do you think the UK Film Council could further extend remits, just as First Light has done and brought many more young people in?

  Mr Pope: I would say, in light of future cuts, keeping First Light properly funded and going would be important in that area. Obviously, I have no idea how the UK Film Council is going to deal with the cuts that are coming up. I would not want to be in a position to prioritise different things, but in answer to the question I think it is a really vital service to the future of the industry.

  Q404  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: Could you just give us some scale of some of the films that have been made and, maybe, where—other than the internet—they have ended up being distributed? For First Light.

  Mr Pope: When I was there I was asked by the schools about possibilities as to where it should go, and there are actually children's film festivals. I believe that they tried to get a digital television channel to screen films. They have a big awards ceremony in London. Apart from that, I could not speak for distribution channels for the films. A lot of it goes on line, and when you look at the generation that it is targeting in terms of becoming filmmakers then online is the distribution route.

  Q405  Lord MacDonald of Tradeston: How many fee-paying members do you have in your organisation?

  Mr Pope: It is around 900.

  Q406  Lord MacDonald of Tradeston: You have mentioned earlier the tax credit scheme. How have the changes impacted on your members compared to the previous regime?

  Mr Pope: The current scheme, we believe, works very well, principally, in terms of the rate at which the money comes back, the fact that you can apply for an interim payment, it is transparent and now that the tax credit can be cash-flowed because the money is coming from a reliable source. That is something that has evolved over the last couple of years. To my knowledge, I have no members who were caught by the very fast transition that happened (if that answers the question). We have members who are looking to co-produce, and we also have other producers, who are not necessarily members but who we are constantly in contact with, who co-produce, and I would say that the issue with the tax credit is that for films being shot in the UK and for inward investment it has worked incredibly well, and in terms of emerging producers and clarity in being able to access those funds, it has worked extremely well. If you work in co-production the figures fairly reflect the downturn, and you have probably heard this argument, I would think.

  Q407  Lord MacDonald of Tradeston: Are there any particular changes that you would be looking for that would help the low-budget films, in particular?

  Mr Pope: Low-budget films, in particular. Maintaining funds that exist would be good, whether it is national funds or funds at the regional screen agencies. When we are talking about low-budget filmmaking I think it is really important to consider short films as well, because training and skills development, obviously, is very important. A certain type of training stops at a certain point, and then you make a short film and then you make your feature. If you do not get to make those short films it makes it more difficult to make a feature. So it would be a problem with the advancement of talent. Short films are not, for the most part, made as an economic commodity; they are made as an expression of talent and to show that you can move forward into feature filmmaking. So they are very reliant on public money. That would be my main concern, at the moment, if there are any cuts in funding to production funds, but to remember about short filmmaking as well, because it is a significant stage in the advancement of talent.

  Q408  Lord MacDonald of Tradeston: As you know, in the new regime there is a cultural test there. There was a time when low-budget films and art films were part, really, of a cultural insurgency of people who were challenging the established broadcasters and the commercialism of the feature film industry. Is that one of the main purposes of your organisation? Or is it simply a development stage into the commercial cinema?

  Mr Pope: A development stage, I think, is an appropriate way of looking at it. However, we would not say: —Do you make commercial films or do you make art house films? Therefore we can offer you advice"; we would go back to that triangle of —What is the story?"; —Who is your audience?", and —Make a budget". So whether someone comes to us with a high-budget, action film that they want to shoot out of the country with a very high budget, or they come back to us with what they would term an art house film, for which there is an audience, for us the issue is: if you want to make an art house film, who is the audience, what can you look to get back; therefore, adjust your budget and then you can reassure your financiers that the budget reflects the audience. So that would be the same advice, whatever the story. That mechanism would be the same advice, whatever the story was.

  Q409  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: When you say —we" how many of you are there providing the training?

  Mr Pope: The structure of the organisation: there is myself and I have three members of staff, two of which are part-time. So I have an administrator and a sponsorship and funding officer. We do not have full-time trainers; we recruit trainers from the industry. So all of our trainers are practitioners and we believe very strongly that our trainers should come from the industry, so their knowledge is current.

  Q410  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: It depends on demand how many training schemes you have going?

  Mr Pope: Yes, effectively. We create new training schemes as new challenges come or as we see that there will be a potential in the market for them. We have a roster of trainers that provide those services. Were we to be presented with a subject that we felt we would have to go and look for new trainers then we would do that; we would find people with very specific knowledge and skill sets to deliver that training. So, obviously, changes in technologies and media mean that there are certain areas where we are looking for other areas of expertise to come in and inform that. In terms of the more traditional structuring of feature films from development to distribution, we have a set of tutors who can come and deliver that who are active producers. They are on a freelance basis.

  Q411  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: I may be slightly repeating Lord MacDonald's question, but what type of person comes to you for training? Is it individuals?

  Mr Pope: Yes, it is individuals, although individuals in the film industry are production companies. We sometimes have partnerships coming to us, we may have a writer and a producer who are coming together for some of the training, but in answer to your question it is the individual who is running that production company that comes to us for training.

