In a recent BBC radio interview, actor and singer Michael Ball described how "...the ethic is so different between the commercial theatre and that kind of rarified, subsidised [theatre]". He cited how you can perform just three shows a week in subsidised shows like London Road, against eight shows a week for a commercial production like Legally Blonde. This plays into traditional conservative thinking about non-commercial art – that a liberal intelligentsia run an inefficient and elitist club. Little wonder then, that the Tories cut arts subsidies by 30% in 2010, and a further 7% in 2013. In this context, there are fewer and fewer funding opportunities for young creatives trying to make edgier avant-garde projects. But the money is there, and here are a few tips on how to get at it.
Pick your collaborators carefully
I met Jon Max Spatz at film school, so I know his directorial vision pretty well – it’s right between Lars von Trier and a Mazda advert. So when he started yammering on about getting "funding for a NEETs project", I thought it was the result of a "cheese dream" – or something dirty. But no – NEET is an acronym. It stands for Not in Employment, Education or Training.
And it applies to people who are signing on and, in this case, trying to break into creative industries that are otherwise stuffed with over-indulged mummy’s boys from the Home Counties… like Jon Max Spatz.
Work out how the government want to be perceived, and base your pitch on that
In 2012 there was a bit of a furore about the government’s Workfare scheme because it shanghais NEETs (read: the funemployed) into volunteering for banal retail jobs in places like Poundland and Tesco. Workfare was presented as a method of getting the long-term unemployed some practical work experience and a step up on the employment ladder.
The problem is that, often, NEETs don’t feel potential employers value the experience they gain. They claim the actual job-search process is hindered by the work they do stacking shelves alongside often gobsmacked full-time employees, who – if they’re smart enough – will figure out that they might as well be on benefits because that way you only have to work 30 hours a week for a similar amount of cash.
There are also philosophical challenges to the concept of Workfare, such as the spectre of slave labour, the widely forgotten principle that that welfare recipients broadly pay more tax into the system than they take out, and the fact that companies like Tesco (who were benefiting from this pseudo-serfdom) are the same ones avoiding millions in tax via offshore funds.
And they say the Tories lack a sense of humour.
Stick to your guns… quietly.
Spatz suggested that some of these NEET kids might be a bit more enthused about making a short film, so he pitched the idea as #FutureFilm and the Jobcentre went for it. And then they asked to look at the script.
Over the next few weeks, Spatz snuck around Shoreditch gathering support for the film. He managed to get a crew of keen NEETs, a suitable suburban location, an impressive cast of actors and a place to hide out if it all went to shit. Throughout this time, the icy tinkle of his phone would occasionally sound, and he’d excuse himself to gently placate the Jobcentre people who still hadn’t seen the script. In this regard, Spatz became a kind of Indie-flick Shostakovich – trying to gather enough support for the project, while not too much so as to upset the applecart before the Jobcentre’s cheque cleared.
“NEETs don’t feel potential employers value the experience they gain. They claim the actual job-search process is hindered by the work they do stacking shelves alongside often gobsmacked full-time employees”
In the meantime, IOUs were written, shooting schedules codified and the script sort-of-but-not-really amended to suit the film’s backers. I was drafted in to produce an original score. When the budget was finally secured, back came the full frontal nudity, back came the inferred scatophilia (shit-eating in case you don’t want your search history popping up on the NSA’s radar) and back came the murder fantasies and the pseudo-bestiality.
Apparently there were some pretty detailed notes, but when I saw the first cut a month later, the film retained the unique flavour of the script – so who knows? Maybe those suits at the Jobcentre aren’t so stiff after all! Though if they did take the red ink to it, I shudder to think what they took out. Without music, the film had the kind of cold hostility one expects from Dogme ’96 alumni – or one of the more sinister #FAIL videos – so I tried to spruce it up with some midi horns and a dose of Chas ‘n’ Dave style honky-tonk. Spatz accused me of "taking the piss", which I thought was pretty ironic.
So the film, Belle, premieres on the 13th January at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and places are available here. It’ll be online here afterwards and Spatz has entered it for a couple of festivals, so we’ll see how we go.
Say this during the pitch:
“The arts-degree glut need not be a ticking time-bomb. Yes, there are more kids being poured out of media schools every year, and a British industry that cannot generate employment for all of them, but the country has the educational infrastructure to export media talent globally for the next 50 years. Let’s not forget that.
Furthermore, a uni degree is less central to identity for Millenials. Graduates who – a generation before – may have been channelled down traditional vocational routes are finding themselves in-house at companies that lacked the capacity or confidence to bring the creativity within the walls. This means a profound broadening of skill sets and a demystification of ‘the arts’ which has too often been shrouded in a kind of agnostic piety.
Fuck that. Broadened horizons mean more meaningful and dynamic companies, individuals and careers, so I hope this film is the first step in that kind of a story for the NEETs, and not just more fodder for the Daily Mail.”
When Michael Ball talks about doing fewer shows, he's not actually suggesting that people in less commercial theatre don't care as much. He's making a statement about demand – if they could sell eight performances of London Road a week, they would. But avant-garde art is not designed to be popular. It is meant to challenge and interrogate the status quo. It irritates. It misinforms. It asks more of the viewer, and it does not apologise for doing so.
Follow Jacob Brookman on Twitter here @jacobbrookman