Over a hundred governments across the world have a culture ministry – though they often go by other names. These ministries subsidise and censor their way across culture, turning it into a weapon for national branding and social control. In this episode we explore the ministries of culture and the power they wield, looking at examples from some of the biggest movies and TV shows of recent years, including James Bond, Fast and Furious and Amazon’s new Tolkien production The Rings of Power.
The idea for this episode occurred to me while reading an article written by Tanner Mirrlees – a Canadian academic who specialises in cultural studies, particularly as they relate to government and politics. Naturally, I’ve known Tanner for a while, he appears in Theaters of War, I’ve read a lot of his stuff.
He wrote an article titled The DoD’s Cultural Policy: Militarizing the Cultural Industries, wherein he argues that the US military’s entertainment liaison offices are as influential as any government ministry of culture. Tanner says that the DOD’s Hollywood operations should be considered a cultural policy just as we would (and do) with the Russian ministry’s of culture’s operations in the film industry. And of course, he’s right, but since I spend a huge amount of time on the DOD and not so much on the culture ministries, I felt it was high time to take a fairly in-depth look into what they are and what they do.
There are over a hundred of these ministries worldwide, going by different names and titles. For example, the UK government has a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who are pretty much the only department I pay any attention to, aside from the security state. Albania, Lithuania, Ethiopia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, Turkmenistan, Syria and others all go for the classic ‘Ministry of Culture’. Others go for more surreal names like Moldova’s Ministry of Education and Research, South Sudan’s Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, Wayamba Development and Cultural Affairs.
As I’m sure you’re realising, these departments and ministries cover a vast range, sometimes encompassing education, sometimes religion, sometimes sports and media, sometimes all of the above and more. Consider for a moment how little even the indie media talks about these institutions, compared to the time devoted to things like the Tavistock Institute or Laurel Canyon. In the mainstream it is only the culture ministries of geopolitical rivals such as Russia and China who get any coverage, and it’s invariably negative.
These culture ministries operate as holders of the flame – tasked with not only projecting a desirable image of the nation to the outside world, but also maintaining that image within the nation’s boundaries. Depending on the exact nature of the country – or at least, which deluded image the country’s ruling class has in mind – the actions taken by these ministries and their relationships with other institutions can vary in how religious or statist or militaristic they are.
But what they all share is the power of subsidy and censorship, to influence which culture gets produced, distributed, promoted, and eventually canonified as part of ‘national culture’. One only has to look at how the UK government are not only forcing Roman Abramovich to sell Chelsea football club, but will likely prevent him from using the money from the sale to see that this is a high stakes cultural war. Likewise, the Chinese broadcaster of the English Premier League refused to show games if they overtly took sides in the Russia-Ukraine war, and the Premier League have now backed down from their initial very pro-Ukraine stance.
In most of these countries it also means large amounts of money changing hands. We’ll look at several examples in detail, but in Russia the industry is dependent on financing from the state. Fedor Bondarchuk, a prominent film-maker in Russia, has only been able to make their equivalent of Michael Bay movies because of funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture. He made 9th Company, one of the Russian films about the Soviet-Afghan war, with the help of both the culture ministry and the Russian military. He’s currently working on something for Netflix and a remake of Sputnik.
Here in the UK the British government paid for the production of several fly on the wall reality TV shows about community police and Border Force. They also gave money to Jeremy Kyle – the lowest of the low brow daytime talk shows, which got into quite a lot of trouble a few years back after several former guests on the show attempted suicide.
In Brazil, their culture ministry was subsumed by other departments shortly after Bolsonaro took office because… reasons, but among their highest profile ‘successes’ were the Elite Squad movies. These were based on books by veterans of Brazil’s militarised special police, and were simultaneously accused of laying bare the dark truth about the Elite Squad and of glamourising and normalising their corrupt actions. I was contacted some time ago by a Brazilian journalist who pointed me to some links detailing funding of the films, though since the website for Brazil’s culture ministry has died, they’re no longer available. However, after spending an hour taking a crash course in Brazilian Portuguese I did find an interview with the director where he talks about government funding.
As in Brazil, a lot this now falls under Tourism or Trade and Industry, because the aim is to attract both business and investors to the host country, but also tourists. It is seen in purely economic terms – if they can spend a hundred million a year and claim to play a vital role in bringing in two hundred and fifty million in additional tourism and investment, they keep their jobs. As with most of government and virtually all of branding, it’s difficult to tell whether they’re actually doing or achieving anything.
