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Sky Atlantic aims high with documentary push

Sky Atlantic unveiled the first fruits of its documentary push today, showcasing six of its feature length films at the Sky Atlantic Documentary Film Festival – a specially curated day of screenings, Q&As and masterclasses at the Rich Mix centre in Shoreditch.

The channel has invested in or acquired six feature length docs to broadcast from early November, and they were all on show at the Festival which acted as a launchpad for the films.

The season kicks off with the adrenaline-packed and moving The Crash Reel, from director Lucy Walker, a portrait of American champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce’s recovery from a terrible accident. The film opened the Sundance Film Festival to widespread critical acclaim.

The Crash Reel screened this morning at the festival, with Walker and Pearce on hand for a Q&A afterwards.

Other films include director Beeban Kidron’s Inreallife, Alison Klayman's Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing; Greg Barker’s Manhunt and James Toback’s Seduced and Abandoned.
 

From a standing start, it's a hugely impressive collection of films that Sky has assembled. And the decision to launch them at a day long festival seemed to underline the effort, both in terms of finance and time, that Sky has put into its documentary push.

“This is a statement of intent of our commitment to documentary film-making,” said Sky Atlantic director Elaine Pyke at the launch of the festival.

Sky head of factual Celia Taylor added that the investment in feature docs was “a long term commitment”, pointing out that Sky had invested in films that wouldn't deliver until 2015 and 2016.

Sky also confirmed two further films for 2014: the Johnny Depp fronted doc on Ralph Steadman, For No Good Reason; and the next film from Errol Morris, The Unknown Known, a portrait of former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld.

Posted 24 October 2013 by Tim Dams

Indie TV deals: it's a seller's market

Are we about to see a new wave of buyouts in the indie TV production sector?

Last week, after a long courtship, Twofour merged with Boom Pictures to create a regional indie powerhouse.

This follows a spate of other deals over the past 12 months, which have seen ITV buy The Garden and Big Talk, and Tinopolis acquire Firecracker and distributor Passion.

Independent TV production companies are proving attractive to private equity buyers. The Boom/Twofour deal was funded by private equity outfit LDC, part of the Lloyds Banking Group. Tinopolis’ acquistions, meanwhile, have been financed by private equity player Vitruvian Partners.

US firms like Core Media, the owner of American Idol-producer 19 Entertainment and part of private equity firm Apollo Global Management, are also looking to build their UK presence.

FremantleMedia and ITV are also said to be eyeing more purchases in the UK, while Entertainment One, Lionsgate and Pawn Stars producers Leftfield Pictures are also reported to be exploring the market.

They recognise the potential for UK producers to grow even more in international markets. With a global reputation for creativity, British producers are well set to meet demand for quality programmes from established markets like the US, from digital and VOD players like Netflix, and from growing economies like China, Brazil, India and Russia.

Tom Manwaring, managing director of About Corporate Finance, says: "Independent TV production remains a buoyant sector. We will see a number of deals in the UK in the next 12 months. There is no shortage of buyers for UK companies – it is a seller's market. From a seller's perspective, the big question is when is the right time to sell."

Ben Tolley, a partner at Clarity, which advised on the Boom/Twofour merger, said the deal is evidence that private equity buyers are returning to the indie TV sector: “It is an exciting time for the TV production sector. The value of distinctive content is being recognised with increasing investment from both broadcasters and non-traditional players such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Netflix and marketing agencies such as WPP’s GroupM Entertainment. It is only a matter of time before non-traditional players start to acquire their own production assets.”

Tolley added: “This makes companies with a proven record of producing quality programming extremely valuable - hence the rising interest from private equity players. Many other significant players in the UK and Europe, such as All3Media, Tinopolis and Eyeworks, are private equity-backed and it will be interesting to see what their owners do next.”

There are, however, some concerns about valuations in the sector, so buyers are wary.

