Continental Divides: Could a U.S. Film Commission, Like The National Ones in Europe, Ever Add Up?

When surveying the messy U.S. landscape of ever-changing film incentives and the fluctuating health of state film commissions, it’s tempting to look longingly at national film commissions in Europe and ask, “Why don’t U.S. filmmakers get the kind of support that Europe offers at the national level, and why doesn’t the U.S. have a national film commission?”

While contemplating the viability of federal support of art may seem farcical in light of current Trump administration calls for disemboweling PBS and the National Endowment of the Arts, a look at European models does provide a worthwhile glimpse at the impact of national-level support on filmmaking.

To consider whether the cinematic grass is really greener in Europe and to seek lessons, we’ll look at national support in heavyweights France and the U.K., and also at the Irish Film Board, which is thoughtfully nurturing filmmakers with hands-on development support.

Film Commissions, Euro-Style

While funding mechanisms (non-pejoratively referred to as “schemes” in Europe) and organizational structures vary from country to country, European commissions (or boards) typically are resources for accessing talent, infrastructure and locations; and conduits to (and sometimes managers of) tax incentives and funding programs.

In some cases, such as the Irish Film Board, commissions provide film development opportunities and services such as script development.

In comparison, government support for filmmaking in the U.S. is a state-centered, patchwork affair. While there are some city film commissions and city-centric financial incentives, the dominant players are the states themselves, which compete against each other to lure productions. (For years incentive critics have derided this as a “race to the bottom.”) These state incentives come and go at the whim of governors and legislators, with heated debates about the all-important return on investment. Tellingly, the word “culture” is barely uttered in U.S. incentive discussions.

On the other hand, in Europe there is no discussion of national film support without the word “culture.” In fact, European film support is dictated by European Union rules designed to prevent the very subsidy wars waged in the U.S., where productions bounce from state to state in search of the best deals.

Illustration by Jade Schulz

Part of the EU-mandated process of national support, whether tax incentives or national co-productions, is a cultural test that defines film eligibility based upon the level of involvement of a host country’s filmmakers. The aim is to minimize so-called subsidy races.

Of course, U.S. filmmakers need only look to our northern neighbor for a glimpse of a film-commission promised land. With roots in the National Film Act of 1939, the venerable National Film Board of Canada sets the bar for co-productions, as well as a clear focus on heritage aspects of film (for example, its support of films in Inuit languages).

The U.K. lesson: Stability Matters

The British Film Commission, which receives the bulk of its funding from the British Film Institute, is firmly focused on luring international filmmakers—from the U.S. in particular. The commission even has an office in L.A. to be close to the U.S. action. The commission acts as an effective interface with the film, television and game industries. (It does not manage film tax incentives or co-productions itself. The British Film Institute works directly with applications for tax rebates, as well as co-production applications.)

“We have a fairly clear mission,” says Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission. “We promote and explain the fiscal incentives and benefits of shooting in the U.K., the skills, talent and infrastructure here; and we troubleshoot to make sure film companies have the most trouble-free experience that they can have. We are also an important channel for the industry to represent its views to national and local government.”

The commission has a powerful carrot to lure productions: a cash rebate of up to 25 percent of U.K. qualifying expenditures. And business is clearly booming, with film production spending hitting a record 1.6 billion pounds in 2016.

“We can say with a straight face and hand on heart that we are satisfying the commercial imperative for economic development and supporting the creative and cultural side of our industry in the U.K.,” says Wootton.

He says that 12 pounds are spent for every pound rebated. That number is taken straight from government revenue data and not from the economic black art of investment multipliers, which incentive foes often attack.

Both Labor and Conservative governments have supported film programs, he says. In fact, the genesis of the revitalization began during a film summit convened by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1993. The meeting was called to address the stagnant state of U.K. filmmaking. The outcome was aggressive support of the film industry.

The proof is in the proverbial pudding. From last year’s Rogue One to the Harry Potter films, the U.K. has become a home for big movies.

Wootton attributes the U.K.’s success to stability of government support, straightforward incentives and rapid payment of rebates. (Some payments available in as little as 21 days.) The incentive plan was painstakingly crafted to prevent loopholes and fraud.

