Monday, 16 January 2012

This is Britain: Some thoughts on today’s Report to Government by the Film Policy Review Panel

The future of British film might not seem like one of the most pressing issues in our economically uncertain present. Aside from my personal love of cinema however, I believe that a flourishing film culture should be considered important to the life of any nation. After all, obviously when a ship is sinking under its own weight it’s logical to throw out a few of the more disposable and frivolous items of furniture in order to keep it afloat. But there’s always the danger of going too far under the perceived imperative of safeguarding the vessel and ending up with an empty, cheerless tin can that you’d rather throw yourself off of and risk the open water than remain inside. Similarly, a nation which opts to stymie colour, diversity and vitality in its arts is one that is impoverished beyond measure.

  David Cameron’s ominous exhortations last week, simplistically and naively advocating the pursuit of commercialism in British filmmaking, were typical of Tory government; they suggested that resources and support should be channelled only towards the established industry figures and production companies who enjoyed this form of success, neglecting to consider the importance of nurturing fledging talent. They also sidestepped the wider social responsibility of any artistic medium and the funding bodies that should support it: to provide a means of expression and recognition for peoples from diverse and potentially marginalized communities, and to provoke thought and discussion. Obviously commercial success and the revenue it returns to the film industry are important to ensure the necessary resources for future films, but attempting to transform British filmmaking into a micro-Hollywood is wrong for two reasons. 1. Commercial success is difficult to predict, and it is often through risk-taking and innovation that this success is attained. 2. Such an approach can lead both to artistic bankruptcy and homogeneity in the types of film produced, which is not good for anyone.

  The Film Policy Review Panel’s report is encouraging then because it encompasses both a more idealistic and simultaneously savvier proposal of what is needed to ensure a thriving film industry. It recognises the need for greater provision of as broad a range of indigenous and international cinema as possible for British audiences. Refreshingly, it criticises the bullish tactics of major studios, specifically their tendency of demanding that multiplexes provide inordinate amounts of screenings of their films per day, thereby squeezing out smaller-budgeted and independent works which cannot afford to compete. Alongside arguing for negotiations with these studios in this area, it recommends that alternative platforms beside theatrical release be employed for these marginalized texts. The film industry, like its musical counterpart, has been reluctant to engage extensively with these secondary platforms, but it is time that a strategy of distribution in these new media was developed. Like many others I’ll always prefer seeing a film cocooned in a darkened auditorium with a receptive audience, but it’s important that the potential for these other platforms (e.g. streaming services, television networks) to provide greater access to world cinema that might otherwise remain unavailable and unnoticed be recognised. Additionally, by releasing these films on other platforms audiences for them can be developed, thereby establishing greater consumer interest and thus commercial imperative to release others like them theatrically in the future.

  The other really interesting and significant proposition made by the report that struck me was the section advocating a nationwide programme of bringing both theoretical and practical education in cinema to our schools. As I have previously stated, filmmaking can be a means of universal expression and of encouraging children to engage productively with their wider communities.  Media studies is often wrongly dismissed as a non-subject, but the critical approach to the reception of media texts such filmic education could foster is vital in today’s society. Children are flooded with information on screens from infancy, and the critical faculties these disciplines can foment allow individuals to become more active recipients of the texts they watch, for example by enabling them to become alert to the ideological or political biases these texts encode.

  In our society, we often give too much priority to the written word over the image. This is particularly glaring today, when people are accustomed to watching screens more than ever before in human history, and absorb more knowledge through these screen-based media than through traditional print. Literacy must be supplemented by greater visual-literacy if we want new generations to possess the necessary qualities to become both responsible, informed citizens and skilled practitioners of a world-class film and television industry.  
For anyone interested in reading the report, it's available here: