Since the easy money dried up a couple of years ago with the demise of badly drafted tax breaks, finding production funding has become far harder. Gone, thankfully, are the plethora of middlemen who could raise millions from rich people who were able to avoid—if not evade—tax. Those middlemen might have made some think that producing was relatively easy, but the mass of films that came out of the decade of Section 48 were barely seen on any big screens.
In getting rid of Section 48 and the appallingly abused tax breaks, the government did clean things up. But in their desperation to attract inward investment, especially from American studios, they made the basic tax break one that only applied if you did the work in the UK. So a big Spielberg production does wonders for the airline and hotel industries, for many crew and extras and for the balance of trade—but very little for British screenwriters, directors or independent producers.
If an independent producer seeks a co-production there are treaties they can use, but the basic tax break is not available if they shoot outside the UK. There is a cultural test you need to pass to qualify as a British film, but even if you do, none of the money spent on development is allowable.
The problem is that, broadly speaking, the British are unattractive to co-produce with. They have little or no development money for a start so, like many of our European counterparts, are forced to green-light films before the script is ready—a guaranteed way of minimising the success of a film.
The overall shortage of production funds means that co-productions have become more important. This brings its own problems, not least of which is the fact that the English language is so dominant in the movie business. While that is good news in many respects, as far as making us easy to co-produce with for our European neighbours, it has the opposite effect. The British are also known to be arrogant in co-production situations; even countries like Canada, South Africa and Australia, who speak the same language, are tended to be used as locations, rather than real partners. And America is out of reach because they make films in a different way from the way we do; their scenes are much shorter and they use significantly less dialogue.
So what does this mean for anyone thinking of co-producing? Simply, don’t plan to co-produce; don’t construct your stories with four characters from four potentially financing countries. It rarely works. Plan a story that is universal, emotionally compelling and visually engaging. When you have that right, then worry about the finance. Paradoxically, the more difficult the financial situation, whether brought on by adverse tax breaks or simply the recession, the more essential it is to get the script right.
Filmmaking should be a business, albeit an entertaining one. Connecting with audiences means the reliance on artificial co-production deals becomes less necessary. Really engaging scripts are rare, but they need not be. • @julianfriedmann