The Cannes Film Festival opens today, and to mark the event here’s Televisual’s exclusive report on the top 40 film producers in the UK.
The list comes from Televisual’s Film 40 survey, published in our May issue, which rounds up the top film production companies in the UK and also profiles the UK’s leading DoPs and studios and investigates trends in sound production and film grading.
How The Film 40 works
The Film 40 survey of indie producers has been compiled with off the record guidance and input from leading film producers, agents, financiers and independent film PR consultants. But the choice of companies is Televisual’s alone.
Unlike Televisual’s other industry surveys – such as the Production 100 or Facilities 50 – the Film 40 does not rank companies by revenues, awards or size. That’s because the film industry is very different from other creative sectors. Projects take years to develop, produce and release – meaning that a film producer’s revenues and output can vary tremendously from year to year. It’s very much a long-term game.
So we have chosen the following companies based on their reputation within the industry. The companies selected are those that have a track record of making films that attract box office, critical acclaim and/or awards.
They are not just producers for hire – rather they are producers who look for and develop scripts, attach talent to projects, raise finance and risk their own money in films that they believe in. We’ve also tried to pick companies that are capable of making a broad slate of films rather than those that are best known simply as the production vehicles for particular directorial talent.
Missing from the list are companies that are owned by broadcasters (like Film4 and BBC Films) as well as outfits that are predominantly distributors (Lionsgate, Pathe) or financiers (Ingenious, Prescience).
We’ve chosen to list the companies alphabetically. But if we did try to rank them, Working Title would sit at the very top of the list. The top-tier of film production companies would then comprise about 20 other outfits. They are companies that make one or two films a year – some of which, like The King’s Speech or Skyfall, become global phenomena.
Those companies are: Aardman, Blueprint, Big Talk Pictures, Cloud Eight, DNA, Ealing Studios, Eon, Ecosse Films, Heyday, Hammer, Number 9, Recorded Picture Company, Revolution, Ruby Films, See-Saw, Sixteen, Slate/Potboiler, Vertigo and Warp.
The Film 40
42 Ben Pugh, Rory Aitken, Josh Varney, Kate Buckley
42 is a new name in the Film 40, a production and management company set up by Pugh and Aitken of indie Between the Eyes and former Independent Talent Group agents Varney and Buckley. Actors represented by 42 include Michael Caine and John Hurt. Its most recent film project, the glossy action thriller Welcome to the Punch, didn’t set the box office alight but won industry respect for its scale and ambition. Set up in 2005 to make films, ads and music videos, Between the Eyes’ first film was the Bafta-nominated Shifty. Credits: Shifty, Welcome to the Punch
Aardman Animations Peter Lord, David Sproxton, Nick Park
Self-contained and quintessentially English, Bristol-based animation pioneer Aardman is now making a theatrical feature based on its hit Shaun the Sheep TV series. Aardman has teamed up with European backer StudioCanal for the movie. It’s a departure for the company, which recently delivered films such as The Pirates! and Arthur Christmas for Hollywood studio Sony. Aardman has won four Oscars, and over the past 40 years has established itself as a world leader in model animation. Aardman is a fully integrated company, with successful TV, commercials and digital divisions too. Credits: Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Flushed Away, Arthur Christmas, ThePirates!
Altitude Films Will Clarke
Will Clarke, the founder of Optimum Releasing, launched production-led Altitude Films last year with partners Andy Mayson and Mike Runagall. Clarke had great success in founding and then selling Optimum to StudioCanal in a multi-million pound deal. So there’s lots of anticipation that Altitude will succeed too. Altitude is working The Woman in Black director James Watkins on a big budget new feature, and is said to be readying a number of new projects, including Kill Your Friends – an adaptation of John Niven’s music industry satire.
Archer Street Films Andy Paterson, Anand Tucker
There’s lots of good buzz about perennial production outfit Archer Street’s next film, The Railway Man. Now in post, the long gestating adaptation stars Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman in the true story of a Scottish prisoner of war and his journey to confront his Japanese captors. Archer Street was launched after the success of producer Paterson and director Tucker’s 1998 hit Hilary and Jackie. Credits: Girl With a Pearl Earring, Beyond the Sea, Burning Man
Apollo Films Steve Norris
Apollo is a joint venture between three key players in UK production – former British Film Commissioner and Framestore boss Steve Norris, vfx house Double Negative and the studio Pinewood Shepperton. Set up in 2011, it’s planning to go with three features this year: war poet Robert Graves biopic The Laureate; Weightless, directed by Monsters Ball writer Milo Addica; and The Keys to the Street, starring Gemma Arterton.
Bedlam Productions Gareth Unwin
Bedlam’s Gareth Unwin is working again with King’s Speech writer David Seidler, who is adapting The Lady Who Went Too Far – the true story of nineteenth century adventurer Lady Hester Stanhope, the ‘female Lawrence of Arabia’. Bedlam’s most recent film was the well-meaning Israeli-Palestinian tale Zaytoun, which received ok reviews but failed to make any impact at the box office. Unwin partnered with See-Saw on the The King’s Speech, for which he became an Academy Award winning producer. Credits: The King’s Speech, Zaytoun
Big Talk Pictures Nira Park, Matthew Justice, Kenton Allen
Solid, prolific and talent focussed, Big Talk is one of the UK’s leading production companies that’s enjoyed success across film and comedy TV. It has a track record of finding and supporting new talent – many of which, like Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, have now graduated to the big time. Big Talk, which is reportedly on the verge of a sale to Elizabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group, is in post on Cuban Fury, a dance comedy starring Nick Frost. Next up is The World’s End, the third collaboration between director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. It’s scheduled for release in the UK in August 2103. Jeremy Lovering’s In Fear, which premiered at Sundance, is also released in August. Credits: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Paul, Attack the Block Sightseers, Rev (TV), Spaced (TV), Him and Her (TV)
Blueprint Pictures Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin
Blueprint is regarded as a very solid UK film production company, particularly after the astonishing financial success last year of John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the earlier acclaim for its In Bruges. There’s also momentum behind the indie, which has released the well-made Now Is Good and edgy Seven Psychopaths over the past year. Blueprint is now in prep on an adaptation of hit stage play Posh, to be directed by Lone Scherfig. Boss Pete Czernin is a close friend of David Cameron, while Broadbent was previously a co-founder of Dragon Pictures and Mission Pictures with Damian Jones. Credits: Becoming Jane, In Bruges, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Now is Good, Seven Psychopaths
Cloud Eight Christian Colson
Christian Colson is the regular producing partner of London 2012 opening ceremony director Danny Boyle. Boyle is now said to be working up his next film, which is being co-written with Shameless creator Paul Abbott. Colson won an Oscar for his work on Slumdog Millionaire, and was also nominated last year for 127 Hours. Colson most recently produced Boyle’s latest film, the art heist thriller Trance, starring James McAvoy and Rosario Dawson. Despite Boyle’s pedigree, the thriller has performed modestly at the box office. Credits: The Descent, Eden Lake, Slumdog Millionaire, The Scouting Book for Boys, Centurion, 127 Hours
Cowboy Films Charles Steel
Cowboy Films works across narrative films, feature documentaries and TV drama, with a reputation for teaming up with top quality writers and directors. Run by Charles Steel, working alongside producing partner Alasdair Flind and TV development producer Sara Murray, it’s currently preparing to release Kevin Macdonald’s next film, How I Live Now, an adaptation of the Meg Rosoff book. Recent credits include Kevin Macdonald’s feature doc Marley and C4’s hit Top Boy and upcoming C4 drama Home Before Dark. Credits: Marley, Top Boy (TV), The Last King of Scotland
DJ Films Damian Jones
Entrepreneurial and fleet-of-foot, Damian Jones has a reputation for getting films made. Last year his film The Iron Lady won Meryl Streep an Oscar, while Fast Girls hoped to cash in on Olympic fever but was poorly received. He’s just completed production on Belle, Amma Asante’s period romance drama about a mixed race woman in eighteenth century British society. He’s admired in the industry for reinvesting profits from Iron Lady into Powder Room, the debut film from commercials director MJ Delaney. Jones is also said to be developing a Dad’s Army feature and a Joe Strummer biopic. Jones was previously partnered with Graham Broadbent at Mission Pictures, but set up on his own in 2003. He has a first look deal with Pathe UK. Credits: The Iron Lady, Fast Girls, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, The History Boys, Kidulthood. Welcome to Sarajevo.
