The Will, The Work and the Timing

15-06 2009

Notes on a Norwegian film policy reform

Many of us are well acquainted with the results of trade union work. Endless rounds of meetings, volumes of pretty words. While the world around us – unaffected by our efforts – rolls along the same beaten path.

The following text describes another experience. Things can change! Though it demands more than a glance at the notes from the last meeting and arriving to sessions on time.

First some background: Soon after the national elections in 2005 it became apparent that the new minister of culture, Trond Giske, had not only an unusual interest in film but also far reaching ambitions for a complete restructuring of the funding apparatus in the Norwegian film industry. Rumor had it that he was considering a consolidation of previously separate entities; The Norwegian Film Institute which is responsible for distribution, The Norwegian Film Fund which provided financial support for film production, and,not in the least, The Norwegian Film Development Board, the dramatists own organization, responsible for manuscript development programs.

The first concern among dramatists was for the independent status of our manuscript funding. Will it survive? Will we, in the future, still have funds accessible for projects initiated by we dramatists ourselves, or will we be forced to first sell our yet loosely formulated visions to one or another producer?

It was immediately clear to the board of The Norwegian Playwrights’ Association that if we desired influence in the coming reforms we would need to develop our own cinema policies – and fast!

During the following months it became also clear to us that we couldn’t merely mount a defense of an existing order but would need to think through all the ways in which funding policies could be improved. When the board gathered for a seminar at the end of April 2006 the appropriately immodest theme was “Where do we want to be in ten years time?”

Throughout the summer we examined thoroughly our past frustrations and the one hate object we kept returning to was the all too frequent appearance of new decision makers. It takes time to develop projects and it was the rule rather than the exception that individual projects outlived the leadership of both producing and funding bodies. The result was an artistic reduction to the least common denominator or, to borrow a phrase from a colleague, “the shit in the middle”.

Were all these levels of decision making absolutely necessary? Was it possible to have more control over the process? Could one at the same time give cinematic artists (scriptwriters) a greater continuity of artistic development?

We concluded that decisions concerning repertory, which films should be produced, should generally be moved downward in the system, simultaneously shifting policy making towards the top of the system, to the Department of Culture. The bureaucrats in the middle, the film consultants, should be strengthened in their role as administrators of funding policy rather than executive producers, dramaturges or generators of film policy. In connection with this idea we thought it would be good to initiate a tryout period for slate funding, in which the state approves funding for several films from the same team (scriptwriter + producer + director) without attaching a chain of different consultants with differing tastes to judge in detail each individual project.

This is in my opinion correct thinking. In my eyes, the Norwegian system with film consultants is – in principle - a complete abomination. Why should the branch be controlled by people who are expected to fully evaluate a film before its made, to develop films that they will not themselves produce and to make decisions regarding projects that they in the end have no responsibility for?

It has for the past ten years been a government goal to give the film industry greater freedom and greater responsibility, but responsibility without a decision-making organ is of course an illusion. When one doesn’t trust the film industry to produce films that meet the specific demands that are the basis for state subsidies (quality, volume, target group, genre and gender), the most logical consequence will be a retreat towards a system with one or several state owned production entities, such as the late, state owned, Norsk Film AS.

That aside – the object of this article is not the film policy in Norway, rather our own work process. The question is “how were we able to work for the acceptance of our ideas?”

When Gunnar Germundson, the chairman of our board, presented our points of view at a branch seminar on August 15th 2006, there were plenty who laughed wryly. How naïve! To think we could just redesign a system that has existed for so many years, one that has given Norwegian film a measure of success in the past! What idiocy!

At the same seminar, the minister of culture announced that he had put together a committee led by book club director Kristenn Einarsson, charged with a rapid assessment and a presentation of suggestions for a new film support structure by Christmas of the same year. Was this a coup by a minister who’d already done his thinking, who had given us a deadline of just a couple of months to formulate our own proposal?

It was here that we took an important step – we decided to take the discussion to our colleagues.

Film is a collaborative art form. Nothing should be more self-evident than the need to speak with your colleagues – the directors, producers, actors and the many craftsmen that contribute to the vision of a film. We proceed from a matter of common interest.

That was to be our guiding principle. When the committee’s report hit the table, the five branch organizations in the film industry had decided on a collective response. All of us were in agreement that it would cost the government too much to oppose a united film industry.

It was a hectic race. We dramatists came in numbers and well prepared to the meetings – we had created a film committee which included Siri Senje, Ståle Stein Berg, Gunnar Germundson and myself to take turns in presenting our ideas and suggestions. There were numerous meetings and intense discussions throughout the month of January and writers as we are, the dramatists shouldered from the earliest stages, the responsibility of structuring our arguments. It was a fruitful exercise. When Gunnar presented our collective response to the suggestions of the government film committee on the 30th of January, we covered each main point and had the whole film branch behind every argument!

It took the government three months to digest all the reactions. The new film policy was made public on May 1st, 2007. The “utopian” thoughts that we had first put on paper during our board meeting seminar a year previously were now official policy. The trial period for slate funding was there, the purchase of Norwegian produced films by public libraries and not in the least, a script development fund that was autonomous and had its own budget!

The only area where we failed to win support was in our skepticism towards the merging of all the film organizations into one entity. But this we were prepared for – and we concluded that it wasn’t the name on the letterhead that was important in the end.

But now to tackle the devil in the details - how will the new provisions be evaluated? The branch asked to have as a representative in the interim board for the new film organization, the general secretary of the playwrights’ association, Tom Løland. We were granted this request. When Tom suddenly took ill, I took over the job.

It was a hectic ten months before the “new” Norwegian Film Institute was launched on the first of April, 2008. There were countless discussions concerning the organization of and delegation of responsibility, visits to neighboring countries to study the organizations there, and many rounds of interviews for the employment of key co-workers. Not in the least – the necessity to orient ourselves in questions much farther from the dramatists own fields of expertise then the development and production of film scripts. Things like the whole gamut of distribution questions, the Cinematek, film restoration, digital distribution, children and youth…should the institute have its own bookstore? Who will be responsible for distribution of films for children and youth to the township cinemas? Or for the transfer of archive copies to the National Library?

Just a passing observation: most of these problems can become quite engaging once you’ve looked into them deeply enough. Which isn’t to say that my next motion picture manuscript will deal with routines for budget balancing.

And through the whole process – the importance of not losing track of your ideals. That the film policy in hand will move repertory decisions downward towards the artists, and policy decisions upwards, towards the department. Work for more influence from filmmakers, for better autonomy and a continuity in artistic development.

Though I cannot deny the feeling on occasion of being subject to a plague of meetings, I have apparently not been so hopeless, and have been invited to continue to sit on the board of the new Film Institute. And if I must sum up – what has this consolidation of cinematic institutions accomplished after one year? Anything at all?

As I write it seems that the first “slate funded” packet of three feature films will be launched during the fall of 2009. And this only three years after a whole branch laughed wryly at some naïve dramatists’ future vision.

At the time I would hardly have dared to utter the words out loud, but now I know: If we are well prepared and can argue for our ideas, we actually do live in a political climate in which it is possible to make a change.

08.06.2009 Eirik Ildahl