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Let those cameras roll

Scotland's first-ever Screen Academy offers a chance for film wannabes to blossom. Mitchell Miller reports

Lin Anderson is a writer of crime fiction, who sets her novels in Glasgow. But her ambitions have long lain elsewhere - ultimately, in a darkened room with a large rectangular screen. "I've done some small stuff for the screen," she says, "but I really want to do movies."

We had managed to grab a few minutes in a relatively quiet corner of the Sheraton Hotel, where Scotland's first ever Screen Academy had just been launched. It was hard to find a space: not only were several dozen education chiefs rubbing shoulders with Scottish film professionals, but the Edinburgh Film Festival was set up only yards away. The only thing missing was the red carpet.

The Screen Academy is a collaborative venture between the Edinburgh College of Art and Napier University, which will give students such as Lin the chance to develop their skills in the difficult craft of screenwriting. An adult learner looking to turn her prior experience into a qualification that will be recognised in a highly competitive industry, Lin starts on her course this month.

Seven academies have been set up across the UK as part of a vast training network. The Screen Academy is the first dedicated institution of its sort to be set up in Scotland.

Iain Smith, producer of Cold Mountain and The Killing Fields, was just one of many Scots forced to head south to learn his craft. "Film school taught me a lot about how not to make films," he joked, "but it did give me the tools to work my way through the filmmaking process."

Given the intense competition across the UK, and the high standards set by Skillset, the sector skills council, the Scottish launch is a major coup for both Napier and the art college.

The academy offers a broader curriculum than a traditional film school, covering all aspects of the film business, from the filmmaker's craft to an actor's delivery, to the marketeer's strategies. With courses ranging from outreach and access programmes to MAs, PhDs and continuing professional development, it already offers a fat prospectus to potential students.

So far, Scotland's industry professionals seem impressed. Steve Knibbs, chief executive of the Vue Entertainment cinema chain, said: "This will provide much needed support and development for the distribution and exhibition sectors, whose importance - in terms of skills and training - are too often overlooked."

Iain Smith is also chair of Skillset's films strategy committee and is enthusiastic as to what it can offer. "You should think of this academy as part of a much larger UK-wide film school," he said. "Power and influence now rests in networks, not in centres, but in the traffic of ideas."

That view was backed by Brent MacGregor, principal of the art college, who said: "Film schools are not what they used to be. This is a new model of institution."

The academy will be linked with outreach activity in schools and community organisations, to make the most of Scotland's vibrant, largely digitally driven grassroots film culture.

But with goodwill comes high expectations. As film commentator Mark Cousins pointed out, "Now that Scotland has its own Skillset Screen Academy we can expect, in the coming years, to see filmmaking here become more innovative and professional."

Scottish Screen's chief executive, Ken Hay, said the academy would enhance the skills base of the sector and further strengthen the industry in Scotland.

Political support is also strong, with the First Minister, Jack McConnell, expressing his hope that the development would enhance wider efforts to reverse the "brain drain" and attract talent to Scotland.

"I really believe in this academy, and this industry in Scotland. They are a vital part of Scotland's economy," he said.

Is there not a danger though, of the academy accelerating the brain drain, with students taking what they have learnt from Scotland to the meccas of Hollywood, London or even Hong Kong?

"We should be so lucky," said Mr Smith, who knows better than most the underlying realities of the industry. He is confident that while talent will spread itself across the globe, it will also come back, bringing with it valuable experience.

And the academy's parent institutions are each experienced in turning out high-achievers. Lynne Ramsay, director of Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, is an Edinburgh College of Art alumna, while Napier graduate Simon Hynd won this year's Bafta Scotland Award.

Lin Anderson may soon be another name to look for in the credits. "I'm a great believer in storytelling," she said, "and in the next few years I hope to do so on the big screen."

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