Lord Puttnam calls on UK film industry to urgently invest in skills training

On April 4 2023, Lord David Puttnam delivered his final keynote speech as president of the Film Distributors’ Association (FDA), and issued an impassioned rallying cry for further investment in UK film skills and training. You can read the full text of the speech below:
It gives me great pleasure to start this morning’s proceedings by launching the 2023 FDA Yearbook.
I’d like to take the opportunity to thank the team that have been involved with the creation of this Yearbook – especially its creator Andy Leyshon, his collaborator Dave Jarmain, and the book’s designer, Andy Bone.
Every year FDA manage to produce this fantastic resource which only gets better and more user friendly.
I’d also like to thank the rest of the FDA team – Izzy, Alex, Geraldine, and Simon for all the hard work they’ve put in pulling today’s event together.
For myself, I’m still getting used to the fact that we can once again be together ‘in person’ – which makes me doubly grateful to all of you for turning out this morning – I’m sure for some the ‘Easter holidays’ have already started to kick in, so I sincerely appreciate your making the effort.
Gatherings like this offer an all too rare opportunity for us to come together as an industry and reflect upon where we are, and more importantly where we want to get to over the next few years.
Those long ‘cloistered’ months allowed me time to think about how much change I’ve lived through over the many years I’ve been engaged with our ‘industry’.
Some of those changes were slow moving, almost impossible to spot until they’d actually happened; others came as more of a shock, occurring at such a rate that I’ve struggled to wholly comprehend their impact.
‘Acceleration’ is the word that’s been used a lot in respect of the changes brought about by the pandemic: in some cases, changes we thought would take decades occurred almost overnight.
That kind of accelerated change can be overwhelming – and makes it hard for different elements of our industry to, as it were, synchronise their plans for the future.
And it’s those ‘plans for the future’ that I’d like to spend the next thirty minutes focusing upon.
Let me start by referencing one of my own great mentors, Sir Michael Balcon, the Producer, who ran Ealing Studios during their prolific post-war years.
At a dinner in Cannes, on the 19th of May 1975, I, along with my hugely missed friend Alan Parker and others, listened to Sir Michael speak about his time in the industry, and the lessons that had remained with him.
Listening to Sir Michael that evening is about as close as I’ve ever come to an ‘aha’ moment.
Balcon – strongly believed that our industry only functioned successfully when it was unified – unified in practice, and unified in purpose.
And he had the scars on his back to prove it!
Some of you might be sitting there thinking – what can this ‘blast from the past’ have to do with me?
Well in part, I think it’s about the way in which we all need to develop a broader perspective. Rather than feeling that various facets of the screen industry are essentially in competition with one another, we desperately need to view ourselves as part of a single ecosystem.
And like every healthy ecosystem, it only works when each component is prospering.
Of course, the twist in the tale is that the ecosystem of 2023 is all but unrecognisable from the environment of the 1970s – or even of the eighties and nineties for that matter.
When I first entered the industry there were only really two avenues through which you could tell your stories and reach your audience – cinema & television.
Now there are a whole host of channels vying for attention:
Cinema, TV, Blu-ray, VOD, PVOD, AVOD, YouTube, Tik Tok, and an ever-increasing number of other platforms; games consoles, mobile phones, and more to come.
Our ‘ecosystem’ now includes technology companies, internet giants, traditional and ‘new’ studios; huge cinema corporations and independent cultural venues; as well as of course, festivals – both global and local.
In this context, any response to Michael Balcon’s point about ‘unity’ seems far more challenging:
Where can we find our commonalities?
What do we see as our ‘shared purpose’?
Well, one thing we certainly all care about is the ‘film’ itself.
When we really come to think about it, the ‘production component’ on this slide hasn’t changed that much since the 1970s.  [And incidentally when I use the word ‘film’ I’m thinking generically, because at this point in my life I’m finding it difficult to adjust to the word ‘content’!]
Happily, the stories and characters we see on our screens have become rather more diverse; but if anything, there’s been a tendency in recent years to follow well-trodden formulas in preference to thinking more laterally about our choice of the stories we choose to tell – and God knows, there’s no shortage of stories!
Which leads me quite naturally to the greatest unifier, our commitment to the audience; our commitment to provide engaging and entertaining films that can inform and uplift people from every taste, age and background, irrespective of the platform on which they decide to engage.
As if we needed it, recent figures from the BFI – remind us of the increasing unpredictability of the traditional exhibition sector.
There is no escaping the fact that that the viewing of movies has continued to consolidate around digital platforms, with the studios and streamers moving very fast to adapt during the pandemic.
