New book drives introspection in the Jamaican film industry

The film sector in Jamaica has often been both lauded on one hand and jeered on the other as an industry which has not yet realised its full potential, both within the local and international marketplace.

Peter Polack, a Cayman-based writer and journalist, has been getting attention for a book he is writing on the Jamaican film industry. Poised as a historical account of Jamaica’s outstanding record as a film location, the book is to serve as an investigation into the decline of earnings in film in Jamaica and will explore solutions as to how this can be avoided in future.

The book is broken down into periods, starting in 1910, and gives a historical record of Jamaica’s use as a film location over the past 100 years.

Polack maintains that film has been improperly positioned with a focus on regulation and profit engineering while neglecting the creative process. That, he says, has undermined what he sees as an industry that has been mismanaged to its own detriment.

“The enterprise of film production meets at the junction of business and art… artists — usually screenwriters — have a vision which they wish to materialise in the visual medium of film. It is a lack of this fundamental comprehension of film-making that causes many governments to tread a path to promote film business rather than the former,” Polack said.

He goes on to claim: “There has been no major international film production in Jamaica since 2010 and none known on the horizon. Smart and erudite Australian government officials have whisked away the Pirates of the Caribbean, where an anticipated US$100 million, of scarce foreign currency for Jamaica, pours into their local economies. A media report described it as a reallocation of a government incentive.”

“What is called for is a paradigm shift in the present mind set from a film commission under a business promotion portfolio, which is in turn under a ministry related to economic development, industry, investment or commerce, and a move to an independent body connected to government department only in fulfilment of a strong mandate: the return of Jamaica to being Little Hollywood.

“The Jamaican Office of the Film Commissioner should not have a series of post holders as the political tides rise and recede, but an independent appointee who can carry out a promotion plan with incentives for an extended period utilising the vast expertise we already have…whether in a deputy or committee format.”

But many in the local film community — including the current film commissioner — feel that Polack’s claims are overly simplified and do not take into account local policies that ensure the business and art of film are both alive and well.

In an official answer to Jamaica Observer queries as to the nature of Polack’s research in Jamaica, Renee Robinson, film commissioner, said that while Polack had contacted the Jamaica Film Commission to notify of his book on the history of Jamaican film and to request permission to use photos on the Film Jamaica website, he had not requested any data or statistics from Jamaica Promotions Corporation (Jampro).

Jampro statistics on capital expenditure show that over the last 10 years the film sector has been far from stable, with capital expenditure fluctuating up and down over the period. The industry reached its peak in 2006 with some $1,145 billion and 3,358 jobs, but reached its lowest point five years later in 2011 with $120 million and 1,625 jobs. The most recent 2015 audit shows the industry has picked up $384 million in capital expenditure, but that employment has declined further to 1,406 jobs.

But Robinson denies the claim that her role as film commissioner is subject to political preference.

“The (Jamaica) Film Commission is a unit within Jampro, in existence since 1984. Jampro is a statutory body which, since April 2016, reports to the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation. The position of film commissioner is a staff position which is filled by standard recruitment,” she said.

“The film commissioner is not an appointment by a political administration,” she noted, adding “The commission operates as do all departments in Jampro – reporting to the president, who reports to the board. Jampro adheres to all requirements and processes outlined for MDAs (ministries, departments and agengies) within the government, as outlined in the Jampro Act (1990).”

The issue of the lack of film incentives in Jamaica — especially when compared to those offered by other Caribbean islands — often surfaces as a concern in terms of winning large projects, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean example given by Polack.

But while Jampro supports tax credits, introducing them has proven to be difficult.

“Jampro has been advocating for tax credits for the Jamaican film industry for almost a decade, and in particular since the repeal of the Motion Picture Industry Encouragement Act, which was replaced by the omnibus Fiscal Incentives Act in 2013,” Robinson said.

“This year, the incentive agenda has been revitalised with a repositioning as production incentives and cash rebates through the proposed institution of a film fund. One of the challenges for Jamaica advancing tax incentives is the country’s agreements with the IMF (International Monetary Fund), which have restricted tax reform in order to maintain a level of fiscal responsibility.”

However, improving tax incentives to attract foreign production reflects only one side of the coin.

Recent years have seen an increase in films produced in Jamaica and the region, with a particular emphasis on the rise of the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival as a key player within the region in terms of premiering international film content and championing regionally produced content on par with their international peers.

At a recent panel discussion, ‘Kingston: Filming the City’, which featured notable members of the film fraternity at the National Gallery of Jamaica, industry veteran Natalie Thompson noted that her generation of film-makers were seduced by the advertising industry and had prioritised producing outside productions and commercial short-term projects over making original film content.

Notable local film-maker Nile Saulter, also a panellist, commented “I’ve always been a big proponent for creating an indigenous film language here, as it exists in other parts of the world. Jamaica culturally is so well represented musically, in terms of great literature, in terms of sports figures, but I feel like in the film medium that’s one area where we definitely have some steps to take.”

Saulter does believe that its not all doom and gloom, however, as while Jamaica may be a bit behind, significant steps toward growth have already been taken.

“This is exciting and it bodes well for the future. Relative to size, we are the most influential culture in the world, so it’s the perfect place to develop that; so we are late, but it’s slowly starting. We have a way to go and it’s important to have these conversations.”

Robinson, too, remains hopeful and said, “The film industry in Jamaica is undergoing a renewal. Much of the industry has historically been focused on providing production services to international projects that come to shoot in Jamaica. Although this has been a source of training, jobs, and economic linkages for Jamaica, it has really stymied our capacity to focus on developing a local content ecosystem.

“That is currently changing with priority now shifting towards developing opportunities for local talent to write, direct, produce, and distribute their own work. The recent Propella project, which was a partnership of the Jamaica Film and Television Association, Jampro and the CHASE Fund, is an indication of that perspective shift. Propella resulted in five new Jamaican short films and was characterised by talent discovery, capacity building, content creation, and market attendance. The films have since been exhibited in four international film festivals as well as a local premier. $2.5 million was invested in the films through the CHASE fund.

“Also of note is this year’s production of the feature film Sprinter by Jamaican director Storm Saulter, which is currently in post-production. This project was supported by local and international investors and distributors, including Will and Jada Smith. In fiscal year 2015/16, Jampro has reported the creation of 1,406 jobs (temporary) in the creative industries.”

Jamaica: Land of Film is due for publication in 2017.

Rachel Barrett, Jamaica Observer (13/11/16)

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