It is also felt that there are a limited number of targets because many of the leading mid-sized production companies have already been acquired.

It means that many buyers, like ITV, Tinopolis and Leftfield Pictures, have looked outside the UK for deals, acquiring production companies in the US or other international territories.  Many big production groups, noted Mediateque director Mathew Horsman in a Televisual column last month, are focusing on tying in talent with production deals rather than paying a premium to buy an indie outright.

However, it will be interesting to note what happens to many of the UK’s leading mid-sized indies over the next 12 months, among them Raw TV, Red Production, Love Productions, Keo Films, Nutopia, Atlantic, Windfall, October and Outline.

Posted 22 October 2013 by Tim Dams

Q&A: Angela Jain, ITV2

Angela Jain, ITV’s director of digital channels and acquisitions, on the shows she’s looking for on ITV2

What have been your key priorities since taking over ITV2 two years ago? 
Key priorities were comedy, injecting some smartness and wit into the programmes, 9pm series and a more determined focus on targeting a 16-34 audience looking for entertainment and fun.

Which commissions have worked well for you recently – and why?
 
Plebs was a concerted attempt to get into scripted. It worked because of the phenomenal talent in it, on and off screen, the incredible scripts and attention to detail throughout the production. It was the biggest scripted comedy hit in the channel’s history. The Big Reunion tapped into something new and potent – recent nostalgia – that, combined with the candid revelation of the popstars in the show made for a remarkable series and then a smash hit tour. The Magaluf Weekender was our attempt to tap into a rites of passage moment – the first time you go on holiday without your parents. Using a fixed rig we were able to capture much more nuanced conversations and enjoy the mayhem that is so much a part of growing up. It doubled the audience share for 16-24s in its slot.

What kind of changes would you like to see on the channel in the year ahead?
I would like us to to strengthen our relationship with comedy both acquired and original. And find some more hit shows.

What are your commissioning priorities? What are you looking for right now?
Commissioning priorities are scripted, 9pm returning series and lots of things I didn’t know I was looking for.

What is the one big thing you are missing from ITV2?
A lightly formatted entertainment series for 9pm that has the potential to run to 10 series.

Which slots are the most important?
10pm is broadly speaking our prime time. And I tend to only commission for post 9pm slots. I am simply looking for hit shows from the widest variety of people possible that share the same sense of fun, surprise and quality you find in our best shows. I wasn’t looking for a sitcom set in 27BC. I wasn’t looking for a show about popstars who were no longer popstars, but there you go.

Which new ITV2 shows are you most excited about in the near future – and why?

A young magician called Ben is the star of a new hidden camera magic show we have commissioned called Tricked. The reactions are genuine. And I love magic so I hope others do too. We have a special for Halloween called Release The Hounds which is scary and funny. The production and production design is superb. I think people will be slightly surprised to find this on ITV2 and I like that unpredictability.

What kind of genres/shows don’t work so well for ITV2?

We don’t commission factual or features shows, we are entertainment in the broadest sense of the word. Shows that tell you how to live your life don’t work as do shows that are mean or arch 
or sneery.

How important is it to attach well known talent to ITV2 shows?
It isn’t. But if there is a logic, an authenticity, a point to attaching well known talent, please do.

Tell us about what you have been watching, reading and listening to outside work?
I have been watching The Story of the Jews and The Great British Bake Off, currently my older son’s favourite TV programme. I read Americanah on holiday –just wonderful and have been evangelical in my recommendation of it - and read Mr Wolf’s Pancakes or Bob The Man On The Moon pretty much very night. And it’s Radio 4 in the mornings and Radio 1 at the weekend.

Which shows on other channels have you admired recently?

Spy, Fresh Meat and Bad Education. In fact, we have commissioned a pilot from Freddie Syborn, the co-writer on Bad Education, a love story set in a post-apocalyptic world. Very exciting.

Any tips for pitching to you?

Be passionate, be succinct and tell me jokes.

