Getting independent film made post-Covid

Aka 'pushing a boulder up a hill', or 'streaming is an issue, too'

The world is still feeling the economic shockwaves of the pandemic and none more so than in the film industry. In recent weeks and months we’ve seen the London-based Cineworld group, the world’s second-largest cinema chain declaring bankruptcy, not to mention Bob Iger, the former CEO of Disney, the planet’s largest media powerhouse, declaring that cinemas will never recover.

Whilst such portents of doom make for grim reading if you’re an industry-conquering titan, how concerning must they be if you’re part of a sector that has struggled to maintain a commercial foothold for the last two decades? Things have been tough for the British independent scene for a long time, even before the pandemic came along and further reshuffled the deck in favour of its competitors and rivals.

Of course, British independent film has always been something of an underdog, finding itself in recent years having to compete with cash-rich streaming productions for increasingly rare UK personnel and facilities. It’s a problem that nobody is immune to, not even the recently-shot Love Lies Bleeding, Rose Glass’ directorial follow-up to the searing critical and commercial success that was 2019’s Saint Maud.

Problems on the ground

Despite shooting in New Mexico with a cast straight out of Hollywood, the project has the retained the same strong British production core that were instrumental in making Saint Maud such a success, not to mention being part-financed by UK production company, Film4. However, despite boasting a starry cast and international locations, producer Andrea Cornwell tells us that the film faced challenges familiar to all British productions: “Although the film wasn’t shot here [in the UK], I think the problems that we saw on the ground in New Mexico are very akin to the ones that people are facing over here. There’s been extreme inflation in the costs of filmmaking, mainly in crew fees but also in terms of rentals and facilities. A large part of that isn’t unrelated to the pandemic but it’s also due to the streamer boom.”

It goes without saying that the pandemic proved to be a fruitful period for streaming platforms, with the stay-at-home mandate adding millions to the subscriber counts (and balance sheets) of companies like Disney and Netflix. As these billion-dollar companies grow their output, commissioning an ever-growing glut of international film and TV projects in the UK to take advantage of our generous tax breaks, skilled crews and world-class facilities, smaller British productions are struggling to cope with the ways in which this has shifted the market.

Saint Maud, just one of 2019's success stories from the UK independent sector

“There’s a high demand for content [from the streaming platforms] and at a level that is unheard of a few years ago and everybody has put up their fees,” explains Cornwell. “People who would have normally worked at a more junior level are suddenly being accelerated. Relatively inexperienced crew are suddenly asking for a lot to do a job that they’re not actually that qualified for.”

Spiralling budgets

As a producing veteran with two decades of experience in bringing British projects to the screen, navigating an ever-shifting series of hurdles is second-nature to Cornwell. For inexperienced producers such as Sara El Jamghili, who is looking to get her first production off the ground, it’s an equally problematic scenario: “Training is an issue, a lot of people moved into positions they weren’t ready for,” says El Jamghili of the post-pandemic content boom. “I’ve talked to a lot of people across different productions and they’re all having the same issue.” Naturally, this problem extends to budgets too: with UK crew suddenly finding themselves very much in demand, budgets are rocketing upwards, beyond the means of some smaller UK independent productions.

“The flip side is that there is a lot of work and producers are generally busy, crews are generally busy,” adds Cornwell and of course this is a positive, not least for underrepresented members of the industry who now have the opportunity to select employment opportunities that promote diversity. As a woman of colour, it’s certainly something that El Jamghili can see the benefits of: “We’re in a position now to be more strategic,” she explains. “Rather than just go from one job to the other, the fact that there’s more positions available means people can now think about the hours that they work, the people that they’re working with, they can opt to work on productions that are more culturally aware.”

For the UK independent industry as a whole though, it’s a problem and one that the BFI has implemented a plan to combat by vastly increasing numbers of personnel into the sector. However, even if the industry is able to boost crew numbers to the point where production costs do eventually level off, Cornwell points out that the British independent sector has seen spending shrink in real terms for many years now:

“In true terms, British film budgets have been going down and down and down,” she states. “You’d always be given somewhere around the two million mark, then it slipped to 1.6m, then suddenly there was this ‘iFeatures’ era where people were suddenly showing films at Toronto {International Film Festival] which had been been made for less than half a million. We have corrected from that back towards the two million mark but it hasn’t exceeded that in the last 20 years.”

Andrea Cornwell, producer of Saint Maud and Love Lies Bleeding

Creative dead ends?

Consider that in the context of the country’s current financial woes and it makes for a grim forecast, not least when you also factor in the changes the incumbent government may enforce on both the BBC and Channel 4. By making both public broadcasters more commercially-inclined, they will be less able to take creative gambles, meaning that BBC Films and Film4 may not be the reliable supporters of risky British cinematic endeavours that they have been historically.

In some regards at least, it paints a troubling picture of the future for the UK independent sector, not least from a creative standpoint: “I worry about the lack of voices coming through,” agrees Cornwell. “Speaking as somebody who also works in television, the amount of poaching of talent from the film industry is extraordinary.” Despite operating at the opposite end of the experience spectrum, Sara El Jamgili’s experience is broadly similar: “There’s development deals happening, there’s enough money available to develop ideas. Whether these turn into something more is another matter,” but she goes on to point out that they “mostly from streaming and TV.”

Whilst the industry being awash with streamer cash might be good news for those who can finally make a living from producing, Andrea Cornwell strikes a cautionary note about the impact it could have on the sector’s ability to nurture creative and distinctive new voices: “You’re constantly seeing prestige TV productions taking directing talent, acting talent that has been nurtured by the film industry and I worry that we’re going to end up in a blander universe where the creative freedoms of independent filmmaking are replaced by the efficient, workmanlike culture of television where everything feels broadly similar.”

The UK independent sector has gifted us with generations of filmmakers as diverse and talented as any homegrown film industry could wish for. However, it would be a dimmer world indeed if the next Danny Boyle, Gurinder Chadha or Rose Glass were to find themselves creatively neutered in order to make their ‘content’ align with the homogenising algorithmic demands of a streaming platform. Not only would it rob us of the boundless storytelling potential that emerging creators like these are allowed to develop, but it would slowly airbrush from existence one of the things that makes both the UK and its film industry great: the staggering breadth and depth of experiences, cultures and voices that make this country so very special.

Dan Cooper
Dan Cooper probably has opinions on too many things for his own good. As such, you can find his thoughts in a number of fine publications as varied as Wireframe, Tech Radar and Men's Fitness. His main passion however, is film. You can find his words in each monthly issue of Film Stories magazine and in various nooks and crannies of the internet.

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