Martin Cuff, former executive director of the Association of Film Commissioners International, explains the varied, expanding and essential role that commissions are playing in the international production marketplace.
Film productions still seem to follow the most generous incentive scheme. Can countries with no formal scheme compete to attract productions? Are factors like facilities, infrastructure, language, lower production costs and a favourable exchange rate a sufficient draw?
It’s been years since I had a conversation with a filmmaker that didn’t start, ‘What incentives do you offer?’ Incentives, therefore, really are the foot in the door for a lot of locations. But incentives are not the only thing most productions are interested in and there are many destinations—Sweden springs to mind—without film incentives who have been able to significantly punch above their weight in the international arena. For Sweden, a lot was due to the rise in popularity of Swedish literature, but the combination of local equipment and infrastructure, a good English-speaking crew base, a tourism infrastructure, as well as forward-thinking film commissioners, all have combined to convert interest into production.
In the USA, California and New York have long dominated the production landscape. How have smaller states like Georgia and Louisiana managed to attract productions away from these traditional hubs?
Again, incentives have been the principle drawcard. But I always describe the filmmaker’s dilemma as trying to differentiate the cost from the risk. By that I mean that it’s all very well to be cheap, but if that means you don’t have experienced crew or talent, you have second-rate equipment, your business ethos is tardy and your shoot days run over, then cost savings are outweighed by the risk. I think places like Georgia and Louisiana have been successful because they managed to reach the critical mass of incentivised affordability to begin with, but have created a value proposition of crew, infrastructure and services that alleviates risk. Great locations help, of course.
In 2011, much of the UK’s film business came from big-budget US productions shooting on our soil. Are commissions under pressure to attract these foreign investments, at the expense of supporting local independent productions?
The first commissions were established principally to attract that direct foreign investment so, far from it being a ‘pressure’, it’s kind of integral to the entire structure of a typical film commission. What’s happened of late, however, is that commissions have begun to focus on all possible aspects of economic development from a nurtured and supported film industry, and with that there’s a flourishing interest in helping local production get off the ground. Of course whenever there’s cash involved, people get all territorially possessive over it—‘no, we’re the film industry!’—but the film commission’s job is to help all areas of the business.
Serbia’s film commission has been particularly proactive in promoting the country to the point where it stands alongside its established European neighbours in attracting international production. Serbia aside, who are the most forward-thinking European commissions, and why?
Lots of European film sectors seem to be doing great things at the moment. The French for instance, always well supported by government, have had a bumper year; who would have believed a black-and-white silent film with dance numbers that was funded out of France would win the best film at the Academy Awards? As mentioned, I also like what the Swedes are doing. Eastern Europe is still buzzing, from Romania through to the Czech Republic. Even Estonia opened a film commission. I’m looking forward to learning more, and getting fully up to speed during Cannes.
When we talk about the role of film commissions, is it important that their strategy also include support for TV, commercial and games production?
Absolutely; film commissions aim to be the hub of all economic activity generated by the film sector in a particular area—including film festivals and film schools. The need to incorporate television and TV commercials is important, because in most places there is not sufficient work to warrant any major degree of specialism between the genres. Plus the regulations for filming on location tend to be based on size of impact rather than the nature of the production. New-media production is a huge growth area for film commission involvement, though, and most of us are scrambling like hell to get up to speed with what that means for both resources and opportunities. Essentially, if it’s filmed in your area, as a film commissioner it’s in your interests to know about it.
Incentives play a crucial role in the industry; have you witnessed any key changes in the way they are offered during your career?
Incentives are such a tricky beast. To begin with, governments saw what others were doing and were falling over themselves to find ways to adapt local programmes to the film business. The economic downturn brought some of this crashing to a halt, particularly in the US, where there’s been a degree of backlash against what’s perceived by opponents as ‘bailouts for Hollywood’. And I think with experience, legislators are becoming much more savvy and, indeed, demanding about what they expect from the film industry in return. So, some are cutting back their programmes, some are giving them up altogether and some are expanding them in a kind of ‘go big or go home’ response. It’s too early to tell what the final outcome will be, but it’s damn entertaining to watch it unfold.
What role does ‘soft money’ play in attracting productions to locations, and how is this different to incentives?
In some cases, incentives are soft funds. Film funding has changed quite a bit in recent years, with the decline of pre-sale agreements, gap funding arrangements or insurance fund investments, and nothing seems to be easily rising to take its place. There’s some venture capital-type investment, a trend of sharing intellectual property rights and benefits for everything from music to use of studios and, for indies, there’s the tantalising hope of crowd-funding. In this kind of environment, even a simple sales tax rebate can be a selling point. A small one, but a selling point nonetheless. I guess one of the biggest challenges for producers, therefore, is knowing how to compare apples with apples, incentives with incentives, to know which programme actually offers the best deal.
With film production contributing so much to economic growth, should governments take an active role in formulating incentive policies to attract foreign production (such as has happened in New Zealand for The Hobbit / LOTR franchise)? Are there any disadvantages to this involvement?
The film commission movement, which has really been going since the Forties, is testament to the recognition of governments all over the world that film production on location can bring huge benefits of job creation, small business growth, infrastructure investment and even tourism spin-offs. I’m biased, but I think every government should have a film commission to facilitate those economic and social benefits. Well structured and managed, there are few obvious or direct disadvantages of a buoyant film sector; but politicians are nothing if not political, and to be honest, film folk aren’t often great at remembering that. To keep offering support, governments like to know how much a production company has just spent or how many local people they’ve just hired, and producers are notoriously loathe to provide even the most basic of information. This can make government perceive production as a liability rather than a benefit, and I really think we need to up the discussion about how we can collectively track and report back production information.
Finally, what are the main challenges facing emerging film commissions attempting to put themselves on the international production map?
The film industry is a soup of ego and ferocious focus. Filmmakers can sometimes only approach film commissions when they need something specific, which means it’s not particularly easy to get an entrance. It’s exceptionally difficult to break in and make contacts, to know who to speak to and how to speak to them, to understand what producers are looking for, but also to recognise that that will differ from what a location scout or a production designer or a visual effects producer is looking for. •