Outside the box

Outside the box --

Last week I attended the launch of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. Although uninvited, as a filmmaker working in my native city I took my chance. Two years ago, thanks to the GFF’s co-artistic director, Allan Hunter, the debut screening of “The Devil’s Plantation” sold out at the festival with no advance publicity. Indeed my only interview – for the arts section of ‘The Scotsman’ was published the day after the last ticket sold. That there’s no dedicated strand for Scottish film this year is less a reflection on the programmers and more on the fact there’s so few homegrown films.

Will “Voyageuse” ever make it to the big screen? I can’t afford to think that far ahead. Judging by the GFF’s programme there’s no shortage of films in the world and I have neither entitlement or influence when it comes to exposure. Unlike other cultural forms – visual arts, music, theatre, dance, opera – the companies that occupy buildings that require staff, overheads and large subsidies – film production in Scotland is adrift, with no quotas and possessing none of the advantages of ‘institutional’ culture.

While theatres, galleries and music venues offer programmes of work, local cinemas are not obliged to show locally-produced films. Also, as streamed live performances encroach on cinema schedules - their popularity being testiment to our cultural cringe - securing a slot for a small independent film becomes all the harder. All of which points to a collective failure - of government policy, of our cultural/economic quangos' lack of vision and strategy and - let's not kid ourselves, the Scottish Film Industry's perplexing lack of innovation which like the old Socialist cry of 'one last push' in this case is translated into a plea for more public money and 'leadership'.

As the recent Scottish Parliament's Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee's hearings into the Creative Industries reveal, the landscape that Scotland is so revered for doesn't translate to an attainable horizon: that of a thriving, sustainable film industry that currently justifies so many jobs, most of them unconnected with the actual business of making films.

The natural platform for small indigenous arthouse films is, of course, the festival circuit. With more film festivals than ever the selection process remains tortuous and fraught with demands. I recall a frosty negotiation with the programmers at Edinburgh International Film Festival about my first feature, “One Life Stand” (2000) and their expressed disappointment that they were only getting a UK and not a World premiere – the film had debuted at Rotterdam some months before. Like most B-list festivals, today the EIFF charges a submission fee, a disincentive for small filmmakers when big budget films - the red carpeted headline grabbers - enjoy a free pass and the privilege of flights, hotels, chauffeur-driven cars, receptions and press conferences.

To make a film is daunting enough. These days filmmakers are required to assume multiple roles, from fundraiser to producer to publicist to media-friendly pundit – in addition to the core job of making the thousands of creative decisions that go into a film. Amid the talk of alternative platforms and self-distribution, nothing compares with the anticipation of screening in a dark theatre rather than the (arguably) diminished experience of watching a film on a mobile device or TV where the biggest problems are volume and visibility. How can any filmmaker compete with hundreds of thousands of clips online? As indie wisdom dictates – you don’t – you find and build your audience yourself.

But here’s where the theory falls down. When filmmakers cultivate niche audiences, too often the result is a glut of issue-driven films contrived to preach to the converted, the majority of which miss their target. While editing the screenplay for “Voyageuse” I ask myself – who am I making this for? Who is that elusive audience? Older women? Depressives? Drug addicts? Carers? Zoologists? The tinfoil hat brigade? Archive film fans? Dementia sufferers? Old Perseians? Behavioural scientists? Or, more likely, urban arthouse film buffs? Realising the folly of the exercise I soon get bored but console myself with the novel idea – why not make it for yourself and enjoy the process rather than the result?

A couple of years ago a well-meaning friend gave me a copy of “Thinking Outside the Box Office”, one of thousands of self-help books aimed at indie filmmakers. Written from a US perspective frankly the book caused me to lose the will to live let alone attempt to make a movie, with its can-do exhortation that in order to succeed one needs an army of unpaid marketers, web designers, social media gurus and poster designers long before a camera turns over.

The truth is there is no truth. Nobody has the magic bullet to make a film succeed just as no amount of bogus professionalisation, audience research or search engine optimisation will get a film made or mate arse with seat. Which is why I agree with the great director, Robert Bresson’s assertion – ‘those who can work with the minimum can work with the most’. Whether conventionally commercial or as an elevated hobby, making a film, any film, is a leap of faith. It wouldn't be as much fun if it wasn't. Of course, money helps, as does talent and a decent script. It reminds me of the adage: you can have it cheap, fast or good, but not all three.

The photograph is of a sloth in a crate, taken by Erica's father, Josef 'Bob' Eisner circa 1953 in British Guiana.

Comments ---

Derek Tillbrook
(reply)

This seems to be an accurate account of the state of scottish film. I suppose you have to keep making films and hope the powers that be realise there is a great product out there that needs support.

May
(reply)

Thanks Derek – Sadly I’ve lost faith with the ‘powers that be’ and until I’m deemed eligible for CS Screen Funding (like most filmmakers, I can’t meet their criteria) I’ll continue to make films by any means available – exactly as I did 15 years ago.

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