Many countries offer direct funding, often provided at a regional or state rather than national level, such as in Germany and Canada. Smaller countries tend to have one specified film fund, such as the Israeli Film Fund which we’ll look at shortly. Beyond these explicit grants and funds there is the whole system of tax credits and rebates on production expenses, which varies but is typically in the region of 20-40%.
Take the Abu Dhabi Film Commission – they offer a 30% rebate, which is above what you’re likely to get in a Western country, and their website advertises how you also get:
• Free scouting assistance and a diverse range of unique locations including stunning coastline with year-round blue skies, wild desert, amazing oasis, iconic architecture.
• Award-winning, experienced, professional crew and supplier bases
• A full services offering for government servicing, permits, visas, script approval, and customs clearance and shooting permits
• First class studios and post-production facilities at competitive rates
• Superb accommodations and restaurants that will make you feel at home
• Year-round sunshine and blue sky
• Film-friendly, cooperative and welcoming communities
Fast and Furious 7 shot extensively in Abu Dhabi, including the absurd sequence where they jump a car between the Etihad Towers, and other recent big name productions include entries in the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. Given that some of these films run budgets between $200-300 million, these rebates sometimes run to tens of millions of dollars or more.
At the other end of the spectrum is censorship, which is particularly prominent in the movie and TV industries. Marketing materials for Chinese audiences often have black people removed from them, and the government censors don’t like anything to do with homosexuality or Winnie the Pooh. Pokemon is banned in Saudi Arabia because it’s blasphemous towards the prophet, or somesuch.
One of the strictest censorship boards, and one you’ll never hear about in Western media because geopolitics, is the Media Commission in the Kingdom of Jordan. From an investigative article about their film and TV censorship office:
The Commission ensures that films do not violate the standards set in place by the Audiovisual Licensing and Censorship Rating System. These standards stipulate that material ‘does not insult His Majesty the King or the royal family or slander any of the Abrahamic faiths. Furthermore, material must not include content that provokes civil strife, promotes racism or sectarianism or that could destabilize the security and safety of the country. Finally, the film must no contain material that flares sexual content, encourages pornography, violence, crime, deviance, or offenses against the public order.’
The employee mentions that one of his last requests was to remove the sex scenes from The Hateful Eight in order to permit its screening in theatres. In Fast and Furious 7, the deleted scene is when actor Vin Diesel mentions that a millionaire Jordanian prince invited them to a party in his luxury apartment in Etihad Towers, where he keeps a magnificent ‘eye-watering’ car. The opening scene in American Sniper did not reach the big screen in Jordan because the call to prayer could be heard in the introduction before American tanks begin to enter Baghdad’s streets—reason enough to insult religious sensibility, according to Rasmi Mahasneh, the classifications division’s director in the Media Commission.
Note, the Etihad Towers scene is one that the Abu Dhabi Film Commission are quite proud of, but it was partly edited out of the version of Fast and Furious 7 that was shown in Jordan. Hopefully this helps illustrate that there are a bunch of conflicting and overlapping agendas at play, and that the versions of movies that show in different countries are quite, quite different. The governments, or possibly a quasi-autonomous agency authorised by the ruling class, edit and censor international productions. Meanwhile, for products deemed useful for national PR, boosting tourism, enhancing the government’s reputation on the world stage or advancing its foreign policy agenda, all manner of support and subsidy is made available.
For the rest of this episode we’ll focus in on four examples – the Mexican government and Spectre, the Israeli Film Fund and The Operative, the NZ government and the forthcoming Amazon Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power series, and what that same series will go through to get a similar deal from the British government.
The Mexico – Spectre $20 million Deal
We’ll start with Spectre, since we’re taking these in chronological order and Spectre is the oldest. Nonetheless, you’ll probably remember the key sequence – a footchase through the streets of Mexico City at the start of the movie, during the Day of the Dead celebrations.
Among the documents leaked following the alleged hack of Sony Pictures by the North Korean government (who yes, do have a culture ministry) were a bunch of files related to the deal between the Spectre producers and the Mexican government.