DNA Films Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
Long established and always interesting, DNA Films is gearing up to shoot Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, about a female robot. It’s also readying a version of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, directed by Thomas Vinterberg and set to star Carey Mulligan. DNA has also co-produced Sunshine on Leith, an adaptation of the stage musical based on the lyrics of Scottish band The Proclaimers. DNA was the recipient of large amounts of lottery cash soon after the creation of the UK Film Council in 1997 and went on to strike a joint venture with Fox Searchlight which yielded films like 28 Weeks Later and The Last King of Scotland, as well as a variety of TV projects. Credits: Dredd 3D, 28 Days Later, The Last King of Scotland, Sunshine, Trainspotting, Shallow Grave
Ealing Studios Barnaby Thompson
Ealing is now in development on the latest of its financially successful St Trinian’s films and has also just wrapped Nina Simone biopic Nina, written and directed by Cynthia Mort. Ealing is the UK’s only vertically integrated film studio, making its particularly British brand of films as well as owning legendary facilities Ealing Studios. Its Ealing Metro arm also focuses on international sales and distribution. Credits: The Importance of Being Earnest, St Trinian’s, Dorian Gray, Burke & Hare
Eon Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson
The home of James Bond, Eon has just enjoyed phenomenal business with the latest outing of the franchise, Skyfall, which took £1.1bn at the global box office. Eon remains very much a family business and is run by original 007 producer Albert R ‘Cubby’ Broccoli’s daughter Barbara and stepson Michael G Wilson. Their first film in charge of Eon was 1995’s GoldenEye. Credits: Skyfall, Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale, Die Another Day, GoldenEye
Ecosse Films Douglas Rae, Robert Bernstein
Active across film and television, Ecosse is in post production on Diana, a likely to be controversial feature biopic of Princess Diana that stars Naomi Watts and is directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Ecosse is soon to shoot Girls Night Out this year, which is said to be a strong script based on the true story of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret being let out of Buckingham Palace for one night to join the VE celebrations in 1945. Credits: Mrs Brown, Brideshead Revisited, Nowhere Boy
Hammer Simon Oakes
The Hammer horror brand, a division of Guy East and Nigel Sinclair’s Exclusive Media, is readying a sequel to its global hit The Woman in Black, which took over $130m at the box office. Directed by Tom Harper, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death doesn’t have Daniel Radcliffe in the lead this time, but stars Jeremy Irvine and Phoebe Fox – and continues the story 40 years later. Hammer is also in post on poltergeist tale The Quiet Ones, directed by John Pogue. Hammer hadn’t released a feature for over 30 years until it became part of Exclusive. It’s diversified too, launching a publishing imprint through Random House, and active in theatre and digital. Credits: Let Me In, Wake Wood, The Resident, The Woman in Black
Headline Stuart Mackinnon
London and Newcastle-based Headline has a reputation as a creative producer and a good dealmaker. Run by Stuart Mackinnon, its most recent feature was Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet. Headline is also in post on The Invisible Woman, adapted by Abi Morgan from Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens’ mistress and directed by Ralph Fiennes. It’s also prepping the Mike Newell directed Rejkjavik, starring Michael Douglas as Ronald Reagan. Headline recently signed an innovative deal with PR giant Edelman. Credits: Quartet
Heyday Films David Heyman
Harry Potter producer David Heyman is sticking with well-known children’s characters for his next project, a cgi/live action adaptation of Michael Bond’s classic Paddington Bear. StudioCanal is financing the film, to be directed by Paul King. Thanks to his success with the Harry Potter franchise, Heyman is viewed as one of the UK’s most bankable producers and has a first look deal with Warners – one of the very few such studio deals in the UK. War drama St Nazaire about the British commando raid in 1942, directed by Potter’s David Yates, is on the cards. Credits: Harry Potter films, I am Legend, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, Page Eight
Neal Street Pippa Harris, Sam Mendes
Set up by Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris and Caro Newling in 2003, Neal Street spans film, TV and theatre. Its TV arm has been a strong focus in the past year, producing BBC1’s popular drama series Call the Midwife as well as The Hollow Crown, its acclaimed versions of Shakespeare’s history plays. Neal Street’s film division is readying Nora Ephron’s final script, a film version of TV hit Lost in Austen, as well as an adaptation of George Elliot’s Middlemarch. Meanwhile Mendes, fresh from the phenomenal success of Skyfall, returns to his theatre roots this Spring, opening a stage version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Credits: Revolutionary Road, Starter for Ten, Jarhead. American Beauty
Number 9 Films Stephen Woolley, Elizabeth Karlsen
Number 9’s Stephen Woolley together with partner Elizabeth Karlsen hardly need any introduction, having produced some of the UK’s most distinguished films from the 1980s on. It’s soon to release Neil Jordan’s vampire horror film Byzantium, adapted by Moira Buffini from her play and starring Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arteton. Projects in development include John Crowley’s Carol and Jane Goldman’s The Limehouse Golem. Number 9’s most recent release, Great Expectations, directed by Mike Newell, was not exactly a flop at the box office and received mostly approving reviews – but struggled as it followed in the wake of the BBC’s successful TV adaptation.. Credits: Mona Lisa, Ladies in Lavender, Little Voice, Interview with the Vampire, Crying Game, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Made in Dagenham
Origin Pictures David Thompson
Well known and described as a ‘quality’ producer, Origin was launched by the former head of BBC Films David Thompson in 2008. Origin is set to shoot rites of passage drama X + Y this summer. The story of a maths prodigy, it’s directed by well-known documentary maker Morgan Matthews and is inspired by his BBC doc Beautiful Young Minds. Origin is also developing What We Did On Our Holiday from writer-directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, and is co-producer on Nelson Mandela biopic Long Walk to Freedom. Origin is also making two TV dramas for the BBC – an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn and PD James adaptation Death Comes to Pemberley. Credits: The Awakening, The Crimson Petal and the White (TV)
Passion Pictures John Battsek, Andrew Ruhemann
Specialising in big feature documentaries where fact is often stranger than fiction, Passion has produced over 25 films starting with the Oscar winning One Day in September in 1999. It won another Oscar this year for musical detective story Searching for Sugar Man. Passion was also involved with Bafta winner The Imposter, directed by Raw TV’s Bart Layton and is soon to release Manhunt about the CIA’s long war with Al Qaeda. Passion is poised for growth into narrative and animated features. Credits: One Day in September, In the Shadow of the Moon, Restrepo, Project Nim, Searching for Sugar Man
Peapie Films Kris Thykier
