Scottish Screen Sector - Investing In Our Future

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Film City Entrance. Credit: Reuben Paris

Optimism is defined as a ‘hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something’, and the evident growth in the screen sector in Scotland over the last 12 months certainly suggests that optimism is in the air.

And why shouldn’t it be? One of the key themes of this year’s IBC (International Broadcasting Convention, covering media, entertainment, and technology), was the challenge of ‘delivering more content to more screens across more platforms in more regions’. This perfectly encapsulates the opportunities ahead for our industry, and acknowledges the entire screen production and supply chain – not only slate and creative ideas development at all scales, but also recognising the requirement for the physical capacity and infrastructure to deliver such content. If you will, screen as both a creative and industrial process.

Optimism is one thing, but can we as an indigenous, international-facing industry meet the challenges such growth brings?

That the increased finance and resources made available to the relatively new ‘Screen Scotland’ brand have come in tandem with increasing levels of inward investment and production activity, is I hope, a positive direction of travel. Screen Scotland now sits within Creative Scotland and is delivered in partnership with Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland, and the Scottish Funding Council, with funding from the Scottish Government and the National Lottery.

Having worked closely with Creative and now Screen Scotland on a number of projects, my experience in the here and now is that there is clearly a resolve to address some of the issues raised by the Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Energy, and Tourism Committee in 2015 during their inquiry into the economic impact of Scotland's film, TV and video games industries. Across various working groups and with regular communication and sharing of intelligence, there now exists a partnership based approach across all agencies, particularly those involved in skills and enterprise in Scotland.

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The FOCUS project, which we run through our Film City Futures brand, is one example of this. The project was developed in response to feedback from the screen sector which highlighted the need for sector specific business development support for film and television companies working in Scotland. The pilot project launched in July 2017 and was scheduled to be completed by June 2019, but its ongoing success has saw an extension until December 2019. We are already thinking about what the next iteration will look like. The project is well-known within the sector and the FOCUS team are engaged with a large number of companies at all levels, from start-ups to leading film and television companies. In addition to the more tangible KPIs such as turnover and employment, participant feedback has also highlighted increased confidence, and of course optimism, as added value.

Approximately 70 additional companies have connected with FOCUS directly, and feedback suggests many more would apply to the project in the future. The Screen Scotland and Scottish Enterprise core funding has also generated other initiatives, such as a programme for Gaelic content-producing companies enabled by further investment from the broadcaster MG Alba. As the main delivery partner, in conjunction with SDI (Scottish Documentary Institute), we have regular dialogue with all the partners representing their respective agencies (Screen Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, Independent Producers Scotland), which is one example of how the communication lines are now fully open and focused on growing our industry. It wasn’t always thus, so this is a real step change.

Working closely with a broad range of Scottish screen companies, either through FOCUS or our daily interaction with the industry at Film City, gives us an insight into the needs and ongoing challenges facing the sector, particularly around the retention of value. A recurring theme that both production and facilities companies have highlighted is the leakage of ‘value’, whether that be experiential or financial, from incoming productions shooting here. For example, this could take the form of parachuting in personnel or ancillary facilities which already exist in Scotland. Or, by not stipulating a requirement for a Scottish based co-producing partner when production funding is awarded, missing the opportunity to ‘invest’ in and upskill our emerging producers. The presumption is a regulatory barrier when dispersing public funding, but if there is an opportunity to benefit our existing talent and resources, how do we circumnavigate this?

Which brings us to the matter of physical screen infrastructure. Having had a ringside seat at the many discussions around a ‘film studio’ in Scotland in recent years, I’ve had first-hand experience of the regulatory or, more specifically, ‘state aid’ barriers to squaring this circle. I’m also repeatedly asked the question as to where, how, and why studios have been developed elsewhere in the UK – or more directly, ‘...if other places in the UK are doing it why can’t we…’?

Scratching the surface, the how and why is interesting.

