(University of Vienna by Viktor Dobai via CC: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/0 )
Last week I was kindly invited by my set-mates, the Austrian Consulate, to their inauguration and it was brilliant to celebrate the exciting work of Honorary Consul of Austria, Mr. Christoph Crepaz. I am really looking forward to exploring the great potential of collaborations with Austria’s rich creative and academic practitioners and institutions. My short experience speaking to the team in Edinburgh has introduced me to the excellent creative and cultural enterprise work going on in Vienna and Salzburg.
Consul Crepaz’s commitment to this area was clearly demonstrated at the inauguration where a panel discussion: “Who should pay for the arts? – The diversity of funding culture” was held. The insights shared by Joanna Baker, Managing Director – Edinburgh International Festival and Lukas Crepaz, CEO – Salzburg Festival, were excellent. They both expertly addressed mixed financial models for the production and provision of cultural work, alongside supporting the prioritisation of creative education and cultural access set out by Consul Krepaz and Katharina Kastner – Chargé d’Affaires a.i. of the Austrian Embassy London. I am really thankful to have been included and look forward to more work together in this area.
One further interesting and linked aspect of the event connects with the recent conclusion of the Screen Sector review in Holyrood to which I have been giving evidence. The Convenor of that committee (CTEER) was due to give an introductory speech to the panel, but did not appear to be present, and the Cabinet Secretary for Culture left immediately after speaking, not engaging with the panel. Coverage of the interaction between the Convenor and Cabinet Secretary at the committee hearing the preceding day is covered in the press, and the detail of their discussion is now available in text. Whilst of course it is disappointing both parties were unable to engage in the event’s related debate, and there are many unsatisfactory elements of the sector situation and current processes, I think it is best to look beyond overarching coverage and related reaction and examine the important detail of what is going on. Of course the situation is more complex than binaries between public agencies / industry, or supporting a single screen agency or an integrated one. Stakeholders know this but surface level coverage or interpretations that can be read as setting up adversarial agendas often obscure important issues.
The issues that I found important stemming from this final session of the Committee concern the detail of management and strategy.
A screen unit / agency – clearly Scotland needs a fully resourced entity with the money, power and therefore accountability to work properly. There seem to be obvious political interests keen to avoid admitting the evident mistake of closing Scottish Screen, and interests keen to highlight that mistake and point out other failures e.g. of Scottish Enterprise’s lack of positive sector involvement. A smart observer commented at one session that there is no point fighting yesterday’s war. They are absolutely correct, there seems to be a danger of these aforementioned themes taking precedence over substantive details.
The committee I think is right to point out the mess of boards, committees, sub-committees, governance, partnership arrangements and interrelationships. However, it would be damaging and pointless to cut out involvement of agencies and their important resources, if they can be put to the good use of the sector e.g. Scottish Enterprise and their marvellous collection of modern money (h/t AP). The committee’s focus on arbitrary deadlines for certain screen unit aspects is not of value. The committee noted: “Scotland has an incredible opportunity at this point in time to benefit from the amount of content that is being commissioned across the world. We are already behind and if we do not get it right now, we will miss the boat.” This is true to an extent, but crucially omits that, to use the same analogy, Scotland has already missed several armadas. Sorting studio capacity is a fundamental overdue priority and should be pursued with relentless effort and speed. Proper, full, highest quality planning and execution of the screen unit should also get the same attention, but that work has only just started and should not be damaged by rushing. The Film Studio Delivery Group was set up in May 2013.
