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Q&A: Tanya Seghatchian, UKFC

Here's a Q&A interview with the head of the UK Film Council's Film Fund, Tanya Seghatchian.

The UKFC, one of the most high profile victims of the government's spending cuts, is due to start winding down from this April. Many of its key functions will then transfer over to the British Film Institute, including its flagship Film Fund which invests £15m a year in British productions.

The following Q&A sees Seghatchian outline what the changes mean for film producers. The interview is taken from a feature on the British film industry in Televisual's upcoming February issue.

What do you make of the fact that The King's Speech is the Bafta and Oscar frontrunner, just as its key funder the UK Film Council is about to be closed?
I am genuinely delighted for the filmmakers and for everyone involved in making the film that they are getting this level of recognition from their peers in the industry. To see that it is also being lapped up by audiences, taking a £1m a day at the UK box office (with £13m of receipts in 13 days, it is now our biggest success story) and is all the more ironic in the light of the abolition. To put it context, it is running at twice the pace of Slumdog in terms of ticket sales. If you take a step back, you have to consider that we are the only public funder in this film, so it is vital that there is a robust public funding alternative which enables all kinds of quality films to get made and supports the talent in the UK - we make the difference and make things happen.

Is there any news yet about what will happen to the Film Fund team. Will you be going over to the BFI?
It is too early to talk about what is happening to the Film Fund team, or indeed anyone at the UK Film Council, because the transition process for employees and details of the discussions are subject to due diligence as set out in employment law - Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (TUPE). TUPE rules will apply to the transfer of some the responsibilities and corresponding work from the UKFC to the BFI and to Film London.

What advice would you give to a producer looking for funding for their film at the moment? Should they get in touch with the UK Film Council or wait until after 1 April to contact the BFI?

We are continuing to accept applications and make funding awards to film projects and in terms of the transfer of activities to the BFI, the aim is to make the transition process as smooth as possible for filmmakers, so our advice would be to apply for funding at the time that is right for the project. Also, once the funding responsibility has transferred from the UKFC to the BFI, the BFI will honour all Lottery award commitments made by the UKFC through the Film Fund.

What is the climate for British film-makers like at the moment - is it improving as the economic climate gets a little better?
It may be too early to say but from talking to filmmakers, it is difficult to get financing. Part of that is undoubtedly to do with film's own finance ecology with the pre-sales market gone, DVD revenues falling, the revenues from online only beginning to emerge, etc. Where films have key elements that the market can respond to, certain talent attached for instance, they will find finance but whenever the economic climate becomes tougher, it is the riskier projects that find it even more difficult to get funded. And, of course, riskier projects might be those with new or emerging talent, which is why public funding is even more vital right now.

Which recent UKFC film investments are a good example of the kind of projects that the Film Fund likes to back?
We've tried to build a talent driven home for filmmakers in the UK, and are always looking out for the most ambitious work. We're trying to ensure that British talent can be supported every step of the way, be they first or second-time filmmakers, or signature filmmakers, whether they are developing material or are looking for production or completion funding. Essentially we are continuing to look for creative excellence in the shape of great vision and good stories which can reflect and impact on the culture. Clio Barnard's The Arbor, Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea, Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk about Kevin, Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights, Joe Cornish's Attack the Block, James Marsh's Project Nim, Steve McQueen's Shame, Phyllida Lloyd's The Iron Lady, and James Watkins The Woman in Black are some of the titles which currently show the breadth and ambition of our investments.

Posted 31 January 2011 by Tim Dams

Flexing NBCU's studio muscle

Interview: NBC Universal president of international TV production Michael Edelstein and UK md Gareth Neame.

One of the most notable TV trends of recent years has been the internationalisation of the UK production sector. British producers have prised open international markets, last year selling a record £1.34bn worth of their shows abroad. The US has been a particular focus, with superindies such as Shed, Shine and All3Media launching their own North American operations.

