How to get more films like Under The Skin made and develop domestic talent

Scarlett Johansson as a man-hunting alien in Under the Skin. TWITAI, CC BY-SA

Film making in Scotland has never been easy. Scots’ almost unrivalled appetite for cinema rarely finds its way into the pockets of performers, producers, crew or facilities.

We make so few films each year that the tiny number of bets we can place, thanks mainly to the roughly £3 million in lottery funding disbursed annually by government agency Creative Scotland, are statistically unlikely to pay off critically or commercially more than once every few years.

It’s rare that we see a Scottish-set or Scotland-originated story on our screens – big or small. So when a film like Under The Skin comes along, especially in the wake of recent box office hits Filth and Sunshine On Leith, it’s unequivocally good news.

Even if the majority of the heads of department around director Jonathan Glazer were London-based, the film’s benefit to Scotland is plain to see: It was based on a Michel Faber novel published in 2000 by Edinburgh-based Canongate Books, co-produced by Gillian Berrie from Glasgow-based Sigma Films, and showcased local talent like Paul Branigan alongside lead star Scarlett Johannson. More than half the crew were based in Scotland, not to mention the vital opportunities it provided for local trainees.

Deep impact

If only this were the norm. It is hard to measure the impact that the absence of visible domestic film or TV drama output has on the imagination and aspirations of a people, particularly younger people. But we do know that, according to the British Film Institute, “significant numbers believe that there should be more films set outside London and the south of England”.

You can speculate on the extent to which a lack of output constrains the supply of ideas and dynamism into our fragile film sector, but there is some hard evidence of the effects too. For example according to the Scottish Film Database at Edinburgh Napier University, the median age of a first time professional feature film director in Scotland in the past three years was 39.

This is a mere one year lower than it was in the 1980s and seems to be a full ten years older than the typical first time US director. (One consolation: the ten women out of the 50 first-time Scottish directors since 1993 only had to wait the same length of time.)

And welcome as Under The Skin is, how much more benefit might it have brought if Scotland had more influence and better infrastructure at each stage of the journey from page to premiere?

This future could be yours

Imagine a future in which Scottish producers were able to place more bets across a genuine portfolio of projects, having accumulated experience more rapidly than a film every two or three years allows. This would give them more creative nous, financial muscle and credibility; strengthening their hands when it comes to optioning scripts and books, hiring writers and attracting directors.

Imagine we had the level of film funding that the Irish, Danes or Finns enjoy – we could support both new talent in edgier work and more established stars in bigger-budget projects. Imagine if we had sufficient studio capacity to keep an Under The Skin here for the half of its ten-week shoot that was spent indoors.

Imagine we could sustain the level of post-production facilities that provided work in London for 52 people on Under The Skin’s post-production visual effects.

This is not the stuff of science fiction. What is required, as the recent review of the film sector for Creative Scotland notes, are relatively modest but strategically joined-up investments in skills, development and production financing while completing our film and TV drama infrastructure.

Ireland does it better

Add a broadcaster with the commitment and ability to support indigenous drama production and the kind of tax incentives that film in Ireland enjoys and we could conceivably reach the share of the domestic TV and cinema audience that Denmark achieves.

The evidence from around the world suggests that the fortunes of a country’s filmmakers are intimately connected to their success in the first place at telling stories that work for their home audience.

And no country has grown its domestic audience without increasing the volume of films it produces. There are straightforward explanations for this, such as the faster rate at which practitioners can gain experience and get noticed.

Independence not essential

Independence would undoubtedly be the most direct route to making this possible. For example a Scottish-controlled public service broadcaster could bring a big boost to domestic drama production, particularly with the financial benefit of “repatriating” the TV licence fee (even allowing for the cost of buying in BBC services).

But there is still plenty that can be achieved within the UK. Greater fiscal control could boost film and TV location incentives. With a new director of film due to arrive shortly at Creative Scotland, the agency will be equipped to do much to promote the benefits of making films within Scotland and persuade the UK and Scottish governments of the importance of having a vibrant sector here.

Relying on lottery funding limits what we can achieve, particularly as it is rightly prioritised for the support of films with cultural significance. If we want joint ventures like Under The Skin to happen year after year alongside our home grown talents, quite simply there needs to be a step change in other sources of investment.

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