  Q412  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: In a more general sense, how do you assess the current availability of training in your industry—outside of what you are providing?

  Mr Pope: I think it is very good, and I think, certainly since I started, it has completely changed. We are hugely in favour of a national strategy for Skillset to be put in place; it is from every angle of the industry, for every age group.

  Q413  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Can you expand a bit on what you refer to as the national strategy?

  Mr Pope: The fact that some film schools have been looked at and designated as recognised centres of excellence. (I am not sure that is the phrase that would be used). So that is one aspect. Continued professional development is seen as a significant training strand, so that people who are already in the industry may require more skills and knowledge. That is very important, and it is very clear. Skillset liaises with the industry very well; so they listen to what the industry is looking for, in terms of skills.

  Q414  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: In this time of recession, who is funding all this training that you are referring to?

  Mr Pope: It would very much depend upon the training provider. Film schools charge fees; some film schools, I believe, would get funding from Skillset. A training provider like us, the way that we would gain money from that fund, would be in two ways: one is that when it is announced that there are certain priorities that are being looked at in terms of continued professional development, we may put in a bid if it suits the type of training that we provide. We have only done that once and the training is actually running this week—a five-day training programme for producers from groups that are under-represented in the workforce, which is running as part of the East End Film Festival. Another way that money would come to us is that there is a funding scheme to provide grants to individuals, so some of the people who are more experienced—because you have to have a level of experience to access those funds—would have their fees paid for through that. As an economic consideration, that still contributes to the revenue stream. I can only speak for our organisation, really.

  Q415  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: We are going to see Skillset.

  Mr Pope: Okay.

  Q416  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Just one final question: do you think there is enough training for entrepreneurial skills—not just the creative skills—for making films and succeeding in the film business? Or is that not something you know about?

  Mr Pope: The film industry is art and commerce and you have to view the two in equal balance if you are to succeed in any way. Do I think business training is important for producers? Absolutely. We provide it in certain ways, yes, and I know it is a priority that everyone looks at and keeps going. For example, one of the things that we do is get our producers to interact in various ways with other professionals that they would be working with on products—so lawyers and accountants constantly sit on panels that we would present as members from the industry.

  Q417  Lord Maxton: I am slightly concerned, first, before we move to distribution. Can you give us some idea of exactly what your revenue stream is, over a year?

  Mr Pope: £120,000.

  Q418  Lord Maxton: Out of that you have to pay—?

  Mr Pope: We have to pay our staff, our overheads, which is a small office, and the running of that office. We do not have any training facilities; we use a variety of models for that and sometimes we have sponsorship venues. For example, every month we do a producing panel which is on a different topic of production, from producing, from development to distribution, and the BFI host that on the South Bank. For other training we would hire training spaces. Yes, out of that sum there is staff, trainers and overheads. We are a very small operation.

  Q419  Lord Maxton: Can I turn to the distribution of film in this country. Is it a constraint on the way in which your members can make money?

  Mr Pope: Are you talking about theatrical distribution?

  Q420  Lord Maxton: The current arrangements for film distribution. Who controls it, in particular?

  Mr Pope: There are different ways of distributing. Our primary advice to a producer is that if you are going to be working in theatrical distribution then work with a reputable sales agent, because a sales agent's job is to sell the film on behalf of the producer, especially if your intention is to sell internationally. Are producers, in general, the people who benefit the most from a distribution of a film? I think you have to be careful of the deals you do right at the very beginning.

  Q421  Lord Maxton: In the film industry itself, the actual cinema industry rather than television or anything else, it is getting into that distribution system, is it not, that is difficult?

  Mr Pope: Getting into exhibition spaces is as much of an interaction between the distributors and the exhibitors as it is between the sales agents and the distributors as it is between the producers and the sales agents. So there is a chain there. Cinema audiences are consistently good. In the UK there are great hopes that digital projection will help broaden the variety of material that is in the cinemas. I think that probably best addresses what you are asking rather than individual deals between distributors and sales agents and producers. There is a hope that digital projection will help prioritise certain content on certain days and certain times when certain audiences are going to be there to see it. How that works out is still early days. There is a possibility that it will help broaden the variety of content that is available. That is important—that the cinemas are not dominated by large-budget films with large marketing budgets.

  Q422  Lord Maxton: They are dominated by one or two big companies who own most of the cinemas. They, at the end of the day, decide what films are going to be shown.

  Mr Pope: There are some independent cinemas, and I think it is as important that they get the funding to get the digital projection systems in as the big cinemas. I think that is important for the cinema-going public.

  Q423  Chairman: These are all issues that we need to take on. In the meantime, we are all, I suppose, rather uneasily aware that in 10 minutes' time we are going to be listening to a Budget which might have an impact upon us all. Virtually everything we have just said over the last two hours may be totally irrelevant—but we will see. Thank you very, very much indeed for coming. We are very grateful for the way you have given your evidence; it is unique in our experience to have someone standing up for that length of time, but thank you for that. Perhaps if we have got any other questions we can come back to you.

  Mr Pope: I appreciate the invitation, thank you.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

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