Some of the Covid driven experiments with those platforms – such as going straight to VoD – have, I’m happy to say, been re-considered, and in some cases reversed. A less ideological and more ‘common sense’ approach seems to be emerging in the planning of release schedules in relation to windows.
I think it’s fantastic to see both Amazon and Apple making serious commitments to releasing their works on the big screen, recognizing the added-value it delivers – and to see the reaffirmation by all the major studios of their commitment to theatrical release. This is an encouraging example of the industry recognising that ‘shared purpose’ to which Michael Balcon referred.
I’m sure Reed Hastings is taking note!
This reaffirmation makes total sense when we see the popularity of cinema-going, and the frequency of cinema visits post-pandemic beginning to move in the right direction – this can only be good news – but as yet it’s nowhere near where any of us would like, or in some cases need it to be.
As becomes all too apparent from some of these stats – we are still way adrift of                   our 2019 numbers, or indeed the years immediately before that.
Of course, it would be ridiculous not to acknowledge the huge shock the pandemic has been to our sector, and the impact it’s particularly had on all aspects of theatrical distribution – from the release schedule through to the public health guidelines cinemas were required to adhere to.
What’s emerged, now that the dust has settled, is that Cinema’s most loyal customers are currently young, male Londoners.
But to succeed we’re going to need far more people right across the UK to engage or re-engage with the joy of cinema-going.
And that means making it easier, most particularly for women and older folk of my generation, to rediscover, re-populate and feel ‘at home’ in their local screens.
This specifically includes those screens – our independent venues – that are undergoing particularly challenging times, again not least because of the COVID lockdowns they endured a couple of years ago.
We tend to forget that these are the venues, and the cine-communities that grow around them, that have historically provided the creative R&D for our industry; along with our film festivals, our film schools, and a younger generation of passionate film critics, they are the one certain way of uncovering and cultivating new talent.
It has to be in all our interests to do everything possible to reverse what’s become a dangerous state of decline.
One of the genuine success stories of last year was the enthusiasm generated by National Cinema Day, which saw more than one and a half million admissions across the UK and Ireland.
This was a triumph by anyone’s standards, and truly a step in the right direction in terms of our ability to work across the UK, and in unison.
Perhaps the next step is an initiative that brings together all the links in the value chain, not just distribution and exhibition?
This was exactly what the industry set out to do at another challenging moment in its evolution – the mid-1980s – with the decision to make 1985 ‘British Film Year’.
For those too young to remember British Film Year, let me briefly explain something of the context in which it happened, as I think there are some genuine lessons to be learned from it.
The politician, Kenneth (now Lord) Baker, then at the Department of Trade, fought the Treasury over the abolition of the Eady Levy in 1983 – but he lost out to a combination of Treasury orthodoxy and short-sighted lobbying on the part of the then exhibition ‘duopoly’. This defeat had very real consequences for the production sector.
To compensate, Baker made some one-off grants: including digitally re-equipping the NFTS and offering financial support for British Film Year.
As Barry Norman suggested, that 5% ambition was pretty limited, but in the end the initiative proved to be the foundation for real success.
Confidence was restored, new cinemas in the form of multiplexes were constructed and a number of successful film franchises were re-invigorated or launched.
Admissions had doubled by 1992 – and anyone suggesting they would almost double again by 2019 would have been regarded as something of a cock-eyed optimist!
So, it was a collective will to engage and involve every aspect of the industry – and to generate belief in our own future – that allowed us to succeed, as an industry.
Surely, the time’s come to once again remind ourselves that, irrespective of where you see it, film plays an important role in our national cultural conversation; and that cinema-going is something people up and down the country can enjoy with their kids, their friends, their partners, or with their parents.
That sounds pretty obvious, but what does it take to make it happen?
The past fifty years have seen literally dozens of initiatives – I know, for at least thirty of those years I had a ‘ringside seat’.
In the end any Committee can only recommend – like it or not, every decision that has either advanced or at times undermined our industry, has been made behind that black door.
I could very easily spend the next hour enumerating them, but I won’t – from that catastrophic scrapping of the Eady Levy to the Downing Street Seminar; from the decision to allow Film to be included as an allowable expense within the National Lottery Act to the successful introduction of Tax Reliefs; and following all of that effort – the ignorant and vindictive decision to scrap an entirely coherent UK Film Council.
Here’s the problem, every one of those decisions – good and bad – occurred with nobody from the Screen Industries in the room.