Angela Jain CV
2011 - 2013 
Present - director of digital channels and acquisitions, ITV
2007 - 2011 
Head of E4 and Big Brother
2005 - 2007 
Commissioning editor, factual entertainment, C4
2002 - 2005 
Deputy controller of entertainment, Five

Before moving into commissioning Jain worked in production, producing and directing on shows such as T4, The Real Deal and Right To Reply. She started her career in Children’s at the BBC.

Top ITV2 shows of 2013
Celebrity Juice                  2.45m (12%)
The Only Way is Essex    1.65m (8.4%)
The Big Reunion              1.57m (5.8%)
Britain’s Got More Talent  1.49m (8.1%)
Peter Andre: My Life        1.42m (5.6%)




Posted 21 October 2013 by Tim Dams

An epic film restoration

One of the most remarkable films in the BFI archive, The Epic of Everest has been restored ahead of its world premiere at this month’s London Film Festival.

The 1924 attempt to reach the summit of Everest is best known for culminating in the deaths of two of the finest climbers of their generation, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine – sparking an ongoing debate about whether or not they reached the summit.

The legendary British expedition was captured on film by Captain John Noel. A pioneering explorer and filmmaker, Noel shot The Epic of Everest on 35mm film (using a Newman and Sinclair Kine camera with an electric drive and Cooke telephoto lenses).



Initially, he carried his kit in watertight boxes on two sturdy Tibetan ponies. With two local assistants to help him, Noel would blow a whistle and reckoned he could have the camera ready to shoot within thirty seconds. In the later stages of the expedition, eight porters carried the camera kit in shoulder boxes.

Beautifully framed, Noel’s film opens with powerful images of Everest and the expedition team. Noel then records some of the earliest images of the Tibetan people and their culture, and follows the harsh conditions experienced by the climbers at each stage of their ascent, until the camera can go no further. A specially designed telephoto lens, filming at a distance of two miles, records the final attempt to reach the summit as Mallory and Irvine disappear from sight.

Noel was also an entrepreneurial businessman. He bought all photographic rights in advance of the expedition and set up a company, Explorers Films, raising finance from investors including the Aga Khan. Using the money, he bought a plot of land in Darjeeling where a lab was built. Teams of runners brought the rushes down to Darjeeling, where they were developed and edited. Clips, showing the progress of the expedition, were then dispatched to Pathe Pictorial News for distribution to cinemas around the world.



When he returned from the expedition, Noel released The Epic of Everest. The film was a hit – and Noel made a lecture tour of the UK, Europe and America with it.

Almost ninety years after it was filmed, the BFI has now restored The Epic of Everest and commissioned a new score, composed by Simon Fisher Turner, ahead of its premiere this month at the London Film Festival.

The restoration has taken some 18 months, and is based on two key versions of the film in the BFI collection, one of which was donated by Noel’s daughter Sandra. Both, says the BFI National Archive’s head curator Robin Baker, were compromised, with surface damage from scratches and mould.



The BFI has also restored the coloured tints and tones of the film, which had faded dramatically over time. Many black and white films from the 1920s had portions that were colour toned, and The Epic of Everest used the technique to great effect with dramatic blue tone scenes of Everest and moving final shots of a blood red sunset over the Himalayas.

“Two thirds of the film is in black and white but when the moments of colour appear it is sensational and transforming,” says Baker. The colour restoration, he says, is true to the aesthetic of the director and means that modern audiences can see the film as the public in the 1920s did.

The BFI worked closely with Deluxe 142 on the restoration of The Epic of Everest, following a successful collaboration on restoring nine of the earliest films directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The initial stages of the restoration saw the original films inspected, comparing and contrasting each in search of the best shot possible.  The film then passed through a 4k ArriScan film scanner with wet gates, which can help eliminate scratches, while converting the film to digital files. 

