Industry decries plans to kill the UK Film Council

Would the movie world be the same without " Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Man on Wire” or “Gosford Park”?

That’s the question, in essence, being asked by film figures on both sides of the Atlantic in a growing controversy over the announcement by the new British government that it plans to abolish the UK Film Council, which provides millions of pounds annually to British-based independent productions. The group also offers logistical and other support to Hollywood studios filming in Britain.

Director Clint Eastwood, who shot his most recent production, “Hereafter,” with logistical support from the council, became the latest high-profile name to join the fray this week. Eastwood wrote an open letter to the government’s top economic minister, arguing that abolition of “such a valuable resource is of great concern as we contemplate future projects.”

In a surprise announcement late last month, Secretary Jeremy Hunt, whose Department for Culture, Media and Sports oversees the Film Council, said that in the interest of “restor[ing] proper accountability for activities funded by public money,” the council would be eliminated. The government provides the equivalent of about $38 million in taxpayer funds annually to the council, which also receives nearly $60 million from the National Lottery and other sources. Prime Minister David Cameron’s recently elected coalition government has launched a wide-ranging austerity program aimed at cutting funding across many government agencies.

Money from the Film Council, which also has an office in Beverly Hills, has helped finance and cultivate movies from emerging talents, including James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire,” Mike Leigh’s Oscar-nominated character drama “Happy-Go-Lucky” and Robert Altman’s Oscar-winning parlor mystery “Gosford Park.”

Other films receiving Film Council funds in the decade since it was established include Kevin Macdonald’s Oscar-winning historical drama “The Last King of Scotland,” Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winner “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” and Armando Iannucci’s Oscar-nominated government satire “In the Loop.”

“We don’t just fund film, we find the talent and help develop it,” said Tina McFarling, head of industry relations at the council.

The decision promptly evoked angry reaction from a range of film-world figures. “Frost/Nixon” producer Tim Bevan, the chairman of the Film Council, protested the decision on the council’s website. “Abolishing the most successful film support organization the U.K. has ever had is a bad decision, imposed without any consultation or evaluation,” Bevan wrote.

A letter to the Daily Telegraph last week signed by more than 50 actors, including Emily Blunt, James McAvoy, Bill Nighy and Ian Holm, noted that “We all owe any success we have had in our acting careers, to varying degrees, to films supported by the U.K. Film Council. For some of us, it was the breakthrough role. For others, it was the dream part in a critically acclaimed and successful film.”

The council also provides logistical services to Hollywood productions lured to Britain by its generous 25% tax credit, as well as experienced crews and established studio facilities.

In his letter to Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Eastwood said the Film Council “was instrumental in providing to us the crucial, detailed information we needed to make our decision to ultimately shoot in the U.K.”

Culture Minister Hunt responded to the outcry in a newspaper article, saying he believed that National Lottery funding would increase to make up for the decreased government spending. He added that the tax-credit program would not change. “Stopping money being spent on [the council] . . . is not the same as stopping money being spent on film,” he wrote.

And a spokesperson for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport told The Times this week that “we’re being quite clear about this being a decision to remove administrative function, not to remove our support for the film industry.”

Still, executives at Hollywood-based studios are shaken. “It definitely knocks people’s confidence when something happens so suddenly,” said Josh Berger, president and managing director of Warner Bros. U.K.

Berger did say that Warner Bros. has received assurances from the British government that “they are going to work with the industry to determine how to best continue the functions of the council” and that he’s “optimistic” that the new entity overseeing film production would be “a competent and functioning structure.”

“We’ve always found the UK Film Council to be of great assistance to us in the making of our movies there,” said Gary Martin, president of production administration for Sony Pictures. “From logistical assistance with travel, accommodations, stages and locations to guidance on the rules regarding the tax incentives, the UK Film Council has often helped us be more efficient and productive when filming there.”

The timing of the announcement was jarring to many because it came shortly after the council’s chief executive, John Woodward, had publicly touted the health and growth of the British film industry.

Still, some industry veterans have tried to keep a stiff upper lip. Producer David Puttnam (“The Killing Fields”) said that although “the Film Council has been a layer of strategic glue that’s helped bind the many parts of our disparate industry together,” he believed the announcement didn’t necessarily spell disaster. “On the welcome premise that government and lottery support for film will continue, I look forward to discussing ways in which a new, coherent plan for film can be developed,” he said.

Stobart reported from London and Zeitchik reported from Los Angeles; Times staff writer Richard Verrier also contributed to this report.