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Scottish film industry showing signs of promise

SINCE Colin Welland's Oscars bellow of "The British are coming!" turned out to be the cinema equivalent of David Steel's "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government," the British film business has understandably shied away from trumpet solos.

But Creative Scotland, the official body in charge of supporting Scottish film, could not help feeling a little proud when it came to the Toronto Film Festival in September. And why not, as a certain film critic used to say. There were four movies set to premiere in Toronto. Each had received £300,000 funding from Creative Scotland, and all ended up with rave reviews: Starred Up; Sunshine on Leith; The Railway Man; and Under the Skin.

They were not the only films Scotland could boast about over the year. Cloud Atlas, the Tom Hanks epic, and World War Z, Brad Pitt's zombie fest, were shot in Glasgow.

Then there was the Bafta-winning For Those in Peril, together with the James McAvoy-starring Filth, and the crowd-pleasing The Wee Man. If Scotland was not quite Hollywood in thermals then it was proving itself to be a pretty toasty proposition when it came to making pictures.

Why, then, was the successful producer Gillian Berrie (A Royal Affair, Starred Up, Under the Skin) to be found telling the Scottish Parliament's Education and Culture Committee in November that if more support from government was not forthcoming, Scotland would see a huge drain of talent. "Currently," the committee was told, "95% of film-makers are not able to make a decent living from working in the sector".

So who is right? In the way of such things, both sides are. Yes, Scottish films have had a high profile year, and there has seemed to be more of them around. On the latter point, though, Creative Scotland reckons an average of 22 films a year have been made in Scotland over the past 10 years. (If you fancy a particularly fiendish Boxing Day quiz, try naming them.)

Arguments about quantity aside, it is the quality of Scottish films that has made 2013 a remarkable year. There has been excellence of the so-called arthouse kind with For Those in Peril, plus mainstream success for Filth and Sunshine on Leith. The biggest bangs were made by the blockbusters, particularly Brad Pitt's World War Z. With its release much delayed, it had been feared that all that hard work by Glasgow in landing the filming of key scenes might be for nought.

It turned out to be one of the sleeper hits of the year, financially and critically. To date, it has grossed $540 million (£330 million) worldwide, with Cloud Atlas taking $130 million (£79 million). These figures come from the Box Office Mojo website. There are no similar stats available for the likes of Filth and Sunshine on Leith because they have not had comparable global releases.

That, for some observers, is the crucial point. If the top line in the movie industry is always the bottom line, then it might be argued that Scottish film will stay in the lower leagues until it starts earning serious money outside Scotland.

It need not be that way forever, though. There could be game changing moves on the way in 2014. Early next year, for example, Scottish Enterprise is due to publish its report on building a dedicated Scottish film studio, and Creative Scotland will unveil its film review before Spring. The industry will not be short of advice, but it is action that is required, and, to be blunt, money.

As Berrie told the Committee, the Scottish Government puts £23 million into national performing companies, but nothing goes into film (though a £2 million loan fund was announced in October by Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop to develop proposals for new film and TV production facilities). Would a dedicated studio or large amounts of government money make such a difference, or should the Scottish film industry be left to take its chances in the marketplace like many other businesses? Is European money the answer, as it is for the likes of Northern Ireland Screen and Yorkshire Screen?

It is hard to pick winners in any industry, more so in the film business because production and fundraising takes so long. What might seem a surefire idea for a hit today is tomorrow's turkey. Scottish film has not wanted for those in the past: a slice of the toe-curlingly awful Stone of Destiny anyone? As it is, only 7% of British films turn a profit.

There will be many matters competing for Scotland's attention in 2014, the referendum and the Commonwealth Games chief among them. Whether the public has the time or the inclination to channel energy and money into what would improve matters for Scottish film is debatable. The subject might be the be all and end all for filmmakers, but what of those whose interest in film stretches no further than the odd trip to the cinema?

While so much is up in the air politically, the Scottish film industry starts 2014 in a stronger position than it has been for years. With the likes of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin and David Mackenzie's Starred Up due for release soon, plus the premiere of God Help the Girl, written and directed by Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch, at Sundance in January, Scottish film is ready for its close-up again.

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