The direction of travel, however, is no longer one way. Attracted by British TV’s track record, the US studios have begun to build up their own production operations in the UK. Warner Bros snapped up the Shed Media group in the summer. Just last week, news emerged that News Corp, parent of Fox, is reportedly interested in Shine.

Notably, NBC Universal International has been very active in recent months. NBC first moved into the UK market in 2008, when it acquired Gareth Neame’s indie Carnival Films. The studio laid low during the worst of the credit crunch, but last year acquired factual entertainment indie Monkey Kingdom, announced a TV push through film producer Working Title, and hired leading producers Alan Brown (The Restaurant, The Apprentice) and Hat Trick’s head of comedy Mario Stylianides to set up their own bespoke production operations under the NBCU umbrella.

Encouragingly for NBCU, all this deal-making has taken place against a background of huge critical acclaim for Carnival Films’ Downton Abbey.

Former Desperate Housewives executive producer Michael Edelstein is the man charged with building NBCU’s TV production presence outside the US. He relocated from LA in the summer, and is based in NBCU’s Oxford Street HQ where he occupies a pristine office decorated with white orchids, carefully placed artefacts and a very large poster of Desperate Housewives.

NBCU’s push into international production is part of the studio’s wider plan to generate $5bn of annual revenue outside the US. Edelstein aims to build a production operation here and then launch into other territories.

One of his first moves was to promote Carnival’s Neame to UK md. “I realised right away that I would never know this market as well as Gareth,” says Edelstein.

Despite its deep pockets, NBCU has not made a ‘trophy’ buy of a UK superindie, but has gone down the route of making a few smaller, strategic acquisitions and hiring top talent. “Internally, we really felt the best thing we could do was build organically rather than buy something large and then figure out how to integrate it,” confirms Edelstein.

The idea is to buy or invest in small independent production businesses or individuals who have the potential to “generate the next Downton Abbey, the next Office or the next Friends.” A strong record of past success, it seems, is less important than the potential for future success.

Both Edelstein and Neame go out of their way to stress that NBCU’s presence is not about the Americanisation of UK production or a “US studio coming in saying we are going to do it better.” Rather, they pitch NBCU’s activity as “putting the muscle of a US studio behind British creativity.”

They cite Downton Abbey as an example. NBC put its own money into the ITV drama, plugging a big deficit on the show in exchange for rights. It did the same with Carnival’s C4 drama Any Human Heart. Without NBCU’s money, says Neame, “we would have made an inferior form of Downton.” He doubts Any Human Heart would even have got off the ground without NBC’s funding.

The backing of a US studio, believes Neame, is ‘game-changing’, particularly at a time when broadcasters want more ambitious ideas but can’t always pay for them and when other funders such as distributors have become more cautious about deficit financing projects.

Neame says: “The US studio model is a completely different accounting model and befits a large organisation that is relatively cash rich. Obtaining cash is not the problem, the problem is that you invest that cash properly on shows that will deliver a return.”

Edelstein stresses that NBCU’s presence in the UK means more money being spent on production here. “We are coming into the market to create more British content,” he says. “Downton was an all British cast, with an all British crew and – unless I’m mistaken – all the money was spent in the UK.”

He envisages spending more time in early 2011 outside the UK to launch international production operations. “We are in talks on acquisitions in several countries at the moment.” Clearly, it’s a case of watch this space.

This interview was taken from the January edition of Televisual

Posted 17 January 2011 by Tim Dams

Q&A: Andrew Jackson, NHU

Here’s a Q and A interview that Televisual has just done with Andrew Jackson, head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit and former md of indie Tigress Productions. Just over a year into the job, he talks about making the transition from an indie to the BBC, upcoming NHU projects and the climate for natural programme making.

How have you found the transition from indie producer to head of a big BBC department?
Like a rollercoaster ride – love and hate! I’ve loved it because there’s a simplicity of ambition in the NHU – to make the greatest, most creative natural history shows in the world. The BBC’s unique funding puts us in an exceptionally privileged position, we can chase creativity and creativity alone; profit, at least for us, is not the incentive. Of course we must, like any business, be financially prudent, even more aware of our responsibilities to deliver value for money but in the end it’s the enjoyment and intrigue our programmes bring, not the profit.

