No More Lies
Grant McPhee explores the extraordinary claims made about the financial benefits to the city blockbuster films being made in Glasgow. What does this reveal about the strategy and transparency of the people behind this, and what impact this has on Scotland’s semi-mythical ‘film industry’.
Over the last few months a bonanza of headlines appeared declaring that Hollywood was coming to Glasgow (again) and that the Scottish Film Industry had been saved (yet again). The difference this time was that Glasgow City Council were now claiming that £42,000,000 had been generated towards the city’s economy from the previous years filmmaking endeavours. In order to keep this huge influx of cash coming they had decided to give Warner Bros £150,000 to shoot an entire Batman Universe movie in the city. This £150K was referred to as an ‘incentive’.
’Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council, said:
“While it’s great fun for a lot of people to see film and broadcast productions in Glasgow, this is very much an economic story – production of this size brings millions of pounds to the city’s economy.’
I was fairly sceptical that millions of pounds would be brought into the city’s economy. Aside from having worked on similar sized Hollywood films that had travelled through Glasgow, and being painfully aware that very few local crew, cast, equipment or amenities were used, I also remembered a Freedom of Information request by The Ferret. This disclosed information revealed that Glasgow City Council had only made £35,000 from filmmaking during 2013-2017.
Surely then there was a mistake here? Where did these millions come from? From speaking to colleagues who had worked on some of these latest films I knew that only a small number of Glasgow based crew had been used for the Hollywood productions, which included movies such as Indy5. The vast, vast majority of local crew used for these were ‘extra labour’. Additionally, I was also told by a Glasgow based camera equipment rental company that they had only made £45 from one of these films.
How then could these films possibly have suddenly generated such a vast figure for Glasgow’s economy? It just seemed implausible. Even if stretching possibilities to absurd conclusions I could not seem to square this circle. If these films had been released and all cinema ticket sales revenue from Scotland went directly into Glasgow’s economy it would still be a far cry from that £42m figure. Something did not feel right and in true Hollywood fashion there was indeed a twist. One with a big sting in its tail.
I sent a Freedom of Information request to Glasgow City Council to try and understand more about what was being conveyed by these figures. What I really wanted to know was how they were calculated and on what basis. Upon receiving the request I was surprised to discover that GCC had not actually commissioned any reports, or had indeed done any research themselves to demonstrate that millions of pounds had been brought into Glasgow’s economy from Hollywood filmmaking.
In fact, the only information they had which had any link to millions of pounds from filmmaking was two columns on a simple spreadsheet – one column had a date and the other with a large figure next to it that said ‘millions’.
This is what they sent me:
‘2017 – £15.1m’
‘2018 – £19.1m’
‘2019 – £12.2m’
That was it, this seemed the extent of their evidence to suggest that millions of pounds was being brought into Glasgow’s economy from filmmaking and to which they would later use as justification for effectively giving a huge multi-national film studio an extra £150K.
I was advised to speak to the Glasgow Film Office, who are the organisation responsible for providing GCC with these figures. I wanted to know on what basis these millions were calculated and importantly, what was included in them to make them seem so large. GFO were accommodating and incredibly helpful when dealing with my request. I should make it clear that they report their figures in precisely the same manner as any film office throughout the UK is tasked to do. They do an exceptionally good job in making Glasgow a ‘Film City’.
However, upon receiving the GFO response to how these figures are broken down, I quickly began to conclude that Glasgow City Council either did not fully understand what the numbers they received fully meant and/or they did not feel the need to enquire further. This was surprising as I certainly didn’t fully understand them initially myself and my immediate response to this was to enquire further with GFO.
I was somewhat surprised to learn that these yearly totals – the ‘millions’ which sat next to a yearly column- were a combination of multiple complex and varied calculations, not what initially seemed like a simple ‘income’. These calculations are officially referred to as ‘Spend’, a term used almost specifically within the film industry to refer to production costs. ‘Spend’, in this context has a slightly different meaning to someone popping into their local shops and spending their hard-earned money on food. The seeming disparity between the giant figures of £42m which had been reported by GCC as money ‘generated’ for Glasgow’s economy and the reality was now becoming wide and clear.
What is the difference then?
Within the film industry, each production is allocated a budget by its funder(s).