The documents from late 2014 show that the film was running into serious trouble – the budget was running at over $300 million, making it one of the most expensive movies of all time. Emails between senior executives at Sony Pictures sought ways to bring the overall costs down to $250 million, ‘net of rebates and incentives’. They ranted about how for a couple of shots of Bond arriving at a chalet in the Alps they were moving the entire first unit there for only one day of filming, at a cost of $650,000.
This is a consequence of the globetrotting nature of the Bond stories, but also what happens when you’ve run out of ideas and are just throwing in dramatic, expensive locations to cover for the lack of narrative. In one email Amy Pascal wrote, ‘Seriously let’s roll their back ends further out. It’s insane and you know with no script this movie is gonna go over budget.’
That’s right – they didn’t even have a script. I’ve said for years that Bond is creatively bankrupt, just churning out fan service and recycling everything it’s already done because they don’t have any new ideas. This email is the proof of that. Also, note how she suggested they cut the up-front payments to the major cast and crew, and offer them a bigger slice of the back-end, i.e. the profits once all the massive production costs had been paid for.
Another email, from MGM President John Glickman to franchise producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, says:
We are extremely appreciative of the efforts you have made thus far in helping reduce the overall cost of the picture and for continuing to think of more efficient ways to produce this great story. We are aware of the placement deals that have been accepted (Sony and Heineken) and appreciate your willingness to weave them into the film. As you know, wewill benefit financially from each of these deals and they are very helpful in reducing our budget.
It goes on:
As mentioned before, you have done a great job in getting us the Mexican incentive. By all accounts we can still get the extra $6M by continuing to showcase the modern aspects of the city, and it sounds like we are well on our way based on your last scout. Let’s continue to pursue whatever avenues we have available to maximize this incentive.
What was Glickman talking about? A memo recording a meeting between Sony and MGM executives about a month before this email shows that they were negotiating a $14-20 million deal with the Mexican government, in exchange for showcasing Mexico and Mexico City. It records:
Elements needed to preserve Mexican deal:
1. Cast Known Mexican Actress
2. Sciarra cannot be Mexican
3. Replace Governor character with International Figurehead
4. Aerial view (helicopter fly over) to include modern Mexico City buildings.
5. Use Special Police Force
6. Minimum 4 minute sequence
The additional $6 million was based on featuring more of the city’s skyline, to show off how modern and bourgeois it is becoming. In the original script, Bond walks through the Day of the Dead parade, meets up with a women, they both take their masks off and Bond goes up onto a rooftop, and briefly spies on a meeting between Sciarra and the local Mexican governor. He kills Sciarra, there’s a car chase through the city and he escapes in a helicopter. Cut to title sequence.
This was changed so Sciarra isn’t Mexican, the governor is some international criminal type, the beautiful woman is a Mexican actress, the chase is on foot (because it’s cheaper and easier to film), it involves the Special Police, and there are quite a few shots of the city skyline, including a flyover before the title sequence.
It seems they got the full $20 million for incorporating all this – just as they did with product placement from Sony and Heineken, as well as tie-in adverts starring Daniel Craig. But the Mexican Film Commission, at that time, only offered a 17.5% rebate, with maybe a small grant on top of that. To get up to the sort of sums mentioned in the documents, the Spectre producers would have had to spend $100 million just shooting that opening sequence.
Obviously, they didn’t. It seems the government must have gone into its pockets outside of their usual cultural subsidy programs and come up with a special deal just for James Bond, recognising the brand value and exposure that only a movie like Spectre can bring.
When this story first broke it was picked up by a few mainstream outlets, all of which spun it as an example of Mexico trying to repair its image, which had been tarnished by the drug wars. Note, not a single one mentioned that it is the US who have led the war on drugs. Not a single one mentioned equivalent subsidy and national PR programs in their own countries. Instead, it was presented as a tale of a crime-ridden, third world nation throwing money at a Bond movie to try to make itself look better.
Now, that isn’t entirely inaccurate but the point I’m making is that journalists find it easy to recognise this stuff when it’s another country doing it. China’s censorship of movies is fair game for reportage and criticism. Likewise, Mexico sponsoring Bond to burnish its public image. But on the rare occasions they report on a comparable US or UK government effort, such as the US Army paying for radio novelas to be produced in South American countries as part of their war on drugs, the framing is radically different.
This is how national and otherwise collective identity, tribal warfare propaganda is effective. Each time they’ll try to convince you that when we do it, it’s somehow different to when they do it. Each time, they’ll try to convince you that this time they aren’t lying about a war, or a pandemic, or whatever the crisis du jour happens to be. But each time, they will be lying, and they are doing the same things that they object to when other countries do them.
