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The challenge of producing indie British films

Despite the UK’s reputation for quality filmmaking, indie production is still a struggle. Here three indie producers talk about the reality of making films in 2014.

By most accounts, times are pretty good for the film industry, with big budget shoots like Star Wars, The Avengers and Antman keeping UK talent and facilities busy in 2014.

The UK is less strong, though, in the smaller scale independent sector. This was a point highlighted by Lord Smith in an update last month to his 2012 Film Policy Review. Smith noted that British independent film’s share of the UK theatrical market has averaged only 6% over the past 12 years, and is also largely dependent on a small number of high grossing titles each year – like The King’s Speech and The Iron Lady.  He said: “Despite the excellence of our independent filmmakers, they still all too often struggle to get their movies financed, distributed and seen.”

With this in mind, Televisual spoke with three of the UK’s leading independent producers – Charles Steel, Damian Jones and Will Clarke – to ask them about the reality of producing indie films in 2014.

Charles Steel, Cowboy Films
Steel runs Cowboy Films with producer partner Alasdair Flind, and between them they have amassed credits including How I Live Now, The Last King of Scotland and Marley as well as TV drama Top Boy.  Even so, it’s taken Steel some six years to approach the finishing line on his latest project, Black Sea. Directed by Kevin Macdonald, the adventure thriller sees Jude Law play the captain of a salvage submarine hunting for gold at the bottom of the Black Sea.

Black Sea was originally conceived by Steel and Macdonald as a low budget, genre television movie for C4. Set in the grimy, claustrophobic world of submarine salvage operators, it was envisaged as the antithesis of blockbusters like The Hunt for Red October. They brought in Dennis Kelly (Utopia) to write the script, which turned out to be strong – strong enough, in fact, that C4 felt it could sit in the theatrical market. So rather than rush the project out as a lo-fi TV drama, Cowboy began developing it as a feature with Film4.

With Macdonald on board, Black Sea was a hot property. MacDonald wanted the film to feel authentic and quintessentially English, so was keen to cast a Brit in the lead role. Jude Law was approached and, keen to take on something different, he boarded very quickly.

Focus Features took worldwide rights to Black Sea, raising finance for the production by pre-selling it widely at Cannes last year. Film4 also provided key financing, and equity finance came from Jim Cochrane and Merve Harzadin.

Reflecting on the time it’s taken to get Black Sea made, Steel says: “You need to have the ability to ride with the time it takes. You just have to have perseverance.”

Cowboy Films comprises five staff in total, but works across television as well. “As a film company, you need some other thing. I don’t know how you survive just doing British film alone.” Steel says that even good producers can’t guarantee that all the disparate elements it takes to make a film – the cast, the script, the director, the financing – will come together at the right time. “Independent film is hard work and tough,” he acknowledges. “Things can be way out of your control.”

The most important factor, he stresses, is getting the “right balance” for a project. You need a good script and a good director - plus a budget that is appropriate for the film, and a strong cast. “Once the balance is right, there is money to be got. It is always hard to produce, yet there is always a way.”

Damian Jones, DJ Films
“It’s always tough producing a film, there’s no two ways about it,” says Damian Jones, whose producer credits include The Iron Lady, Millions, Fast Girls and The History Boys.

“But I also believe that the projects that do get made are the most deserving – the cream rises to the top. There is always a reason why a project doesn’t get made, even if you only realise it in hindsight. It’s normally that the script wasn’t stong enough, or the cast wasn’t good enough, or the director was too expensive, or someone else was doing a similar subject but better.”

Independent producers who want their films to be among the few that are made, must therefore package them accordingly, adds Jones.

Jones’ next film, Belle, is directed by Amma Asante and is about to hit cinemas this spring. The story of a mixed–race girl raised as an aristocratic lady in 18th century England, Belle has taken six years to make and was, says Jones, “a project that everyone turned down.”

The film was originally developed with HBO, then “for a couple of years” with the BFI. Jones, in the meantime, scored with The Iron Lady. “That was some ammunition – people were at least interested to see what I was up to next.”

A key turning point was Bankside coming on as a sales agent. Everything that most potential investors were concerned about – a mixed race lead, an inherently expensive period movie – Bankside felt was a positive. “That was the reason to make it – the film would have something to say as well as ticking all the Jane Austen boxes.” Pinewood then boarded as a backer, as did the BFI film fund. This, plus a number of pre-sales, helped Jones piece the budget together. Jones says the reason it has finally been made at all boils down to his own persistence, along with Amma Asante’s vision, a strong script and an impressive cast.