Former Freuds PR vice-chairman Kris Thykier set up Peapie Films in 2009, having run Marv Films with Matthew Vaughan for two years previously where he’d exec produced hit film Stardust. With a focus on international movies with commercial appeal, Peapie’s slate includes Garbage with Working Title Films, written by Richard Curtis and to be directed by Stephen Daldry. Thykier’s recent producing credits include the commercial success I Give It a Year by Dan Mazer, again with Working Title. Credits: Stardust, Harry Brown, Kick-Ass, W.E., Ill Manors, I Give It A Year
Qwerty Films Michael Kuhn
Run by Michael Kuhn, the former PolyGram Filmed Entertainment boss and the ex-chair of the NFTS, Qwerty is at Cannes this month with Ruairi Robinson’s ambitious vfx driven sci-fi thriller Last Days on Mars, which plays in Directors Fortnight. Qwerty is also readying Suite Francaise, based on Irene Nemirovsky’s best selling novel set during World War II and adapted by Saul Dibb. Credits: The Duchess, I Heart Huckabees, Kinsey,
Recorded Picture Company Jeremy Thomas
Veteran producer Jeremy Thomas has made some 60 films and continues to produce on average two a year. RPC’s production of Jim Jarmusch’s vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive plays in competition at Cannes this month. It’s also soon to release crime caper Dom Hemingway, which has good buzz and stars Jude Law and Richard E Grant. Another RPC film, Kon-Tiki – about Thor Heyerdahl’s famous crossing of the Pacific on a raft in the 1940s – has earned strong reviews and broken box office records in Heyerdahl’s native Norway. Meanwhile, RPC is readying a feature about The Kinks as well as JG Ballard adaptation High Rise. Thomas’ operation also encompasses sales outfit Hanway Films. Credits: Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, The Last Emperor, Naked Lunch, Stealing Beauty, Crash, Sexy Beast, The Dreamers, 13 Assasins
Revolution Films Andrew Eaton
The prolific and entrepreneurial Revolution produces all of Michael Winterbottom’s films including his latest, the Paul Raymond biopic The Look of Love. But Revolution isn’t just a one director indie – it makes a range of other projects, and is one of the producers of Ron Howard’s upcoming Formula One epic Rush, which is set for a September release and already has good word of mouth thanks to a strong online trailer. Revolution also produced the Belfast record store tale Good Vibrations, released last month after winning the Galway Film Fleadh Audience Award. Like many other film producers, Revolution has also successfully moved in to TV, producing C4’s Red Riding trilogy as well as Winterbottom’s hit comedy The Trip. Credits: 360, The Trip (TV), The Killer Inside Me, Red Riding (TV), A Mighty Heart, In This World, 9 Songs, Jude
Rook Films Andy Starke, Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
A new entrant to the Film 40, Bridport-based Rook Films has in a short time built up a strong reputation for producing smart and inventive British films, establishing director Ben Wheatley as an important new directing talent with films such as Kill List and Sightseers. Now Rook are expanding to develop and produce features with other filmmakers, including Peter Strickland’s (Berberian Sound Studio) The Duke of Burgundy. Rook recently won £50k of funding via the BFI Vision Awards. Credits: Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England
Ruby Films Alison Owen
Alison Owen is a highly regarded name in the industry, with a long CV that includes Elizabeth and The Other Boleyn Girl. Entrepreneurial and creative (and Lily Allen’s mother too), Owen has diversified Ruby into TV with acclaimed dramas such as Toast, Small Island and Stephen Poliakoff’s latest Dancing on the Edge. However, Owen’s well-known producing partner Paul Trijbits left last December to set up his own company Filmwave and to executive produce J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy for the BBC. Ruby recently produced Saving Mr Banks, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, in the true story behind Disney’s Mary Poppins, which is set for release at the end of the year. It’s also readying The Buccaneers, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s high society novel. Credits: Jane Eyre, Tamara Drew, Chatroom, The Other Boleyn Girl, Sylvia
Samuelson Productions Marc Samuelson
Veteran producer Marc Samuelson left Isle of Man production and finance body CinemaNX last year to relaunch Samuelson Productions, taking with him head of acquisitions Josie Law. Four features are now in the late stage of financing and packaging from a producer whose credits include Stormbreaker, Wilde and Tom and Viv. The third generation of a well known film and TV production family, Samuelson also has a high industry profile and is chair of Pact’s film policy group. Credits: Wilde, Arlington Road, Things to do Before You’re 30, Stormbreaker
Scott Free Liza Marshall
Scott Free’s year has been tragically marked by the death of Tony Scott, brother and business partner of Ridley Scott. The company is shooting the Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth starring adaptation of SJ Watson’s best selling book Before I Go To Sleep, directed by Rowan Joffe. Ridley Scott himself is in post on Cormac McCarthy scripted The Counselor. Other projects being developed at Scott Free include an adaptation of Michael Frayn’s Skios, and a Christmas project that Jon Wright will direct. Scott Free recently bought the film rights to Anne de Courcy’s novel The Fishing Fleet. Credits: Gladiator, Robin Hood, Prometheus, Stoker
See-Saw Films Iain Canning, Emile Sherman
A “great producer with great taste” is how one rival describes Anglo-Australian See-Saw, which was launched in 2008 by London based sales exec Iain Canning and Australian producer Emile Sherman. Soon after they hit the big time with The King’s Speech, winner of four Oscars, including best film. Since then, See-Saw has produced Steve McQueen’s Shame. It’s now casting a new feature version of Shakespeare play Macbeth, backed by Film4, which has Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman attached with Justin Kurzel directing. See-Saw is also pushing heavily into TV, and has produced Jane Campion’s upcoming TV drama Top of the Lake. Credits: The King’s Speech, Oranges and Sunshine, The Kings of Mykonos,
ShoeBox Paul Webster
The former boss of FilmFour, Webster recently launched Shoebox with Guy Heeley and director Joe Wright. Shoebox’s first film is Hummingbird starring Jason Statham. Just before setting up Shoebox, Webster produced Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, alongside Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. Webster was previously head of Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Pictures’ film arm, producing Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Credits: Hummingbird
Sixteen Films Rebecca O’Brien
Entrepreneurial and consistently producing films, Sixteen Films is run by Rebecca O’Brien with director Ken Loach. Hot on the heels of his documentary The Spirit of ’45, Loach is set to shoot Jimmy’s Hall in Ireland this summer. Written by regular Loach collaborator Paul Laverty, the film is reported to be a biopic of an Irish communist who sets up a dance hall in the 1930s. Sixteen is adept at working with European partners to raise finance for its projects. Credits: The Wind that Shakes the Barley, My Name is Joe, Looking for Eric
Sigma Films Gillian Berrie, David Mackenzie
Scotland’s pre-eminent film production company, the Glasgow based Sigma is currently in production with David Mackenzie’s prison drama Starred Up about a violent teenager who meets his match in prison – his father. Sigma has produced Mackenzie’s films including Young Adam and The Last Great Wilderness. Sigma is also a co-producer on Jonathan Glazer’s upcoming Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson. It also has strong links with Danish producer Zentropa, which has seen it contribute to films such as Lars von Trier’s Dogville and Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding. Credits: Red Road, Young Adam, Hallam Foe, Perfect Sense, You Instead.
