Tax scam on a film shoot that never was
A new documentary reveals how two cinema novices, one of whom was glamorous Newry actress Aoife Madden, scammed the public purse for millions
When the Blair government introduced tax breaks for the film industry in the late 1990s, financiers who had previously ignored British movies began to pump money into film investment schemes - but the suspicion lingered that many were motivated more by opportunities for avoiding tax.
A production boom ensued, and a large number of truly lousy and downright eccentric movies were made. Opportunistic film financiers were factoring in cast and crew deferrals worth much more than their films' (generally tiny) cash budgets and then claiming tax relief on the total amount.
In 2012, The Times quoted a HMRC (HM Revenue & Customs) source, who said that film tax schemes had enabled investors to avoid an astonishing £5bn in tax. Investors included Premier League footballers, politicians and TV celebrities. The public perception was that some rich individuals and their advisors had been looking for ways to outsmart the Revenue.
A more generous reading is that one reason that so many big-budget Hollywood movies (Gravity, Harry Potter, Star Wars: The Force Awakens etc) shoot in the UK is that they receive such generous tax relief.
It is instructive to watch Ben Lewis's entertaining new documentary Chancers to learn how that tax relief is sometimes used for fraudulent purposes. It tells the cautionary tale of a tiny British film called A Landscape of Lies. The producers behind it were convicted in 2013 in the first prosecution for film tax-relief fraud. HMRC later claimed that the movie was a sham all along and that the real intention from the outset was "to defraud the public purse of nearly £1.5m in VAT along with nearly £1.3m in film tax-credit claims".
This, though, wasn't a case of master criminals dreaming up an ingenious plan. As Lewis's film shows, it was more a case of bungling amateurs. There is comedy as well as pathos in their story - and the producers still don't seem to think they were doing anything very wrong.
Flash back to 2009. Aoife Madden, an actress from Newry and the niece of Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, met Bashar Al-Issa, an Iraqi property developer and entrepreneur.
"If Aoife is our Bonnie, Bashar is our Clyde," Chancers tells us.
By then, Al-Issa's international property empire was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. He decided to re-invent himself as a movie mogul. With this in mind, he recruited Madden to set up a film-production company, Evolved Pictures. Neither Al-Issa nor Madden had produced a movie before and didn't have any money. They advertised online for scripts and Stuart Knight responded by sending Madden his student script, A Landscape of Lives, a crime drama set in Los Angeles.
The producers began to hire staff and to plan their film. It was at this point that the UK's Film Tax Relief, which offered a payable cash rebate of 25% on any UK expenditure, proved so useful. It could be used as bait to attract other international investors. Evolved's principals told potential backers that they hoped to cast Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson and Omar Sharif in their £19.6m movie.
By now, Evolved had joined forces with AB Productions. AB sent an invoice for more than £5m. Close to £800,000 of this was for VAT. Evolved claimed this money back, but didn't pay the invoice. Evolved also submitted claims for VAT and for Film Tax Credit money.
HMRC inspectors became suspicious and demanded to see footage. To keep them happy, the team hastily shot material with a borrowed camera in someone's flat.
On April 11, 2011, Madden and Al-Issa were arrested and bailed. The case against them was that they were fraudulently claiming money on a film that hadn't, and probably never would, be made. Madden and Al-Issa reacted by rushing A Landscape of Lives into production. They hired a director, former nightclub security consultant Paul Knight (Charlie Kray's godson), who was unaware of what had transpired.
He rewrote the screenplay in a few days. "We were casting while we were filming. We literally just had four months," Knight later recalled. The title was changed, with no intentional irony, to A Landscape of Lies. Details of the full budget are hard to establish, but the £19.6m movie ended up being shot for less than £100,000. With such a small budget, big names couldn't be cast, but Knight managed to recruit Andrea McLean (from TV's Loose Women) and actor Danny Midwinter.
This was another low-budget, straight-to-DVD-style, thriller about gangsters and geezers. The hitch, as the narrator of Chancers tells us, was that "the entire cast and crew, unbeknownst to themselves" were acting out "an alibi for a multi-million-pound fraud" against the Revenue.
Madden and Al-Issa received prison sentences in early 2013 of four years and eight months and six-and-a-half years respectively; three others were also jailed.
There is a revealing moment in Chancers in which HMRC investigations leader Alison Chipperton talks of the "hilarity" she and her colleagues felt at the sheer chutzpah of the Landscape of Lies producers.
Even now, there is no evidence that Al-Issa (who remains in prison) accepts he was doing anything wrong. He and Madden were convicted in the first prosecution for film tax relief fraud - and that, at least, will earn the two hapless producers their own little niche in British cinema history.
Chancers is on BBC4 on January 24