Although Jones has had success in the film industry, and has a first look deal with Pathe, he stresses the difficulty of creating a production business because “it is so unpredictable.” He adds: “The way I have survived is that I have fortunately been able to make movies every year on different budget levels.” Even so, DJ Films keeps its overhead low. The company is, says Jones, “very much a one man band.” He outsources activities such as accountancy and development on a project by project basis.  “If I had to keep an overhead without a guaranteed income then I wouldn’t be talking to you now.”

Will Clarke, Altitude Films

Will Clarke is making a different kind of film to most British producers. Big Game is very much a commercial, international proposition: starring Samuel L Jackson, it is directed by Jalmari Helander (the Finnish director of Rare Exports), and shot in Bavaria. Jackson plays the US President whose plane is shot down by terrorists. Stranded in the wilderness, he has only a local 13-year-old hunter to help him elude his captors.

Clarke is producing, with Finnish partner Petri Jokiratna’s Subzer,  through his new company Altitude Films, which he set up after selling Optimum Releasing to StudioCanal.

Launched in 2012, Altitude has 14 staff and is primarily a production company, but it also covers sales and distribution. This makes it a very rare beast in the UK film industry – a vertically integrated film business capable of producing, financing and releasing its own films.

Still, with a £13m budget, Altitude can’t produce alone but has teamed up with a host of partners to make Big Game. The ambition from the start, says Clarke, has been to make a high concept picture: with scale, a broad cast and aimed “fairly and squarely at the mainstream.”

Producing a bigger budget film like Big Game is sometimes a little easier than putting together a smaller British feature, says Clarke, “because you have got saleable elements.” The budget has been raised primarily through a mixture of pre-sales and soft money. The fund raising began in Bavaria, where FFF Bayern has a new film fund worth Euros 6m for international shoots. Other financiers include: the Finnish Film Foundation, YLE; Nordisk Film & TV Fond, Visionplus Fund; Bavarian Film Partners; and German Federal Film Fund (DFFF).

Armed with this soft money, Altitude launched Big Game in Cannes last year – pre-selling to 16 countries. The strong presales meant that Altitude could go to American bank Comerica for gap financing, allowing the film to go into production in September.

All along, the sales pitch for the film has stressed that it is “a commercial proposition rather than an arthouse crossover,” says Clarke. The Altitude sales team have emphasised that it is aimed at a broad audience, and is not going to be an 18 rating picture. The casting of Samuel L Jackson, says Clarke, also sent out a clear message that it was “a fun package.”

“Having been a buyer, there are not that many movies in the marketplace that have a sense of fun, a sense of scale and that aren’t overpriced and that have an aspiration to be a commercal hit. Because there aren’t that many of them, it was risk that buyers were prepared to take.” Big Game will be finished this autumn and is set for release next spring. 

This article is taken from the March 2014 issue of Televisual

Posted 26 February 2014 by Tim Dams

Hatfield aims to prove London Live sceptics wrong

Stefano Hatfield (pictured left) has form in proving the sceptics wrong. As editor of thelondonpaper and The Independent spin-off, i, he successfully launched two papers at a time when experts said there was no room for growth in the newspaper business.

The question is: can he do the same in TV? Hatfield is now editorial director of London Live – the local TV service for Londoners that launches on March 31.

There’s been plenty of industry scepticism about the prospects for the new local TV franchises, with naysayers questioning their economic model and quality of programming.

But talking to Hatfield, one suspects that he might be able to pull it off again. London Live is owned by Evgeny Lebedev, proprietor of The Evening Standard, so the ability to cross promote the station is huge. The channel has a prominent spot on the EPG – channel 8 on Freeview, 117 on Sky and 159 on Virgin. And it will play into the homes of 9.5m people – who live in one of the most prosperous cities in the world.

That said, London Live has a tiny budget – just £15m a year – for programming and overheads. The money has to pay the salaries of 60 staff, as well as five and half hours of news and current affairs a day, and three hours of new programming. Commissions include Food Junkies from Fresh One, footy tricks show F2 Kicks Off, ob doc Drag Queens of London (8x60”) and shows from YouTube talent, like The T-Boy Show (8x22”). London Live has also acquired shows like Peep Show and Misfits to drive ratings.

Hatfield says the output will be urban and positive. “We are targeting a younger audience and every bit of research we have done says, “Just don’t depress us.” He stresses, though, that London Live will not be “too cool for school” so that it alienates older viewers.

