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British film industry looks a picture of health ahead of Oscars

On the eve of this weekend’s Oscar ceremony, there is a genuine sense of optimism about the British film industry.

The business has, after all, come into the year firmly on the front foot. 2011 is acknowledged as the most successful year in over two decades for British film at the box office. Oscar winner The King’s Speech is the highest grossing independent British film of all time, earning £47.5m in UK cinemas and £266m worldwide. The Inbetweeners was a close second with UK theatrical revenues of £45m.

Inward investment filmmaking also remains strong, with the UK’s favourable exchange rate and the strength of its talent, facilities, locations and post production skills drawing in US studio shoots such as Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity starring George Clooney, Keanu Reeves starrer 47 Ronin as well as Snow White and The Huntsmen, Dark Shadows and World War Z.

There’s also a number of big UK features in the pipeline. After a four year hiatus, the latest Bond film, Skyfall, is in production. Working Title is readying a third Bridget Jones movie and has just shot Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley. Meanwhile, Mike Newell has been filming Great Expectations, and Dustin Hoffman has directed his first film here, The Quartet, for BBC Films. Other anticipated UK films this year include Aardman’s next The Pirates! as well as Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and sequel Streetdance 2. The BFI says it has invested £13.2m in 20 British productions since April last year.

British films, such as The Iron Lady and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, are also generating strong awards buzz ahead of the Oscars. And nine new British features, plus 11 shorts, premiered at last month¹s Sundance Film Festival.

“I am feeling positive about 2012,” says Framestore boss William Sargent, reflecting on the range of films being made in the UK. “People are feeling quite buoyant,” acknowledges Adrian Wootton, chief executive of Film London and the British Film Commission.

Despite the economic slowdown, producers are also hopeful that 2012 will see investment flow into the film industry. Crucially, the government announced in November that the film tax credit scheme will extend to 2015. The move was welcomed by the film industry, which credits the scheme with helping attract inward investment films and local features since its launch in 2006.

“I can’t tell you how valuable that is,” says the head of BBC Films, Christine Langan. “The news about the tax credit alone is fantastic.”

Changes to the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) also come into play in April, which are expected to encourage private individuals to put more money into films. The amount that companies will be eligible to receive through the scheme ­ which can be used by UK producers to raise private financing for films ­ will increase from £2m to £10m. The amount an individual will be able to invest will also rise from £500k to £1m. “The EIS schemes are going to be used to everyone’s advantage,” says Film London’s Wootton. “They are already having an impact.”

But the one thing that has really galvanised the film industry this year is the government’s film policy review, chaired by Lord Smith, and published last month under the title “A Future for British Film”.

There’s been a very supportive reaction from the film industry. It is hoped that the review will tackle the single biggest issue facing film-makers over the years ­ namely the stop-start nature of the business reflected in the inability of British film companies to grow consistently.

Televisual spoke with Lord Smith just after the Review’s launch and he said, naturally, that he would like to see all of its recommendations implemented.

But he added that if he could pick just three points that would have the biggest impact, he said they would be: to recycle more of the financial success of films back to creatives; the proposal to bring producers and distributors together from the outset of a film’s life; and to encourage more broadcaster participation in film. “If those three recommendations were the only ones implemented, we would be some way along the road to success,” concluded Lord Smith.

Posted 24 February 2012 by Tim Dams

Google and Films of Record unveil Cern People doc project

Leading factual TV producer Films of Record has just launched its latest work on Google and YouTube, rather than a traditional broadcaster like the BBC or Channel 4.

Cern People is a Google+ page and a YouTube channel, which features short films about the scientific activities at Cern, the world’s largest physics lab that’s famous for its multi-billion pound research into particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

There’s currently two short films two view, directed by film-maker Liz Mermin, with three or four a month set to be uploaded. These will eventually be compiled into a feature documentary.

Films of Record chief executive Roger Graef unveiled the films today at a press event at Google’s offices in Victoria.

