Olswang film chief’s post-UKFC vision

The film The King’s Speech has only been out since 7 January but has already established itself as a critical and commercial success and must be a shoo-in for an Oscar or two.

Lisbeth Savill
Lisbeth Savill

But as the film’s stars travel the globe collecting awards, the debate over the future of the UK film industry and how it will be funded rages on, provoked by the ­Government’s announcement last July that the UK Film Council (UKFC) will be abolished by April 2012.

Certainly, UKFC was not short of critics. The quango was accused by the Government of having ­ludicrously high overheads (an advert offering a £70,000 salary for a diversity officer was one example) and by filmmakers of being mired in box-ticking bureaucracy.

Inevitably, accusations surfaced that there were too many lawyers sticking their beaks in.

Olswang head of film and television Lisbeth Savill is in a better position than most to comment. She has been operating in the sector for more than 20 years, sorting finance for every kind of project, from Disney films and Bond movies to gritty independent titles.

Most recently Savill earned a credit as co-executive producer on The King’s Speech. She was there to watch the film’s star Colin Firth pick up the Best Actor Award at the British Independent Film Awards in December and describes him as “a charming man, absolutely deserving of all the credit he’s getting”.

“There were a lot of accusations of the UKFC being overlawyered, which got in the way of its remit to support film, but I don’t think that was fair,” says Savill. “The lawyers were charged with looking after public money and wanted to make sure it was secured. Naturally, they ended up bringing in typical film financing techniques, so you had a lot of lawyers trying to put the money for a film together when the process should have been more streamlined.

“I understand their dilemma. They were given the objective to invest and to make sure they were investing securely, so what else do you do but tick every box and get every concession and agreement in place, such as inserting rights of approval?”

But the UK film industry still needs public financing, ­particularly for the small independent films everyone is keen to champion.

“The independent distribution industry, especially in the smaller territories, is nervous of prebuying independent movies […] so you need an entity that will take a risk and cover the gap in funding
so the film can be made and ­distributors can see the finished movie, and hopefully buy it,” says Savill.

But she does not believe that the end of the UKFC will harm filmmakers. The tax credit system for films is still in place and the British Film Institute (BFI), which was announced in November 2010 as the UKFC’s successor, has the chance to learn from its ­predecessor’s mistakes.

“Not enough thought was given to what kind of body the UKFC would be and how the executives should behave,” says Savill. “It’s a lesson the BFI needs to learn. They also need to work out how to administer public money in a light-touch way.

“Once it gets its new board in place it will have to take a close look at the UKFC model, and ­perhaps other funding models, and come up with something that doesn’t cost as much to administer and is more streamlined in ­getting money into the system.

“From my perspective, they should try to apply objective ­criteria to what’s essentially a ­subjective process – picking ­projects to finance – to try to make the job easier and so fewer people can accuse them of favouritism.

“Everything’s cyclical,” she adds. “Financing independent films will continue. Over the past two or three years there have been far fewer films made in this country, but we’ve had some great ones this year – 127 Hours, Made in Dagenham, The King’s Speech, Another Year.

“Perhaps people have worked on their scripts more because the process of getting films made is more difficult.”