I don’t mean that in a cynical ‘everyone’s as bad as each other’ kind of way, but in an anarchistic, ‘every government is bad, and lies its ass off’ kind of way.
The Israeli Film Fund and The Operative
While looking into the production of the 2019 spy thriller The Operative, I discovered that it was produced with help from the Israel Film Fund. Given that the movie is about Israeli intelligence recruiting someone to help infiltrate Iran’s nuclear program, naturally I was interested in exactly what the fund does.
So I spent a few hours digging around on their site and downloading and reading every document I could find, to piece the picture together. In essence, Israel’s Ministry of Culture runs a film and TV support program through both its Film Commission and the Israel Film Fund, with the latter offering production support to help develop Israel’s film industry.
The ‘New Cinema Law’ passed in 2001 specifies that government financing can only be provided to movies where, ‘no less than 50% of the ‘below the line’ must be spent in Israel,’ or ‘no less than 70% of the budget allocated for salaries must be paid to Israeli crew and cast,’ and ‘either the Director or the Scriptwriter must be Israeli citizens or permanent residents in Israel.’
The Fund also reviews and vets scripts for films seeking money and help with distribution, its website noting that, ‘every year, about 140 new scripts are being submitted, out of which 12-15 Films are selected and granted the support of the Fund.’ As such, flattering the preconceptions of the organization’s Board of Directors and their ‘professional consultants’ is key to ensuring that your film is one of the small number of applicants that end up winning support from the Israeli government.
Script review and development is a key part of this process, but the Fund’s influence on scripts extends beyond the films that they financially assist, as it ‘supports the development of about 30 scripts a year.’
The Fund tries to present this intervention as mere good-intentioned assistance to improve movie scripts, rather than any form of censorship or propaganda, but among their commitments to ‘safeguarding the free spirit of Israeli cinema,’ their site admits they do so while ‘keeping an open eye and mind on policy and action.’ A diagram outlining the process scripts go through before being approved or rejected includes the stipulation, ‘The Director of the Fund reserves the right to ask for additional work on the script… as a condition to signing the investment contract.’
When it came to 2019’s The Operative, a taut transnational spy thriller based on a novel by a former Israeli intelligence officer, it not only won support from the Fund but also from Israel’s Film Commission, as well as funding from multiple branches of the German government.
The Operative tells the story of a British woman recruited by the Mossad, initially just as a cover identity so that Israeli black ops teams can rent apartments in Leipzig under her name. Over time she becomes a fully-fledged spy running months-long undercover missions.
As a voiceover by her handler tells us, this is all part of an effort to infiltrate and sabotage Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The Iranians, he informs us, like to buy illegal and restricted technologies through open, legitimate companies, so our protagonist is sent into Tehran to infiltrate one such technology company.
This plotline, which no doubt appealed to the Fund’s Board of Directors as well as their paymasters within the Israeli government, is highly misleading. For one thing, this is how Israel developed their own nuclear program – by obtaining restricted technical components via front companies run by movie producer Arnon Milchan.
According to Milchan’s biography, he and his company were recruited by LAKAM, the Israeli technical intelligence agency who were deeply involved in stealing secrets and material for Israel’s nuclear program. FBI files detail how between 1979 and 1983 Milchan used a front company to acquire hundreds of krytrons – high pressure gas tubes that can be used as nuclear triggers.
After the smuggling operation was busted, Milchan went on to produce Pretty Woman, Under Siege, LA Confidential, Fight Club and the Oscar-winning The Revenant. It wasn’t until years later that he confirmed the long-swirling rumours about his past as a spy for Israel.
The Operative plays into the false, fearmongering narrative about Iran’s supposed nuclear program by reiterating how Iran got back on track following Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear deal, and are seeking under-the-table components to help assemble nuclear bombs. The parallels between the storyline in The Operative and some of the recent attempts to ‘expose’ Iran’s likely non-existent nuclear weapons program are quite startling.
For example, the supposed cache of ‘secret Iranian government documents’ being touted around by the Israeli government in 2018, which have since been shown to most likely be a forgery by Mossad themselves – includes details of the first five bombs Iran allegedly plan to build. In The Operative one of our protagonist’s missions involves driving a van over the border into Iran carrying – you’ve guessed it – five nuclear bombs. While in the movie the bombs are deliberately faulty, this reiteration of details lends The Operative an authentic feel, and reinforces the desired narrative of the Israeli government (and many of their Westerns supporters and counterparts).