Google are providing funding for the short films, running into the tens of thousands of pounds. Google has previously provided backing for other projects such as Kevin Macdonalds’ Life in a Day and Jamie’s Dream School.

Google’s head of public relations Peter Barron said that the funding did not signify a deliberate move by the search engine giant into creating and commissioning content, but instead was to “demonstrate the possibilities of our platforms.” He described Google’s contribution as “seed money and technical support.”

The films will follow a handful of physicists throughout 2012, which promises to be one of the most important years for physics in a generation. The Google+ page and hangouts are designed to offer a chance for users to comment on and interact with real people at Cern.

As such, the films are acting like an extended - and funded - development process for the final feature documentary which will be made next year and is likely to be backed by the BBC’s Storyville and the Irish Film Board.

Graef was offered access to Cern last January.  But although he had the access, he struggled to find a place for a documentary about Cern on television when it was unclear what the results of the experiments there would yield.

He said platforms like Google and YouTube offered the perfect platform for a complex story, one that is constantly developing and that has multiple different angles and routes to explore.

“Conventional TV is linear, new media is not,” said Graef.

He added: “This isn’t about answers. It’s about questions and provoking conversations.”

Posted 23 February 2012 by Tim Dams

Short film: creating Another World

Two years in the making, Piers Leigh’s directorial debut Another World is a 15-min sci-fi thriller that’s taken two years to make for £3,000 thanks to the help of friends, social networking sites and industry contacts.

As such, it’s a classic example of the determination and flexibility needed to get a short film off the ground. Leigh reckons that the true budget of the film would have come in at £100k if it hadn’t been for the favours and support he was able to draw on.

Another World centres on an affair which has unexpected consequences, and is written by Leigh, who is also an experienced director of photography with credits including BBC Horizon and The Link, a new science series for National Geographic.

“I’ve shot a number of shorts which have had success on the short film circuit, but was finding that the scripts I was getting sent were of really poor quality,” says Leigh. So in April 2010 he began writing a script, with the aim of producing it with his partner Alice Sheppard Fidler, a designer and art director.

Leigh’s next move was to approach actor Gareth Glen, who he had worked with before on short film On The Verge.  “Gareth liked the script and it was Gareth who cast the other roles through his contacts.  Ollie Chris (The Office, Green Wing) came on board early on and his name has helped us generate a lot of interest throughout the project.”

The production then evolved step by step, starting with a four day shoot for the five main cast in September 2010. With that footage in the bag, he worked with editor Anna Dick who shaped a rough edit in her spare time, working from home where she has a full Final Cut Pro suite.

“Alice and I then looked at what Anna had produced and decided to commit to the next phase, which was to spend some money building a key prop. And that really was our approach: once we had something in the bag, we’d see how it stood-up and whether or not we wanted to proceed.” And they proceeded by keeping a close eye on expenditure and asking friends to help out. Beyond the core production crew, however, he had to advertise for help. All the post-production and visual effects team, for example, were found via or

The entire film was shot on Leigh’s own Canon 5d. “The look of the 5d is fantastic because the chip has such a lovely, shallow depth of field.” But the main thing the 5d gave Leigh was freedom. “It meant that I could move quickly and approach the shoot with a slightly guerrilla style.” For example, Leigh secured official permission to film throughout the City of London because the camera was hand-held and the film was shot in doc style with a crew of three.

Vfx was also crucial to the film, with over 40 shots requiring work or needing to be created from scratch. “There was no way one person could deliver that volume of work in their spare time. So I broke the effects into five areas and allocated each area to one of five digital artists.” In all the vfx took about 9 months to put together, but the cost was minimal as the artists worked on the basis of expenses only giving anything from 5 to 15 days of work to the project.

To finish the film, Leigh also sought the help of some top end facilities who gave time and machines, including Mayflower Studios for the 5.1 Surround  Sound Mix, and technicians whose day-jobs are at Technicolor and MPC among others. He now plans to roll out the film via the festival circuit with the help of festival producer Laia Enrich.

