The home of starlets and the silver screen: one is more likely to think of the Hollywood hills than Arthurs’ Seat. Whisky and rain can be done, but Scotland and Auld Reekie aren’t generally known for their star-spangled glamour.
Yet, in the last two years, the Scottish film industry has been put in the spotlight. 2013 especially was widely hailed as a phenomenal year for the Scottish screen. Four films that premiered in the Toronto Film Festival and went on to gather high critical praise received funding from Creative Scotland and were set in Scottish locations. Sunshine on Leith was an obvious headliner for Scottish talent, with Edinburgh’s streets and the songs of The Proclaimers bursting into cinemas worldwide.
However, many films that did not boast an en masse musical number in the heart of Scotland’s capital also had tight connections, both on camera and behind the scenes. Starred Up, the prison drama by Scottish director David Mackenzie, The Railway Man, which starred Colin Firth, and Under The Skin all filmed key scenes in Bonnie Scotland. If you add to the Toronto showcase Filth, The Wee Man, Cloud Atlas and zombie-fest World War Z, then the scene seems increasingly sparkly.
So is it time to look to the Holyrood hills? Is the film future bright?
Scotland is heading into the heat of the referendum with a strong portfolio of movie success. Scotland as a nation is already on the cultural world stage. It is tempting to see this as evidence of a wealth of Scottish talent and vision that could spearhead an independent Scotland’s position internationally.
However, just as the flashbulbs and designer dresses of the red carpet dazzle yet also blind you to those behind the scenes, obscuring much of movie production from view, so the success story of Scottish film masks a more troubling picture. For all the critical praise and box office takings, the industry is not booming. At the very time Scottish releases were hitting the screens, the producers responsible for Under The Skin and Sunshine on Leith, amongst others, were attempting to draw attention to the “extremely bleak” condition of film development in Scotland.
In a confidential memo to Creative Scotland, the public body that supports the arts, screen and creative industries across the Scottish nation, 60 producers emphasised that “while on the surface Scottish films continue to punch above their weight” the true story was one of financial turmoil: “lack of funds and support is killing the industry.”
Gillian Berrie, the producer for both Starred Up and Under The Skin, further highlighted the issue in November 2013. Addressing the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee, Berrie revealed that presently “95% of film-makers are not able to make a decent living from working in the sector”.
The problem is not the talent. Scotland can boast many actors,directors and producers with ability, as well as ideal shooting locations for any genre. The issue is financial support and infrastructure. Despite generating a clutch of hits in the past two years, there is no major film studio north of the Scottish border. The industry was left disappointed when Pinewood studios chose Wales as the setting for a new facility, leaving Scotland barren. Predicted to generate up to £90 million pounds to spend with Welsh businesses, the frustration felt towards the Scottish Government at failing to cinch the deal is all too understandable.
There is currently £3 million of Creative Scotland’s money thrown at film production every year. This may not sound marginal, but when compared to the £36 million allocated in Sweden, the £21 million in Norway and the £52 million in Denmark, it seems Bonnie Scotland is trailing far behind. Dreams of an independent Scotland rubbing shoulders with the socially progressive Scandinavians in a Nordic alliance might have to ignore the movie business.
Film summits and government reviews in 2014 have attempted to address what Labour MP, former minister for film and deputy director of the Scottish Film Council Tom Clarke described as “a crisis in the Scottish Industry”. Many of the producers who signed the initial memo have joined forces to set up their own independent agency to attempt to save the industry. But with the referendum heat building, with no clear result able to be predicted for the future of Scotland, all is volatile. Are we about to witness a resurgence of Scottish film, with Scottish directors lining red carpets and new funding opened up to producers? Or will funds be slashed further and the boom of 2013 be a momentary successful blip on a downward trajectory? Will separating from or staying with the union even make much of a difference?
There is no clear path in either direction. Janet Archer, the chief executive of Creative Scotland, told the first Scottish Film Summit that, regardless of results, the referendum would do little for the new independent production agency, as culture in Scotland isalready a devolved responsibility. However, the Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop has been emphatic in her stance that only independence can change Scotland’s cinematic opportunities “by focusing the world’s attention on our nation”. Yet even with all eyes looking to Scotland, the precarious status of the National Lottery fund (will an independent Scotland still have access?) and questions over tax breaks, both of which make up the vast majority of film funding, are troubling.
The film situation can strike as the independence debate in microcosm. Scotland has talent and, as 2013 proved, can produce remarkable, highly varied films – it is a creative and dynamic nation. Yet there are cracks under the surface, especially where bank notes should be. Even in the glitz and glamour world of the movie business complicated decisions must be made – its not as simple as Yes or No.