“We couldn’t have a situation where [incentives] would be reviewed every six months or every year,” he says. “It needed to be consistent, stable and transparent. Filmmakers are surprised when we say, ‘Yep, there’s no sunset, and it’s long term and there’s no cap.’”

In the U.S., on the other hand, state film commissions are often faced with the threat of rollbacks, or even elimination of incentives in states such as Florida.

How the Brexit divorce will impact the U.K.’s film support relationship with the rest of Europe is an open, complicated question.

The French Way: It’s a Cultural Thing

Across the Channel, Film France also points to an attractive incentive: a 30 percent reimbursement program for eligible expenses called Tax Rebate for International Production (TRIP).

Like the British Film Commission, Film France acts as an interface between perspective filmmakers and the French film world, which Valérie Lépine-Karnik, CEO of Film France, says is a critical part of French identity and helps account for the strong support of the French government.

“We have such a strong cultural tradition in cinema,” she says. “Like Britain with pop music, or Germany with opera, we have the cinema, which is why there is such strong support by the Ministry of Culture.”

The level of importance is clear when she explains how carefully government officials listen to the National Center of Cinematography and the Moving Image (CNC) when it comes to the impact of governmental support on the industry. The CNC is the largest funder of Film France.

“The position of the CNC makes studies [about the importance of support] noncontroversial,” she says. “It’s God’s voice. It’s very useful. Surely the French cinema is the most alive cinema in Europe, and clearly this comes from support from the government.”

That support is funded, in part, by mandated contributions from telecom companies, internet service providers and television companies.

Film France is in charge of monitoring the tax rebates for films shooting in France and connecting filmmakers to the right people—for example helping the makers of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s new film, find producers, technicians, locations, performers and more. Another film that took advantage of TRIP money was Pablo Larrain’s Jackie.

Fionn Whitehead in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a French-British-U.S. co-production assisted by Film France. Photograph by Melinda Sue Gordon / Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

“We work with 40 local commissions all over France,” says Lépine-Karnik “We’ve been quite successful. For example in 2016, we had 36 projects with the tax shelter, a record. We are a one-stop shop for filmmakers to get into the French system.”

Building a successful national system doesn’t happen overnight, notes Lépine-Karnik, who describes the French system as an ecosystem with support for production, theaters, distribution and education.

“It all started after the war,” she says. “It took 70 years to build these very sophisticated support systems. It’s a slow process.”

A Helping Hand in Ireland

Financing isn’t the only way that governments support film through commissions and boards. Like the U.K. and France, Ireland is working to grow its domestic film industry. The Irish Film Board (IFB) provides development help to filmmakers, and invaluable aid to less experienced filmmakers like Kelly Campbell, who has benefited from the IFB’s screenwriting support.

Campbell, an actress for 20 years, is co-writing and co-directing—with veteran DP Michael McDonough (Starred Up, Winter’s Bone)—Famine, a film about a young woman’s survival during the worst two years of the Irish famine. After working on the script for three-plus years, they (along with producer Katie Holly) applied to the IFB for a script development loan, which was approved.

They worked closely with Keith Potter of the IFB on two drafts, and then on two more drafts of the script with the IFB and Scottish Film Talent Network (after the project was joined by producer Paul Welsh of Scotland, creating an Irish/Scottish co-production).

What has the support of the IFB and the Scottish Film Talent Network meant to Campbell and her team?

“We are spoiled here; I can’t imagine developing a project without their support,” she says. “Michael and I are first-time writers, and it is a pretty ambitious project, so we needed the rigor of having to meet a certain standard in the writing from an early stage. We needed to feel a kind of intimidation, maybe. Writing can be exhausting and frustrating, and while there are no guarantees in the end, to know that there is a wall of support around you is a constant source of affirmation.”

The next phase is securing financing, which the Irish and Scottish organizations will assist with.

Potter, a project manager for the IFB, says that while there are incentives meant to lure productions from around the world, IFB support is clearly aimed at Irish filmmakers.

“The funding allotted to the Irish Film Board is primarily for Irish writers, directors and production companies to enable an Irish film industry and contribute to the cultural heritage of the country,” he says. “To paraphrase a recent statement from our chair, the arts make Ireland a better place to live.