Slate Films/Potboiler Andrea Calderwood, Gail Egan
Experienced producers Calderwood and Egan joined forces in 2009 to co-develop a slate while keeping their standalone companies. Their current slate includes Mike Leigh’s next film, a biopic of painter J.W. Turner, and they are taking Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man to Cannes this month. They’ve also shot their adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestselling novel Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967-1970. Calderwood also produced HBO’s TV drama Generation Kill. Credits: I am Slave, The Last King of Scotland, The Constant Gardener
Toledo Films Duncan Kenworthy
A respected and authoritative figure in the UK film industry, Kenworthy set up Toledo Pictures in 1995 soon after producing Four Weddings and A Funeral through Working Title, and continued to work with Working Title on Notting Hill and Love Actually. The former chairman of Bafta, his most recent film through Toledo was Kevin Macdonald’s Roman epic The Eagle. Credits: Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually
Trademark Films David Parfitt, Ivan Mactaggart
Trademark was in the limelight this year for co-producing acclaimed TV drama Parade’s End, adapted by Tom Stoppard. Run by Oscar winning producer David Parfitt and film financier Ivan Mactaggart, it’s currently shooting First World War feature The Wiper Times that’s co-written by Ian Hislop. Trademark is best known for its award winning, prestigious dramas like Shakespeare in Love and The Madness of King George but is actively developing across a range of genres. Credits: My Week With Marilyn, Shakespeare in Love
Vertigo Films James Richardson, Alan Niblo, Rupert Preston
Commercially focused Vertigo is active across production and distribution, making a name for itself with films like Streetdance and Streetdance 2, as well as Monsters and Horrid Henry. Vertigo is currently shooting sequel Monsters: Dark Continent, the feature debut of Tom Green – a coproduction with 42. It’s also knocking out canine title Pudsey The Movie with Simon Cowell’s Syco Entertainment. Vertigo is a partner is sales outfit Protagonist Pictures. Credits: The Football Factory, The Business, Bronson, Streetdance 3d, Streetdance 2, Horrid Henry, Monsters
Warp Films Mark Herbert, Robin Gutch, Peter Carlton
Sheffield and London-based Warp recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. A spin-off from the indie record label, it’s made a name for itself for producing highly distinctive British films and is planning to expand into higher budget films and comedies. Warp’s strong relationship with Shane Meadows continues and he’s about to release his Stone Roses film Made of Stone. And Scottish writer/director Paul Wright’s debut feature, For Those In Peril, plays in Cannes’ Critics Week this month. Also coming up is Top Boy director Yann Demange’s feature debut ’71, set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which started shooting last month. Warp has also pushed heavily into television and is working on C4 drama Southcliffe and Sky Atlantic/Canal Plus co-pro The Panthers. Credits: Dead Man’s Shoes, Four Lions, This is England, Submarine, Kill List, Tyrannosaur
Wildgaze Films Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey
Well respected, old school indie whose credits include Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet with Headline (which has taken over £8m at the UK box office so far) and the Oscar nominated An Education. Wildgaze is currently in post on Nick Hornby adaptation A Long Way Down, which stars Rosamund Pike and Pierce Brosnan, and is readying Brooklyn, based on Colm Toibin’s best seller, which has Rooney Mara attached. Wildgaze is a recent recipient of £100k of investment via the BFI Vision Awards. Credits: An Education, The Hamburg Cell, Fever Pitch, Backbeat
Working Title Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Working Title is riding high after the box office and awards success of Tom Hooper’s musical Les Miserables, which has taken nearly $450m at the global box office. There was a huge level of expectation for the film – which could easily have misfired – and Working Title’s (and the UK film industry’s) relief at its success is palpable particularly as it comes after a perceived difficult period at the company. Working Title remains the UK’s pre-eminent production company – the number one outfit here by a country mile. Backed by Universal Pictures through to 2015 via a first look deal which funds its projects, it’s trusted by the studio to deliver two to four films a year which marry a British sensibility with Hollywood production values. Working Title is now gearing up for the release of: Rush, the Ron Howard directed film about Formula 1’s Niki Lauda and James Hunt based on a Peter Morgan script; Closed Circuit the John Crowley-directed thriller that stars Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall; and About Time, directed by Richard Curtis. It’s also produced Edgar Wright’s The World’s End with Big Talk Pictures. Working Title also has a burgeoning TV division Working Title TV (WTTV), which produced Birdsong. Credits: Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, Senna, Green Zone, State of Play, Frost/Nixon, Atonement, Hot Fuzz, United 93, Nanny McPhee, Pride and Prejudice, Love Actually, Johnny English, About a Boy, Bridget Jones’ Diary, High Fidelity, Notting Hill, Elizabeth, Four Weddings and A Funeral, My Beautiful Laundrette.
Who We Have Left Out
Choosing just 40 companies was a very difficult job. Missing from the list are highly regarded individual producers such as Kevin Loader’s Free Range and Jim Wilson’s JW Films. Prolific ex-Ruby Films producer Paul Trijbits isn’t there either, as he’s just launched his new company Filmwave and is exec producing JK Rowling’s adaptation A Casual Vacancy for TV. Element Pictures was cited as a producer to include by many contributors to this survey, but we omitted it as it is Irish rather than UK based.
A whole host of upcoming and established production companies were put forward too, including: Rebekah Gilbertson and Nicole Carmen-Davis’s Rainy Day, Diarmid Grimshaw’s Inflammable Films, Ivana Mackinnon’s Stray Bear, Tracey O’Riordan’s Moonspun Films, Nick Marston and Tally Garner’s Cuba Pictures, Piers Tempest’s Tempo Productions, Mia Bays’ Missing in Action Films, Ken Marshall’s Steel Mill Pictures, Pippa Cross and Janette Day’s CrossDay, Gayle Griffiths’ Wild Horses Films, Stuart Fenegan’s Liberty Films, Ollie Madden’s Shine Pictures, Colin Vaines’ Synchronicity, Kate Ogborn’s Fly Film and Andy Sirkis and Jonathan Cavendish’s The Imaginarium.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne formally launched tax reliefs for high end TV and animation at Bafta this morning.
Bafta was packed full with 200 producers, facilities, agencies, lobbyists and TV and film executives for the event, highlighting the level of industry expectation surrounding the tax credits.
Culture minister Ed Vaizey MP was also at the launch, which was hosted by the British Film Commission.
The presence of two senior government ministers at the event highlights the level of political support behind the tax reliefs, which are viewed as tool for kick starting growth in the flat UK economy.
