Indie sector in the spotlight
The UK government’s Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee will begin taking oral evidence from the industry sometime in the next few weeks and months as the independent industry hits the ground running after a difficult 2023. The year offered a cold splash of reality for UK producers. In the wake of the Hollywood strikes, film production in the UK ground to a halt. With so much talent, crew and studio space freed up, it could have been a busy period for UK independent film production which has struggled to compete on home turf against the financial might of the US studios and streamers. But it wasn’t. Thousands of crew were left without work and questioning their future in an industry so dependent on the whims of the US.
While an enhanced tax credit for UK independent production has been a topic of discussion for several years, spearheaded by producers’ trade body Pact, the concept is now gaining more traction.
Unsurprisingly given how 2023 turned out, when 130 producers, funders, trade bodies and studios submitted recommendations to the CMS committee there was widespread support for the enhanced relief. Pact, the BFI, Film4, BBC Film, Creative UK, Screen Scotland, Producers’ Collective UK, Paramount, the Screen Alliance North and (tentatively) Warner Bros Discovery were among the many bodies who have shown support, although with varying takes on how it should be implemented. Producers’ trade body Pact proposed an increased credit by 30-40% for films with a budget of £1m-£15m, targeted at films on a lower budget level, rather than films defined as ‘independent’, which it said could lead to “gaming of the system”.
Producers’ Collective UK suggested “a sliding scale of tax credit from 35-45%”, for films of a certain budget level or that are “truly” independent. Screen Scotland, Northern Ireland Screen and the Screen Alliance North put forward the idea of additional uplift for productions outside of London and the southeast of England, as a way of decentralising production.
However, with a (probable) general election year in the UK this year, which could see a change in government, tweaks to the UK’s film and high-end TV tax reliefs remain a very delicate issue. The Labour Party keeping its cards close to its chest about its stance on enhanced screen industry support.
Further hot topics to come out of the CMS committee submissions were the need for more government support to maintain the public film funds as they face intense financial pressures, and the introduction of a levy or investment obligation on the US streamers, to help ease the strain on the UK independent film sector.
Post-strike production restart offers obstacles and opportunities
While the end of the Hollywood strikes didn’t signal an immediate explosion of job opportunities for out-of-work UK crew, there are indications that around April 2024 production will pick up again. However, the same issues as before remain – the US studios and streamers can afford to outbid for talent, workforce and studio space, leaving the native industry struggling to compete. And with reports of many experienced crew quitting the industry following the strike-induced work drought, the immediate need for replacements is likely to put a strain on the mental and physical wellbeing of the remaining workforce.
In November, the Skills Task Force outlined its vision for building a robust approach to skills development in the UK, with recommendations including a pan-sector strategic skills body, apprenticeship reform, strengthening partnerships with the education sector and a pan-sector strategic skills body, such as a transformed ScreenSkills. However, these changes will not come quickly enough.
The threat of business rates hikes looming over UK studios presents yet further complication for the UK production landscape, with fears that if rates go ahead at the top level (200%-300% is being mooted by the Valuation Office Agency), it could mark the end for some studios, yet further increasing the competitiveness for already stretched studio space.
All eyes on on new body to address industry’s shortcomings
The UK government-backed body for tackling bullying and harassment in the creative industries has confirmed it will go live before the end of 2024, after the organisation was initially announced in 2022. It has been campaigned for for five years by Times Up UK. CIISA is led by interim CEO Jen Smith, the BFI’s director of culture and inclusion, and is backed by Times Up UK chair Heather Rabbatts, producers Barbara Broccoli and David Puttnam, actors Stephen Graham and Keira Knightley, and major UK broadcasters including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky.
CIISA is set to provide an independent place to confidentially raise concerns about behaviour for those working in the creative industries – much-needed for a largely freelance workforce. Details of how the body will work and who will be the full-time head once Smith’s BFI secondment ends have yet to be unveiled. The immensely troubling allegations of rape, sexual assault and emotional abuse made against UK comedian, presenter and actor Russell Brand (which he denies) in September further highlighted the desperate need for change, support and accountability within the screen industries.
Cinemas brace for tough year ahead
Vue CEO Tim Richards didn’t mince his words at the British Screen Forum Conference held in November: “Next year is going to be really, very, very tough,” he said for the UK exhibition sector, predicting it will be “worse, potentially even significantly worse, than this year”.
2023 had some highs – Barbenheimer – but several lows. The Empire cinema chain entered administration in July, Cineworld – which also owns Picturehouse cinemas, filed for administration in June. In the space of a week in November, Bristol lost the Showcase Cinema de Lux in Cabot Circus and the Cineworld in South Bristol due to rising rents.