This budget is what they use to pay for the very expensive essentials such as cast, crew, camera/lighting equipment, costumes, VFX, post-production, accommodation, locations, travel etc. Essentially everything that is required to make a film needs to be paid for, as one would assume and the totals for these costs are what is referred to as ‘Spend’. The figures that Glasgow Film Office supply to Glasgow City Council are the combined ‘Spend’ for each production which shoots in Glasgow.
You’ve probably already worked out that what these figures really mean – i.e. what they mean to most people- and that is simply the total amount of money a film production ‘spends’ on itself. The grand sounding ‘£19m’ figure for 2018 is actually the total production costs for all film and TV shooting in Glasgow during 2018 to which they spent on themselves while they do so.
To be fair, this is how almost all filming areas throughout the UK – and the world – record their expenditure. It can actually work very well if properly facilitated and this is why Governments around the world offer huge tax incentives to film productions. The theory should be similar to going on holiday with your family and paying for hotels, meals and gifts which then go into your holiday destination’s economy. While these film productions were not directly paying Glasgow City Council £42m, in theory local cast and crew wages were being paid and local equipment was being hired. I did say there was a sting in the tail however, which is where the earlier qualifiers of ‘if properly facilitated’ and ‘in theory’ come to bite us.
The vast majority of the Hollywood films that make up this huge Glasgow ‘Spend’ figure of £42m were not using local cast, crew, equipment, facilities or costumes beyond a few hired ‘extra hands’ so the spend was not going to where it should. Additionally, unless they were receiving direct funding from Glasgow City Council, films were not even required to submit any cost reports relating to their production ‘spent’ in the city. And why would anyone chose to disclose confidential financial details if they do not have to?
When a film does not submit any records of their spending costs, a Creative England estimate is used instead. This calculation estimates that major feature films spend around £750K-£1m per day. As we have seen, as the majority of a productions spend is for cast, crew, equipment, costumes and post-production it demonstrates why ‘spends’ in millions occur.
A further headache resides in determining the ‘spend’ to Glasgow based crew or equipment rental companies for productions required to file cost reports. It can sometimes become, let’s say ‘complicated’ for one of these productions to break down costs throughout different filming locations when it is far easier to hire from a single source.
I asked the Glasgow Film Office if there was anyone to accurately audit these reports to determine what is attributed to ‘local’ and what was not. I was told they were simply accepted on honesty and not scrutinised to that level. As I have previously mentioned, one local camera equipment hire company told me that they only received £45 from one of these huge features included in the £42m total.
Let’s turn back to that £150K incentive.
My FOI request provided me with the minutes from the meetings Glasgow City Council had to discuss ‘signing off’ the Warner filming incentive.
In their accompanying report it was clearly stated that ‘The Warner Bros production will employ local crew and talent where possible, so by it being based in Glasgow, not only will hundreds of jobs be created (between 250 to 350 crew employed daily, with some days reaching 1000) (…) (and) providing opportunities for Glasgow residents and production companies is a condition of the grant’.
As expected and as can be evidenced from the final credits list, the majority of the principal shooting crew were from London. And as can be seen throughout social media, local business was badly affected.
It appears that Glasgow City Council failed to understand what ‘Spend’ actually entails in relation to the film industry and do not appear to have upheld many of the conditions of ‘incentive’. How then could this have been allowed to happen?
It could be that the Glasgow City Council Warner Inventive report and meeting minutes hold the key:
‘Central to this is the close relationship the Council has with Scottish Government and Screen Scotland’.
Screen Scotland was set up to be Scotland’s Screen Agency, initiated by the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland to be ‘the dedicated partnership for screen in Scotland, delivering enhanced support for all aspects of Scotland’s screen sector’. They are funded by and ultimately responsible to the Scottish Government.
My feeling is that Screen Scotland do not currently have the experience required to guide at the level required by our industry. It was set up by people experienced in small television productions and, unsurprisingly it seems to operate for small television productions. The dual leadership currently consists of a public spokesperson who has trouble with detail and another who has no real experience of drama, far less the requirements of Hollywood level productions. Their expertise lies in these small, often parochial documentaries designed for local television such as the ill fated BBC Scotland channel. This is a problem that has clearly already caused Scotland’s film industry significant issues.
As I write, I am looking at a ‘Crew Unit List’ for the Warner Production that the incentive was given for. Screen Scotland’s Isabel Davis was recently interviewed by BBC Scotland regarding concerns that had been raised due to claims that the limited amount of local crew being used on it. In her interview she was quoted as stating the production employed “people predominately from Scotland, some are from the south, but most are based in Scotland”.
