Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Funding to Fail or One at All!
There has been persistent clamour for equity and fairplay in the allocation of funds for minority producers in the creative industries in the UK. Apart from their overall consumer spending power, African and Caribbean audiences help generate tens of millions of pounds in revenue to arts and culture, yet black producers receive a tiny fraction of these proceeds.
Funding has always been a contentious issue and despite pledges from the Arts Council of England and the British Film Council for increased resources for black cultural products, the level of sustainable funding remains perilously low. Minority segments comprise the performing arts (on-stage and street theatre), dance, music, publishing, video production, television production, visual arts and carnival arts among other creative endeavours.
Since the 1960s the works of playwright, Horace Ove, the grandfather of black British cinema, whose film, Pressure, made a compelling case for the black cinematic landscape in the country, was followed by other famous stars – Desmond Beaton, Carmen Munro and Ramjohn Holder of Desmond’s TV fame. Rudolph Walker and others like him popularised the presence of black people in sitcoms, and through their general participation in mainstream productions. According to a leading female film producer, "what is most disappointing is the absence of contemporary work from the diaspora as well as locally. The British Film Institute’s world is a very selective and narrow world. Its diasporic span does not seem to include Europe or South America and the Caribbean is only a passing gesture to the US” (Shabazz 2005)
Generally, the value of the black contribution to the creative industries is estimated to run into millions of pounds per annum, but this fact is virtually unknown due to a lack of profiling of key creative segments in the BME community. For instance, there is no real published information and data on the extent to which African and Caribbean creative producers operate in the English Regions, as well as their involvement in cultural regeneration in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. And most evaluations tend to cover entertainment aspects rather than highlight the latent creative and enterprise features black producers are renowned in the entire country.
Employment in the film and video production sub-sectors are valued at roughly £2.3 billion, total creative employment over 60,000 and exports just under £1 billion, coupled with more than 8,000 businesses in the sector (The Work Foundation June 2007). Black firms have a small but significant market share in video production and documentaries and these include small budget films featuring cultural, social and other welfare themes. Documentaries are produced in leading cities: London, Birmingham, Leicester, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and elsewhere in England. A sizeable number of short films are produced for Black History Month celebrations and are publicised for selected audience – students, social organisations and other groups inclusive. Education resource packs are often made available to primary and secondary schools with large concentrates of BME communities.
As a whole, the film industry is largely fragmented and it is difficult to obtain a consistent and reliable picture of segments and sub-sectors owned and managed by black operatives. Nevertheless, there are four key stages in the film chain; namely, development, production, distribution and exhibition all of which are under-resourced. The development stage is supposed to be resourced by film makers who in the main, act as joint directors and producers because of shoe-string budgets or none at all. Quite often, black film producers can only raise 5% -10% of finances to develop a full-length film or documentary.
Ordinarily, independently-produced films are financed by licensing the rights to the film to distributors in return for advances. But while the British Film Council has pledged to offer assistance and technical support to minority film producers in order to defray overheads, this pledge has been limited to paltry sums. In one case, a West Midlands producer was promised £10,000 for a film festival but was frustrated when he learnt that a measly £500 was agreed as a donation to the project, after the authorities conceded (subsequently) that the project was perceived of having no artistic/commercial value. And yet, an offer was made by an official to send a group of technical volunteers to assist in the organisation and production of the local film festival.
In principle, black film makers should benefit from direct subsidy or subventions from the public purse. Tax relief or concessions are rare and neither do producers benefit either from broadcasting (air) time and other forms of gap finance. For the most part, banks are not keen on lending money to non-white cultural programmes because of their perceived non-commercial value, never mind the artistic quality, the cultural diversity and the tangible social benefits that could be accrued for local communities experiencing economic deprivation and social exclusion. (Interview with cultural producers 2000-2007).