The budget, he acknowledges, is tight. But, compared to other broadcasters, London Live will offer producers the chance to break new talent, be creative and to strike flexible deals. There will also be contributions from journalists at the Standard. “But London Live is not going to be the Evening Standard on TV – it is a bit younger, a bit more urban.”

Posted 18 February 2014 by Tim Dams

Off the red carpet, festivals struggle with data drama

Berlin: The digitisation of the film industry throws up huge technical and logistical for events like the Berlin Film Festival.

Some 95% of the 2500 film screenings during the Festival and at the European Film Market are now digital.

For the first time, the digital screenings at the Berlinale are all being presented in the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) format.

It means the festival now has to manage huge volume of data. The festival says the need for broadband data connections and storage systems has increased hugely. 

Before the Festival, many technical and logistical processes have had to be reconsidered and modified. 

The festival says that seven companies are supporting its digital cinema infrastructure: Colt, EMC, Barco, Dolby, Doremi, DVS and VIDI.

Fibre-optic cable outfit Colt connected all of the Berlinale’s permanent venues with both the main Berlinale Film Office data centre at Potsdamer Platz and the Colt data centre in Berlin. 

It means a bandwidth of 75 Gbit/s is now available for transferring the films around the festival venues.

The festival’s central storage system is supplied by EMC, which has provided an ISILON storage cluster with a total capacity of 400 TB.

Meanwhile, the festival has also had to transcode all the films playing at the Berlinale from very diverse formats into DCPs. DVS has supplied several CLIPSTER postproduction workstations to help speed up the computationally-intense processes.

Moreover, to ensure that the required HD video signals are transferred losslessly between the data centres of the Berlinale and Colt, the firm VIDI has installed an HD-SDI transmission system with four channels.

To supervise all the processes - from testing to transmitting films, managing film keys and monitoring screenings – centrally from the Film Office, the Berlinale is using software developed specifically for this purpose.

Meanwhile, Dolby audio specialists checked the sound systems at the over 50 venues before the Festival opened and adjusted their setups accordingly.

Digital cinema projector firm Barco has provided the Festival with DP2K and DP4K projectors, helping to transform the Berlinale’s temporary venues into modern movie theatres.




Posted 12 February 2014 by Tim Dams

Berlinale: filmmakers cast a worried eye at TV

Berlin: Television used to be something of dirty word at an event like the Berlin Film Festival. 

But now TV drama - once viewed as artistically inferior to film - is increasingly seen as a refuge for embattled independent filmmakers who are struggling to get their films financed.

The talk of this year’s 64th Berlin Film Festival is very much about the difficulties facing the independent film industry.

For sure, this year’s Berlinale has seen a number of strong films playing in official selection – with Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, Yann Demange’s ’71 and Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac all generating strong buzz here. 

There’s also an energetic and highly regarded Talent Campus, a creative gathering for 300 up and coming filmmakers from 79 different countries. Speakers at the Canon sponsored event this year include producer Martha De Laurentiis (Hannibal), DoP Christopher Doyle and Oscar-winning director Neil Jordan. The impressive event proves that there is still no shortage of young talent who want to make their way in independent film.

But the Campus has heard a number of leading filmmakers, including Jordan, speak of the difficulty of getting independent films off the ground.

This was in clear evidence at Berlin’s film sales and financing market, the European Film Market (EFM).

Buyers and sellers complained that the market was slow.

 “The golden age of theatrical movies of our generation was 1995 to 2008, when you could make anything, sell anything. It is now the golden age of television,” Martin Moszkowicz from German distributor Constantin told Variety. 

The UK, for example, is witnessing a boom in television drama production, with recent BFI figures showing that £276m was spend on drama production in the UK between April and December 2013. Over half of this figure came from inward investment shows like Game of Thrones, Outlander and Da Vinci’s Demons. The BFI figures also revealed that the number of independent films being made in the UK had fallen year on year. 

Observers at Berlin’s EFM said that there was a lack of big, quality film projects at the market – and that securing distribution for films in key territories like the US remains difficult.

Others said that there were too many film markets, with EFM sandwiched between last month’s American Film Market and May’s Cannes Film Festival.

Television channels are buying fewer films — and the growth in VOD has not yet compensated for this fall off.

However, Berlin proves that attaching top talent to a project can still make a film fly. The Weinstein Co. is said to have paid $7 million for US rights to The Imitation Game, which sees Benedict Cumberbatch play Alan Turing, who cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park. There was also buyer interest in M. Night Shyamalan’s Labor Of Love, which is expected to see Bruce Willis reteam with the The Sixth Sense director.