While ‘predominately’ does not refer to any specific figure the Oxford Dictionary definition defines it as ‘mainly; for the most part’. The content of her quote does not bear the scrutiny of the reality of the final credit list. It is sadly a story which is repeated again and again within Scotland’s Film Industry despite the assurances of change brought in when Screen Scotland was introduced.
The appointments of the two most senior Screen Scotland staff who are inexperienced within their positions leads to a level of insecurity within the institution. If the organisation is insecure they will make weak choices, such as not pushing for greater authority over GCC and SG’s decision making regarding the Film Industry. In this instance, the evidence seems to suggest that nobody seems to have pushed for the incentive requirement of using local crew, equipment or production companies. We effectively have nobody in control of our agencies when we absolutely require strong decision making.
In addition to entry-level schemes, if local crew on a higher rung on the industry ladder (such as 1st AD’s, Camera Operators, Sound Recordists) are being overlooked – which they clearly are – we either need more pressure applied to ensure they are being employed or we need to offer specialist training. The crewing for productions being provided with public money should be open to tender, much like it has been with the entry level schemes being advertised on social media.
When Outlander came to Scotland, who operated without involvement from Screen Scotland’s predecessor they ensured that a huge, huge majority of Scottish-based crew would be used within all positions, not just the usual expected entry level positions. This bold move of self-belief in the industry cemented a UK wide belief that Scotland could work at the highest levels of High-End TV. This sector of the Industry is of course booming and it is absolutely to Outlander’s credit that this happened. It is what is required at this next level of film production, the huge Hollywood movies that are now choosing to film in Glasgow.
To rectify this we immediately need more experienced staff at Screen Scotland with experience of productions of this size to take control, to ease pressure from Government funders and to offer strong and clear guidance and advice to local councils offering public money. Any incentive stipulations must include assurances that local crews will be used. This is not asking for too much; this currently occurs in almost every other country or region.
It is acknowledged that it is incredibly attractive for visiting Hollywood level productions to see that Scotland can contribute financially. Unfortunately, while £150K would be a hugely important contribution towards a home-grown production, it is a paltry sum in relation to a film with a budget of over $100m. In many ways it is naive that anyone responsible for suggesting this incentive believed it would be a make or break moment to a system that benefits almost entirely from Film Tax Relief. This is a huge concern and brings into a hard light Screen Scotland’s background of small, local television productions. This is a terrible look on a worldwide stage. Either Screen Scotland were working with Glasgow City Council on this proposal and they allowed GCC to misconstrue much of the detail, or Screen Scotland were not involved which brings into question their purpose as the Government controlled Screen Agency.
It is understood that a senior member of Screen Scotland staff responsible for liaising with Warner and Glasgow City Council went on to be employed by Warner themselves in a senior production role. It has been suggested that Screen Scotland gave them a leave of absence to take up this position despite already being a full time, salaried Screen Scotland employee . Coincidently, since this was made public only a few days ago their entire presence on the Screen Scotland website has vanished.
As it has been revealed that Warner intend to use Glasgow to film further productions this is now a perfect opportunity for the Scottish organisations who were involved in the venture to take on board any failings which arose from BatGirl and address them. Glasgow City Council need to provide a full and open audit to clearly highlight the entire process that resulted in the £150K incentive being offered, starting from who first suggested it.
What should have been a perfect opportunity to kickstart a major motion picture industry has had organisational setbacks. Luckily, if the organisations involved have the humility to address these failings for the betterment of the film industry – and Glasgow’s businesses and residents – we have a real chance to create an industry which can put Scotland and Glasgow at the heart of the ever developing movie industry. This can happen and should happen and when it does we will all benefit.
The irony of much of this is that many indigenous productions actually had or have a close to 100% local spend. Previous TV series such as Taggart and Rebus were made by SMG employing an entire local cast, crew and production company; almost all of that money stayed in Glasgow. In addition to ensuring that Glasgow benefits more from these visiting productions it is absolutely essential that we don’t forget the importance of expanding our home-grown industry and see our culture on a National and International stage. It’s very easy to get caught in the glare of Hollywood but once these tax incentives disappear – which they will as they have before – we will be left with a desolate industry. Don’t forget the importance of our own industry which can and should flourish alongside the still important but currently flawed Hollywood service one.
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