Osborne said there were two key events that spurred him on to launch the tax credits. The first was a meeting with Animation UK chairman Oli Hyatt. “He made such a passionate case for why British animation is the best in the world and why we were at risk of losing it,” said Osborne. The second came after Osborne watched a British TV drama at home one evening, and noticed at the end that all the credits were for crew and locations in Hungary. “I thought, ‘Why is this production being made in Hungary rather than the UK?’ It struck me as crazy not to be able to do something to change that.”
Vaizey added that HBO’s huge investment into The Game of Thrones, which is filmed in Northern Ireland, was also an important factor in changing the government’s thinking about tax credits – in particular their potential to attract big productions to bolster local economies throughout the United Kingdom.
The tax credits, effectively worth up to 20% of a budget, are modelled on the successful film tax credit which has been used to finance over 1,000 films since it launched six years ago.
Osborne emphasized that the stability of the film tax credit had been crucial to its success, adding that “the constant changing of the credits is not something that I am considering.”
The tax relief has been available for high end TV and animation in interim form since April 1, while the video games relief is still waiting on EU approval. The credits are available to dramas with a per hour budget of £1m and over. Full parliamentary approval of the credits is not likely to be ready until August, so the BFI is issuing interim certificates to productions until then.
Osborne said: “The Government’s industrial strategy is simple: we want to identify Britain’s strengths and reinforce them, so that Britain can compete in the modern global economy. Our creative industries are one of the jewels in Britain’s crown and are just the kind of industry I want to back, which is why we are introducing these new tax breaks to help and promote production in the UK.”
Vaizey added: “The UK’s creative industries are a real success story, worth more than £36 billion a year. We know that the television and animation sectors make a real difference to the UK economy and these new tax reliefs will be instrumental in expanding our potential.”
Televisual’s 18th annual survey of pay reveals the annual average salary for many of the key jobs in production and broadcasting.
Below are tables with average annual pay for key jobs in indie TV companies, broadcasters, post houses, facilities, commercials production companies and corporate producers.
The figures are based on an anonymous survey of Televisual readers, in which we asked what they were paid in 2012, their age, their gender, and for an outline of their job, experience and whether they thought pay levels were rising, falling, or staying the same.
We had 690 complete responses in all, enough to allow us to carry out a robust analysis of industry pay levels. On average, respondents were 38 years old and had worked in TV for 14 years. 56% were male, and 44% female. 53.7% worked full time for a single employer, while 41.5% were freelance, 1.9% worked part time and 2.9% were unemployed.
Of full time workers, 43% worked for an indie TV producer, 16% for a broadcaster; 6% in commercials production, 6% in corporate production, 14% in post production; 4% in a facility (studios, OB, camera hire etc), 3% in film production, 2% in distribution and 1% in digital media. The survey skewed towards Televisual’s readership, which reflects more senior levels of the business.
There’s a marked sense of dissatisfaction about pay rates in broadcasting and production, according to Televisual’s 18th annual survey of pay. At first glance, this is rather puzzling. After all, at £47.7k, the average pay in broadcasting and production comfortably outstrips the national average of £26.5k.
A television director, for example, can expect to earn an average of £46.4k, while a producer is likely to take home £43.4k or an assistant producer £30.9k. At the very top end, production can pay very handsomely – our survey throws up examples of the managing director of a commercials production outfit on £300k, the chief executive of a TV indie on £225k, an executive producer on £140k and a colourist on £140k.
Strong demand for top level talent has kept pay levels buoyant at the upper echelons of production. As a string of stories about pay rates at the BBC proves, senior level executives at the leading broadcasters are also paid handsomely for their services.
Futhermore, 46% of respondents said their pay had risen in the past year – at a time when many industries are experiencing widespread pay freezes.
Yet for the majority of workers in broadcasting and production, it’s a rather different story. 40.2% said their earnings had stayed the same, while 13.9% said they had fallen over the course of 2012.
Our survey, based on the responses of 690 Televisual readers throws up specific areas of concern raised by those in the middle and lower ranks of production.
In part, of course, this is because many of those who choose to provide comments for our survey do so because they are dissatisfied with their earnings. And those who are well paid rarely come forward to admit as much.
But the complainants reveal several difficult truths about the industry, namely: a continuing and large pay gap between men and women; static earnings being eroded by inflation; very low rates of pay for newcomers; anger over long hours and weekend work; and a big pay gap between those at the top and those in the ‘squeezed middle’ and lower ranks.
Worryingly, many say that they are considering leaving the industry because of its unpredictable levels of pay and working conditions. Well educated and technically adept, many workers look enviously over their shoulders at friends who have embarked on different careers and earn more.
Says one 28-year-old Telecine/colourist assistant on £22k: “If I had five years experience in any other industry I am almost positive that I would be earning far more in London than I do now. Sometimes it’s quite embarrassing how little I earn in comparison to my friends who work in other industries. Yet they are the ones who work 9am-6pm with an hour lunch – with none of the hassle of shift work, varying work schedules, annoying clients and guilt-trip overtime/overruns that I have to deal with. Sometimes I wonder if it’s at all worth it.”
On the hand, it’s worth considering the view of this 32 year old production manager (on £32k), who ruefully – and perhaps accurately – acknowledges that production and broadcasting is often more varied and interesting than other kinds of jobs: “It’s not a career that you follow for the money…”
Top of the complaints among respondents to our survey is the pressure on wages. Pay rises are rare, says one script editor on £25k, while additional duties and ‘promotion’ are common. A producer/director earning £59k says: “I have hit a brick wall. My rate has not gone up in two years and, due to limits in our production budget, it’s becoming even more impossible for me to get a raise in pay.” A Bristol-based editor on £36k adds: “I’m on roughly the same per day rate (£280) as I was 12 years ago.”
All the while, inflation is eroding the value of take home pay – creating a gloomy outlook for many. “My salary has remained pretty static for the last six years while expenses have gone up. Frankly it feels really tough given I have a family who rely on me. I worry about my retirement, paying off the mortgage, a whole bunch of things and I can only see things getting worse in the future,” says a 47-year-old producer/director.
A series producer on £70k explains: “I’m continuously offered less and less. The usual offer is £1500 per week. It’s a real struggle to keep at 1600 per week. And as schedules shorten downtime is increasing. I do wonder if there is any future for experienced series producers.”
And there’s a strong sense that the workforce is doing much more for their money too – and that it’s angry about it. One 40 year old self-shooting producer/director on £30k says: “The pressure on rates is getting really bad. It’s getting really hard to make a living and support a household/mortgage/family without working 50 weeks a year, which would be fine if you are working a 37.5 hour week but not when you work 12-15 hours a day and are constantly away from home….
He adds: “You agree a weekly rate and then find that it’s a six day week not five but they didn’t bother to mention that at interview. Bullshit reasons are given for the low pay rate like ‘it’s a daytime budget’ (even though TX is after 6pm and even 7pm. We have to pay you this because ‘Programme X’ (a sister production within the company) pays X. Later you find that this isn’t true. Indies are by far the worst for this.
Meanwhile on screen talent get paid a packet and act like prima donnas. Crew seem to be paying the price for unrealistic programme budgets and increasing company profit margins. The industry needs to wake up, it’s killing itself.”