The Operative never makes clear exactly why Iran is supposedly trying to build nuclear weapons. Indeed, the only major Iranian character in the story runs the technology company, and begins having a love affair with the woman recruited by Mossad. He too is eventually recruited and becomes part of the operation, reaffirming the old Hollywood message that the only good Muslim is one who works for ‘us’.
While The Operative is a good watch, and has an excellent cast including Diane Kruger, Martin Freeman and Cas Anvar, in the final analysis it is a paranoid, misleading movie that reinforces a false narrative about Iranian nuclear weapons. It takes the real-life story of how Israel developed their own nuclear weapons program and projects it onto Iran, in one of the most hypocritical and paranoid inversions ever committed to film.
Presumably, this is why The Operative made it through the script vetting and development process and won the financial support of the Israeli government, while so many others were rejected.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was not just the Israel Film Fund and Culture Ministry that supported the film, but also former members of Mossad itself. In the film’s credits the writer/director Yuval Adler included a thank you to ‘all the Mossad specialists and Iranian consultants – who helped on the condition of anonymity’ adding, perhaps tellingly, ‘this film wouldn’t be possible without you.’
The New Zealand Government, Amazon and The Rings of Power
The forthcoming Amazon series The Rings of Power – part of the Lord of the Rings universe – is the most expensive TV show ever made. Last summer I did a subscribercast on the deal struck between Amazon Studios and the New Zealand government, as well as the background story about the government relationship with the Tolkienverse in general.
I followed up, working back through reports in the NZ press that referred to obtaining other documents under the country’s information laws. But of course, the documents themselves weren’t linked in the articles and I couldn’t find them on NZ’s public FOIA archive.
Not being a New Zealand citizen or resident, I technically don’t qualify under their Official Information Act but I managed to persuade some people in their FOIA office (or OIA office) to send me what they’d released to previous requesters. I argued that it wouldn’t mean any additional search or review time for them, there was widespread international interest in the story, I was a journalist and they didn’t want me accusing them of covering anything up, and so on.
So, they sent me around 600 pages of material, which includes all kinds of departmental emails, internal assessments of the project, analyses of the impact on tourism, and so on. In short, it explains why the government pursued the deal, what happened, and to some extent why it broke down and Amazon shifted production for season two to the UK.
I will write up a fuller analysis of all this for when the series actually comes out, this September, but this is as good a place as any to summarise this information. The existing NZ media coverage is fairly shallow – frankly, I don’t think they properly read through the documents because journalists usually don’t. This does leave me wondering why they bother putting the requests in but, as always, I am different from the other children.
The Rings of Power deal was struck between between Amazon Studios, the local front company they had to set up to qualify for the subsidy, Tourism New Zealand, the NZ Film Commission and their Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. New Zealand spends an extraordinary amount of money on this stuff, because tourism is their primary means of bringing money into the country, especially now they’ve sold off most of their land to big agriculture and to billionaires looking for pretty locations for their survival bunkers.
Essentially, any production that films a large portion of its content in the country can qualify for some kind of rebate on production expenses from the government. Typically, for a film or TV series by a foreign producer the baseline rebate is 20%, but a small number are invited to apply for an additional 5%, which can amount to tens of millions of dollars.
That’s what happened with Amazon and The Rings of Power – the NZ government went out of their way to offer them more money. Why? Well, at that point Amazon were considering other locations for filming the series, including Scotland, and the Kiwis wanted to leverage the most expensive TV show ever for the purposes of ‘nation branding’. They were explicitly concerned that they’d get gazumped by someone else, and lose all that brand value, all that additional tourism, and break the long-standing association between the country and Tolkien adaptations.
They also wanted to team up with Amazon because they wanted some kind of technological partnership, a mentorship program to supposedly aid the NZ film industry and other additional benefits, in exchange for the extra 5% rebate. The negotiations went on for months, with the Memoranda of Understanding – the contracts signed between Amazon and the government – being drafted and redrafted.
Essentially, Amazon didn’t want to agree to anything measurable in terms of additional benefits – they just wanted the extra 5% without having to commit to anything for it. They kept softening the language to make it as vague as possible, so that they could argue they’d kept up their end of the deal and deserved the money.