The mantra of social harmony and community cohesion rings hollow and is tantamount to political sloganeering, since the principle of equity and fairness does is not verifiable in practice when it comes to black cultural activities in the UK. Interestingly, each year, thousands of pounds are allocated for Black History Month celebrations. The routine imitation of African-American pioneers in the field of science and technology and limited inclusion of inventors and innovators of African and Caribbean background in the UK is also cause for great concern, in terms of importance and relevance. Evidence pertaining to the funding of black films is a mixture of challenge and opportunities, even though the problem is compounded by stereotyping and ill-conceived notions of whom and what black people are in Britain 21st century.
Some years ago Parliament was informed about the saga of under-investment in black filmmakers and black-owned production companies in the UK. It was revealed that the Film Council, BBC Films and the National Lottery Franchises receive hundreds of millions of pounds of public money and therefore have a responsibility to ensure that black creative organisations access sufficient funding. The evidence presented to legislators was startling; out of a total expenditure from the Film Council of over £40 million, a mere 2% or just over £900,000 was disbursed to black film-makers and black-owned production companies. (British Film Council 2003).
The New Cinema Fund has a particular remit to nurture black film-makers and yet it offered nearly three quarters of a million pounds to one company which represented a staggering 50% of the total investment given to black film-makers across the country. BBC Films has a track record of engaging black film-makers, but there are no strategies or initiatives to address its own record of under-funding. There are no black professionals in senior positions at BBC Films and the Lottery Franchises have failed to maximise the growth of film makers in minority communities. Neither do they employ black creative producers despite having a budget of £90 million plus in public funds.
The Film Council literature suggests that it is funding more black film-makers and black-owned production companies than obliged. The perceived wisdom of authorities is that increasing access to training will solve the problem of the under-employment of black people in the film industry. However there are generations of trained and skilled black-film producers and actors in the UK whom the industry refuses to employ. Such is the contradiction between (theoretical) perception and (practical) reality.
The Arts Council of England set up the Decibel Initiative - a one-year scheme aimed at promoting cultural diversity in the arts. The long term aim is to change the landscape of arts forever, moving the arts towards a place where it is more representative of the society. The scheme invested more than £5 million in artists. In a later survey, the data showed that 72% of black people read for pleasure, 7% had written stories or plays in the past year compared to the national average of 4%, plus more than 25% of African and Caribbean people represented a sizeable section of the minority community that used a public library compared to the national figure of 10%. (Cultural Diversity in Book Publishing Today 2004).
It appears that the cycle of funding discrimination by stealth is set to continue unless there is a radical or paradigm shift in the ideological thinking of public arts and cultural bodies. No amount of government platitudes and equalities legislation will suffice. The industry has to be proactive in all this. A memorandum submitted to the House of Commons in 2003 suggested the following:
· Publicly-funded film organisations and companies should be called to account over their failure to invest in black film-makers and black-owned production companies.
· There should be insistence on a radical change in employment practices at the Film Council to make it at least racially diverse as the public it is there to serve.
· There should be advocacy for a minimum spend on the work of black film-makers and black-owned production companies to ensure that they receive a fair chance to tell stories from their perspective and contribute to making the British film industry a success (House of Commons Memorandum 2003).
The consensus among minority film makers is that the system should act fairly and decisively in maximising the breadth and scope of artistic and creative talent in all communities in the UK. Equally, producers ought to organise themselves into a national `strike force’ to make appropriate representation to government officials and public institutions, whilst developing appropriate alliances and industry partnerships with major film companies at home and overseas, in the process. The authorities and industry operatives should carry out joint reviews on the organisation and performance of all minority creative enterprises across the English Regions since this sector has both commercial and social benefits which should be celebrated, recognised and adequately resourced.
More importantly, black producers should capitalise on market opportunities in Africa, Asia (including the Indian sub-continent), the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America and North America as viable options to break the vicious cycle of under-investment in a segment of the creative industry that was built (and still being) by people of colour. With the necessary will, African and Caribbean artistic and cultural producers can change the rules of engagement – from one of disproportionate funding to one of equitable resourcing for the creative industries for all minority communities in the UK.