What do you see are the challenges facing the NHU?
To keep doing what we’ve always done best – innovate and stay ahead. Our contract with the audience is to be consistently better, and that’s a challenge as the speed of change in the TV landscape gets faster and faster. Sometimes I think we have to be the world’s best fortune-tellers as well as the greatest programme makers!

And the opportunities?

The opportunities are enormous, not only because we are publicly funded but also because of our strong relationships with BBC Worldwide and our valuable co-producers. This gives us an extraordinary platform to be as ambitious and inventive as the Unit has ever been. Our challenge is to make shows that live up to that opportunity.

How is NHU changing under your leadership – what are you doing differently?
I’m not sure what I’m doing differently – I wasn’t here before – probably not that much. We continue to vigorously pursue creativity; I’m driving that as hard as I can. It’s fun and scary at the same time. It’s fun because everyone loves being creative – we’re all kids at heart – and scary because when you’re being truly creative, you don’t know what you’re doing, as by definition it’s never been done before.

Give us an example of some programmes that the NHU is making?
Too many to mention but one of the most exciting is a massive undertaking to bring Africa to life. Not only have we ramped up the ambition to show this ancient and much filmed continent in a new light (for BBC One for 2012) but we’re also producing a 3D feature film under the BBC Earth banner, thanks to our colleagues at BBC Worldwide. This will be the first major 3D project from the NHU.

What is it like raising the funding for these programmes?
I often wonder when asked this question, has it ever been easy? I don’t think it’s any harder now than before. If the idea’s good and it’ll cut through, then the money will be there. It’s true that as the market has splintered you have to work harder to cut through but that’s about being more creative not about it being harder to raise the money. There are some magnificent programmes being made around the globe and some amazing numbers being paid. We certainly intend to stay at the party.

Have the blue-chip docs crowded out the mid-budget wildlife programmes? Is it getting harder?
I’m not sure they’re related. If “mid-budget” wildlife is going down, I’d guess it’s because it’s not growing up, rather than being crowded out. The market will buy what the market wants; good programmes will always sell.

What kind of shows are proving popular with viewers?
Good question. For kids you can’t beat our Deadly 60 and it’s live adaptation, Live ‘n’ Deadly with Steve Backshall and Naomi Wilkinson. These shows rate off the scale for us and are an amazing introduction for a new audience. They capture the excitement of the wild, encourage kids to get out and because of their remarkable production values, portray a sense that anything can happen. The same is true of our other live shows, Springwatch and Autumnwatch. At their best, these are shows “where nature writes the script”. I sense audiences love the reality in the true sense of the word, something that’s here and now. And then of course, there’s the magical, escapist, never seen before footage that we’ll be treated to in Frozen Planet this year. Like all of these epics, they take us to a world we’ve probably never seen and never will see. It’s all, ‘must watch TV’.

What natural history film would you like to make if they weren’t running the NHU?

That’s a hard one! And actually I have no idea what I’d do. But thinking about it, High Society is one of my all time favourite films – there’s not been many natural history musicals! Probably for very good reason. I’ll just stick with the day job and leave the ideas to the people who know what they’re doing!

Posted 12 January 2011 by Tim Dams

Indie outlook for 2011

Televisual asked five small-to-medium sized independent production companies for their views on business prospects for 2011, and found that few execs are betting on a big pick up in the TV market

Simon Huntley
Finance director, Keo Films

2011 will probably be fine for the "super indies" but it will be tough for everyone else. The "smaller guys" are going to have to diversify or face the prospect of nil or negative growth. Maximum exploitation of content via primary sources (TV) and the full range of ancillary revenues has to be addressed and not merely paid lip-service to. Indies will need to invest in people, systems and processes that enable them to squeeze every last penny from the content they own. These pressures may be too great for some but those that can handle it should emerge into 2012 and beyond as stronger and more competitive.