With the UK’s attractive tax credit incentive and weak pound in play, well-established studios such as Pinewood have the long standing financial covenant, critical mass, and investor backed capital to expand their capacity. Being located on the outskirts of London, one of the world’s leading production hubs, isn’t without significance. Overall, the rationale and opportunity is evident.

If we look at other studio projects, such as Titanic Quarter (Belfast), East Dagenham, and Roath Lock (Cardiff), the actual studios appear to be smaller parts of much larger mixed-use commercial and/or housing developments, rather than stand-alone propositions. They are typically institutional investor backed, where the state’s role, if any, is much softer, rather than being the funder of last or indeed any resort.

However, Manchester, has in my opinion, been the most innovative when it comes to public sector intervention. Here, the City Council has created an arms-length organisation or ‘ALEO’ to deliver screen and creative industries facilities in the form of the Sharp Project, and its next iteration, Space Studios.

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The Sharp Project - Manchester

These facilities are 100% owned by the local authority, who have now delivered over 120,000 sq. ft. of stages for film and television production, alongside hundreds of thousands of sq. ft. of facilities for the wider screen and creative industries. They have done so by acquiring and refurbishing property, alongside building anew, spending over £40m in the process, and transforming Manchester’s screen production capacity. Earlier perceptions on the Sharp/Space developments were that the assets were simply repurposed warehouses, primarily for television. However, the addition in 2019 of a new build, 30,000 sq. ft., 12m high, state of the art sound stage, and advertised as ‘a purpose-built facility for high end TV, film & commercials’, is an unequivocal statement of intent.

Other projects like dock10 in Manchester, a post-production and now studio super-hub, demonstrate that there is room and capacity for both the private and public sector to co-exist in this space, and in a geographical area similar to Glasgow or Edinburgh.

So, what lessons can we in Scotland learn from this?

I would return to my point about retaining value within the sector in Scotland. If we take Glasgow as an example, 10 years ago sectoral clusters such as Film City were rare, and the other established creative workspaces or clusters in the city were in their infancy. I would conservatively estimate that 250,000 sq. ft. of ‘creative’ space is now on the market in the city, offering terms such companies prefer – that is, flexible leases and occupation.

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Film City Glasgow Build Space. Credit: Claire Urquhart

If we were to assume like-for-like growth over the next 10 years, to 2029, how could we then capture and retain the value that these companies create – could we, like Manchester, take a strategic view and build the infrastructure to meet expected like-for-like growth?

What opportunities would that lead to in terms of exploiting such economies of scale to create not just a sustainable screen production facility, but also the facilities and studios and workspaces across all of the creative disciplines? If we consider that film and television is the engine room of the Creative Industries – up to 48% expenditure of the sector will materially impact most other creative industry sectors, which is more than any of the others - the benefits and opportunities of such cross-sector co-location are clear.

Or, do we maintain the fragmented approach, leaving it to a mixture of public and private sector organisations with differing long-term objectives and commercial expectations to deliver our screen and creative industries infrastructure? By taking this longer term strategic approach, we would then have the opportunity to consider how we use such retained value.

This generated value or income could perhaps see the creation of a long-term patient capital fund to support creative businesses, a regional film fund, or perhaps fund future iterations of a project like FOCUS, rather than a continual dependence on the public sector. And, rather than talk in broader terms of economic impacts, we could also look at how we grow our industry inclusively, creating jobs and opportunities from a deeper and wider pool of society?

All of the above will not necessarily occur organically, and the cyclical nature of funding and commissioning brings precarity. I’m reminded of the Govan motto Nihil Sine Labore, which is laid into the entrance foyer floor at Film City. Having not attended the type of school that taught Latin, I’m reliably informed that it translates as ‘Nothing without work (or effort)’. So, to hopefulness and confidence I would add effort, and by working in partnership I would be very optimistic that our industry has a viable future, for all.


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Film City Foyer. Credit: Reuben Paris.

Tiernan Kelly is the Director of Film City Glasgow

As per Scottish Government restrictions, seats available for all shows from 27 December to 23 January will be capped to meet the 1m social distancing requirement.

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