UKs film and television talent is not good enough for world stage

Lord Putnam

The Oscar-winning producer David Putt­nam has warned Britain will be eclipsed as a movie powerhouse unless there is an urgent push to tackle a skills shortage and to recruit new talent.

Before a speech this week at the National Film and Television School (NFTS), the celebrated filmmaker highlighted research by industry body ScreenSkills which says growth will stall and other countries will step in unless there is an immediate “step change to solve the skills issues”.

Calling for film studios and investors to support new talent both in front of and behind the camera, Lord Puttnam said: “We still don’t seem to understand that you have to feed the beast. Unless you’ve got talent coming through, you’re lost.

“You don’t have to be a genius to realise that if there are 10 terrific cinematographers in the country but there are 30 productions going on, the quality of cinematography decreases and the costs of each individual cinematographer rises. So production costs escalate. Yet, at the supply end, there’s still a lot of tooth-sucking and a lack of resources going into talent creation.”

Puttnam spent 30 years as an independent producer of acclaimed films such as The Mission, The Killing Fields, Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express, Bugsy Malone and Local Hero, whose combined awards include 10 Oscars. After heading Columbia Pictures in the late 1980s, he returned to Britain and produced Memphis Belle, among other films.

The British Film Institute says 10,000 new entrants are needed over five years “to keep the UK in the vanguard of global film production”.

The peer says the problem seems entrenched. Recently he stumbled across a 1993 Guardian article in which he called for investment in new talent and skills to ensure the success of Britain’s industry decades ahead.

“What is really horrifying is that, 27 years later, you could almost give the same speech,” he said.

In his 1993 article, he wrote as NFTS chairman: “If we want Britain to enjoy the benefits of having one of the world’s best audio-visual industries, then we have to work together – the training institutions, the TV companies, the filmmakers and the government – to ensure that, in the decades ahead, we have the people with the skills to make it happen.”

Speaking as the NFTS’s life president, he said: “I only wish the situation had improved.”

Puttnam said the industry should invest in bursaries and scholarships, among other schemes. He praised “fantastic initiatives”, such as the London Screen Academy. “But the people I don’t understand are the investment community and the major studios.”

He will unveil the NFTS’s official graduate impact report at the House of Commons on Wednesday.

The report focuses on “the contribution and impact” of graduates on UK film and television production over the past five years and emphasises the increasing importance of the screen industries to the economy and culture.

The NFTS’s success is disproportionate to its size. Research revealed that its graduates work for more than 90% of all productions by the largest US studios. Studios are committing hundreds of millions of pounds to productions, he said. “All you’ve got to do is take 2% of that, invest it in talent now and you’ll be doing more to protect your costs five years from now.”