A long period of repair and restoration followed, with vfx software used to help fix images damaged by mould. One big challenge was restoring fast changing shots of clouds and mist blowing over mountains, and the vfx software helped speed up the process. “It was really successful at reducing the appearance of the mould,” says Kieron Webb, film conservation manager at the BFI. The film was then graded over a seven week period.



The Epic of Everest is now likely to find a wide audience. The BFI’s 2011 restoration of Herbert Ponting’s film of Captain Scott’s attempt on the South Pole, The Great White Silence, played in 150 cinemas and proved the interest in films about exploration. “There is a kind of extraordinary appetite for it,” says Baker, who reckons that The Epic Of Everest will appeal to many different potential audiences in the UK and internationally – those interested in Everest, mountaineering, Tibet and Buddhism among them.

The Epic of Everest world premieres at the BFI London Film Festival and is released nationwide on 18 October


Credits:
The restoration of Captain John Noel’s film of the 1924 attempt on Everest is based on nitrate positives held by the BFI National Archive. The restoration, in collaboration with Noel’s daughter Sandra Noel, was carried out by the BFI and Deluxe. The film world premieres at the BFI London Film Festival with a specially commissioned score.

BFI National archive
Restoration supervised: Bryony Dixon, Jan Faull, Ben Thompson
Picture scanning and restoration: David Gurney, Peter Marshall, Ben Thompson
Film inspection and comparison: David Jones
Intertitle restoration: Peter Marshall, David Gurney
Deluxe
Production: Mark Bonnici, Graham Jones
Colourist:  Stephen Bearman
Digital picture restoration: Deluxe Restoration Team
Film recording: Paul Doogan

Score composed, orchestrated and conducted by

Simon Fisher Turner

Posted 16 October 2013 by Tim Dams

DogTV: genius idea or barking mad?

“We are the only channel here that is not aimed at human beings.” So began Ron Levi’s pitch for DogTV, a new TV service aimed at dogs.

With a prominent stand at last week’s Mipcom international programme market, Levi was trying to export the concept of DogTV around the world.

Levi, the co-founder and chief content officer of DogTV, launched the channel in the San Diego area of the US on cable TV in February 2012.

Offering a diet of programmes specially produced for dogs, DogTV is now available across the US on the DirectTV platform.

One of his key priorities is to get people to take the idea seriously. “I meet a lot of people who think I am kidding, so I have to try to convince them for I’m for real,” says the likeable and enthusiastic Levi, who is based in Tel Aviv, Israel and who went to Thames Valley University in the UK.

He says that DogTV programmes are designed to entertain the many dogs around the world who are left alone in homes and apartments while their owners go out to work.

Being left alone makes the dogs stressed and anxious. Levi claims that nearly 10% of dogs in the US are taking the equivilent of ‘doggy prozac’ as a result.



He then shows clips of DogTV content – landscapes, images of sleeping dogs, running dogs and dogs travelling in cars with families.

“Our idea is really very simple,” he says. “It can really help and solve dogs’ problems and ease their anxieties.”

He explains that technical advances in TV quality has made DogTV a possibility. Dogs cannot see the pictures properly on older style cathode ray tube TV’s. They produced a complete image 60 times a second (a 60Hz refresh rate) which is fine for humans to watch but not enough for dogs, who just see a flickering screen. But new high definition screens broadcast at a much higher rate – which dogs can see.

And he’s bullish about the prospects of DogTV, citing the huge amount of money that owners spend on pets as evidence that there is demand for the service.

DogTV is a pay service, charging $4.99 per month for a subscription.

Levi says the DogTV offers three categories of programmes: relaxation - calming pictures of dogs in natural environments, set to classical music to help dogs sleep; exposure - images of things that dogs are afraid of, like lightening, cars and vets, to help dogs overcome their fears; and stimulation - film of dogs exercising and playing.

Levi says that he is at Mipcom to find partners to distribute DogTV in territories around the world.

