Lights, Camera, Action

Tony Curtis & Burt Lancaster in Scottish director Alexander Mackendrick’s classic film noir The Sweet Smell of Success

In case you missed it in The Scotsman last week we’re reprinting this perceptive essay on the challenges facing Scottish film-makers.


‘There’s only one casting call in Scotland for a paid acting job. And it’s for a dog.” The next time policy wonks develop another strategy for the Scottish film “industry” this Facebook comment from a friend would make for a good starting point.

My partner is a film-maker with international experience, and five years ago we started a small production company. I declare this not to present my credentials or to imply that we are “players”. Quite the opposite; my observations stem from my initial naïvety – film-making in Scotland is held together by enthusiasm in the face of the odds.

The film-makers training in Scottish universities largely expect to have to leave this country to find work. Those that stay will make their money out of high-volume cheap TV and some corporate work. If they’re under 30 they’ll very possibly have a second job.

Not that many are left after the age of 30. Actors make a living from corporate training gigs. If you want to make a film you generally accept that 
no-one will be paid properly – if at all. Make-up, costume, set design, grips, gaffers, sound recordists, cinematographers, editors; these are the workforce of a film industry. Few if any could survive in Scotland making only films. Many will never get close to high-quality drama.

Our film industry consists of a small number of independent film-makers working on 
low-budget movies and caterers providing tea and coffee to big productions which pop over for a couple of days. In commercial film-making, “low budget” means something like £2 million to £20m. Creative Scotland deals in the tens of thousands.

Having great film-makers and having a great film industry is not the same thing. We make a romantic comedy here, a horror movie there, the occasional great piece of arthouse cinema, all through the doggeddetermination of a small band of committed people. Without Ken Loach, the world would have forgotten we exist.

Scottish film-makers seem demoralised, and the real problem is Scotland’s economic development philosophy. At some point in the 1990s,
policy types shook off the 
post-industrial blues and decided that from now on everything in Scotland was going to be exciting, dynamic, world-beating. Everything took on the Rosy Hue of Unlimited Success. We are always just some marketing material short of inevitable world domination.

In this world, there are two kinds of new business; those that are only one basic factor away from utter brilliance and others that it’s not worth bothering with.

The end point of this delusion is the Scottish Enterprise strategy for 
high-growth start-ups; if you persuade them you’ll be worth £5m in five years they’ll help, not by investing or providing seed funding but by “developing your business plan” and “building your management and non-executive teams”. How could such a strategy possibly fail?

Meanwhile, over in Scandinavia they too were in the business of transformation. But they decided to be patient and saw their economy as a system of linked enterprises and institutions that could only grow if they grew up together. In this Nordic view, there was no point in a world-class bacon industry if you don’t produce any eggs. They put in place all-industry strategies from primary schools to corporate boards. Starting from an honest assessment of their state of development and free from the delusion of definite success, it worked.

In Scotland, we’re trying to skip over the “developing” bit straight to brilliance in the mistaken belief that one glorious failure can lead to five wonderful successes. In the real world, every success is predicated on lots and lots of mediocrity – Hollywood has a business model which assumes 75 per cent of its films will fail to make back their budget because it’s the only way to make the 25 per cent that does.

Meanwhile, Creative Scotland has created a pseudo science in which art is “content”, funding is “investment” and culture is “return”. Using this formula means no-one will ever make a bad film again as nervy middle managers are offered the illusory promise of inevitable success. Presumably the model would still work if no-one made films at all.

It’s nonsense, and it’s killing any chance of a Scottish film industry. No-one has a giant success every two years without a single dud. The most important first step towards making great films is to make films. The Equity Make it in Scotland campaign is an important step towards rescuing the industry we have, but we also need to take steps towards the film industry we want.

We need to build an environment where people working in the film industry can learn and grow up together over time. And before we can do that we need people working in film, not in Tesco. People have to be able to make a movie and survive to tell the tale. We need a critical mass of film-making.

Taking the cost out of 
film-making is much easier with developing technologies. Just build some industrial units in a couple of places away from too much noise and put in some kit – a couple of good digital cameras, some lighting, a room with a couple of decent computer and some software. Call them studios, put in a couple of technician-mentors and let people use them for nothing. Make location shooting easy and inexpensive. Back all this up with some modest grants to help cast
and crew get out of their 
shelf-stacking day jobs for a few months.

Then provide a showcase for these films. The ideal solution would be a Scottish digital channel commissioning perhaps 20 micro-budget feature films a year to be shown in a regular slot. A few will be great, a lot of them patchy, some utter rubbish. But that’s how the world works. At this stage for Scotland it is the learning that counts – while a couple of films might break through to gain wider exposure, the important thing is for the makers of all the rest to get a chance to understand why theirs didn’t. This time.

Offering free infrastructure with some new cheaper technologies and some fairly random bungs with no assumption of a great outcome never mind a business plan might cause an administrator to choke on his tea, but it is pretty close to how the French New Wave came to happen, a film movement that remains as powerful and influential today as it was 50 years ago.

It is a philosophy sometimes known as “provisioning”, providing elements necessary to the functioning of a society, community or industry sector where markets are not. It’s how we build roads.

