Instead of Scotland seeking to be a satellite state for Hollywood we need to own and support our own cultural institutions, argues Derek McArthur.
A peculiar paragraph appeared in the SNP/Green coalition deal when it was published earlier in 2021. It promised additional resources for year-round engagement with international film and TV studios. The focus? The United States. It’s not often that the film and television sector is given this sort of prominence. The film sector received one measly paragraph in the government white paper. Suddenly there is a move for significant investment.
This won’t be a surprise to anyone who has walked the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow the past few summers. Elaborate Hollywood film sets have become regular visitors, charming Scots with the spectacle of grandiose productions in familiar places.
The question so rarely asked is, do these glimpses of glamour amount to real investment in Scotland’s own cultural capacity. Transatlantic collaboration creates much-needed labour for film crews and other services, and is undoubtedly a tourist boon. But there is reason to believe its long-term effects will be damaging.
This orientation on the US is not one based on cultural or artistic grounds. It is a commercial opportunity, with a public body, Creative Scotland, throwing its weight behind the market in Scottish locations, themes and raw material.
The habitual selling of Scotland’s locations to outside bidders risks under-developing domestic industrial capacity. Scotland should rather invest in a domestic film industry, with decent jobs and lasting institutional strength. Ireland spends around £2 a year per person on film. Denmark spends a considerable £10 per person every year and currently has one of the strongest film cultures in the world as a result. In Scotland, we receive just £1 per person.
Any serious attempt at reforming the sector would put artists first, eradicating the top-down managerial structure that Creative Scotland operates under. Sadly, the message on film culture seems to be the same as in so many areas: Scotland is open for business.
Scotland is a poor match for this kind of off-shored, “year round” film industry. Our winters are an undesirable prospect for major studios, who are not interested in being patient with mother nature. They demand consistent scheduling along tightly monitored budgets. If the weather has the potential to disrupt highly expensive and complex shoots then they will just go elsewhere.
This would be largely mitigated if Scotland owned the studio infrastructure to support such a close international collaboration. What infrastructure exists, such as Wardpark Studios in Cumbernauld, is often block-booked by US productions like Outlander or internationally exported BBC dramas. Wardpark Studios, the only full-service studio in Scotland, was recently bought out by US firms Hackman Capital Partners and Square Mile Capital Management.
This is not a new topic of discussion. A Scotsman editorial from 1944 argues the case for Scotland’s own studio system. The following year, the Glasgow Herald reported on a national studio as an area for post-war development. Over seventy years later, Scotland still does not have its own Cinecittà. The apathy highlights a persistent pattern of neglect over a long period of time.
With greater international links Scottish crews would be able to gain experience through international studios whose scale and capacities far exceed our own domestic production. This would help in closing a skills gap which often results in personnel being shipped up from more experienced London sets. However, organising the Scottish workforce in this way conditions crews to operate in an environment where they have no autonomy or democratic control. The top-down structure of commercial productions ensures that the creative element of collaboration is thoroughly stripped out. In the end, it becomes just another gig.
The pivot to Hollywood provides occasional bursts of employment, but it doesn’t attack bad working conditions in the industry at their core. If the promise of year-round engagement can be somehow pulled off, the issue of a majority freelance and temporary labour force will be slightly tempered. But it does not go far in fixing the issue of rampant precarious work in the sector, the issue just gets hidden away. Workers will have to rely on a constant flow of work from US studios to secure consistent opportunities. When Tinseltown packs up and leaves for better deals elsewhere, what will be in place to catch those who will inevitably fall through the cracks?
At home he’s a tourist
The appeal of Glasgow as a filming location is obvious. It can be easily made to look like cities such as New York at a fraction of the price it would cost to actually film there. To glean the identity of the city from the screen, you would have to already be familiar with its spaces. But what about somewhere that looks far more distinctive?
Fast and Furious 9, the latest installment of the highly lucrative franchise, somehow leads its heroes to Edinburgh, where it filmed in 2019. And where else but the famous Royal Mile? Up front and centre of the action is St Giles’ Cathedral. Surrounding the chaos is the atmosphere of Fringe season, with weird and wonderful costumes lining the streets. The characters even gaze out longingly at the ferris wheel. It could double as a VisitScotland advert if the scenes didn’t also include catastrophic damage to council property.
F&F9 was a recipient of Screen Scotland’s Production Growth Fund – specifically designed to attract large international productions and “maximise spend in Scotland”. Screen Scotland will supply grants from £200,000 to £500,000 to international studios that employ local crews and provide “major expenditure” to the local economy (the details of which are not specific). In other words, it hands Hollywood producers free labour in exchange for access and tourist opportunities, paid from the public purse.
Half a million may be pocket money to Hollywood but it is an astronomical amount for Scottish filmmakers. So why is Screen Scotland suddenly being encouraged to throw large amounts at studios who can almost certainly afford to hire the labour themselves? Clearly the money must be generated back and then some through local economy boosts and expected tourist upticks.
However, someone’s passion project will never be in that position. Investing public funding for an artist’s dream might sound utopian, but it is in precisely this kind of way that the world’s respected film industries were built. To possess cultural self-determination, our government-funded creative bodies need to take more investment risks in domestic artists and workers.
Concerns over the activities of Creative Scotland are not new. In 2012, two years after the body was established, a backlash occurred over the removal of two to three year block grants in favour of repeating one year grants. Artists and organisations, the ones significantly affected by such a change, were not consulted. It placed a ticking clock on their financial futures, threatening to push many cultural advocates to the fringes. Much like the recent SNP/Greens deal itself, and the terms of the US-oriented ‘year-round’ industrial plans, Creative Scotland decisions are taken at the top level – with little room for the voice of artists.
This bureaucratic structure struggles to take artistic and cultural worth into consideration. The battle between artists and bureaucracy is a tale as old as public funding itself. Even the well-oiled German system of the 1970s received its share of criticism in this regard – yet it was also the catalyst for the influential New German Cinema movement.
With Creative Scotland playing the role of producer and curator, creative decisions are being left to finance departments and not those with far more ambition. The recent decision to fully extend Hollywood collaboration continues a culture of insulated hierarchy.
The Scottish Government has swung the perception that they care more about producing and preserving cultural artifacts than the philistine Etonians. But without significant overhaul of government policy and major restructuring of how funding decisions are made, there is too much potential for turning our cultural institutions into a rental service for short-term money windfalls.
The fantasy of becoming a satellite state for Hollywood producers seeking to keep down gargantuan budgets is contradictory to the very idea of independence. If we wish to truly own and support our cultural institutions, we have to place the artist at the centre of every conversation and listen to the wide range of voices of those in the industry.