Long, long hours
Our survey respondents target their blame for their stagnating pay largely on broadcasters for squeezing programme budgets. But they complain loudly at the impact on their pay and working conditions that are enforced by production and post production companies as a result.
One 32-year-old post production producer on £38k (and a day rate of £250) comments: “It’s frustrating that because of declining budgets, rates are stagnating in spite of my experience increasing. The big three post houses are prepared to pay higher rates but you know they are going to get their pound of flesh in hours worked. At a recent company I was averaging a 55 hour week. So in essence you are working an 11 hour day on average which means that the day rate isn’t that great after all.”
Indeed, the amount of hours squeezed out of production workers is a big source of contention.
Salaries are “too low for the amount of work and effort required and hours spent at work,” says one TV director who earns £66k a year. A researcher on £24k adds: “Salaries do not reflect the hours worked…they are advertised as 10am to 6pm Monday to Friday but in reality it is 12 hour days including weekends... unless you’re on shoot and then its 16 hour days.”
Issues such as holiday pay, days off in lieu, buy outs and insufficient travel costs are raised frequently by respondents. “I work hard, often long days and at weekends but always on a buyout, and schedules are getting shorter. As a producer director there is little choice in the matter,” says a PD who earns £53k. Adds another freelance editor: “Many employers flout the law on holiday for freelancers.”
It seems that many workers clearly yearn for an era when unions were more powerful and rates and conditions were more regulated.
“Employers are becoming Victorian mill owners, squeezing workers for more and more and paying less while profits for share holders go up. The unions certainly played a part in controlling this. Sadly those days have long gone,” says one TV executive producer (who earns a generous £90k).
Rates “should be higher!” comments an archive producer on £34k. “We’re exploited because it’s a competitive industry that we all want to work in and the unions have no power.”
The welfare of workers is also brought up many times in the survey, and reflect many of the concerns raised by broadcasting union BECTU in its current “Say No To TV Exploitation” campaign that has flagged up the dangers posed to many crews by long working hours in particular.
A freelance costume maker working in film production, who earns £15k a year, raises concerns about the welfare of off-set production crews such as those in set and costume workshops. “We work long daily hours, regularly 12 hours and more and I have heard from fellow employees who have experienced jobs where you do not get a day off for weeks at a time. This is especially dangerous for workshop crew operating machinery. And overtime? What overtime?!” Others flag up concerns about driving to and from jobs after long hours working on set.
A divided workforce
As in previous years, the survey reveals an industry that is increasingly polarised. Senior executives and top talent appear to be doing very well compared to the middle and lower ranks of workers.
“The earning power has moved to the execs, along with creative control,” complains one producer/director on £32k a year.“ Salaries are completely not commensurate with the amount of work that is put in to this industry. Far too much of it goes to execs and other people and has not filtered down at all,” adds another producer/director on £26k. A camera operator on £42k argues that the difference in pay between management and ‘people actually doing the work’, indicates that “the olden days of them and us from management and working people is coming back.”
The complaints are particularly strong from skilled jobs such as camera operators and post production, with many feeling that their hard earned technical skills are undervalued.
“Personally I think the post industry severely under pays you,” says one colourist on £31k. “Nowhere else would you be so badly paid for such a highly skilled job. The distribution of wealth in the industry is top heavy. It’s extremely low at the bottom and extremely high at the top but there is a vast expanse in the middle where people are not paid close to what the equivalent job in a different industry would get.”
This means that the industry could struggle to attract the best technical talent. An engineer on £40k points out pay for technical staff such as electricians, vision engineers and lighting console operators has not changed for years. “Far fewer of the best brains want to come and work in broadcast production now,” he argues.
Getting any job in the current climate is difficult for young graduates – but it is particularly so in a coveted industry like broadcasting and production. For those who do manage to break in, it’s clearly hard to earn enough money at the junior level to pay the bills. Says one researcher on £20k: “I find it difficult to get a decent wage as a researcher or similar junior member of staff. I also frequently have to work much longer hours than I am contracted for, technically working for free after hours.”
A production assistant on £17k adds: “It has been so difficult for me to break into this industry due to the poor level of pay. To start out generally all experience has to be gained working for free. But I need to be able to make some money to pay my bills. How can anyone support themselves long-term?”
Others raise familiar concerns that this means the industry is “stuffed by white, middle class people from London or the South East” who can afford to bear the cost of working for free when they start.
Mind the pay gap
Once again, Televisual’s salary survey also provides clear evidence of a pay gap between men and women. The average salary for the men responding to this survey is £51.7k, while it is £41.3k for women. “I think it is really important and long overdue that equal pay in TV is looked into,” says one female producer.
Many of the female respondents to the survey say that they believe men earn more in the industry. “Two out of the four in my department are men and they get paid substantially more than the women,” says one female dubbing mixer on £26k. A female head of development, on £60k, adds: “Some people are great at negotiating from the off; others take years to build the confidence (and knowledge) to negotiate fairly for themselves. And this disproportionately, though not exclusively, affects women.”Concludes another female AP on £31k: “It would be much better if there were standardised payment tiers. That way boys wouldn’t always get paid more than girls.”
Double Negative’s imposing new office on Great Portland Street is a physical testament to the work of the visual effects company.
The specially designed interior houses up to 900 staff over five floors – and on each level they are working on a different film.
On the fifth floor, a team of artists are creating the vfx for the new Superman film. On the floor below is Thor 2. Below that is Fast & Furious 6, then Edgar Wright’s World’s End and The Hunger Games sequel.
Double Negative moved into the new building (the former HQ of Virgin Media) at the turn of the year, consolidating its workforce from three Soho sites.
Set up 15 years ago with just 30 staff, Double Negative’s rise into one of Hollywood’s most trusted suppliers has been swift. The company was formed in the summer of 1998 by a team of MPC vfx specialists: Alex Hope, Matt Holben, Paul Franklin, Peter Chiang, Charlie Noble and Paul Riddle. They were initially backed by UK film studio Polygram, buying themselves out within a few years. Double Negative has remained a privately owned company ever since.
Back then, recalls md Alex Hope, the UK film vfx sector was “almost a cottage industry.” But, between the late 90s and 2005, things changed dramatically. The four biggest companies – Framestore, MPC, Cinesite and Double Negative – grew by up to 500% in terms of employment, according to a UK Screen survey. “The British vfx industry went from being peripheral to really becoming a global centre.”
Hope cites three contributing factors. First, Warners’ decision to make the Harry Potter franchise in the UK, which underpinned the industry and showcased the abilities of British artists to Hollywood. Second, the UK’s “simple, well understood tax credit”. And third, the fact that vfx companies could build on the legacy of “a great UK film industry” and a talented pool of commercials vfx artists.
Double Negative has grown from a company with a turnover of £3m in 1999 to £75m in 2012. Hope believes a fundamental part of this growth comes from “our commitment to R&D to try to push the technology we have as far as possible.” He won’t put a figure on it, but says the company invests “many, many millions of pounds” on new kit each year. This, he believes, also helps attract the best artists and films to the firm. “We have tried to go after the most challenging, interesting work out there. We are only as good as the artists and the developers we have working here. And the very best artists and programmers in the world want to be working on the best films.”
