The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

We Need to Talk about Children’s Film…

On Thursday 27th March the CMF and BAFTA came together to talk about kids' film and the potential of the British children's film industry.
Katie Simmons reports...

The event aimed to discuss the current status of the British children’s film industry. On the panel were Justin Johnson from the BFI, Linda James, a creative entrepreneur who has worked in both TV and feature films, Rupert Preston a partner at Vertigo and Jocelyn Stevenson, Executive Producer and Creative Head of Film and TV at Mind Candy.

Despite there being a general appetite for children’s and family films, when you think of recent releases in this genre it’s American titles like Frozen and Lego that dominate. It seems there simply isn’t enough interesting independent children’s British film on offer!
The Chair, Briony Hanson, led the panel through their experiences and began to question what can be done about it. How can we provide other experiences and greater choice for the audience?
Jocelyn Stevenson treated us to the trailer for Moshi Monsters: The Movie.  This was an entirely British production that started as a 44-minute straight-to-DVD project and grew into an 88-minute theatre release (with no increase in time or budget!) After all the hard work, Jocelyn told us she is very proud of the final product and that they have managed to make their financial targets. They were up against Frozen, so this was no mean feat.

Jocelyn was passionate about keeping the film an entirely British creation and, as a result, it was animated in Cornwall. However, despite being the fruit of British imaginations, the film doesn’t have anything culturally British about it.
As an American who now has a GB passport, Jocelyn’s clearly an Anglophile. She spoke passionately about British culture as exciting and full of potential in cinema. She felt, and the rest of the panel agreed, that when it comes to live-action film making, we have a responsibility to reflect our culture on the big screen.
Linda James made the uncomfortable point that if we really care about cultural diversity on screen then we have to put it there, because America isn’t. She feels if we want films that are culturally interesting then we should take that responsibility, and Justin Johnson agreed that with so many films coming from the US, what we should be doing is reflecting everyday life and the diversity and experience of living in the UK today.
It’s often believed that television is sufficient to cover the family market, but Linda raised the point that there isn’t any ninety-minute drama made for the family audience anymore. Besides this, the panel felt that the immersive experience of film-going is something we need to nurture, both from a cultural and future industry perspective.  Going to the cinema is such an enthralling experience that has the ability to culturally and emotionally enrich the younger audience. Why aren’t we making more of it?
The panel all agreed that the main barrier to making UK family films is raising the money to do so.
Rupert is a partner at Vertigo, pretty much the only successful UK family film producer around at the moment. They have experienced success with Street Dance, Horrid Henry: The Movie (pictured) and are currently making Pudsey the Dog: The Movie. Vertigo is proof that there is a massive appetite for family films in the UK – but Rupert made it very clear that raising the money is incredibly difficult.

However, with the market as it currently stands, and so few other family films to compete, if a film does get backing then there is distribution available and you can make it a success! A basic model that works for Vertigo is making a film for around £2 million that will then be shown in about 300/400 screens. UK family films do make money, and this was repeated throughout the evening – They. Make. Money!
Linda brought up the current paradigm she has experienced when trying to raise financial backing: British family films don’t travel well and only work in the UK market. But despite this being a big enough market to make a success, financial backers seem to have the perception that you have to make films that work in the international market. Hence, they are reluctant to fund UK projects.
There are three main cash cows to help; the BBC, Film Four and the BFI.  Justin Johnson from the BFI is currently charged with writing a report that will ask should there be, as suggested by Baroness Floella Benjamin, a ring-fenced budget for the family and children’s genre. He cited the Dutch model as one that works: In Holland 25% money goes towards family films, and that represents 43% of their box office.

As part of their investment in the future of film, the BFI’s Into Film initiative aims to put film at the heart of young people’s learning and cultural experiences. They are bringing films into UK education via their film clubs and already have around 8,000 schools signed up. They aim to take it out to all schools in the UK. 
And it was over this point that the CMF posed the final question of the night. If the BFI are investing to ensure there’s a young audience for film, then surely we need some joined up thinking to ensure that British films are being made for them to watch! What and where is the organisation or broadcaster with the responsibility for children’s cultural education? CMF Director, Greg Childs made a plea for some joined up thinking and called out to Justin to “Sort this out!”
Conversations continued after the panel closed but most people came to the same conclusion: the appetite for UK family film is there; the audience is there;  the money to be made is there. So when is the financial backing to stimulate the sector going to be there too?
With thanks to CMF’s Matt Deegan and BAFTA’s Lisa Prime for producing the event.

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