Anne Morrison ex Chair of BAFTA and current Chair of BAFTA’s International Committee, recently joined us at Twickenham Film Studios to talk about what’s going on in the market in the screen industries and some future trends.
The UK screen industries are one of the UK’s biggest success stories and we should be very proud of them. They generate over £6 billion a year for the UK economy. Global demand for content continues to rise and the UK is very well placed to meet this demand.
Variety and Hollywood Reporter often ask why Britain is so successful. World class crews, award winning talent and state of the art facilities, are all factors. Most of all, tax reliefs have been a very smart move and have really stimulated the sector. It all started with film tax relief in 2007 and has since extended to high end TV, games and animation. This has drawn international production to the UK as well as boosting home grown production.
There are benefits in tourism and merchandising as well. For example, when the BBC moved Dr Who to Cardiff, we didn’t realise that it was going to be one of the top reasons to visit Cardiff. It’s not visibly set in Cardiff, in fact it’s more often exploring other galaxies, but nonetheless it’s a major attractor. You only have to see what Game of Thrones has done for the Northern Ireland economy. As well as those directly employed, a whole tourist industry has grown around Game of Thrones tours. Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge has never been busier!
As Chair of BAFTA’s international committee, I’m very aware of how the screen industry is rapidly internationalising. Sherlock, Downton Abbey and Planet Earth are seen around the world and the industries in China and India want to set up international co-productions. BAFTA has some awards specifically for British content but it’s getting harder to work out what that is and how to define it.
You’ll find lots of people in the UK’s screen industries who are gloomy about how Brexit could damage this extraordinary success. It’s not just about access to talent or EU funds, the “country of origin” rules will mean that international firms will have to open an office within the EU and transfer some or all of their staff there. Opinions differ about how significant an effect this will have, but Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands are expected to be the main beneficiaries.
In terms of future trends, they say that predicting the future is easy; getting it right is the hard part! I seem to have spent half my life in BBC meetings which were trying to anticipate the future and many predictions turned out to be wrong. By now we were all supposed to be watching time shifted content, and channels and scheduling were supposed to have disappeared. They didn’t reckon with social media which means you can watch, say, the Eurovision Song Contest and half the fun is what’s happening on Twitter. There are also those so called “water cooler” moments, a big football match, the final of Strictly or the end of Line of Duty where you have to be able to discuss it with your friends instantly, or at least the next day. If you don’t watch it you feel totally left out. That’s why commissioners and channels will pay so much for the programmes which have that effect. Against all predictions, there is still appointment to view television!
The other prediction was about our rapidly reducing concentration span. I had to pitch ideas to US channels who said they wanted “eye-candy” and “frequent visual refreshment”. It was worrying that people thought the shot had to change every couple of seconds or the audience would get bored. But at the same time, we are experiencing massive binge watching with box sets or the release of a whole series together eg. The Crown on Netflix. This results in back to back watching for hours so people’s attention span turns out to be surprisingly extensive.
Netflix and Amazon are having an extraordinary effect on the market by putting billions of pounds of investment into original content. There were reports last week that Apple is preparing to join them. The Crown cost a lot more than most feature films. With the extension of tax credits into high end TV, nearly all feature film companies in the UK are also doing high end TV drama. In fact, it is hard to work out whether something is a film or TV when it looks like a film, it’s got a huge budget, its two hours long but it goes straight to Netflix without a theatrical release. This provides another BAFTA debate, as well as is it British, is it a film?
The truth is they are all converging, so it’s better to talk about screen industries. Games too often overlap with action films, using same actors are in each. They are really just an immersive form of story telling.
Virtual Reality is the newish kid on the block. At the moment it seems like technology in search of content. Could it be a flash in the pan, a bit like 3D television? After all, hardware manufacturers will always want to sell us new bits of kit. Or is it a revolutionary form of story telling, which can put us on a raft with refugees crossing the Mediterranean or enable us to imagine we are blind, and which is around for the long term?
On the skills front, it’s hard to keep up with the top level skills this boom in the screen industries requires. One of my other roles is Chair of Pearson College, which includes Escape Studios where we train people in animation, games art and visual effects. Not everyone knows that London leads the world in film visual effects. Double Negative picked up Oscars in consecutive years for Interstellar and Ex Machina. Before that Framestore won for Gravity. The massive Harry Potter franchise had a lot to do with growing these skills.
BAFTA does a lot to encourage new talent and the BBC Academy, which I ran before does its bit too. We need to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard and that the widest range of human experience is represented on screen. However, there is not enough diversity in new entrants to these industries. It’s precarious, part of the gig economy, you need the bank of mum and dad behind you and it helps to have lots of contacts. There are disadvantages attached to social class, ethnicity, and still gender in this day and age. Only about 14% of British films have a female director and around the same proportion a female screenwriter, so it is no wonder that we see such stereotyped women on screen or that they are often not represented at all or speak much less than men.
However there are some women around whom it’s very hard to keep down, and one is Maria Walker, the Chief Operating Officer of Twickenham Studios. This amazing place has had a long history since 1913 and in that time it has had through its doors Blade Runner, A Fish Called Wanda, Black Mirror, The Bourne Identity, Horrible Histories, and Baby Driver to name just a few. When it was threatened with closure a few years ago, Maria set up the Save Twickenham Studios campaign and ended up as its COO. It’s great that an important part of the UK screen industry’s success is local to us right here in the borough of Richmond. So, more power to you Maria, and continued success to the British screen industries.