Lord Puttnam issues sector rallying call to grow audiences and address skills shortages

Apr 5, 2023

Launching the annual Film Distributors Association (FDA) Yearbook at BAFTA this morning, Lord (David) Puttnam, FDA President, announced a call to action for the film industry post-COVID, urging significantly increased investment in skills and development.

Reflecting on the industryplans for the future he challenged all areas of the film sector to work more closely together to maximise the opportunities presented by new mixed-mode distribution models by targeting audiences nationwide and within local communities.

In his speech, Lord Puttnam pointed to a lack of investment in skills development, which is seriously undermining the industrys ability to be internationally competitive. According to his own calculations, a committed annual investment of £40m in skills could result in production savings of well over £100m.   New data commissioned by Lord Puttnam from Saffery Champness shows that underinvestment, leading to scarcity of talent, has resulted in significant wage inflation for mid-level production roles, with spikes of between 7-15% above the cost of living (CPI). This has serious consequences for the UKs competitiveness and could threaten its position as the leading film production sector outside Hollywood.

Lord Puttnam also welcomed and pledged his support to the new industry-led Skills Task Force announced last week, which will be addressing critical skilled labour shortages in the UKs production sector.  He emphasised the need to support entry level training in the industry to accelerate the recovery beyond pre-pandemic levels, but in particular the need to deal with shortages across Heads of Departments, and measures to ensure the retention of the best of the existing ‘craft’ workforce.

The adoption of new models of online and digital distribution have also accelerated changes in the film landscape following COVID, and Lord Puttnam urged the entire industry to come together to  ensure greater impact in a highly competitive media landscape. Although the number of films audiences watch in a cinema has decreased since 2019, repeated film industry surveys have demonstrated that cinemagoing remains the leading out-of-home entertainment choice. Recently streamers Amazon and Apple have committed to release their works on the big screen, recognising the added-value it delivers. Meanwhile all of the major Studios have reconfirmed their commitment to theatrical release, demonstrating an encouraging example of the industry recognising its shared purpose.

Figures released in the 2022 FDA Yearbook highlight full year gross box office growing by 64% YoY in 2022, reaching £979m from 911 releases, maintaining a robust recovery. Whilst the box office has not yet reached the near 50-year sector highs witnessed immediately pre-pandemic, estimates are strong for 2023 with over 900 films to be released with greater consistency of release timing and a diverse mix of weekly titles. The highest grossing film of 2022 was Top Gun: Maverick taking £83.4m, closely followed by Avatar: The Way of Water with £76.8m, both clearly demonstrating the exceptional rewards possible in the theatrical market.

The UK & Ireland is the worlds 5th biggest global box office territory, and is a mature distribution market, with audience levels consistently stable pre-pandemic and cinema admissions at 169 million in 2018 and 177m in 2019, before returning to 117m in 2022.  The production sector in the UK continues to grow with spend on film and high-end TV (HETV) reaching a record £6.27 billion in 2022. 

“The frequency of cinema visits post-pandemic is 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. Audience numbers had already stubbornly plateaued even before the pandemic,” Lord Puttnam said.

This is why we need to take action now. We have to relearn the lessons of the past when initiatives such as British Film Year (1985) helped audience figures to double by 1992, and then almost double again by 2019. Together we have to unify our ambitions if we’re to put film back at the heart of the nations’ cultural conversation. The greatest unifier for the industry is the commitment to provide entertaining and engaging films, irrespective of platform he continued.

Lord Puttnam also announced at the event that it would be his last keynote as President of the FDA after sixteen years of service.“It’s been an honour and a pleasure to be part of the team for so long, and I wish my predecessor – whomever they may be – all the very best“.

 The resolutions outlined by Lord Puttnam included the following:

  • Audience inclusivity: growing the attractiveness and accessibility of cinemagoing for all ages, backgrounds and tastes.
  • Technology: seizing every opportunity offered by rapidly evolving technologies and not just to cut corners or save costs.
  • Acting Local: truly working with local venues and audiences in mind; if we are to be part of the ‘national conversation’ we need to support industry within our local communities.
  • Creativity: we need a commitment to high levels of creativity from every person across the value-chain who helps connect us with our audience.
  • Commitment and Energy: Ensuring that every person engaged in our industry is passionate and committed about the contribution they are making.

Summary of Key Points from the Speech:

  • In 2022 the production sector continued to be a stand-out-growth story within the UK’s stagnating economy. According to data from the BFI, the combined spend by film and high-end television production (HETV) during 2022 reached a staggering £6.27 billion, the highest ever reported. Inward In investment for films and HETV shows delivered £5.37 billion, or 92% of that combined production spend. The UK has the largest film and TV production industry in Europe, and the largest by value outside Hollywood.
  • There continue to be challenges right across the industry’s ecosystem – 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).
  • 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.
  • According to the BFI, the spend on UK independent filmmaking showed a 31% decrease versus 2021, depriving audiences of an extraordinary rich variety of storytelling which reflects our individual and collective histories.
  • Our independent venues are undergoing particularly challenging times, not least because of the COVID lockdowns they endured a couple of years ago.  We too easily 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.

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