He says DogTV has signed two distribution deals to the Far East and he has had positive meetings with interested parties from the UK and Ireland too. He is also focusing on Germany, France and Italy.

But the UK, which is famously pet obsessed, is clearly a key target market. And Levi is optimistic about signing a deal. “I have a feeling it is going to happen in the UK sometime soon,” he says.



Posted 15 October 2013 by Tim Dams

Tony Hall positions BBC as 'creative catalyst' of UK economy

Director general Tony Hall has given very few set piece speeches since joining the BBC in April.

But in the past few days, he’s given two. Last week, Hall set out his broad vision for the corporation – with a plan to offer audiences a more bespoke BBC with more content available via the iPlayer and the new BBC store.

Then today, in a little reported speech to tech entrepreneurs, he sought to position the BBC as an engine for growth in the UK’s creative economy.

And he hit back at critics who say that the licence fee funded BBC makes life difficult for commercials players in the media.

The speech was clearly given with an eye on Charter Renewal in 2016, and seemed to outline the basis of Hall’s strategy for securing a new licence fee settlement. Tellingly, Culture Secretary Maria Miller was in the audience.

Speaking at the Technology Innovators Forum in London (Tif-In London), Hall said that some had argued that the existence of the BBC might crowd out creative endeavour, stifle talent, and crush entrepreneurial innovation.

“Yet this argument…has always failed,” said Hall, who argued that BBC had done the very opposite – and gave three reasons why.

“The first is because of how creativity works. Every modern academic account of the origins of ideas and innovation stresses the idea of connectedness. Ideas carried by people collide with each other – they come together, producing more than the sum of their parts. The BBC acts as a catalyst for creativity. It acts as a great place where people meet and spark off each other, a great place to incubate ideas.

“Secondly, we help create a competition for quality which helps raise standards for audiences.” Hall said that the BBC’s high level of investment in public broadcasting, helped stimulate commercial investment in TV.

“And finally we have inspired and supported entrepreneurs because we work at it. We believe the licence fee gives us a responsibility and ability to stimulate this country’s creative industries.”

Hall went on to say that the UK creative economy accounts for around 1/10th of the whole UK economy and employs around 2.5m people – more people than the financial services and construction industries.

He then positioned the BBC very much as a creative catalyst for the UK creative industries. “It means that we must and we are going to help the industry to take risks. First we are going to provide the risk capital that gets creative projects off the ground. We do this already but going to build on what we do.”

Hall called the BBC “a stable source of demand for the best ideas.” He added: “We invest £1bn outside the BBC in the UK TV and radio sectors – that includes commissioning over 700 TV, radio and online production companies. And we are proud to broadcast some of the finest programmes from the independent sector – from Love Productions’ The Great British Bake Off to Wall to Wall’s Who Do You Think You Are?. A strong independent sector is a strong BBC.”

Hall went on to say that BBC had helped stimulate demand for new technologies – from colour TV through to iPlayer and digital terrestrial TV in the form of Freeview.

He explained that the BBC Store would help producers to increase their revenues from digital platforms, to date dominated by Apple and Amazon.

And he said that the BBC’s decision to locate key operations in Glasgow, Salford and Cardiff had helped spread economic benefit to all parts of the UK, not just the South East.

And he positioned the BBC as a key backer of new talent. He used his conference speech to announce plans to take on more apprentices at the BBC, lifting the proportion of apprenticeships to 1% of the total number of staff at the corporation.

Hall said that critics are missing the point when say BBC crowds out competition. “It aids competition, it lifts all boats.”



Posted 14 October 2013 by Tim Dams

Mipcom review: UK producers enjoy global demand for TV

There’s been a genuine feeling of optimism coursing through this year’s Mipcom programme market in Cannes.

“It’s buzzing,” said one UK producer I met here, who likened the market to those from the pre-recession days before 2008.

