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The tough business of indie filmmaking

Blog
25 February 2016

Despite the UK’s reputation for quality filmmaking, indie production is still a struggle. David Wood reports on the reality of film producing in 2016

The UK film industry is still in pretty rude health, if the latest figures from the BFI are anything to go by. Although total spending on film in 2015 was down a little (6%) to £1,410m, the combination of tax breaks, favourable exchange rates and the appeal of British creative talent still pulled in an impressive £1,117m from 47 features from US studios last year.

But another less welcome trend also continued; a decrease in the amount of spend on British independent film, down from £212m in 2014 to £198m. The number of domestic UK features in 2015 was down to 124 (224 in 2014).
Although the BFI points out that the figures will be revised upwards as more data becomes available, it’s clear that independent features are finding life hard.

British Film Commission ceo Adrian Wootton explains it’s a tough business to be in for the simple reason that producers find independent features harder to finance because distributors think they are harder to market to audiences.

“It’s not just happening in the UK – its everywhere – sales agents are paying smaller and smaller advances to producers because they think they will only make a small amount of money in any particular territory. A lot of the strength of British independent cinema has been in that £5m-£15m mark, which is increasingly squeezed.”

“Miraculously we are still making great indie films and they get a pretty good market share,” insists Wootton, pointing to the latest box office numbers from the BFI which show that indie features took an 11% share in the UK last year, although this was down from 16%.

The best performing British indie films last year were Legend, the Film4-backed gangster feature which netted £18.4m, Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (£16m) and Shaun The Sheep (£13.8m). Other notables include Suffragette (£9.8m), Lady in the Van (£12.3m), Far From the Madding Crowd (£6.2m) and Brooklyn (£5.3m).

Head of BBC Films Christine Langan, who has backed British features including Far From the Madding Crowd, Brooklyn and Lady in the Van, says indie films struggle to reach audiences for a variety of reasons. “Successful launches need luck, timing, the weather – there’s a lot that can conspire to keep people away. And you never really know whether the marketing campaign is reaching them or is giving the right message; maybe it’s not loud enough or simply not the right campaign.”

Langan adds: “Lady in the Van was a success because Sony did a magnificent job rolling it out. Plus it had Maggie Smith and was written by Alan Bennett – both hugely loved. But you can’t always bank on having national treasures.”

Lady in the Van, Brooklyn and Far From The Madding Crowd also benefitted from being adaptations. “It doesn’t always work but a project based on existing works can help get a project recognised, which in turn helps get financiers on board. But one thing is certain – it’s difficult to start from scratch.”

Faced with a tough market for mid-range features many film directors and producers have taken to high end television drama to offset the risky business of indie film.

Paulo Sorrentino, the Italian director behind Youth, backed by Film4, is also making big budget Sky Atlantic miniseries The Young Pope, while Tom Harper (Woman in Black sequel) helmed BBC1’s War & Peace.
Film producers are increasingly following the model pioneered by Working Title, the film producer behind The Danish Girl and Legend, which also runs a successful TV division.

There are plenty of upsides, as Film4’s head of distribution and strategy Sue Bruce-Smith points out. “With TV you have one key financier and you are commissioned and are able to get on with it. It’s becoming more attractive, particularly now that Netflix and Amazon are in that space.”

Another key factor is that high end TV with a budget over £1m per hour also qualifies for the same tax breaks as film, a benefit that producers made good use of in 2015 with spending up to £759m.

The saving grace of the tough British indie film scene are organisations such as the BFI Film Fund, BBC Films and Film4, which between them are expected to plough around £62m into indie film development and production in 2016.

The BFC’s Adrian Wootton argues: “The triumvirate of the BFI lottery fund, BBC Films and Film4 is absolutely crucial to the ecosystem of indie films. If you can get the BFI plus one of the broadcasters, plus some private equity and sales plus the tax credit – that’s your budget.”