So what are the key lessons Leigh has learnt from directing and producing his first short film? Leigh says that being able to draw on the internet film-making community for support has been crucial. But, ultimately, he says: “It all comes down to the script. If you have a strong script you’re halfway there because there are so many people in our industry who have a passion for film-making and are willing to give their skills and time. At every point in the project the feedback from those involved drove us to carry on.”

A short film about a compulsive love affair which seems blissful and happens in a space free from constraints. But when the consequences inevitably appear they do so in terrifying and unexpected ways. Brought face-to-face with someone much more powerful than himself, Arthur is dragged into a startling confrontation with his own lack of control.
Writer and director
Piers Leigh
Piers Leigh and Alice Sheppard Fidler
Anna Dick
Joe Ankrah
Piers Leigh
Location sound
Pete Cowasji
Sound Mix
Paul Darling
Hayley Jones
Canon 5d
Edited with
Final Cut Pro

Posted 23 February 2012 by Tim Dams

Tackling poor leadership skills in the creative industries

“The UK has the creative talent required for us to be genuine world-beaters. What we do not have is enough of the right business men and women to back that talent.”
This quote, from Patrick McKenna, the chief executive of media investment firm Ingenious Media, is taken from last month’s Creative Industries Council report. Compiled by the Council’s Skillset Skills Group, it puts forward a number of useful proposals to boost the growth and competitiveness of the UK’s creative industries.
As McKenna’s quote suggests, one of the key problems that the report highlights is how the creative industries score relatively poorly at leadership and management skills.
The report concludes that the majority of jobs in the creative industries are generated by a relatively small number of rapidly growing firms. It says that it is “vital that we recognise and stimulate a new generation of creative business entrepreneurs and ensure that they are equipped with the “hard” and “soft” leadership skills, management expertise and strategic insight to drive growth.”
The report points out that leadership is not a discipline which is generally studied or taught in the UK, outside MBA programmes. “Much more needs to be done to provide the higher-level business skills necessary for growth: research repeatedly indicates that this is major problem, with the CBI reporting that, ‘the lack of entrepreneurial know-how is a serious skills gap within the industry.’”
The fragmented structure of much of the creative industries and the fact that many firms are small has indeed led to a consistent underinvestment in skills.
This is particularly true for “softer” leadership skills. The creative industries are full of talented and driven individuals who have a tendency to believe that people skills are soft and fluffy, and investment in them a waste of money.
So it’s good to see Skillset taking a lead on this. Creative leadership and management is one of their priorities - hence their backing for a new Inspirational Leadership Programme.
Run by regular Televisual contributor and Adsum Consulting director Janet Evans - who has written eloquently on topics such as managing difficult talent, bullying in TV and how to manage a creative team - the Inspirational Leadership Programme runs over four days between April and July and is aimed at those in management positions or aspiring to leadership positions. 
The programme is largely funded by the Skillset TV Freelance Fund, meaning that the cost of the course is £500 to participants - which looks very good value compared to most training courses.
It aims to train up the next generation of leaders in how to get the best from people inside and outside their business, how to create high performing teams, and how to develop their own authentic leadership style.
You can find full details here:

Posted 16 February 2012 by Tim Dams

Interview: The BBC's drama head Ben Stephenson

BBC drama boss Ben Stephenson is enjoying a strong run thanks to hits like Great Expectations, Birdsong, Call the Midwife and Sherlock. Tim Dams listens in to his plans for the future

Drama is shaping up to become the defining TV battleground of 2012, with signs of a concerted dramatic push by each of the big broadcasters.

The focus on fiction has been spurred by the incredible success at home and internationally of ITV's Downton Abbey and BBC1's Sherlock. Broadcasters, which cut back on the genre as the downturn first hit, appear to be investing once again as they seek channel defining dramas in the face of wilting entertainment and factual formats.

The genre has certainly repaid handsome dividends to BBC1 in recent weeks. The channel has enjoyed a blistering dramatic run, with critical and audience acclaim for Birdsong, Call the Midwife, Great Expectations and Sherlock.