Others are more cautious, but still veer towards the positive. Zodiak Rights chief executive Matthew Frank says that it is too early to call the market at this stage, but he does admit that there is a sense of “renewed optimism” at Mipcom.

Certainly, the hallways of the Palais seem to be busy, teeming with buyers and sellers of TV programmes. Along the sea front, the US studios are out in force in their expensive pavilions, while relative newcomers from the digital world such as Facebook and Amazon are also prominent here.

Executives point to three key factors that seem to be fuelling the positivity in the international TV sales market.

Firstly, this year’s Mipcom has taken place against a background of improving sentiment about the global economy, with key territories like the US feeling more confident than in recent years. Even recession-hit economies like Spain, once a key buyer in the international TV market, are said to have picked up.

Secondly, the growing popularity of paid-for video on demand – whether across OTT services like Netflix or via television VOD platforms offered by broadcasters like Sky, Virgin or BT Vision - has strengthened the hand of content producers, spurring demand for quality programmes.

“It’s created a demand for content that has re-energised the industry,” says Luis Silberwasser, EVP and Chief Content Officer Discovery Networks International.

And thirdly, there’s a sense that the market for TV programmes is continuing to grow right across the world, particularly in key emerging economies such as Brazil, India and China. A rising global middle class, with increased leisure time and spending power, is choosing to do what many in the developed world have done in their spare time for the past 40 years: watch television.

Encouragingly, the UK seems to be one of the key beneficiaries of this growing global demand for new programmes.

And that’s because the UK has a strong reputation for producing innovative, creative shows. British broadcasters, particularly the BBC and Channel 4, says Nutopia founder Jane Root, have innovation embedded in their DNA.
“Compared to the US, there’s almost an allergic reaction to doing anything copycat. There is such a premium on innovation in the UK.”

Figures published this week by producers’ alliance Pact seemed to confirm the appetite for British programming from global buyers.

Pact reported that revenues from the international sale of UK TV programmes and associated activities stood at £1.22bn, a 4% increase from 2011.

The US was the most important export market with sales up 11% to £475m. Meanwhile, revenues from China grew 90% to £12m and sales to India grew 42% to £4.3m. (Not all the figures pointed up though: the UK’s second biggest market, Australasia, fell back 1% to £103m, while sales to France, Spain and the Netherlands dropped -8%, -14% and -29% respectively.)

Nevertheless, it’s here at Mipcom that one quickly understands the global revenue potential for successful shows.

Shine International, for example, announced yesterday that its hit drama Broadchurch has clocked up sales to an astonishing 100 territories. (A US version of the drama is also being made by Fox in partnership with Shine America, Kudos and Imaginary Friends).

Even formats considered past their prime in the UK can have a very long shelf life around the world.

FremantleMedia chief executive Cecile Frot-Coutaz revealed that there is still great global appetite for the company’s talent formats –The X Factor, Got Talent and Idols. “In 2013, we will be making more versions of every single one of those titles than we did last year. There's still demand for them."



Posted 09 October 2013 by Tim Dams

BFI London Film Festival: what it reveals about British filmmaking in 2013

It seems hard to believe, but this is the first year since 2006 that a film by a British director is to open the BFI London Film Festival (9-20 October).

Admittedly, the film is a US produced feature – Somali pirate drama Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks. But much of the talent behind the film is British, including director Paul Greengrass, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, production designer Paul Kirby and composer Henry Jackman. Visual effects, meanwhile, were produced by British outfits Double Negative and Nvizible.

In many ways, Captain Phillips is the perfect emblem for the state of the British film industry: it’s packed full with British talent and creativity, but made with other people’s money. Indeed, the British industry has boomed in recent years thanks to an influx of Hollywood productions taking advantage of UK talent, tax credit and facilities. Such films accounted for £620m of the £929m spent on film production in the UK in 2012, according to BFI stats.
 
Speaking last month at the official press launch of the BFI London Film Festival, Greengrass himself said the UK film industry had never been in a stronger position.

