On the face of it, the British film industry seems to be in pretty good health. With countless American films being shot in the country, a large amount of money is being poured in to British studios, and a lot of talented British crew are being hired for consistent and well paid work. At the same time we have a reasonably successful mid-budget film industry, turning out critically acclaimed hits like Monsters and Moon, and a low budget industry that churns out hundreds, if not thousands of (mostly direct-to-video) films a year.
For a large part of our industry this is great. The US-funded projects provide Below The Line crew members with regular work, while the smaller projects offer a route into the industry for a large number of people who will hopefully go on to work as Heads of Department on much bigger features later in their careers. There are issues with what one might term ‘exploitative’ working practices, particularly on micro-budget features, but it is beyond the scope of this proposal.
What we still lack, however is a proper point of entry for the many hundreds of would-be writers and directors to enter the industry. Making a professional quality film, whether a feature or a short is an expensive process, and despite the advent of cheaper cameras and home editing systems, the core costs – equipment hire, transport and catering – are still prohibitively high, and financing is notoriously difficult to come by.
There have always been a lucky few who have been able to afford to take the plunge, either by receiving funding through a body such as the UK Film Council, or simply by having being well off, but the numbers are limited, and getting smaller as the economic situation continues to bite, and the pool of state grants becomes even more limited.
A recent trend among would-be film makers is to use the internet to raise funds through what has become known as ‘crowd funding’. In essence a writer, director or producer uses the internet to appeal to ordinary film fans to stump up money to make a film. Initially this was done by setting up a Paypal account and a website, and using Twitter to drive people’s interest – examples of this are The Indywood Project and BuyACredit.com – but over time most crowd funded projects have migrated over to sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, which specialise in helping people raise finance from the web.
Regardless of where the project is hosted, and whether they are raising capital for a feature or a short, they tend to follow the same format – a donor gives a set amount of money and receives a package of benefits. In most cases there are a number of different packages corresponding to the amount given, but the package usually includes:
· A credit on the film – Occasionally this is a simple ‘Thank You’ credit, but more often than not this is a variation on Associate or Executive Producer
· A copy of the finished film
· The chance to appear in the film
· Some sort of message from the director
In principle this is a fantastic way for people who would otherwise be unable to break into the industry to have a chance to do just that. Not only this, but they remove the major criticism levelled at bodies like the UKFC – the arbitrary and non-transparent nature of their decisions. With crowd funding the projects that get made are the projects people want to see.
Unfortunately, in the present form, crowd funding is flawed in a number of ways. The fact that it is so easy for anyone to set up means that it is open to abuse. The relative anonymity of the internet could easily allow someone to take the money and run; even if the participants are entirely honest, the nature of filmmaking means that any given project may never come to fruition. In addition to this, the sale of credits such as ‘producer’, ‘executive producer’ and ‘associate producer’ devalue the work of people who actually earn that credit, both on the project in question and in general, and cause confusion among the general public as to what exactly it is that a producer in the film industry does.
More pressing than both of those concerns though, is that this sort of funding model creates a disconnect between the film makers and the business side of the film industry. This may seem unimportant, but when ‘investment’ money given comes for free, without a requirement to provide any form of return, it limits the need to make every penny count. There is also a question of where profits from a project go. In most cases this is an irrelevance, the finished product will have limited financial success. When this isn’t true however, it seems entirely right and proper that the people who have stumped up the cash to fund the film be entitled to some return on their investment. At any length it seems wrong that the film makers simply pocket ‘free money’ from the generosity of their benefactors.
The solution to all of these issues is actually rather simple – The British Film Institute, as the body responsible for overseeing film funding in the UK, should step in and create their own investment and funding scheme.
The logistics of this scheme would, and indeed should be simple. Film makers register their project through a website. At registration they provide a completed script (although not necessarily a locked draft) and a provisional budget, alongside a certificate of incorporation as a UK-registered company. This will allow the administrators of the scheme to be certain that the registrant is serious about the project, and has a clear idea of where the capital raised will be spent, and approve entry on to the scheme. At no point should the administrators vet entry on the basis of the content of the script. The only condition should be that it is finished. They should however, take a fine toothed comb to the budget, making certain that the money asked for is enough to complete the project while paying each employee and contractor on the project a reasonable wage (although not necessarily BECTU/Equity minimum).
Once approved, projects could be offered for investment through the same website. While it would be unreasonable for the administrators of the scheme to set the investment terms, they should provide an escrow and auditing service to protect the investment and ensure payment is made when and where it is due, covering the cost for providing this service by charging a levy of between 5 and 10% on funds invested.
At present this is a very much bare-bones idea. If taken up it would require a great deal more detail, including minimum investment terms, permitted additional benefits, compatibility with existing programs such as the Enterprise Investment Scheme and the Producer’s Tax Credit. As a financial investment scheme it would also need to avoid falling foul of Financial Services Authority. It is however, a perfect time to launch a scheme along these lines. There is clear evidence of the popularity of making ‘micro-investments’ in film, and a very real need to bring more money into the industry.
I would welcome any thoughts on this proposal, either in the comments below, or sent directly to me – email@example.com