Good management is also crucial. Hollywood films are so big and complex that companies must be able to deploy hundreds of artists at any one time in a scaleable way. “It’s vital our clients feel confident that we can not only do the work they have committed to us, but also that we can handle more work on particular sequences if the film changes and evolves.”
Double Negative has also expanded geographically, opening an office in Singapore which employs 200. Hope says it allows Double Negative to offer ‘end to end’ coverage to Hollywood clients at the beginning and end of the LA day. The company is also mulling an office in Canada, lured by the country’s film tax credits.
Of course, the global market represents both an opportunity – and a threat – for an outfit like Double Negative. As the financial difficulties of Californian outfit Rhythm & Hues (Life of Pi) and Australia’s Fuel VFX (Prometheus) prove, it can be a brutal business even for those working on high profile films. Other global centres of vfx could step up to challenge London’s pre-eminence. “What creates these centres are tax incentives and talent,” says Hope, arguing that China and India will “definitely see growth.”
Meanwhile, Double Negative has also just launched its own film production arm, partnering with Pinewood Shepperton and Steve Norris’ Apollo Productions to back British films. The move, says Hope, is about “ensuring that we are fully engaged with the independent sector in this country.” British films, after all, have formed an important part of Double Negative’s business, with credits including Billy Elliot, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, In Bruges and Attack the Block.
The move makes sense for Double Negative, helping it to establish relationships with rising British directors. “We’re lucky to have worked on all of Edgar Wright’s films – and that has come about because we worked with him on Shaun of the Dead, a low budget indie film.”
So what next for Double Negative? Could a sale be on the cards? Hope says it is not a priority. “I don’t want to speculate. I can’t see myself ever doing anything apart from vfx, or working anywhere apart from Double Negative. He says the company’s focus is now on “what we want to achieve in this building and fulfilling the opportunities we have here.”
CV Alex Hope began his career at The Moving Picture Company, rising to board director (1996-1998) in charge of the FX and Animation departments.
1998 - left MPC to work as a vfx producer and founded Double Negative with five other colleagues.
2008 - became a board director of the UK Screen Association, and has been involved in efforts to improve the quality of education to those coming into the vfx industry.
2010 - the DCMS asked him to co-author a review of the skills needs of the vfx and video games Industries.
2011 - awarded an OBE for services to the vfx Industry.
If anyone doubts the power of comedy to attract viewers to the small screen, they should look at the viewing figures for Christmas 2012.
BBC1’s comedy juggernauts, Mrs Brown’s Boys and Miranda triumphed over the holiday season, beating the likes of Downton Abbey and EastEnders in the ratings with consolidated figures of just over 11.5m viewers each.
“Both are broad, mainstream hits – and are successful in a way that comedy hasn’t been for some time,” says Andrew Newman, chief executive of leading comedy indie Objective Productions.
Hits like Mrs Brown’s Boys and Miranda are also channel defining, which perhaps explains why all of the main broadcasters have been investing significantly in the genre over the past few years.
Sky has made huge waves in comedy, ploughing resources into the genre over the past three years. From a standing start it now has eight series – such as Stella and Trollied – on Sky1 alone, as well as significant commissions on Sky Atlantic, Sky Arts and Sky Living including the award-winning Hunderby.
Despite budget cuts, the BBC is commissioning comedy across all four of its channels, offering a broad range of fare from a family show like Miranda through to the subversive Cuckoo and the cerebral The Thick of It and Twenty Twelve.
Channel 4 has upped its output since the demise of Big Brother, and is enjoying acclaim for the likes of Fresh Meat and Cardinal Burns. ITV is active in original comedy for the first time in years, building on its long running hit Benidorm with a string of new orders. Comedy Channel has commissioned a slate of original UK comedy, including Threesome and The Alternative Comedy Experience, as has UKTV with orders like the revival of Yes, Prime Minister and new shows such as Us and Them from Hat Trick.
Advertisers such as Fosters are also directly funding online comedy series such as Baby Cow’s Mid Morning Matterswith Alan Partridge, which migrated onto Sky. Online platforms are also investing directly into UK comedy production, with Hulu co-producing BBC2’s The Wrong Mans, starring James Corden, and The Thick of It. The demand for comedy has seen a swathe of new players enter the market, including drama producer Red (which is now producing shows for ITV and BBC2), alongside established comedy indies such as Hat Trick, Objective, Big Talk, Baby Cow and Rough Cut.
“It’s an incredibly healthy time for comedy. It can only be a positive thing that so many platforms are commissioning,” says ITV’s head of comedy Myfanwy Moore.
“There has never been a better time to be making scripted comedy,” adds former comedy commissioner Graham Smith of development consultancy Grand Scheme Media, who says that both distributors and brands are all keen to invest in the genre. He says that in return for £15-20k in development money, comedy can be a very good investment for a distributor – citing the fact that Sky1 comedy Spy has just been picked up for a remake by US network ABC. Brands are also keen to be associated with successful comedies, he adds, revealing that Grand Scheme is currently working on a scripted project that is backed by a well-known women’s magazine title.
“There are lots of creative ways a project can be put together. There are certainly more places to go for funding,” he says.
NEW COMEDY BOSSES
The genre has also been energised in recent months by the appointment of new comedy bosses at the two key broadcasters in the genre, the BBC and Channel 4. Shane Allen took over at the BBC three months ago from Cheryl Taylor, who has gone to head up CBBC. The former head of comedy at Channel 4, Allen himself was replaced by veteran comedy producer Phil Clarke from Objective Productions.
“Shane will definitely galvanise the BBC. He’s a respected figure, a funny man and people like dealing with him,” says Smith. “And although Phil has not been a commissioner, but he’s one of the most respected programme makers and will bring a new perspective for Channel 4. His appointment sends out a message that Channel 4 is still very serious about comedy.”
The comedy genre has not always been in such good health. Until only a few years ago, it was considered a market failure genre – something that most channels shied away from and that only the public service broadcasters could afford to invest in.
But now broadcasters very much recognise the value of comedy. Even though comedy is an expensive upfront investment, it can pay long-term dividends. As Friends proved, broadcasters can practically build a channel by repeating a hit comedy series. A successful comedy has a very long shelf life. Shows like Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers can resonate not just across years, but decades.
Alongside sport and soaps, it’s arguably the genre that viewers feel most passionate about. “People who love a comedy show really love them – the depth of feeling is very profound,” says Newman. “But when you do a bad comedy, people go mental – you might as well have done a shit on their doorstep. It’s an affront to them.”
Indeed, he worries that the instant reaction today to shows via social media and the internet, while welcome, can also be harmful to emerging talent. “If The 11 O’Clock show was on now, it could be strangled at birth by Twitter and the internet forum lobby.” As a producer of the show, Newman says that the talent who got their first big break on The 11 O’Clock Show – Ali G, Leigh Francis, Mackenzie Crook and Ricky Gervais – “needed a bit of freedom to grow.”
However, this passion for shows means they can help the channels that commission them to stand out, in a way that ubiquitous and cheaper factual features cannot do. “Comedy can help digital channels – it can define them and make people take notice,” says Newman.
