ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.6 - SEPTEMBER 1999
The History of Channel 4 and The Future of British Animation
(continued from page 5)
New Funding Methods
With shrinking budgets and audience shares, it will take more than TV sponsorship for British animation to shift gear and channel more of its talent and originality into major productions for the world market. The Independent Producers' Association (P.A.C.T.) is addressing some of the issues.
In recent years and especially since the new Labour government came to office in 1997, important strides have been made to assist live-action feature production and the results are already visible in an increased number of successful British films. The Conservative government introduced a National Lottery four years ago, and some of the profits are channelled into a fund for film co-production. Live-action features which have received Lottery assistance include Hilary and Jackie and An Ideal Husband. More recently, the new Labour government's newly-created Department of Media, Culture, and Sport persuaded the Treasury to grant tax-breaks for investors in feature film production.
These steps are not enough to help the specific needs of animation, however, argues P.A.C.T.'s Diane Freeman. To qualify for a tax break, British films must meet stringent definitions, which need to be adapted to include animation; also, the tax break (up to £15 million) must be spent in the first year of production, which does not reflect the longer production schedules and cashflow for animation. Britain needs to introduce special tax breaks for animation, such as already exist in other countries like France and Canada. Freeman also says the shorter runs of animated series -- usually thirteen episodes -- which British broadcasters tend to commission disadvantages UK productions in an international market which prefers twenty-six.
The Lottery fund aims to assist the theatrical film industry. It provides only up to 50% match-funding, and it has assisted a number of animated shorts. Applications have to fulfill certain seemingly arcane criteria, however, such as that the film must benefit the public in some way. Projects applying for Lottery funding must also have letters of support from theatrical distributors.
T.R.A.N.S.I.T. by Piet Kroon.
© The Illuminated Film Company Ltd/Stichting Picture Start 1997.
One independent animation producer I spoke to said the promise of support from distributors was a bit of a scam and at the end of the day he had been unable to find any real interest. He also said another of the Lottery's conditions -- under which if a film goes into profit they are first in line to recoup their input -- could be problematic with other financiers including broadcasters, who are unlikely to be content to wait in the queue behind the Lottery before they see any returns.
On the other hand Emma Calder, whose film The Queen's Monastery received a Lottery grant, was very pleased with the theatrical release of her film with the live-action feature Love is the Devil, through the south London-based independent distributor Oasis. She feels the Lottery is encouraging the cinema sector to take an interest and her film had been very well received. She was originally given a fairly small amount from Colin Rose left over from his 10 x 10 short film series, but he suggested she also approach the Lottery. She also had a grant from the London Production Fund.
With the shrinking of financing from broadcasting, this kind of funding package may well point the way forward for independent animated shorts, and the Lottery's emphasis on theatrical distribution may be a move in the right direction. Clare Kitson has apparently also had success in getting Lottery co-funding for projects, including the international co-production T.R.A.N.S.I.T. by Piet Kroon (1997).
The Rough Road Ahead
Meanwhile, some of the concern about the way things are going at Channel 4 are focused on new interpretations of its remit to innovate, educate and serve minority audiences. P.A.C.T. is concerned about recent sleights of hand, whereby, for example, cricket matches are considered part of the Channel's provision for ethnic minorities, and the soap opera Brookside is meant to count as educational because it sometimes addresses social issues.
It has been assumed all these years that animation was covered under the remit. Clare Kitson says, however, that the remit has been rewritten several times spelling out in ever greater detail which ethnic minorities it should serve, and no mention has been made of animation.
In a recent speech to the Broadcasting Press Guild, Channel 4's Chief Executive since 1997, Michael Jackson, said that good minority programming should also appeal to the majority. This apparent tautology has been widely interpreted as a head-on threat to the original spirit of the remit fought for so hard in the '70s. It also seems ironic given Jackson's own history, as he was originally organiser of the Channel 4 lobby group. Another producer I spoke to said it was contradictory in terms of Jackson's history but not to his ambitions, which now are to turn Channel 4 into a modern multi-media channel.
Times have of course changed considerably in tele-communications, or in TV jargon, 'the new multi-channel environment' and this is affecting broadcasters everywhere. As to the immediate future for animation, many I spoke to have the impression Channel 4 is looking for a new Simpsons, or another Nick Park. This is ironic since, when the Simpsons were the latest thing and was on offer to British broadcasters in the early '90s, Channel 4 passed on it. Plus as several people I spoke to were quick to point out, Channel 4 had Nick Park first, but let him go to the BBC when they were unwilling to back Clare up and find the budget for the Wallace and Gromit sequel, The Wrong Trousers.
So it seems Channel 4's policies toward animation, while in some ways visionary, have in other respects been rather short-termist and blind to the way things have been going in the 1990s. By stressing the individual artist they have failed to invest in the infrastructure of the indigenous animation industry, or foresee global developments in media in the way, say, the BBC or MTV have.
By all accounts Clare has had to fight very hard in recent years to defend her patch, and many animators feel very moved and emotional about her struggles on their behalf. Lacking her own department, for instance, Clare has been shunted around the Channel from Programme Acquisitions, to Drama, to Arts and Entertainment.
I spoke to Clare's replacement Camilla Deakin, who is by contrast clearly excited about her new role and upbeat about the future. Asked if she is daunted by her complete lack of knowledge, she said she felt she had youth and enthusiasm on her side. She confirmed she will be looking for series ideas with the help of Entertainment's Cheryl Taylor. Ruth Fielding will help in reading scripts.
As for the future of one-off films, she confirms that the MOMI and Animate! schemes will continue. MOMI itself will be closing shortly for at least five years while London's Southbank Centre where it lives is being redeveloped. Meanwhile, the animation booth has been relocated to the nearby newly-opened IMAX theatre. It sounds as though the MOMI scheme is being curtailed in that under a new rule films will be kept to a running time of three minutes. Animate! supervising producer Maggie Ellis presently has funds for one more year. As one producer put it, the Animate! and MOMI schemes being essentially low budget and aimed at young animators are philanthropy and will probably continue.
Serious budgets for short films by professional animators outside of the schemes will be fewer and farther between. As far as one-off shorts go, Camilla will be looking for pieces for the 7:55 pm slot. She hopes to commission animation to fit into forthcoming thematic seasons planned for the schedules. As far as acquisitions go, Camilla said that the shelves of Channel 4 are for the moment very well stocked.
Meanwhile, not only is Clare going, but David Curtis is leaving the Arts Council next year. This, in addition to last year's demise of the Cardiff animation festival, makes it truly feel like we are seeing the end of an era. Let's hope that the new generation of animators who have been nurtured by the tender loving care of Channel 4 et. al. are ready to seize the day and make the future their own.
Channel 4 can be reached at 124 Horseferry Road, London, SW1P 2TX, England.
Telephone: (0)171 396 4444
Irene Kotlarz is a Los Angeles-based freelance producer and animation consultant. Kotlarz was the director of the Cardiff/Bristol/Cambridge festival from 1985 to 1992. She has taught animation history and theory at West Surrey College, Royal College of Arts and the National Film and Television School in the U.K. and was a producer at Speedy Films from 1993 to 1997.
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