Normally, in these deals, it’s the government who have the most power and can demand what they want from the producers. But not so with Amazon, whose market cap is several times the GDP of New Zealand. So, officials removed concerns about Amazon’s behaviour from pitches to their superiors.
Even as all the lockdowns and other ineffective, poorly conceived, reactionary covid nonsense threatened to wreck the tourism benefits, and each estimate of future tourism revenues offered a lower figure than the previous one, the government were so desperate for the deal that they ignored all of these problems.
So, we have a technocratic, authoritarian government who wants to team up with Amazon to help make them more technocratic and authoritarian, but also cover it all up with an idyllic, romanticised, medieval rural drama about hobbits and their rings.
The government approved the deal and production got under way, but the relentless covid restrictions made filming very difficult, and made fulfilling the additional benefits all but impossible. In the end, Amazon pulled out, took the 20%, left the other 5% on the table and fucked off to Scotland for season two, where I assume the show will remain.
I am strongly opposed to the New Zealand government for a dozen different reasons – not least that they slaughter all their farm animals according to halal butchery standards, which is basically just vicious animal abuse and shouldn’t be practiced in any country. I couldn’t give a damn for religious traditions, if you deliberately hurt animals you’re a nasty, cruel piece of shit. To codify that into their entire agribusiness because it’s cheaper to do that than to separate the meat into that destined for Muslim consumers and for everyone else, completely betrays any notion that they are this peaceful, green and pleasant land.
Thus, while I’m disappointed to see that this country’s government is now going to use this televisual vehicle for national branding to sell a similarly deceitful image, I’m glad the deal with New Zealand fell apart.
The British Film Institute’s ‘Cultural Test’
The Rings of Power has shifted production of season 2 – and presumably subsequent seasons – to the UK. Britain was always on the list of possible filming bases, along with NZ and a couple of central and Eastern European countries. Probably a good thing they didn’t go in that direction, given current events.
The British government has made the film and TV industry a priority post-Brexit, setting up a fund to help production companies who are having trouble getting insurance due to all the covid hullabaloo, among other things. It seems to be working – a couple of months ago the British Film Institute announced that spending on film and high-end TV has reached record levels – over £5.6 billion in 2021. That’s £1.27 billion higher than in 2019, in the so-called ‘pre-pandemic’.
The press release from the BFI says:
The statistics also show that UK cinemas are building back audiences, with 74 million admissions and £602 million box office after months of closure in 2021.
‘Building back better’ is a government slogan, and yes, the BFI are effectively a sister organisation or subsidiary of the British culture ministry, the Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport. They are not to be confused with the British Film Commission, though they are also effectively a branch of the government and their website is full of advice on getting funding from various local and national sources.
This includes a 25% rebate on production costs from the Treasury, but in order to qualify for this money you have to pass an in-depth ‘cultural test’ administered by the BFI on behalf of the culture ministry. This includes both a script review and a final screening before you get the British Film Certificate, which you need so you qualify for the rebate. They assess various things to determine whether your product meets the definition of a British film or high-end TV show.
Just to underline how this sounds like some independent entity responsible for upholding British values or somesuch, but is in reality a state-sponsored cultural subsidy program, we can turn to the guidance notes for people applying for this certificate. They say, for example:
Information provided by the applicant as part of the application process will not normally be disclosed to third parties. However, information may be shared between DCMS, the BFI and HMRC. In particular, the BFI will use information for the purposes of preparing statistical information about the British film industry in its advisory role to DCMS and as the Government’s lead agency for film.
Essentially, there’s a 35-point test and you have to get at least 18 points to get the certification. But there’s also a ‘golden points’ system whereby you have to get a certain number of points in certain sections. The guidance notes state:
The ‘Golden Points Rule’ applies if a film scores all 19 of the points available in sections A4 (language), C (where work is carried out), and D (personnel). However, the Golden Points Rule means the film cannot pass the Cultural Test unless it scores a minimum amount in certain other parts of the test. To pass, it must have scored two or more points in section A1 (setting) and/or two or more points in section A2 (characters) and/or 4 points in section A3 (story).