Greengrass said: “British film is on a very positive journey. If you look at the biggest movies in the world, like Star Wars, Gravity – a hugely cutting edge movie – they are being made in Britain. British technicians are world class and audiences are queuing up to see these films.”

Gravity, which world premiered at the Venice Film Festival this summer, looks set to be one of the most popular screenings at the London Film Festival. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, the space thriller won huge acclaim for its visual effects (“as close to feeling like you’re in space as most of us will ever be”, said The Hollywood Reporter) which were produced by London’s Framestore under vfx supervisor Tim Webber.



What’s interesting about the UK line-up at the London Film Festival though is the sheer number and diversity of the films on offer.

Back in May, during the Cannes Film Festival, there was concern that only two of the 70 or more films in the official selection were British. For many, it was a sign that something was going wrong with British filmmaking, with French, US, Mexican, Chinese and Cambodian filmmakers taking all the top prizes.

That now looks more like an accident of timing and production schedules. Since then some 20 UK films or co-productions have played at Venice and Toronto this year – and many of them will form the backbone of the prestige films that look set for awards glory at Oscars and Baftas early next year.

They are an eclectic bunch too: from Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave through to Stephen Frears’ Philomena, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, Richard Ayoade’s The Double to Ralph Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman.
 
London Film Festival director Clare Stewart says: “Across the board you are seeing this extraordinary breadth of acting talent, of distinctive directorial vision. The quality and prowess of British production is very present in the festival.”



The winner of the top prize at the Toronto festival, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of a free black man in 19th century America who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt.

Meanwhile, Frears’ Philomena follows the real-life story of Philomena Lee who spent years trying to locate her son after he was sold by Irish nuns to a wealthy American family. Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, it won the screenplay prize at Venice, and Dench looks to be a guaranteed awards contender for her role.

Glazer’s long-awaited Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien in human form preying on hitchhikers in the highlands of Scotland, won critical acclaim at Venice.

Richard Ayoade’s dark comedy The Double, based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s story about a man who goes mad after finding out his life has been usurped by a doppelgänger has also picked up strong reviews, as has Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman, the story of Charles Dickens’ affair with a younger woman.

Elsewhere in the festival’s main competition is British director Clio Bernard’s The Selfish Giant, about two teenage boys who get caught up in the world of copper theft. Inspired by an Oscar Wilde story of the same name, the film received its first showing at Cannes in May.

Then there is David Mackenzie (Young Adam) prison drama Starred Up, which debuted at Telluride and was noted for its powerful two central performances from young Skins star Jack O’Connell, and Ben Mendelsohn.

And British talent is on show in the festival’s closing film Saving Mr Banks, the tale of Mary Poppins’ author P.L. Travers meeting with Walt Disney; made by Ruby Films, it stars Emma Thompson alongside Tom Hanks and is scripted by British writer Kelly Marcel, who is now penning the screenplay for 50 Shades of Grey.
 
Despite the breadth of subject matter and styles of the films at the festival, Stewart says it’s possible to discern a number of themes. “One of them is the number of compelling stories that come from real life, like Captain Philipps, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave and Saving Mr Banks. In a lot of these big films we are seeing narratives that are drawn out of true stories and this is becoming something that seems to have more and more resonance with audiences.”



Stewart also points to a few of the ‘discoveries’ to be found in the festival line-up. She mentions Rob Brown’s Sixteen, an urban thriller about a former child soldier from the Congo living in West London, calling the film “an incredibly powerful social drama”. Then there is Destiny Ekaragha’s comedy Gone Too Far!, exploring West Indian-African tensions on the streets of Peckham. “It’s really beautifully done,” says Stewart. Meanwhile, critic Mark Cousins (“who seems to be going through a very prolific period at the moment”) is in the documentary competition with the idiosyncratic Here Be Dragons, about the political and cultural landscape of Albania. And then there is one of the more intriguing films in the festival, Leave to Remain, directed by Bruce Goodison – which began life at a film academy that gave young asylum seekers the chance to train in filmmaking.