Amongst commissioners, the mainstream success of shows like Miranda and Mrs Brown’s Boys appears to have hit a nerve. Many now say they are looking to hit the jackpot with warm-hearted comedies with big laughs that play to a broad audience. This represents a distinct move away from the quieter, more finely observed single camera comedies of recent years.
However, producers are quick to warn against broadcasters simply trying to emulate last year’s hits. “Comedy is at its best when it’s somebody’s vision, very authored and distinctive – and not done cynically,” says Newman. As examples, he cites shows like Peep Show, Miranda, Harry Hill, Outnumbered, The Inbetweeners and work by Peter Kay.
It’s a point that new BBC1 comedy boss Shane Allen is mindful of. “If you try to repeat formulas, you come a cropper,” he says.
WHAT THE BBC WANTS
Three months into the job, he’s quick to pay tribute to the legacy left by his predecessor Cheryl Taylor who “left things in a brilliant state…we are in a real boom period and it is up to us – the new regime – to build on that.”
He breaks his priorities down by channel. On BBC1, citing The Royle Family and Outnumbered, he says, “there’s a question of how we can get a brilliant new single camera comedy.” And he pays tribute to Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown’s Boys. “It’s been said that his show is for the audience that comedy forgot. I love that quote. It’s a really old fashioned, joke filled comedy – and I’m all for more of that.”
Allen says he wants to bring a “bit more joy” to BBC2, which he notes won channel of the year and is “smashing things out of the box in every other genre.” Comedy, he thinks, has to try a bit harder. The output has been “quite quiet and moody” and as a result, he’s after a “few broader comedies” that are a “bit less melancholic.” Upcoming shows like James Corden’s The Wrong Mans and Graham Linehan and Steve Delaney’s Count Arthur Strong point the way, balancing more cerebral work by Stewart Lee and Charlie Brooker.
BBC3, says Allen, has got a proper focus and attitude when it comes to comedy under controller Zai Bennett. He thinks the channel is “gunning for Channel 4” – or at least the edgy, knowing space that C4 occupied ten years ago. As examples, he picks out new shows such as Bluestone 42 (a comedy about a bomb disposal squad in Afghanistan), Cuckoo and Bad Education.
BBC4 is still backing comedy despite cuts to its budget. The home of Twenty Twelve and The Thick of It, it’s just commissioned two new sitcoms: Up The Women, written by and starring Jessica Hynes and based on a 1910 Women’s Suffrage group, and Quick Cuts written by Georgia Pritchitt and starring Doon Mackichan and set in a hairdressing salon.
Meanwhile, Allen says he is launching a new scheme at the end of March to back comedy pilots that will premiere on iPlayer and then on BBC3. Allen says it will be ‘well funded, with proper opportunities’ and is designed to allow new talent the chance to ‘play and experiment’. “It’s really harsh to give them a six part series when they are in the infancy of their careers. You have to let them grow and learn their craft.”
SKY CONTINUES TO INVEST
Over at Sky, Lucy Lumsden is pressing on with the comedy revolution she initiated at the broadcaster when she arrived three years ago. Sky’s pledge to spend £600m on original content by 2014 has seen the broadcaster invest significantly in comedy.
In that time, a wave of new shows have hit the screen – such as Stella, Moone Boy, Trollied, Spy, Spa, Mount Pleasant, Touch of Cloth, Starlings, The Café, Mid-Morning Matters and Hunderby.
“It’s not been flash in the pan. We are here to stay, which is really reassuring for the industry,” says Lumsden. “We haven’t promised anything that we are not going to see through.”
Sky1 has seen many of its first run comedies recommissioned for a second series, such as Stella, The Café, Starlings, Touch of Cloth, Trollied and Moone Boy. Lumsden has also sought to make way for the new, such as Chickens, set in the First World War and co-written by and co-starring Inbetweeners’ stars Simon Bird and Joe Thomas. She picks out Moone Boy, shot like an indie film, and Stella, which "does Wales on a big scale and is very warm and big hearted.” Looking ahead, Lumsden says she’d like to “inject a bit of silliness into what we are doing. I’m really keen to land an audience sitcom or two.”
Lumsden commissions across each of Sky’s four main TV channels. Female skewed Sky Living, which now airs four original series including Gates and The Spa, will see Love Matters, six one-off romantic comedies, debut this month. There’s room for an audience sitcom on the channel too, thinks Lumsden.
Sky Arts would like to develop a returnable series to complement its series of one of comedies and dramas that have aired in the Playhouse strand. Coming up is new series Psychobitches, which revolves around famous women from history being probed in a psychiatrist’s chair and features the likes of Catherine Tate, Sharon Horgan and Katy Brand. Lumsden says a physical or silent comedy could work on Sky Arts.
Sky Atlantic, meanwhile, has enjoyed success with Hunderby winning two of the top prizes – best sitcom and best new comedy show – at the British Comedy Awards. Lumsden says it is all about “keeping the standard high” on this “very curated” channel, which has aired Kathy Burke’s Walking And Talking and Alan Partridge: Welcome To The Places Of My Life.
ITV GETS SERIOUS ABOUT COMEDY
ITV vowed last year to boost its comedy output, hiring Little Britain producer Myfanwy Moore as its first dedicated commissioning editor for comedy in nearly two years.
She says that ITV has a robust drama and entertainment brand – and it made sense for a “mainstream channel at the heart of popular culture” to build on its hit series Benidorm and be more active in the genre.
So far she has greenlit a handful of series: sitcom Vicious, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi as a bickering gay couple; Cabbage and Pat, a comedy about two older women who re-embrace life; The Job Lot, set in a West Midlands job centre; and ancient Rome slave comedy Plebs for ITV2.
Moore says she does not have to commission a set number of shows, but rather will commission projects that are strong enough to sit alongside ITV’s well-established, big brands. “Our comedy must feel warm and inclusive for our audience.” They can, of course, have an edge to them. Vicious, she says, “is going to feel old fashioned at heart, but there’s something modern in the story.”
Moore adds that she hopes to have several shows on ITV2, and to increase the number of ITV1 series. She explains that she is particularly looking for half hour shows that can play pre-watershed at 8.30 and at post watershed half hours too.
Shows do not necessarily have to come with big name talent attached, but it’s always helpful to have “marquee casting.”
WHAT NEXT FOR CHANNEL 4?
As Televisual went to press, new Channel 4 head of comedy Phil Clarke had just joined the broadcaster. He declined to be interviewed, preferring to wait until he has feet under the table for a few months.
The big question is in what direction he will take the genre at Channel 4. Observers think that he may try to fit comedy into part of Channel 4’s broader strategy to become slightly more mainstream. One observer says: “I’m not saying that Channel 4 will try to recreate Miranda. But can Channel 4 do shows that have slightly more mainstream appeal, while still keeping the C4 element?”
The broadcaster came close to creating a returnable original domestic comedy in The IT Crowd, but its stars Richard Ayoade and Chris O’Dowd have moved conspicuously into the film world. This highlights a major issue for comedy on British television. As soon as talent becomes established, they move quickly on – whether to rival channels that have moved into the genre, to the US, to the movies, drama or for lucrative live tours.
There’s great competition for talent, which has driven up prices. On the plus side, though, the movement of talent means constant more openings for newcomers – who could become the Mirandas and Brendan O’Carrolls of tomorrow.