Little wonder then that there is some concern about the BBC and Film4’s future ability to fund British features, with the BBC facing licence fee cuts and Film4 under the looming threat of privatisation.

Backed by a £10m-a-year licence fee funded budget, BBC Films helps create and finance between 10 and 15 films a year. Even in an era of austerity at the BBC, Langan argues that the role of BBC Films as a supporter of British film is essential. “Britain needs a film culture and the BBC needs to support it. That little £10m pot is all the BBC is doing to support independent film, and the corporation would be hard pressed to get the same amount of value spending the money in any other way,” she says.

The unique thing about BBC Films is the range, says Langan, from upcoming comedies such as Ricky Gervais in Life on the Road and Ab Fab to the experimental work of directors such as Andrea Arnold, Carol Morley and Joanna Hogg.

BBC Films has just wrapped on Denial, the story of holocaust denier David Irving’s court case against historian Deborah Lipstadt, which Langan describes as “grown up, chewy subject matter”, plus there’s Amma Asante’s next film, Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House.

Meanwhile, Film4 has just been handed a budget incrase too, with Channel 4 upping investment from £15m to £25m a year. Sue Bruce-Smith explains that Film4 has a twin pronged strategy to fund risky films from directors who are just starting out and which are, frankly, unlikely to make their money back, and to finance bigger budget more commercial propositions.

Film4 boss David Kosse, a heavy-weight recruit from Universal’s Pictures International, is expected to build Film4 into a more self-sustaining business. “At the moment we can plough it all back into film – as we have no shareholders. But we have to question whether as a commercial operator C4 would want to continue with a remit backing directors such as Jonathan Glazer, Andrew Haigh (45 Years) and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster). I think it would have to move to a more conservative and relentlessly commercial model. Which would be a shame,” says Bruce-Smith.

It’s a case of greater risk for greater rewards, rewards which Film4 famously missed on out with Slumdog Millionaire, the huge 2008 box office hit which earned $378m worldwide, although Film4 saw very little return on its investment. “Now, if a Slumdog Millionaire came along and we saw its potential we would take a much bigger stake,” declares Bruce-Smith.

The alternative strategy for getting mid-range features backed is to get investment from big European studios interested in the indie cinema space, such as Studio Canal, Pathe and eOne, points out Robert Bernstein, head of drama at Ecosse Films. “But if you think you have a really strong, irresistible package then it’s still a good idea to go the independent route with a sales company, as you’ll get a strong response with international distributors,” adds Bernstein.

In its favour British indie film has established a breed of well-connected producers who can finance features through their relationships with studios, distributors and talent; names such as Working Titles’ Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner (The Danish Girl), David Heyman (Paddington, the Harry Potter franchise) Stephen Woolley (Carol) and Damian Jones (Dad’s Army, Ab Fab, The Lady in the Van) spring to mind.

Other positives are the current enthusiasm for indie features from big distributors. At the recent Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight picked up Nate Parker’s US indie feature Birth of a Nation for £12m after a bidding war.
Langan is also buoyed by the interest from deep-pocketed OTT outfits. She reveals she has had talks with Amazon about BBC Films projects. “Players such as Amazon are out there hunting down prestigious pieces. We find there is a lot of interest in our slate – particularly if they are not interested in UK TV rights. So I remain very optimistic.”

UK film in numbers

201 films started principal photography in the UK in 2015: 47 inward investment films, 123 UK domestic and 30 co-productions. They spent a total of £1,410m

The 47 inward investment films spent £1,117m, 83% of all film production expenditure in 2015

Spend by domestic UK productions was £198m, down 7% from 2014

Cinema admissions rose 9% to 171.9m. Box office was £1,240m

Legend was the top grossing indie UK film (£18.4m), followed by The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (£16m) and Shaun the Sheep Movie (£13.8m)

The market share of independent UK features was down overall to 11% (16% 2014).

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the top grossing film, taking £114m

BFI Research and Statistics Unit

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