Posted 12 February 2014 by Tim Dams

Interview: BBC Films' Christine Langan

With Philomena flying the flag at the Oscars, BBC Films’ Christine Langan tells Tim Dams why the unit is so important to British film

Christine Langan will be paying particularly close attention to the Bafta and Oscar ceremonies over the coming weeks. BBC Films has backed three films in contention for the Oscars: Philomena, Saving Mr. Banks and The Invisible Woman. And BBC Films has scooped 11 nominations for the BAFTAs too.

“It’s thrilling for us,” says BBC Film head Langan, who adds that Philomena is a good example of how  BBC Films can make projects happen in the UK. The film “illustrates how our development, money, wherewithal and imagination came into play.”

The project was brought to BBC Films by producer Gabrielle Tana (who’d worked with Langan on Coriolanus), after Steve Coogan’s Baby Cow acquired the rights to Martin Sixsmith’s book. “We all know and love Steve, but it was a major departure for him and it wasn’t that clear what he was going to do with it.” Coogan, she says, wanted to write the screenplay, but didn’t feel he could do it on his own. So Langan suggested working with Jeff Pope, who she had previously collaborated with on Pierrepoint. “I knew if anyone could work with Steve, it would be Jeff. Sure enough they had a bit of a bromance and really hit it off.”

In the same way, BBC Films were instrumental in bringing Judi Dench and director Stephen Frears on to the project. “Once we had Judi involved, the film was a reality. The combination of Steve, Judi and Steven means it is a makeable film.”

Leveraging the BBC brand
Langan sees BBC Films very much as a facilitator – using its contacts, industry knowledge, development skills, money and the BBC brand to help get projects off the ground. The department’s budget is not huge  – it stands at £11m a year, which also covers the overhead for BBC Films’ 13 staff. The unit tries to make 8-10 films a year. As one of the UK’s few major funders, it deals with a large volume of submissions and juggles a huge development slate of “less than 100” projects. “Obviously we want to convert as many of those titles as possible into movies,” she says.

Langan argues that BBC Films development know-how is particularly important to the UK film industry. “Development is absolutely crucial – you live or die by good development.” But it’s a cost that many small indies are unable to afford. “It is all risk money, so very few entities are prepared to do that. And if they are, there are tremendous strings attached.”

Langan won’t reveal how much BBC Films puts into each project it backs. “It varies. I like to keep a bit of a question mark over how much we will put in.” She says it is all about leveraging the BBC Films brand, which can bring “so much value that your financial commitment might not need to be huge.”

Audience focus
She also declines to say how much money the BBC earns from the films that it invests in. But it’s clear that BBC Films doesn’t take aggressive equity positions. “I know there is value for money because of the very good licence terms that we acquire with each of our films. We are getting 90 minutes at well below the relative drama rate and free repeats which you don’t get in comparable dramas.”

Indeed, when thinking about what makes a BBC film, Langan says she is very focused on BBC audiences. “Ultimately our films will go on BBC channels, primarily BBC2, and that is obviously something I take into consideration.”

But it’s difficult to categorise them, she says. “Philomena probably describes really well what we do, but I’m really glad we made Alpha Papa. I was thrilled to have that out this summer, but you won’t hear as much about that at the Baftas and Oscars.”

Indeed, the upcoming slate speaks for itself about the kind of features that Langan’s department backs. Ralph Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman was released last month. Shooting has just begun on comedy Man Up, starring Simon Pegg; Shakespearean comedy Bill, from the team behind Horrible Histories, goes into production this month; Rufus Norris is directing the film version of stage hit London Road; John Crowley is directing an adaptation of Colm Toibin novel Brooklyn; and Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline and Kristen Scott Thomas star in My Old Lady.

Langan says that producing films in the UK remains daunting – but there are causes for optimism. “There’s an amazingly healthy variety of films around this awards season. In America the narrative is that ‘film is back’. There was a lot of pessimism and angst about film, and all sorts of very prestigious producers were saying the only way to tell a story is long form narrative on television.” But equally, she says, there is “something very relieving about going into a narrative where the end is in sight and you are not asked to commit across 15 – 20 hours. I think we have the appetite for both.”

Christine Langan first made her name at Granada producing hit drama Cold Feet. Her first feature was Pierrepoint in 2005, and she also produced the award-winning The Queen.
In September 2006, Langan was appointed executive producer at BBC Films.
In April 2009 she became creative director of the division, overseeing commissioning, development and production.
Recent releases include  Lasse Hallström’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Max and Dania’s StreetDance 2, Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Mike Newell’s Great Expectations, Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre,  James Marsh’s Project Nim, Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet, and John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr Banks.