Such films, says Stewart, reflect the vitality of UK filmmaking. Stewart underlines the importance of Film4 and BBC Films as crucial parts of the industry. Film4, for example, has backed festival films 12 Years A Slave, The Selfish Giant and Under The Skin. The filmmaking arm of Channel 4 is also behind Roger Michell’s upcoming comedy Le Weekend and Kevin Macdonald’s adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. BBC Films, meanwhile, has backed Philomena, The Invisible Woman and Saving Mr Banks.

Stewart says: “To have both Film4 and BBC Films as broadcasters backing the kinds of productions they are, is a vital part of this industry. Not every country has that kind of support in terms of its more creative filmmakers finding their visions backed.”

Diplomatically, Stewart also praises the work of her counterparts at the BFI Film Fund. With £26m to invest in 2013, its credits include Philomena, The Invisible Woman, The Double, The Selfish Giant, Under the Skin, Exhibition, Half of a Yellow Sun and Gone Too Far.

An Australian and former Sydney Film Festival director who took over the LFF two years ago, Stewart is now focused on the opening night of the festival on the 9th of October – when she will host Paul Greengrass’s Captain Philipps on the red carpet. “It’s a film that speaks volumes about the degree of profile that British filmmakers and films are currently achieving,” she says.
 
BFI London film Festival director Clare Stewart on the British gala films at the festival
 
“It’s a great year for telling the British story. Both our opening and closing night films have extremely strong British elements to them. Paul Greengrass is the director of Captain Phillips and Barry Ackroyd is cinematographer and the music is by Henry Jackman. Ruby Films (the UK production company) is behind the closing film Saving Mr Banks (starring Emma Thompson as PL Travers). The film itself really plays on the whole cultural collision between the adopted Britishness of PL Travers and the American splendour of Walt Disney.

“You look through the Gala collection, and it is so exciting to see Steve McQueen whose incredible directorial vision we have all been blown away by in films like Hunger and Shame, really working in an expanded way on 12 Years A Slave. It’s a much bigger scale of production.

“Again coming out of the UK production environment is Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity – which Tim Webber from Framestore is the vfx supervisor on. It is an immaculate technical achievement.

“You go from those films to Ralph Fiennes making his second film as director. The Invisible Woman is a very precise, beautifully modulated period drama with deeply affecting storytelling and, as you would expect from him, terrific performances.

“And Stephen Frears’ Philomena is an extraordinary film, and entirely compelling. It’s a big passion project for (co-writer and co-star) Steve Coogan and Stephen Frears’ direction is exemplary in terms of his capacity for modulating pathos and wit.”
 
British filmmakers and productions in selection at the BFI London Film Festival

Paul Greengrass Captain Phillips (Opening Film)
Stephen Frears Philomena (Amex Gala)
Steve McQueen 12 Years A Slave (Accenture Gala)
Ralph Fiennes The Invisible Woman (Festival Gala)
Richard Ayoade The Double (competition)
Clio Bernard The Selfish Giant (competition)
David Mackenzie Starred Up (competition)
Jonathan Glazer Under The Skin (competition)
Mark Cousins Here Be Dragons (documentary competition)
Rob Brown Sixteen (first feature competition)
Joanna Hogg Exhibition (Dare)
Biyi Bandele Half A Yellow Sun (Dare)
Bruce Goodison Leave To Remain (Debate)
Terry Gilliam The Zero Theorem (Cult)
Adam Wimpenny Blackwood (Cult)
Arthur Landon Side By Side (Family)
Steven Knight Locke (Journey)
Destiny Ekaragha Gone Too Far! (Laugh)
Anthony Wilcox Hello Carter (Laugh)
Justin Hardy Love Me Till Monday (Laugh)


Posted 08 October 2013 by Tim Dams
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