IF JOHNNY Depp turned up on Westgate Road tomorrow morning, you’d hear shrieks of excitement that would make the apocalypse sound like a night in a monastery.
Getting a major blockbuster with the budget of Finland to turn up in your city is like stuffing a whole packet of gummy bears in your mouth at once. There’s this huge initial rush, but you’ll still wake up hungry the next day. Well, you’d probably wake up feeling sick, but you get my point.
In its time, the North East has been the setting for a number of films, and you won’t find any shortage of people who can reel them off with wistful reverence.
However, to create a solid foundation for film-making and other creative work in the region, these flashes of international fame need to be mixed in with hundreds of other smaller films that don’t necessarily get shown at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.
“The bottom line is that more films have to be made. What builds infrastructure is production, and you need a steady stream of films being created here,” says North East film producer Steve Bowden, whose credits include Nasty Neighbours and 2005’s School for Seduction.
Sometimes, getting this particular creative ball rolling involves someone giving it a firm shove down the hill.
The Finance for Business North East Creative Content Fund popped up with that sort of ambition, offering £2.4m to early-stage creative businesses thanks to a partnership between Northern Film and Media and venture capital firm Northstar Ventures.
The fund is targeted at groups ranging from film production companies to music, TV, games and software firms, and pledged £50,000 to £250,000 to businesses either based in the region, or willing to move here.
The two-year project was hailed as the first UK investment link-up by public and private bodies outside London to focus on the creative industries.
And now, as the over-played funeral song says, the end is near. The £2.4m pot was intended to be distributed by the end of the year, but a huge wedge of it has already been passed around, and deals are imminent that should take care of the rest.
Northstar Ventures investment manager Dr Michelle Cooper says: “Demand is so high that we’re in the final stages of the fund right now.
“It’s common knowledge in the market place that we’ve invested around £2.1m of the £2.4m and we’ve got deals identified for the balance.
“It would be tough to break in because there are a few deals in the pipeline.”
So who got the cash? One of the more thunderous examples of the fund at work was United, a £2m World Productions project that focused on the story of Manchester United’s “Busby Babes”, and the air crash that claimed 23 lives.
The production – which featured actors such as Dougray Scott and David Tennant – was shot in locations such as the Tyneside Cinema and Tynemouth station. It received £150,000 investment and on-location support.
Other films to get that amount included A Song for Marion, a comedic drama featuring Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Ecclestone and Gemma Arterton that shot in Durham and Newcastle.
The Man Inside – featuring David Harewood, Peter Mullan and Michelle Ryan – told the story of a boxer’s bid to get over his father’s past, while Face Films’ dark family drama January brought actors such as James Cosmo to a private North East estate.
The bestselling UK documentary of 2010 – the Italia ’90 film One Night in Turin – also picked up £150,000 to get it going. However, the fund itself didn’t just help bankroll single films. It distributed funding to digital content management system Aframe, which now has an office in Gateshead as well as London. It put £250,000 on the table to join investors such as IBIS Capital and BBC Worldwide in funding Masher, a web app which allows users to “mash up” content such as video and photos.
Fund managers have also announced £150,000 investments in both Bonafide and Vita Nova films, injecting funding into North East indie production firms to keep them producing.
Northstar’s Cooper says: “Production companies find themselves on this treadmill where they come up with an idea, get funding for that idea, do it, and then have no cash left to develop the next one. We’re looking to invest in them properly and give them support so there’s a production line of films.”
While the fund was designed to support a broad range of creative acts in the region, its managers always stressed that they weren’t just chucking around free money.
“We didn’t manage to invest in any music projects, which is disappointing. But in the end we didn’t manage to find anything suitable.
“If you’re comparing this sort of investment with property or a factory creating standard widgets then, yes, it is a little different. But we’re still putting a lot of faith in a management team, the quality of the intellectual property and the ability of the market to deliver a return.
“This is an investment, not grant funding, but people are attracted to the region because of the investment fund we’ve got available. There was a demand in the marketplace for the fund we created. What we’ve been able to demonstrate through the fund is that there are attractive investments up here. We’ve seen almost an entire year of constant production in the region. We’ve now got people being attracted to the region to film for the first time in a long time.
“It’s so easy to film here. You can get from A to B in about 10 minutes and there are skills and resources here that there weren’t in abundance before.”
Northern Film and Media’s communications manager Dan Brain also notes that funding came with a requirement the recipient had to match the money they received with funds from somewhere else. He added there was always a focus on making the investment worthwhile.
“With a simple grant system, there’s not always the imperative to make a film commercially successful,” he says.
“There’s no point in investing in something if it doesn’t make a return. Having high-profile productions in the region raises the profile of crews, and it’s essential that this sort of production takes place.
“Due to wider market conditions, what’s happened in the film industry is that mid-market films have completely disappeared. The lower- budget films and the blockbusters are the only ones making money at the moment.
“It’s all about getting the right cost base, and if you can make a great project for less, you stand a better chance of making money. Changing technology allows you to create great results at far less cost.
“A lot of films make a bit of money through DVD sales, and there are new revenue streams such as video on demand at the micro-budget end which is not at a stage where it can support an entire industry, but it’s a trend that can enable people to make money from a film.”