Please believe me, whenever our industry’s voice is ‘fractured’ by sectoral interests, the force of our best made arguments with government are sidelined or lost.
At the most fundamental level, we need to ensure that cinemas of every kind are welcoming and accessible places for all ages, all backgrounds and all tastes.
It’s also imperative that across the industry we seize every opportunity offered by rapidly evolving technologies – and not just to cut corners or save on costs.
If we are to remain part of that ’national conversation’ we need to begin by supporting our industry within our local communities.
We can make a start by providing resources and advice to small, local film festivals as well as those major festivals which already have an international reputation. At all times working with and complementing the public support provided by local authorities and funds from the National Lottery.
We need to make sure we embrace those local communities whenever they have fresh programming ideas – particularly the kind of programming that will attract those audiences in which we’ve found there to be the greatest drop off.
We need to look at the manner in which film is talked about in the media – are our film critics and those who write about film, people the wider community can identify with, and trust?
Why is there no longer a single TV programme dedicated to new releases on any of our public service broadcasters – to be honest I find that inexplicable?
Is the experience of going to watch movies on the big screen as good as it possibly could be?
I was lucky enough to experience the passion with which everyone in exhibition, from the Cinema Manager to the Projectionist, viewed their role in the industry. I’m not expecting to see the imminent return of projectionists – far from it – but given the creativity that’s poured into each movie, it’s surely reasonable to expect similar levels of creativity and commitment from every person who helps connect us with our audience.
Toby Jones’s character is profoundly right, “nothing happens without light” – real change only occurs when sufficient light illuminates a problem.
We have endless data regarding the major structural issues facing our sector, but we must also acknowledge that audience numbers had stubbornly plateaued even before the pandemic.
Surely, once again we need to enable people fall in love with the experience of cinemagoing – including generations who are only just coming of age.
Personally, I remain convinced that if we can achieve that, every aspect of the film value chain will finally benefit.
So, here’s some really positive news.
In 2022, the production sector continued to be a (maybe the!) stand-out-growth story   within the UK’s stagnating economy. The combined spend by film and high-end television production (HETV) during 2022 reached a staggering £6.27 billion, the highest ever reported.
Inward investment for films and HETV shows delivered £5.37 billion, or 92% of that combined production spend.
Spend on independent UK filmmaking, however, showed a 31% decrease on 2021 – a point of concern I’ll briefly return to before I finish.
Those extraordinary inward investment numbers have consolidated the UK’s global reputation as the world-leading centre for film and TV production. By anyone’s standards, this is a sector that has been booming for some time, and very much remains open for business.
Meanwhile, in the past number of weeks and months, the one consistent refrain across Westminster, echoed throughout the media, has been the desperate ‘need for growth’.
Taken as a whole, the forecasts for UK growth are deeply concerning – the Bank of England doesn’t expect the UK economy to have exhibited any growth between the appearance of coronavirus in 2020 and 2025.
And yet here, in the area of production, the UK has a growth sector sitting on its doorstep – thankfully this is something the Chancellor acknowledged when, during his speech to Parliament last month he reminded us that the UK has the largest film and TV production industry in Europe, and in truth, the largest by value outside Hollywood.
The huge and very welcome investments in studio infrastructure and jobs made by Pinewood, Leavesden and others right across the UK are all testament to this.
However, if we’re to consolidate our position we need to ensure that our screen industries remain an attractive prospect for young people, both as a career and as an entertainment experience.
Distribution also needs talented new voices, with people from all backgrounds and from right across the UK seeking, and making a success of careers in the sector.
And this brings me on to the last screamingly important issue I want to spend time on today – the major crisis hanging over our industry: SKILLS.
Any number of attempts have been made to resolve this issue over the years, and ScreenSkills, the BFI and the National Film and TV School (of which I remain the proud President), along with a host of well-regarded industry initiatives, have all played an important role.
But there is no point in pretending that, collectively, we as an industry are yet working with sufficient ambition, or at sufficient scale to address this problem.
The reality is that investment in skills, and the ability to maintain growth need to be universally acknowledged as being synonymous, and therefore to sustain its growth, the industry must invest far more in its workforce.
I recently commissioned the blue-chip accountancy firm Saffery Champness to produce some data which shows, in very stark terms, the impact of successive years of under-investment in production skills.
As you can see from these slides, wage inflation in the screen sectors is running well ahead of overall inflation, and in some cases way ahead.
I passionately believe that had our industry invested a higher proportion of its production spend in training, it could have significantly reduced the wage inflation rate that’s illustrated here – running as it is, well above any general cost of living index.