The BBC's controller of drama commissioning Ben Stephenson, speaking at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch, says his spotlight is rightly on BBC1 this year, after a huge amount of focus and a doubling of investment in drama on BBC2 last year.

Stephenson says BBC1 is launching 24 new titles in 2012 including historical adaptation War of the Roses, Ripper Street, Prisoners' Wives, William Boyd's Restless, spy series Nemesis, Wilkie Collins' adaptation The Moonstone and ghost story The Secret of Crickley Hall. Each of them, he reckons, are characterised by "bigness" - big characters, big stories and big emotions - in a bid to attract a broad BBC1 audience ("Our average audience is a woman in her fifties - that is who we appeal to," he adds).

Big emotion, he says, was on display in Birdsong, which took a difficult subject matter and "through a wealth of emotion delivers real feeling for a BBC1 audience." Sherlock and Luther, meanwhile, are good examples of big characters, proof that audiences like leading actors who are "complex, rich, surprising, different, edgy but probably more good than bad. People are really drawn to conflicted characters and you can’t get more conflicted than Luther. Most of his wives have been murdered and he is in love with a serial killer. And you can't get more fucked up than Sherlock. Yet arguably they are two of our most iconic characters." It's also about big stories. "There's something about BBC1 drama stories that should have a primal, mythic quality to them - they should grab you and not let go."

Stephenson stresses that writers and directors are key to delivering on this vision. Writers, he says, "remain absolutely at the heart of what we do", citing Prisoners' Wives writer Julie Geary, William Boyd as well as Victoria Wood, who is working on a new 90-min film for BBC1.

But, he adds: “I would like to turn the attention on to directors as much as the writers. Great success comes with directors on top form. You’ve only got to look at what Brian Kirk has done with Great Expectations, Philip Martin for Birdsong or Paul McGuigan for Sherlock to see what alchemy a director brings to a show.”

Stephenson is unstuffy, sharp and a confident communicator. Three years into his job at the BBC, he concludes that there is no magic formula for creating a hit show. Instead, it's all about making "risky shows." "The shows that are hits are the ones that are unexpected, that you have high hopes for but are hugely original. What you cannot do is go, 'I will commission a hit.'"

It may be for this reason that he plays down any suggestion that he might like to emulate the success of Danish drama and commission a British version of The Killing or Borgen. What does he make of their success? "That they are brilliant - and that they are watched by half a million."

The BBC, however, prefers to commission a wider range of short run shows rather than focus on a few that stretch to 20 episodes each. That would mean axing numerous existing series and ignoring certain audience groups, says Stephenson. "If in two years we had three 20-part series and that was it, I suspect that we could be sitting here having some quite difficult conversations about the reach of the channel and the type of audiences that we are catering for and undercatering for." The creative community, he suspects, would also be up in arms if he chose to work on just a few dramas rather than spreading the net wider.

For now, meanwhile, Stephenson is focusing his resources on BBC1 and BBC2 while moving away from drama on BBC4 and downplaying it on BBC3 in the light of the BBC's cutbacks. He's also, he insists, very much enjoying his job. "I've had two years of my stuff being on the telly and feel I've got loads more to do."

2008 Stephenson was promoted to BBC controller of drama commissioning. He was previously head of drama commissioning, working on shows such as No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Lark Rise To Candleford, Oliver Twist, Criminal Justice and Survivors.
2004 Stephenson joined the BBC as head of development for independent drama. Before the BBC he worked as a development producer at Shed Productions and Tiger Aspect.  He also worked at Channel 4 where he was editor, series, for over two years on dramas such as No Angels, Teachers and Buried. His first job in TV was a script editor at Granada Television.
Education Stephenson studied drama at Manchester University

This interview first ran in Televisual's February issue

Posted 15 February 2012 by Tim Dams

A short stroll to the Oscars

It’s won the top prize at Sundance. And it’s nominated for an Oscar and a Bafta this month. The team behind animated short A Morning Stroll describe how they steered the film to awards and festival acclaim.