“The cultural impact on a country via film is of course manifold, from recent Oscar nominations for Lenny Abrahamson’s Room and John Crowley’s Brooklyn, to a strong presence of Irish films and filmmakers at prestigious international film festivals, to us reaching Irish audiences with our output—very important as we are investing Irish taxpayer’s money—and promoting Ireland on screen via a film’s location and content.”

Potter paints a bleak picture of Irish filmmaking without IFB aid: “I think Irish filmmakers would find it a very tough landscape, as many approach the Board for cornerstone funding. If that funding wasn’t there it would be very hard, especially for newer producers and filmmakers, as other sources would inevitably ask why the project isn’t bringing in money from its home territory.”

Pat Collins’ feature Song of Granite was made with the support of the Irish Film Board. Courtesy of South by Southwest

For success stories, he points to upcoming releases Kissing Candice (directed by Aoife McArdle) and recent South by Southwest-premiere Song of Granite (directed by Pat Collins), which Potter says is “about a folk singer from Galway. You can’t get much more culturally Irish than that!”

Reality Check: A U.S. Commission?

With these snapshots of deeply seeded European film support in mind, it’s time to take a considerable leap of faith and imagination to consider what a U.S. film commission might look like.

Kevin Clark, executive director of the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI), knows film commissions—the AFCI has more than 300 commissions spread across the world as members.

He imagines that a U.S. board would augment, not replace, state boards, which have firmly staked out the incentive landscape. He imagines that a national commission would be a national voice and an advocate for the value of filmmaking, a reminder of the importance of the industry.

He uses the example of Brand USA, launched in 2009, to promote tourism in the U.S., and paid for, in part, by a surcharge on the visa application process. Previously, tourism promotion existed at the state level. Brand USA brought a national voice to tourism.

“The value a national film board would bring is an awareness that entertainment industry jobs are ‘real’ jobs,” he says. “It’s easy to focus on the red carpet and forget about all the well-paying jobs behind a film. That’s the value a film commission would have.”

It’s worth noting that the lessons from Europe could be employed at the state level, particularly Wootton’s emphasis on the importance of stable, dependable government support and incentives. However—and quite simply—investors dislike stability.

In the meantime, U.S. filmmakers can make the most of European incentive programs to access tax rebates. Typically, film commissions apply a set of criteria ensuring that a minimum percentage of the production is done in the host country by citizens of that country. The goal is to determine if a film is British enough, or French enough, etc. For example, in France, this is based on a points system where each aspect of filmmaking is evaluated for French involvement. The best way to find out the details of available rebates and criteria is simple enough: Contact the film commission in the country you are interested in shooting in. After all, the commission is built to help get films made.

In the end, it’s appropriate to let a filmmaker have the last word on what governmental support can mean.

“When you work with a national film board, not only is your project being pushed to its maximum potential by talented development personnel, you are also being given an important stamp of approval that sends all the right signals,” says Ireland’s Campbell. “When I speak to filmmakers in America about how their projects get financed, I fully appreciate how lucky we are to have a film board.” MM

 This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2017 issue. 

Top image from Dunkirk: photograph by Melinda Sue Gordon / courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

 

1 Comment

  1. Ron Merk

    May 4, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    Here’s the problem…the US barely supports the arts. The only way this would work is if the films made were done by people with means. Government does not trust artists who need money to do their art. That’s just a fact of life in the United States. I remember when we first had movie tax shelters in the US back in the early late 60s, the worst kind of people go involved and made the worst movies ever. The only really successful tax shelter movies were The Rocky Horror Picture Show and a vampire movie starring George Hamilton. They made so much money they failed as tax shelters. So, even if there was a national film commission to support “artistic” films, which ones would get the money? That’s a tricky question. Would it be films that were full of stars, or which had distribution attached? And if so, why is the government giving money to projects like that. Those kind of films can rise and survive in a capitalist environment. And who would decide who gets the government money…some government bureaucrats…or artistic snobs…or commercial-minded executives…..I just can see a level playing field for serious artists in this scenario. I wish it were otherwise. But we are not Europe…we don’t have this need to co-operate and hundreds of years of culture that guides the decisions of what films get government support.

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