Rising costs threaten independent cinema in the UK, says BFI | film industry

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There are serious questions about the long-term viability of independent filmmaking in Britain, the British Film Institute (BFI) has said.

Making Oscar-winning films such as The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire has become all the more difficult, with “significant challenges” putting the sector on a downward trend, according to research.

Vibrant independent productions nurture creative risk-taking and emerging talent, but rising production costs and falling investment are taking their toll, limiting the ability to compete with well-funded, studio-backed productions.

The BFI report, An Economic Review of UK Independent Film, says independent filmmakers are facing “significant inflation” in production costs for studio space, as well as cast and crew, and that they have been disproportionately affected by squad shortages.

Some have experienced disruption caused by the departure of specialists in the middle of production for more attractive options, leaving producers to hire under-qualified people.

The research points out that while major Hollywood studios are being lured to the UK by generous tax incentives, the UK independent sector faces ‘stagnant revenues’, with rising digital media sales not entirely replacing declining revenues traditional sources such as DVD.

It has become all the more difficult for investors to recoup money and generate returns, making them more risk averse towards independent films, the report says. He calls for an increase in tax relief for UK independent films.

Andy Paterson, who produced The Railway Man, the acclaimed Second World War film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, said: ‘The government needs to see some really hard data that takes this out of being anecdotal and reveals the real scale of the crisis. It is the BFI that provides this data to ensure that this cannot be ignored.

Capital expenditure in the UK from major international productions exceeded £4.7billion in 2021. Paterson said: “This country makes so much money from serving American films and series and we have to hand over part to make sure we have a future.

“We contributed around £800million to these emissions in 2020-21 through the tax credit, but every £1 spent there delivers a massive £8.30 benefit to the UK economy – over £6 billion. BBC Films’ total production spend, by comparison, is £11m. The reason everyone comes here to shoot is because we have the cast, the crew and the skills, but the indie sector is where that talent thrives.

He added: “Originality is synonymous with risk. The point with independent films is that they tell stories you’ve never seen before and create new stars. But trying to sell an independent film with new talent is the most difficult marketing task you can undertake, which is why you need support.

The research, which was undertaken by independent firm Alma Economics, also singles out streamers: “The extent to which streamers currently contribute positively to the UK independent film sector is ambiguous.”

Observing that in Germany streamers are obliged to contribute financially to the national film funding institution, designed primarily to support independent films, the report suggests “a voluntary arrangement” in which streaming services dedicate a certain proportion of their budget to making low-budget films in the UK.

Ben Roberts, chief executive of the BFI, described the report as “the most in-depth and comprehensive study of the economics of the sector to date”.

In his foreword, he writes: “The cultural importance of independent cinema to audiences is beyond doubt, its continued appeal to storytellers with unique visions and its pivotal role in developing talent.

“But we’ve heard growing concerns that the UK independent film business model is under significantly increased financial pressure, and the findings of this review clearly show that the sustainability of independent film is at significant risk.”

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