Charles Thompson
Creative director, DCD Factual

2011 should be the year of change.  We will see how Jay Hunt changes Channel 4 and, for the first time, BBC One has a controller younger than most of its stars. How will he make his mark on Britain's most important channel? Will 2012 see them remembered as a force for good? Meanwhile, the nakedly commercial channels will continue to drive through radical changes to the way in which UK indies have been used to working. Peter Fincham is part of fast-moving populist revolution at ITV, whilst Jeff Ford manfully tries to maintain Channel 5 as a network of value. And, my tip, as the network(s) to watch: UKTV. The changes, they are a blowin' in the wind...

Mike Watts
Md, Novel Entertainment

In recent years independent production has rightly been identified as a success story at home and internationally, but this is largely because producers have found more ways to exploit their creative assets and formats to cover gaps in funding. Fees are down, margins shrinking and the hard fought for terms of trade are under attack. 2011 will be critical as the first effects of the freeze on the BBC's licence fees are felt and producers will need to be even more resourceful to maintain their businesses at current levels.

John Marley
Creative director, Archie Productions

Our biggest challenge in 2011? The same old, same old...Show Me The Money! Finding a broadcaster who doesn't share Old Mother Hubbard's cupboard affliction when it comes to budgets will be the trick....too many of those closets are empty. It would also be nice to find a commissioner who is willing to take creative risks. There are a few but they are the exceptions. Pitching nowadays is a bit like leaving port and cheese out for Santa only to discover the rosy-cheeked git has eaten the lot and not left you any presents.

Nicky Huggett
Head of development, Windfall Films

Throughout 2010, constant accusations were thrown at the channels for not taking risks and for cutting budgets but I believe that indies who are consistently producing high quality programming will continue to be trusted with risky, ambitious and costly projects. It comes down to trust between commissioners and indie producers. But today, projects solely funded by one broadcaster are increasingly rare. In 2011 commissions will be there for those who can make the co-production business work for them. But a word to the wise - it takes lots of time and patience to make these relationships work.

Posted 11 January 2011 by Tim Dams

2011's commissioning drought

At the beginning of 2011, the business climate for independent producers looks remarkably similar to how it did last year – challenging.

Broadcaster fees have fallen for several years now and, certainly in the case of a cost-cutting BBC, will drop further in 2011.

Commissioning opportunities remain few and far between. Most broadcasters are now pursuing a version of the BBC’s ‘fewer, bigger, better’ strategy in an attempt to funnel reduced budgets into bigger budget shows that stand out in the schedule. Or they are playing it safe by investing heavily in long-running, familiar formats.

The amount of money available for new creative projects seems to be declining all the time.

One experienced producer who Televisual spoke with recently described the lack of funding available for new programmes – particularly one-offs or shows from smaller production companies – as “the great TV commissioning drought”.

All this is happening at a time when the hard fought terms of trade are under attack from broadcasters – which clouds the outlook for producers still further.

Moreover, producers have to deal with a very familiar bout of channel controller musical chairs. The commissioning process is again being thrown into flux with new controllers taking over at BBC1, BBC3, Channel 4 and ITV2.

There’s also additional competition in the production market from US studios such as Warners and NBCU, with the latter bankrolling ITV’s Downton Abbey (pictured). The US studios, as an interview in Televisual this month with NBCU execs Michael Edelstein and Gareth Neame shows, may have an edge on many UK indies – they are able to plug broadcaster deficits with their own funds to get projects off the ground.

There are positives for 2011: Campaign editor Claire Beale argues in her column in Televisual this month that the decision to allow product placement will mean a significant revenue boost for television. In depth features on the OB and sports sectors also showcase relatively buoyant sectors ahead of the London 2012 Olympics.

Overall, though, the picture looks as tough as ever for the next twelve months. But then, isn’t it always so for a producer?

Televisual’s January issue is out on Tuesday 11th

Posted 05 January 2011 by Tim Dams
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