Unfortunately policy-makers are still hung up on the idea of universal market discipline, a philosophy which just doesn’t work where markets are over-developed like the banking sector or under-developed like Scottish film. Getting to a viable market is the goal, not the solution.

Do we really want a film industry in Scotland? It creates a real buzz and creates lots of rewarding jobs. And the global impact of others seeing your nation on the big screen is enormous. This doesn’t have to be expensive; it would only take a few millions to get started. Or we could not bother. We could dump one more Scottish ambition into the pit signposted “didn’t tick sufficient administrative boxes”.

What we can’t continue with is the current approach – pretending there is an industry when there isn’t. This is simply sapping the life out of everyone. The hope of a real Scottish film industry lies in the hands of the next generation. It’s the kids. It’s always the kids. But they need to grow up with cameras in their hands, not business plans.

•  Robin McAlpine is director of the think tank, the Jimmy Reid Foundation.


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  1. George Gunn says:

    great piece. My involvment with the film makng world is that they live in a parallel universe where everything is just another development away. If the theatre operated like this not one production would be mounted. Great dinosaurs like Brave do not help.

  2. Alan Knight says:

    Well done Robin McAlpine, totally correct in your assessment of the joke that Creative Scotland is, and the previous pathetic Scottish Screen. These organisations exists to further their own agenda, to protect their own jobs, and have not a clue when it comes to film making. Money should be going into films – all kinds of films, rather than paying salaries to these numpties. Get rid of them, and make money available to seed and develop projects!

  3. MacNaughton says:

    Any arts funding agency with the word “creative” in its own self-appointed title should automatically lose the right to be an arts funding agency….

    All the corporate language of Creative Scotland would turn off anybody with a modicum of interest in the arts.

    The principle that all films ought to make money in the first two or three years of life is one of the biggest canards in film making. I think Robin’s 25% success rate for Hollywood movies is optimistic, I always heard more like 10%; and increasingly the studios are making money from everything but the movie itself. But Hollywood is no example, it is no model.

    Training, formation, long term thinking, international alliances, “film executives” who have actually made a film or written a screenplay or know what a call sheet looks like, and MONEY for both production and development will create a film business in Scotland where there is, I believe, about 3 million pounds for the whole industry – an absolute joke.

    In France, the number is 500 million Euros; in France, every time a ticket for any movie is bought, a percentage goes to the national film fund.

    In Catalonia, until the crisis kicked in, they were working on a budget between TV3 (the Catalan state TV which could co-produce and pre buy film rights) and the state subsidy of about 23 million Euros.

    And Robin MacAlpine is absolutely right to say that the situation is made worse by the stomach-turning whae’s like us attitude to film in Scotland, a taste of which can be found, in my opinion, at The National Library Exhibition Scotland At The Cinema. More veneer for an absolute absence, in country, which is supposed to have some cultural autonomy, but which can barely even finance a single film without going to London.

    The state of Scottish film dependency is a scandal and as Robin, says, film is Scotland’s most important window to the world.

  4. AJ says:

    You don’t need Creative Scotland or anybody else, public body or film financier to make a great film. What you need is the ability to tell stories through video and guile – this is how ALL great filmmakers come into view and this has absolutely nothing to do with the structure of public institutions, Scottish Independence ETC

    If YOU have the ability to do this – that is, have the exceptional ability to make a film that reaches into people, you will join the club of great filmmakers.The Bill Douglas Trilogy played in Paris for 17 connective years and is held in held esteem by all filmmakers worth they’re salt. So, nobody knows where Scotland is? Truth is this article and it’s comments are so parochial and inaccurate all that is demonstrated is ignorance.

    Scottish Film is not limited to the parochial explanation, Scottish Film is how we are represented by our diaspora as well- that is Brave and Highlander, Brigadoon – like it or not. To winge away is defeatist and this article is written by somebody that does not have the talent or ability to create – rather the talent here is to excuse failure.

    If you want independence you’ll have to up the game – I want independence and when I read this ill-informed nonsense I cringe.

    I say this as a successful Scottish Filmmaker who works internationally. Sort it out and grow up!

  5. AJ says:

    And for those that blah-blah about film rather than watching them, here’s and education

  6. MacNauighton says:

    A film industry, like any industry, is built on praxis. You will not develop a body of talented filmmakers in Scotland, a film industry, unless they are allowed to fail.

    The Great Masters became so because they were allowed to practice their craft, again and again and again. That is how talented people become good at what they do, by being able to do it over a long period of time, learning from their mistake.

    Film is peculiar because it is expensive, you can’t make a film like you can write a book or paint a picture or even put on a play. It takes sustained investment over a long period of time, but it pays dividends, because most people know little about other countries, except maybe a national dish, a book or a film. How much is Sean Connery worth to Scotland? Or Pedro Almodovar, or Antonio Banderas to Spain? A lot more than the national film budget in either country assigned by politicians who nobody will remember in five or even ten years…

    As for independence, there was no devolution in Scottish film, because BBC Scotland alone cannot greenlight a film. As somebody who has worked for 15 years in the film industry in Spain, I can assert you that this means there can be no feasible Scottish film industry.

    I would call on the new Scotland, the independent Scotland, to promote the French model of a national film fund, which puts a small percentage of every film ticket sold into a national film fund. That way, American blockbusters pay for a sustainable film industry, something without which Scotland is incomplete.

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