AS I sat in the Tate Modern listening to Tony Blair wax lyrical about Labour’s record on the arts, it struck me as ironic that the phrase with which he chose to describe this decade was “a golden age”. Smarting as I was from Gordon Brown’s snap announcement only four days earlier that a tax instrument widely used to fund the British film business was to be withdrawn, effectively bringing the industry to its knees, I wondered if the Prime Minister was aware that a film currently in post-production called The Golden Age – Shekar Kapur’s sequel to his 1998 Oscar-winning Elizabeth – was one of those British films which would be affected by this abrupt change in tax legislation. Presumably not, as Blair later went on to explain how proud he was of the way New Labour had ended the Thatcherite ‘stop/go’ approach to supporting the arts. Gazing earnestly out to his audience of assembled arts professionals and industry leaders, he declared “We have avoided boom and bust in the Economy – we don’t intend to resume it in arts and culture”.
It is common knowledge that movies take a very long time to come into fruition, cost a huge amount of money, and therefore require a certain degree of future security. If a project goes into development one year, securing its financing according to the tax laws of that year, but starts pre-production in a following year, it is subject to a switch in laws which negate previous funding promises. Subsequently, the production will probably collapse – which is what keeps happening across the industry, from the biggest budget movies to the tiny independents. Everything goes into meltdown; jobs are lost, and massive investments of time, energy and money are wasted.
As someone engaged in the film industry – or not engaged, depending on how Gordon Brown happens to be feeling on any given morning – I cannot think of a more appropriate description of the constant state of flux we have been in of late than ‘stop/go’. Generating catastrophic local losses, affecting over one hundred films in various stages of production, and decimating Hollywood’s confidence in the UK as a viable place to produce films, the change in tax legislation on March 2nd was the fifth affecting our film industry in as many years.
A couple of months ago my agent rang to say I’d been offered a part in a film due to shoot here in the Spring. Delighted, I naturally reorganised my life around it: I started learning lines and researching the background of my character, and turned down other exciting opportunities because of the commitment. It, however, had not committed to me: as soon as funding was pulled, it fell like a domino, just one of many British films to ‘go down’ instantaneously that afternoon. Such was the industry’s panic on ‘Black Friday’ that it took less than a week of lobbying for Brown to make a swift U-turn and exempt films by lifting the ban on ‘sale-and-leaseback’, the mechanism which financed projects such as The Queen and Casino Royale. Treasury officials admitted they “had not been aware” that the changes in tax legislation would affect film – which seems strange given Blair’s assertion that the arts are part of his government’s “core script” – and we all breathed a sigh of relief as movies that had crashed were gingerly resuscitated. This is not to say that there does not remain a sense of living on borrowed time among film producers, particularly those independent who rely for up to 40% of their funding on the threatened ‘GAAP’ schemes, which use generally accepted accounting principles to create an upfront tax loss that mitigates the risk for equity investors. But it does at least mean that such major UK productions as Brideshead Revisited, St. Trinian’s and Genova – potentially next year’s major award-winners – could get back up and running again. The honeymoon period will be cruelly short, however, as the industry now turns to the more worrying question of how to sustain future film production without the vital investment provided by GAAP funds. Until such time, rest assured there will be no more United 93s or Last King of Scotlands.
Tony Blair is right to describe London as “the creative capital of the world”. We boast amazing architects, writers, musicians, artists, dancers, filmmakers, actors and directors. Fortunately, we are no longer in an era characterised by craven under-funding of the arts, and it is fair to say that Labour’s record in many areas of the creative sector has been strong. But for Blair to have the cheek to proclaim that were it not for New Labour “I’m not sure there would be a British film industry, or at least not one nearly so healthy” is quite something. Thanks to New Labour’s constant changing of the rules and financial tinkering, there very nearly isn’t.