The moment that the list of Oscar nominations was unveiled on January 24, a huge cheer erupted from the offices of animation house Studio AKA in Soho.

“Our mouths just hit the floor…we looked quite possessed, like wild warriors charging over a hill,” say director Grant Orchard and producer Sue Goffe of the moment they realised that their film, A Morning Stroll, had been nominated for an Academy Award in the best animated short category.

Their journey to the red carpet in Los Angeles this month began in 2009 when Orchard, an animation director at Studio AKA with commercials credits for Virgin, Compaq and MTV, first began working on A Morning Stroll. The tale of one New Yorker’s early morning encounter with a chicken that plays out over 100 years, it originally began life as a one minute skit and ended up as a six minute short in three chapters with three distinct styles of animation.

Made without any official funding, the animation was worked on by Orchard and staff at Studio AKA in the downtime between commercials jobs. “Commercials are our bread and butter. But we do try and keep personal projects going,” says Orchard.

Once complete, A Morning Stroll was then entered into the Annecy International Animated Film Festival – where it went on to win the junior jury prize.

That single win seemed to set the ball rolling for the film, allowing it to gather momentum on the festival circuit which saw it go on to win 16 other prizes at events such as the Brooklyn Film Festival and the Bradford Animation Festival.

It was also decided to enter the film for the Oscars. But there was a catch. To qualify for a nomination, an animated film either has to play theatrically for three consecutive nights in LA. Or it has to win a top prize at certain key festivals. Since A Morning Stroll hadn’t yet won a top prize, Goffe set about organising a theatrical outing for the film in LA.

Since then, there’s been further acclaim including a nomination for the Baftas as well as winning the best animated short film prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Both Orchard and Goffe are hoping the acclaim for the film might help them get other projects off the ground that they are working on, including two features in development, a pre-school series and another short film. “This shines a spotlight on you for a short period of time. Sometimes nothing comes out of it, but it’s a moment in time to take some opportunities if they come your way,” says Goffe. "But you’ve got to have fun and enjoy it.”

Posted 08 February 2012 by Tim Dams

Interview: Vince Cable on the creative industries

The government sees the creative industries as increasingly important to the recovery of the UK economy.

This was underlined when business secretary Vince Cable paid a visit to Channel 4’s HQ this morning. He was there to launch National Apprenticeship Week, and to announce that Skillset will offer payments of up to £1.5k to 500 small firms taking on their first apprentice.

The choice of location was something of a surprise, as apprenticeships are normally associated with manufacturing industries rather than the creative sector.

But the creative industries are currently recognised as one of the few growth areas in the UK economy. It’s a sector that the government hopes can play its part in training the one in five young people who are currently not in employment, education or training.

I spoke with Vince Cable at the launch and he said the reason he was launching National Apprenticeship Week at C4 is that “we do recognise how important the creative industries are to the national economy.” (It could also have something to do with the fact that Channel 4 is, conveniently, a short walk from the Houses of Parliament.)

Cable added that he was aware that the creative industries are dealing with two big issues as they seek further growth.  “One is the lack of skills, which is what we are trying to address here. And the other is access to capital through the banking system, and we are trying to deal with that separately.”

The creative industries, he added, are “quite a success story which has come through without promotion from the top, and that is a great credit to all the companies involved in it.”

“It has now grown to become a very big sector of the British economy. It unites very technical areas like IT skills with creative fashion, and it is often the fusion of these things which works and is giving Britain a very unique role. We have got to do what we can to get behind the industry.”

Today’s launch was attended by a wide range of companies from the creative industries, including C4, whose chief executive David Abraham hosted the event, the BBC, the British Fashion Council, McCann Erickson, Shed Media and the IPA.

Recent government figures showed that 1.5 million people are employed in the creative industries or in creative roles in other industries, 5.1% of the UK’s employment. Exports of services by the creative industries accounted for 10.6% of the UK’s exports of services.

Posted 06 February 2012 by Tim Dams
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