In My Opinion: Robin MacPherson: What might independence do for Scotland’s TV and film sectors?

THERE are many reasons why film and television in an independent Scotland could be bigger, better and benefit audiences, the economy and our wealth of creative talents much more than it currently does.

For the best part of a century, our screen culture and industry have depended on the resources and perspectives of London decision-makers. At times, this relationship has indeed been beneficial but mainly it has been debilitating. It is true that, at some key moments in our screen history, for want of a stronger domestic infrastructure, we have profited from enlightened regimes at the BBC, the British Film Institute (BFI) or Channel 4 who have given Scottish stories and talent support and screen time. Without them Bill Douglas, Bill Forsyth, John McKenzie, Lynne Ramsay or Paul Wright might never have reached our screens.

But we shouldn’t have to rely on those occasionally benign decisions which expose precisely the highly dependent nature of the relationship. Despite 35 years of effort since Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling burst onto the screen, we still lack the size and shape of screen industry that can consistently develop, employ and retain talent in front of or behind the camera without first looking to Soho or W1A for approval.

As a result, unlike our literature, music or theatre, we still import virtually all of our screen culture, more than any comparable western European country. Indeed, it seems that we have almost lost the capacity to imagine any other arrangement, tending to assume that Scottish must mean pawky, parochial or poor quality.

Lacking a sense of what a distinct Scottish audience might want, from say its screen dramatists, it’s little surprise that producers focus hard on meeting the expectations of financiers, distributors, BFI and TV executives for whom Scotland will always be small part of a bigger picture with no enduring claim on their time or resources.

The queue for film finance is so long and the local pot so limited that the average age of a first-time feature director in Scotland remains stubbornly close to 40. It can take ten years to get a film like Sunset Song (even with Terrence Davies attached as director) or a TV series like Katie Morag from development to production (both first supported with development finance by Scottish Screen in 2000).

Meantime, Scotland’s share of network TV production has edged up from three per cent by value in 2003 to just over four per cent in 2012 – far from the nine per cent that our population share would suggest is a reasonable expectation of our public service broadcasters. Under pressure to deliver more for the ‘nations and regions’, valiant producers turn creative cartwheels to plausibly relocate a secondary school from Rochdale to Greenock while we wait patiently for a Scottish originated volume drama to be commissioned for the network – any network.

What would make things better in an independent Scotland?

Since no country’s screen industry has succeeded internationally without a strong and growing home audience we could work harder to grow domestic demand. Not by forcing audiences to watch home-grown movies through import tariffs, or blocking EastEnders, but rather by ensuring we have the capacity to offer real choice in the living room, in the cinema or on tablet PCs.

That will take time.

A Scottish Broadcasting Channel that, like most European public broadcasters, was mandated to support domestic film production (with investment and screening slots) alongside commissioned TV drama would be a powerful aid to growing production, jobs and facilities. Of course, it would have to compete, as in Ireland, with UK networks – just as UK networks now have to compete with Netflix, Amazon and iTunes. But it would also be a crucial platform to develop Scottish talent and companies for whom these new distribution channels are real opportunities.

In the same way people often overlook the fact that Grand Theft Auto originates in Scotland, not many people realise that international TV hit, The Tudors, was developed in Ireland, giving several new Irish directors their big break as well as employing legions of crew and facilities.

I’ve written elsewhere about how Scotland’s film success is patchy and stop-start compared to other countries because we operate well under the critical mass required to produce hits with any sort of consistency. If we invested the levels of public finance per head that other similar-sized European countries do, we could transform the environment for Scottish film and TV.

Where we spend around one pound a year per person on funding film, Ireland spends two and Denmark ten, resulting in a far bigger share of the domestic market than Scotland has. Add control of tax reliefs and incentives and the full range of studio facilities to attract more inward productions like US series, Outlander, filming in Cumbernauld, and we can see how Scotland could reach Irish levels of production and perhaps, in the longer term, Danish.

An independent Scotland in the EU would qualify for country of ‘smaller audiovisual capacity’ status which would bring the same advantage when applying for Creative Europe MEDIA funding as every other small country in the EU enjoys. And like those countries, if we joined EURIMAGES, the European Cinema Support Fund, our producers would have access to coproduction funds which the UK, as a non-member, does not.

Fiscal and regulatory measures to stimulate production are only part of the picture. Alongside a commitment to grow production levels, investment in skills and talent development is crucial. For too long we have waved goodbye to talents in front of and behind the camera that, once established in London, New York or LA then have precious little opportunity to pay return visits. Conversely, when high-value productions arrive from elsewhere they quickly max out the available expertise or worse, because of unfamiliarity with our abundant talent and skills, bring up their favoured cast and crew, anyway.

Our screen ecology suffers from a long-term depression of demand. In contrast, Denmark’s equivalent of BBC Scotland, home to The Killing and Borgen, employs 40 people in its drama department. Its head of Drama, Piv Bernth, cites their close relationship with the Danish Film School as “one of the secrets of our success; with The Killing 3, for instance, we had five young student cinematographers for three weeks on the set”.

A revitalised film and TV industry in Scotland could offer similar opportunities, providing many more rungs in the career ladder; not just the step up to a plane south, but an open return ticket too.

None of this means severing our links with industry, institutions or audiences south of the border. Rather it means reframing those relationships so that we can enter into creative and commercial partnerships on a more equal basis, bringing more to the table and having more say on how audiences here are served and industry supported.

For example, the Irish Film Board gets along very well with the British Film Institute and they regularly co-finance films in much the same way that Creative Scotland and the BFI do.

Of course, there are risks; for instance, we might not grow our domestic TV production base fast enough to compensate for the loss of ‘lift and shift’ procurement that is currently propping up the BBC’s commissioning record in Scotland.

There might be additional transaction costs that could work against co-production or co-investment. We might discover it’s too late, culturally, to reverse audience expectations of wall-to-wall imported screen content.

Or we might just not bother to take our screen culture and industry seriously enough to give it the investment it requires.

But none of these things are inevitable. As the recent Creative Scotland Film Sector Review shows, we have the potential, the talent and the skills to make a difference.

If we have the will, there is a way in an independent Scotland.

Robin MacPherson is Professor of Screen Media at Edinburgh Napier University, director of Screen Academy Scotland and of the Institute for Creative Industries at Edinburgh Napier. A version of this appeared in the Sunday Herald newspaper on May 18 2014.