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Scottish film can’t be all flower, no stem

The debate on a Scottish film industry simply reflects Scotland’s default economic strategy – try and transplant success with nothing to support it

I read with real interest the Sunday Herald piece about a strategy for Scottish film. I should probably own up that I have a slight interest as my partner and I run a small and entirely inconsequential production company. But my reaction to the debate relates much more to my reaction to broad economic strategy in Scotland than to filmmaking.

To summarise, Mark Miller (comic book author turned film writer and producer) thinks that we need to adjust our attitude to film in Scotland. We need to make films people want to see – more scifi and horror, less council-estate-grime – and that we need to fund films as if they are things people might like to see. I should say that from everything I have seen and read, Mark Miller seems to be a real talent and I have a lot of time for many of his comments. Indeed, I often get into similar arguments with filmy friends – why such a narrow range of Scottish movies (schlock genre, socialist realist and twee history)?

I ask the question a different way; what’s the sexiest moment in Scottish film history? I ask this only because sexuality and film go together everywhere I can think of. Apart from Scotland. Sex is absent or awful, mostly. So why can’t we have a Scottish film with something genuinely sexy in it? You could do the same with many other aspects of film. How about something scary that doesn’t involve domestic violence? Something mysterious that doesn’t invoke the Loch Ness Monster. Something political that isn’t a grim reflection on the politics of poverty. Why can’t we make different kinds of film?

So far, so much agreement. But it’s the solution that seems to throw up the problem – focus funding on ‘popular successes’. The first response should really be ‘what money?’. Scotland spends less public money on film in a year than it costs to hire a yacht for a one-night reception at the Cannes Film Festival. But even so, this is still ‘ten-percent economic development’. That is to say economic development interested only in the top 10 per cent of an industry. If it was possible only to fund the five profitable films which reside in director’s imaginations it would all be easy. I agree that Scotland could do better at pitching and selecting a more interesting and popular range of film projects. But where are they supposed to come from?

Scotland has shown utter disregard for cinema as an industry. An industry is not a product but the infrastructure needed to create and sell a product. It includes the entire supply chain right down to the smallest supplier. It includes all the mediocre businesses who offer opportunities for people to learn the business so that one or two people can jump out and create really great businesses. It is a deep, integrated and organically-developed entity. It is not two success stories carried high only by the upwards lift of the media release. If we want film we need to create a much broader, deeper and properly sustained ecosystem. Yes, big productions have some trickle-down for the indigenous industry. But it cannot survive on that alone.

I maintain that there needs to be state intervention. I don’t favour the stereotypical model sketched by Miller (tongue in cheek though I think he was probably being) of a public sector committee picking project by committee. I do favour interventions that have the capacity to develop an infrastructure. Personally, I think Scotland’s best chance is to get a Scottish digital channel running as quickly as possible and to focus as much of the investment as possible in content creation. It is in producing and airing chat shows and TV news where young Scots will learn the business. And by commissioning perhaps 20 TV movies a year for the channel we would really start to both create real jobs and uncover real talent. Sure, half the films would be bad or mediocre. But that’s how Holywood does it.

This is a wrong-headed approach to economic development in Scotland but it is sadly typical. Scottish Enterprise has spent 20 years ‘picking winners’ and trying to transplant successful industries into an economy which has not developed the strength or depth to support them. It is just like letting big foreign firms import and erect wind turbine. How is this supposed to build an industry if we are nothing other than convenient real estate? Where are the roots of this industry?

All flower and no stem – that has seemed to me to be the primary economic goal in Scotland. It hasn’t served us well across the wider economy and I very much doubt it will serve us well in film.

Robin McAlpine