Tag Archives: Observatoire europeen de l’audiovisuel

Murder (and other dramas) in the cathedral

A couple of weeks ago at BBC Worldwide’s annual showcase in Liverpool that I attended for SBS,  drama was to the fore. The big programme  being promoted was Wolf Hall, the six-parter which became the biggest drama launch on BBC2 for years.

At Showcase, BBC Worldwide laid on a dinner in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. This is a dramatic setting in itself – the 5th biggest cathedral in the world, started in 1909 and only finished in 1978 but feeling hundreds of years old.  Tables laid out for 500 guests, lit by candlelight – in honour of the candlelight by which much of the series is shot. Even the butter for the meal was presented in the form of lit candles. Peter Kosminsky, the writer, Claire Foy playing Anne Boleyn and Jonathan Pryce playing Cardinal Wolsey strode through backlighting from the back of the altar. As an entrance, it definitely had the wow factor. BBC Worldwide puts an amazing amount into promoting its big drama titles – they have built in repeat business.  Mind you, there’s unlikely to be a Wolf Hall 2 as it’s based on a series of books by Hilary Mantel and they’ve now all been adapted into this series.

The other dramas in the BBC catalogue showed the range of British series. At the ‘real’ end was Cucumber & Banana, what Americans would probably call ‘Dramedies’, which have played on Channel 4 and which SBS launched this week around Mardi Gras. And from the same profilic production company Red Productions, Ordinary Lies, with Jason Manford & Max Beasley leading an ensemble cast in a used car showroom. Historical drama, beyond Wolf Hall, was also well represented: Da Vincis Demons, Musketeers, and the story of Botany Bay in Banished, written by Jimmy McGovern and commissioned by the new BBC channel in Australia BBC First.

This was how the BBC promoted all of its drama last  autumn, looking back at a ‘lifetime of original British drama’ – especially for all you who can’t get enough of Benedict Cumberbatch. All of human life was there:

 Channel 4 have also moved big time into the international drama market, with a head of international Simon Maxwell and a marquee drama Indian Summers

 I’m based in Denmark a country which has built its reputation for content on its drama. The public broadcaster DR has focussed production resources on producing primetime drama like Borgen, The Killing, and The Legacy – to the detriment perhaps of original factual series for TV. Italy is also making a big push into crime series for the international market.

And as well as making it, people are talking about it too, so the genre now has its own raft of gatherings and conferences. Though in much of Europe, people don’t use the words drama or fiction or their equivalents – it’s just ‘series’.  One at the end of January at the Institut Francais in London, called Totally Serialized brought together French and UK producers and writers. There’s an event open to the public at the beginning of July in Fontainebleau south of Paris called SeriesSeries, which is probably a French pun or reference to a retro pop song. And one of my very first blog posts here was about the Rome Fiction Festival in September last year – though I was there for the factual part of it. 

So from a creative point of view, all very healthy. There’s a recognition amongst government and funders that producing quality European drama is necessary to cement local audiences and the European production industry itself. The Observatoire de l’Audiovisuel’s recent trilingual report on Fiction on European TV channels notes that the proportion of TV schedules that are fiction of all sorts has remained at about 50%. And of that, non-European content in most of the fiction subgenres is over 50% – and most of that is from the US.

For most countries, the statistics on the origin of programmes show that little has changed over time. The differences between 2006 and 2013 with regard to the proportion of European works in programme schedules are generally less than 2.5%. If you want to buy the report, here’s a link  

Fiction on Euro TV channels

To attract  these productions, countries dangle tax breaks and film funds  to entice them to film in a particular area, and use local crew and facilities. Because drama brings the big bucks for a filmmaking economy of course – for US drama, the numbers of people involved, the producers and stars fees, the promotional costs, make the average cost several million an ep. Most of the time the funding  doesn’t detract from the authenticity of the story, though sometimes the money might be seen to get in the way. The new series of The Bridge, for example, will be more Danish, because of the creation of the Copenhagen Film Fund which has invested heavily and therefore demands much more of the filming to take place in Denmark. (the first 2 series were more of a 50/50 split between Denmark and Sweden, literally in terms of the first storyline). Coming to Nordic and other screens in late 2015.

I’ve never been involved in drama production, and would probably find the idea of working to a script each day, with every shot and sequence pre-planned and costed, very unusual. I still think that nothing beats the drama of real life, but then is it promotable?