Unpacking some of this – you get points for filming in the UK, for setting large parts of your story in the UK, for hiring British cast members, especially for main characters, and writers, directors, other crew. You also get points for having British characters, basing the story on British material (such as Tolkien’s Hobbit novels), having ‘British subject matter’ and recording over 75% of the dialogue in English or one of the approved minority languages (Scottish-Gaelic, Welsh, Irish, Scots, Ulster Scots, Cornish and British Sign Language).
A lot of these are the same criteria NZ used in their assessment for season one of The Rings of Power, as well as other producers including Avatar and its planned sequels. So this isn’t a distinctly British thing, though you have to wonder at the way in which governments across the Commonwealth behave in basically the same manner.
So, which films qualified? Well, the database for 2021 includes Fast and Furious 9: The Fast Saga, The Forgiven, Decrypted, Mediocre White Male (sigh), and Black Widow. In the case of Black Widow, I wrote a brief article on Spy Culture calling it the most state-sponsored movie ever made, because they received rebates, funding and other support from maybe a dozen different countries.
TV shows that were designated ‘high-end’ and certified as British include Killing Eve, His Dark Materials, Black Mirror, Bridgerton and the David Schwimmer ‘comedy’ Intelligence. That’s the one set in GCHQ which isn’t funny.
All of these productions had their scripts reviewed and vetted by the BFI, and had to send DVDs or arrange screenings prior to release, in order to get certified and get the cashback. There are actually dozens – including animated films, kids TV shows, and a ton of international co-productions.
Indeed, going through the co-production agreements from both the BFI and the Israel Film Fund, you notice that there’s nothing prohibiting a movie from getting support from a bunch of different countries. In many ways the EU agreements and directives are designed to encourage film-makers to do this.
The excuse – sorry, the justification for all this money is to preserve and enhance the film industries in Europe, including in the UK. People have argued that there wouldn’t be a European film industry without all the government subsidies, and many countries outside of Europe say that too.
There are several angles to this I find deeply objectionable. The first is that this problem is a result of letting the US, and Hollywood, establish cultural dominion in the wake of WW2. They took over the entire German film industry, for example, under the guise of de-nazifying it. Without actually coming to terms with why the European film industries are weak, without being honest about that, you can never solve the problem. But that would mean adopting a quota model and only allowing a certain number of Hollywood films into these countries, as a protectionist measure, and no one is prepared to do that because the Americans won’t allow it. They took China to court over this very issue.
Another problem I have with this is that if the industry would – presumably – fail without these subsidies then maybe it should fail. In reality, it wouldn’t, because there’s a ton of private media in Europe so there is a market for private financing for productions. In my view it would be better to adopt some things from the American model, such as making film production a tax write-off, encourage people to give less money to the government and spend more privately funding culture that they like.
Then there’s the issue of whose agenda is served by having government financing movies. Obviously, the government’s agenda. Paul Verhoeven came up in the Dutch system, which meant getting approval for his projects from the (at that time) left wing government. He has given interviews describing how he had to trick them into thinking he was actually doing something else, or that it meant something other than what he really intended, in order to get the production funding.
Indeed, this is partly why he went to Hollywood and ended up making several of my all-time favourite movies, but eventually the same problems arose – the money people wanting control over content. So he came back to Europe, and made Elle, one of the most difficult but rewarding films I’ve ever seen. And it was made in part with public money.
Thus, I have quite ambivalent feelings and thoughts about all this – I cannot deny that some of these films would struggle to get made without this help, and that they deserve to be made. But all the strings that are attached, the hoops you have to jump through to satisfy government bureaucrats and ultimately serve the state capitalist system, they bother me. And when you look at the majority of the productions that were certified by the BFI, in particular, they’re all about projecting images that the government will like.
Black Widow is one of the most anti-Russian films I’ve ever seen, so it’s no surprise to see it be supported by the Norwegian, German, British and other allied governments. During the original Cold War a lot of this sort of cultural warfare was done covertly but in the sequel it’s quite open, especially if you know where to look.
But it isn’t covered by the major media. We get stories about the Russian ministry of culture helping fund their own Chernobyl TV show, to act as a counterpoint to the American version. The BBC reported how the Russian version will likely explore the theory that the CIA sabotaged the nuclear facility, causing the disaster.
The obvious implication is the same old lie – it’s those dirty Ruskies who make propaganda through film and TV, those red-eyed Commie bastards. But our noble, virtuous British culture industry is beyond reproach, even if it involves the exact same tools of subsidy and censorship.