Studio(s) – The repeated failure to sort out sufficient studio capacity has incurred catastrophic opportunity costs. There is no hiding from the fact that, whilst a difficult process, Scotland’s failure to achieve what multiple nations and multiple regions of the UK have achieved, is the major determinant of the sector’s current state. Surely important contributions to this state of affairs include both the lack of sufficient expert resource within CS ,and lack of will to action within government depts / agencies with budgets and decision making power to make things happen. This was expertly characterised by the leading industry witnesses at the committee’s first hearing. However, given this state of affairs, the years of underachievement, it is not the case that pressuring for any particular document by month A or B will help. Director Usher clearly did a great job to get the support for the Screen Unit, as well evidenced at the last session, inhibiting its work for the sake of categorising an entity as independent risks waste. It would be a mistake to jettison the efficiencies of shared back-office functionality, or incur any time or HR costs in this way. Nevertheless a fully functional screen unit, that should have appropriate time to be set up properly, should also be set up to be transparent and effective – with clear and appropriate decision-making power and resources. It seems obvious that decisions and investments for the screen sector should be made by people with the highest level of screen expertise. I know that there are individuals at portfolio manager and on the CS Board SU sub-committee with those excellent skills, expertise and abilities, but I am not sure that a couple of people is enough. And I think it is absolutely right that there is oversight to make sure those experts get the power and resources to do things properly.
A couple of issues that emerged from the last evidence session indicated that the requisite support, resources and expertise are not yet in place. These issues are interrelated and concern my concentrations on commercial performance and the knowledgeable use of information (data). I find a particular quote from the minutes to be really worrying, it is from a CS Board Member of 8 years standing “I believe that Creative Scotland has delivered well and successfully for the cultural aspect of film, which is what its role was. The screen unit within Creative Scotland can deliver well for the new need of the commercial factor.” Perhaps the minutes poorly reflect or misrepresent the speaker, but it seems to indicate that CS was believed to have had no responsibility for the commercial aspects of filmmaking, and that somehow commercial purpose is new. No witnesses from CS attempt to correct this statement. Some would argue that the statement fits with CS’ achievements, but it stands in contrast with the diligent work of the expert individuals I mentioned previously. Possibly it evidences the muddy language and imprecision of thought and action that does seem to characterise the current state of play.
It is a very confusing and worrying issue because in other parts of the evidence recognition is paid to the dual commercial and creative aspects of music and literature, and the nature of each creative industry as being special – including film. These disparities across the evidence seem to illustrate that whilst the complexities of commercial and cultural interdependence may be recognised, there is not currently a clarity of design and purpose at work. This was made disappointingly clear in the discussion of the issue of film data. The new ‘data hub’ was effectively stipulated as an extra person working with the existing team across CS’ research remit, and the ability to potentially replicate the purchases of another entity with same overarching goals. It was very sad to read the CS summation of the current state of affairs as: “We continued with the methodology that was in place for Scottish Screen so that we could track matters on a consistent basis. However, as the committee heard last week, there is a slight inconsistency with the BFI’s methodology for the UK.” Whilst certainly doing things the same way allows one to track a variable longitudinally, if this comment is representative of CS’ thinking on the matter, then there is and will continue to be a massive problem. Scottish Screen’s approach to data was utterly inadequate, to be in no better shape now would be desperate. To characterise, even inadvertently, the current issues as a slight methodological inconsistency, shows a significant lack of attention to the area. This lack of grasp is further evidenced by the generalised comments about scoping, getting to a better place etc.
It is clear that many aspects of the work for setting up the screen unit have barely begun, and it is right that it should have the appropriate time and resources to do it – I made these points in my original submission to the committee. Having a leader in place to direct this is the first and most important step. It is also important to note these are not all Scotland specific issues – whilst the studio is an exception and can be addressed with political will and appropriate capital – the issues of using information and building business capacity in screen industries companies are shared across the UK and Europe. As our Austrian friends brilliantly demonstrated at their inauguration event, partnership and teamwork is vital. Cultural engagement and exchange it is a good in and of itself, which also creates many further instrumental goods. In areas of film business (and its related data) which are deeply international, cooperation is the key, now more than ever. Partnership models exist in other creative fields and are in operation in Salzburg and around the world. We are all better together.
Update: on 28 June the Screen Sector Review Committee presented its final report. It is available here. I am happy they make use of my testimony and found it helpful.
In their summary that they “make recommendations for both the Screen Unit and a future agency. These include the immediate launch of an online portal, recruitment of business development experts, and the creation of an industry engagement plan and data gathering hub” – which are sensible, and desperately needed.