Because in the end, the titles, the stars, the fantasy is what will draw people to the subscription-based TV models that we’re moving into – Netflix et al. Bingeing on 20 hours of whatever. Not authored singles, let alone documentary or entertainment. Perhaps as long as drama can continue to be supported by public channels and move between dramedy, factual historical drama, psychological thrillers and state of the nation pieces – there’s hope. Or am I being too optimistic?

Comments, questions, links, shares are – as always – all very welcome.

Money for nothing and your flicks for nearly free

Berlinale! BAFTAs! The Golden Globes! The Oscars! February seems to be the most concentrated period in the film calendar, especially the ‘award-winning film’ calendar. But how do all these star-laden and artistically challenging films get funded these days? And why do the plots often include scenes in unlikely countries? Step forward into the spotlight the unsung hero of the film business – the Fiscal Incentive.

In Europe, according to this new report from the Observatoire de l’Audiovisuel Europeene – (stargazers of a different kind) – there are 26 such incentives – eleven tax credits, nine rebates, and six tax shelters – spread across 17 countries. Half of them apply to TV production as well as cinema; three of the twenty-six also apply to funding video games. (Progress! Hooray!). The UK estimates that each £1 spent in the UK on film generates £12 in ‘Gross Value Added’.

praguefilm

If there are Trade or Culture ministers from some of the countries without such incentives reading this blog by the way, the report itself is yours to own  here if you have a spare €100. Which you probably do.

Each country is establishing these schemes for roughly the same reasons – to attract film production to their nation, give work to the production/facilities sector, and perhaps be sprinkled by some of that awards stardust. Sometimes cultural and artistic reasons to support film are also advanced, but that seems to be further and further down the small print these days.

In the last year alone, Lithuania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Netherlands, and Slovakia have all brought in schemes. Ireland’s new Section 481 scheme started last month. Expect to see one or more of these countries on the credits of a few medium-budget productions in the coming months.The report talks about how employment, heritage awareness, consumer interest, economic growth, exports, tourism and so-called national ‘soft power’ are all reasons for these instruments to be set up. It’s certainly not money for nothing (cue the Dire Straits video below) but it comes at a cost.

To the producer, these incentive schemes seem to be an essential part of film and TV financing without which the film simply wouldn’t be made. And taken for granted by the bigger US based studios – who give the impression of just following the money around Europe, Romania one day, then Prague, then Malta. Even within the USA, California is losing out as ‘Hollywood’ movies are now mostly shot elsewhere. The State of California announced a few months ago that it will triple its tax breaks for entertainment companies doing business in the state, the latest effort to stem a tide of runaway production that has cost it billions in revenue.

So in European countries with attractive incentives, a succession of big-budget productions roll into town, with the ‘financial instrument’ largely paying for the employment of the film professionals of that location. The report calls these ‘portable productions’ , and says:

In mature Western European production sectors in particular – such as the UK, France, and Ireland – there are significant numbers of international portable productions attracted to the market. In many cases, portable productions are sourced from the major US studios, which are important users of production incentives.

The money comes in from government and is spent locally. Britain now has a roaring trade in such movies.  Scenes for hundreds of millions’ worth of films are produced in Europe which might otherwise get made somewhere else. Everyone’s a winner, right? I’m not so sure.  If this is national funding, it surely needs to work for the country’s own industry, and questions need to be asked. Does it improve the talent base in a country to make it self-sustaining? Does it encourage (smaller) local producers to work at home, or go abroad? Does it enable a country’s creative community to produce the next Big Thing?

The Muppet Movie, contributing to the UK’s cultural landscape?

The answers are in the Observatory’s densely argued and data-rich study, and I don’t have the film business knowledge to be able to analyse their analysis. The report does say that the government may not particularly care about these issues over pure economic ones

almost all of the incentive structures provide a greater return to the government in tax revenues than they cost to operate, whilst also providing standard trickle-down benefits to the broader economy, also including in areas such as tourism and exports.

I dealt with many creative economy issues when I worked for the BBC on the development of the production sector outside London. How could we incentivise producers? What was the right balance between ‘big producers’ (usually from London) and local/regional ones?  Did the regional film & TV sectors gain at all from this strategy? They weren’t issues with simple answers, and the impact or results weren’t immediately apparent.

As with TV,  measuring the impact of such a film production strategy purely in financial terms may only tell half the story. Is such film funding just making studio popcorn movies easier to finance? Are we using the resources of crews and talent on cinema that has no particular cultural value?  Does it take money away from ‘true cinema’? Or is this all part of a healthy mixed ecology of film production.  Comments, info & links all welcome.