In terms of Government initiatives, the Apprenticeship Levy – as it stands – is simply not a model that can be substantially of use to our largely freelance industry.
It certainly can’t be used to address key shortages such as Heads of Department, nor issues like the retention of the best of the existing craft workforce.
All too often investment in training is considered an unwanted ‘cost’ of doing business, rather than a crucial mechanism for sustained growth.
I very much welcome the announcement just last week of an industry-led ‘Skills Taskforce’.
As with so many aspects of our industry – it’s vital we take a collegiate, as opposed to competitive, approach to this Taskforce – any solutions to be found will necessarily have to be collective, and sustainable.
I look forward to hearing the recommendations Georgia and her colleagues make in the coming months – they will certainly have every scrap of my support, and I encourage everyone in this room to really get behind their work.
We also need the entire Government, not only the DCMS, but DfE, HMT and the team behind that door at No.10 to put their focus and political energy, every bit as much as their words, behind meaningful action.
And now that my own party appears serious about taking on the role and responsibilities of Government, I’d say exactly the same to them.
They need to be active enablers, along with the BFI, ScreenSkills, the NFTS and a host of others, in encouraging the most reluctant elements of our industry to really get to grips with the challenges it faces.
Each and every link on the value chain –producers, film studios, VFX, distributors, exhibitors – has serious skin in this game, and should care deeply about addressing what is, certainly in terms of our international competitiveness, a real, and not a manufactured crisis.
It’s also the case that our failure to act right now is costing the industry a fortune.
By my own back of the envelope calculations, as a former producer and someone with an understanding of the variations in proportion of spend accounted for when considering what is and isn’t ’below the line’ – I reckon an annual investment in skills of say £40 million would result in savings of well over £100m, or put another way around, a two and a half times RoI!
If you think I am wrong, then please produce your own figures!
But in doing so consider this – the total production investment figure for 2022 is unarguable.
That Saffery Champness analysis on the previous slide, whilst the sample may be quite small, is entirely consistent across all sectors and, correctly, quite conservative.
Personally, I believe a larger survey would find the true inflationary figure to be somewhere between 8% and 9%.
Each company will of course have access to its own numbers, but I’m happy to stake my reputation on my own estimates.
What we absolutely must avoid – and believe me, I’ve ‘seen this movie before’ – is inward investment moving out of the UK to locations in which similar production quality can be obtained at a more competitive price.
Please believe me, there are countries snapping at our heels who would love to seize the business we’ve so painstakingly built.
In wrapping up I’d like to return to Sir Michael Balcon – I’ve been thinking about him and his approach to the industry a great deal in preparation for this morning.
Yes, he held an unflinching belief in the power of unity.
Throughout his career he was willing to take on his peer group in their attempts to stunt the growth of television; he also took commercial risks by consistently supporting new and emerging talent, and taking on projects that were unproven, or even at the time, pretty unconventional.
His kind of spirit is still what sets our sector apart – and our domestic industry clings to a reputation across the world for its commitment to independent production, and indeed, independent distribution.
However, as I’ve set out – I hope convincingly – vital aspects of our eco-system are facing huge challenges – from stagnating revenue for UK indie films, to skills shortages leading to soaring and increasingly uncompetitive costs of production, to the disruption of traditional funding sources (such as pre-sales), through to viable independent distribution models.
We must always be seeking new and compelling stories; and telling them in ways that our audiences will find fresh and original.
As part of this, we need to find new means of supporting our independent film sector.
This is industrially important, as it helps develop the astonishing array of creative and technical talents which act as a magnet for inward investment.
And the best independent films help remind us of the causes and consequences of our collective histories – in all their extraordinarily rich variety.
During the pandemic, our cinemas and our distribution sector were both forced to recognise their over-dependence on a single supplier – Hollywood.
As an industry, and as a society, that can all too easily become a weakness.
Surely here again, if we can come together to find a way of energizing British independent cinema and its distribution, then in different ways every person in this room could benefit.
As a nation we badly need to find our voice, this is an ambition to which I’d urge both the Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition to give serious thought as we head toward a General Election.
Gathered here at BAFTA – our industry’s home of creative excellence, we need to remember to support the very best of our producers, writers, directors, cinematographers, production designers, editors, and those many others who will always be the bedrock of our domestic industry.
Creativity, be it in production, distribution, or exhibition, is about seeing things from different perspectives, being bold and imaginative, and being prepared to transform accepted ways of doing things. Remember what Toby said in that clip; “nothing happens without light” – the very best of us need, in whatever way we can, to offer it.
Thank you.