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When is a film not a film?

Steve Whittenbury, BPP

The 1969 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay was awarded to Mel Brooks for his script about a Broadway producer and his accountant who attempted to defraud their investors by staging a play so offensive that it would close within a week, allowing the aforementioned producers to pocket the remainder of the budget. The Producers is an outrageous example of a fake production staged under false pretences - surely this could not happen in real life could it?

The creative tension between producers and directors is always present, but never fully resolved. Recent blockbusters like Skyfall and The Hobbit were distributed by MGM, which has always used the motto "ars gratia artis" above the famous roaring lion in its opening credits. This motto means "art for art's sake" and reassures us that it's not just about the money.

However, it would be naive to assume that creativity wins every time. We are so used to seeing films as entertainment that we forget they are still just another commodity for those that produce them - even bad movies make money, so success is often seen in purely financial terms (that's why there are six Police Academy movies, for example) and creativity is often felt to be the poor relation.

Can we always tell when a film is not what it seems? The 2013 Best Picture Oscar went to Argo, which was based on a true story of a fake film used to cover up a US Central Intelligence Agency operation to rescue hostages from revolutionary Iran in 1980. While this was different to The Producers due to being based on real-life events, it still highlights the use of creative media for a wider purpose, and not for the first time.

In 1935, German director Leni Riefenstahl made a film called Triumph des Willen (Triumph of the Will) about the 1934 Nuremberg Rally. She followed this up with a two-part documentary called Olympia about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. While many admired Riefenstahl's work, apparently made in good faith as art, they soon became seen as thinly-veiled propaganda for the Nazis' politics and views on physical perfection as war in Europe and beyond became inevitable.

The connection between these documentaries and The Producers extends further than just having "Der Fuhrer" listed as a cast member - they show the potential for unscrupulous exploitation of art for a wider purpose, and that is something that continues to this day.

In March, five people were convicted of tax fraud in the UK for claiming tax relief and value-added tax (VAT) of nearly £3m ($4.6m) on a film called Landscape of Lives. The producers of this film were taking advantage of recent incentives by the UK Government to allow tax relief for movies where at least 25% of their production had taken place in the UK (which, in theory, was supporting the UK economy).

In order to qualify for this tax relief, tax inspectors wanted to see evidence of the film having been made - and this is where the fraud started, as the producers had no intention of making a film costing £20m as they had claimed, and instead sought to make a bargain-basement version called Landscape of Lies (see what they did there?) for a fraction of the cost and pass it off as the real thing.

As all good accountants should now be aware, professional scepticism has become part of the landscape in the 21st Century and it is to the tax inspectors' credit that they took the fake film supplied as part of a range of fabricated evidence and concluded that it was insufficient and inappropriate for the tax relief sought, leading to criminal proceedings and jail terms of more than 20 years for our five budding producers.

You might feel the moral of this story is a fake film that is all about the money and nothing to do with creativity, but that doesn't tell the full story - Landscape of Lies was screened and even won a Silver Ace award at the 2012 Las Vegas film festival, an award which has since been withdrawn due to the convictions of its producers, but shows that creativity and profitability are maybe not as far apart as we may think.

To quote veteran 1970s rockers 10cc: "Art for art's sake? Money for God's sake..."

Steve's previous blog post
Old dogs, new tricks

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