In the independent space, Edinburgh Filmhouse and the Belmont in Aberdeen still haven’t reopened since the demise of their parent charity, the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI) in October 2022. The Light House in Wolverhampton, the region’s only independent cinema, has also yet to re-emerge after it shuttered in 2022. Bristol’s Watershed cinema lost its long-running Bristol City Council funding support, which would have equated to £90,000 over three years – yet another blow amid soaring overheads. According to a survey by the Independent Cinema Office (ICO), around 45% of the UK’s independent cinemas will be operating at a loss by the end of the 2023/24 financial year.
A key concern for exhibitors ahead of next year is a thinner slate of tentpole films set for release in 2024 compared to 2023. However, there are some positives.
Following Empire’s closure, Irish exhibitor Omniplex, along with Vue and Everyman have swooped in to acquire its various sites. Picturehouse opened two new venues in 2023 – in Chester and Ealing, west London – and Everyman has plans to open six additional venues in 2024 and 2025. The exhibition sector appears to be finding commercial strength in venues that offer an enhanced cinema experience – over the past couple of years Odeon has upgraded the likes of its Odeon West End, Acton and Bridgend sites to its more premium Odeon Luxe venues.
In 2023, eOne’s film and TV business was sold by owner Hasbro to Lionsgate and French mini-major Pathe closed its longtime UK theatrical film distribution business to focus on the development and production of scripted TV series.
Both distributors had a knack for distributing films targeted at the supposedly elusive post-pandemic older audience. Pathe’s most recent in-house release (distributed through booking partner Warner Bros) is Oliver Parker’s The Great Escaper, starring Michael Caine, which grossed £4.9m after six weeks on release from October, to make it the year’s most successful UK independent film at the box office.
eOne’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, headlined by Jim Broadbent, took over £3m in the UK after its release in April. Going forward, who will fly the flag for the older audiences going forward? And will more consolidation take place among independent distributors?
At Curzon, former Soda Pictures exec Edward Fletcher has replaced long-running CEO Philip Knatchbull as of November 2023, overseeing distribution and exhibition, and 2024 will see him carve out his vision for the Cohen Media Group-owned company.
There are also new players. Black Bear is gettting into the groove, releasing The Son and Dumb Money in 2023. Zygi Kamasa’s True Brit Entertainment launched at this year’s American Film Market (AFM). The UK theatrical distributor will focus exclusively on homegrown films and television. The company aims to invest in and release four to eight UK features annually, with Kamasa’s ambition being to co-finance over $50m (£40m) UK independent productions each year, and backing from minority shareholder Matthew Vaughn’s Marv Studios.
New faces at the helm of UK festivals
Former Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) creative director, Australia-born Kristy Matheson, joined as festivals director at the BFI in April – with only four months to lock in the London Film Festival (LFF) programme ahead of its August launch. It will be the 2024 LFF that Matheson will be able to put her stamp on, while former lead Tricia Tuttle heads off to the Berlinale as the incoming festival director, from April 2024.
Matheson will also have to work through the festival’s evolving public funding model, after the existing National Lottery mechanism ended after the 2022 edition. In June, the government confirmed £1.7m of support for the 2024 edition, but a precise long-term strategy has yet to be unveiled.
Matheson’s former gig at EIFF has been taken over by a new leadership model, after a streamlined one-off edition in 2023 without an official director in post. Paul Ridd, head of acquisitions at UK distributor Picturehouse Entertainment, has now been named festival director, with his first edition in the role coming round in August. He is working collaboratively with a board including DNA Films producer Andrew Macdonald, former Disney exec Peter Rice and Aftersun producer Amy Jackson.
More change is afoot in Scotland’s festivals – Rowan Woods will no longer be programming for the BFI London Film Festival, as she is now creative director at Edinburgh TV festival. Over at Glasgow Film Festival, 2024 is the first edition without Allan Hunter as co-director. Hunter has not been replaced, with Allison Gardner continuing to programme with a fresh team of emerging voices in the Scottish industry.
BFI Filmmaking Fund’s reshaped team gets cracking
In March, the then-BFI Film Fund saw the departure of three long-serving senior executives – editor-at-large Lizzie Francke, head of production Fiona Morham and head of editorial Natascha Wharton. Vicki Brown was then tapped from sales outfit Together Films for the role of senior executive for sales and distribution. Studiocanal’s Anna Hintzen joined in November as senior production executive, while production manager Charley Fox and development executives Aoife Hayes and Phoebe Sutherland all received promotions.
The incoming team has faced financial constraints, as 2023 saw the Film Fund re-launch in April as the Filmmaking Fund, part of the BFI’s refreshed 10-year National Lottery funding strategy, with a decrease in funding available, from around £25m per year to £18m per year. This is the first full year of the revamped fund and a chance for the team to fully implement its refocused strategy: to back features that demonstrate significant UK cultural and audience impact, with separate funds for first time filmmakers and those with projects of greater ambition.
This could also be Filmmaking Fund director Mia Bays’s last year in post. Her three-year fixed term contract runs until October 2023, although Screen understands she has the option to extend for a year.