Posted 12 February 2014 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: C5's unusual Suspects

Suspects is, on the face of it, just another procedural crime drama. Set in London, each episode is a self-contained story that follows a team of detectives as they investigate crimes. So far, so predictable. But there is more to Suspects than first meets the eye.

For a start, it’s Channel 5’s first original drama commission in over eight years. And the indie behind Suspects, Newman Street, has come up with some clever ways to make the show to a tight C5 budget.

Newman Street is run by Paul Marquess, whose producing credits include Brookside, The Bill and The Only Way Is Essex. Marquess says he’s applied lessons learnt on those shows – in particular about script writing and the use of camera technology – to shoot Suspects quickly and to a tight budget.

The most notable innovation about Suspects, which was well received at a press screening last month, is how it is scripted. Each episode is tightly plotted. The actors are given a clear idea about the beginning, middle and end of each scene. But they are not given word-for-word dialogue. “It would be wrong to say it is not scripted,” says Marquess. “But it would be correct to say that we don’t write the dialogue.”

Fay Ripley, who plays the lead detective inspector, says each episode was shot fast: “We received a document the night before filming with some bullet points and a strong plot.” The cast would then improvise each scene based on this information. She adds: “We are reacting in real time in this show – thinking very much on our feet.” Damien Molony, who co-stars as a detective sergeant, explains: “There is a very structured storyline – this is where the scene starts, this is where the scene ends, the scene must contain this information. But then, what happens when we’re filming the scene is really up to the actors, the director and the cameraman, as the scene is being filmed, in the moment. That’s what will make it very exciting to watch, I think. It makes it very real.”

Marquess sums up the process, saying: “We allow the actors to play the character rather than the line.”

Marquess cites The Bill as influencing his thinking on the way to produce Suspects. The best writers on The Bill were fantastic, he says. But it was not always possible to secure great scripts from new writers for the dozens and dozens of episodes that were shot each year, meaning an experienced cast would often struggle under the weight of poor dialogue. It got him thinking, he says, that there must be another way to produce such a show.

The lightbulb moment came, he explains, when he produced The Only Way Is Essex. “It was my job on that to take what was happening in the people’s lives and turn it into TV drama. It caused me to rethink the whole storytelling process.”

A spell of doing consultancy work for Fremantle, where he investigated the German TV market, also provided further food for thought. “They have got this whole genre that they call docusoap, which is nothing like ours. They are little dramas, or moral tales, that are played out by real people who act. It’s like your mum is on the telly – and for us culturally it is so strange. They are hugely popular in the afternoons. They’ve had to develop a different way of shooting them, as the performers are total amateurs. It just opened up my thinking because they feel fresh – there’s an edge to them that you don’t get anywhere else.”

Certainly, Suspects feels quite naturalistic compared to big budget, polished dramas. “It definitely has a different quality to it, but that is partly to do with the technology as well,” says Marquess. There’s a fly on the wall, documentary feel to Suspects. It’s shot fast with portable and lightweight HD cameras and naturalistic lighting. The main interview room has also been rigged up with five fixed cameras, so the actors are the only people in the room. “Those fixed cameras are doing continuity for you, so you don’t have to shoot from five different angles. Those scenes are like theatre – there is no one else in there. So clearly it is faster.”

And fast seems to be one of the watchwords of Suspects, which shot two episodes a week between June and August last year.

The ultimate ambition, he adds, is to create an edgy show that can play on television “every week if that is possible”, potentially filling a hole left by the demise of The Bill.

“In the last few years there’s been some great cop shows on British TV, but they have all been short run,” he notes. “And short run by necessity means they have got to have big stars in them or they have very big stories. Each one of our stories is entirely fictional but hopefully they press a button in terms of what audiences care about. Every day you pick up a paper, there’s a subject you could make a story out of.”

Suspects starts on Wednesday, 12th February on Channel 5

Suspects is a new Channel 5 crime drama that focuses on a team of three detectives and their distinctive approaches to the job of policing. Each of the ten episodes starts with a news report about the crime, and then follows the team as they investigate and solve the case. The stories range from the hunt for a serial rapist to the abduction of a two-year old child.
Broadcaster Channel 5
Production company Newman Street
Cast Fay Ripley, Damien Molony, Clare-Hope Ashitey.
Executive producer Paul Marquess
Co-creators Paul Marquess, Darren Fairhurst, Steve Hughes
Stories by Claire Fryer, Tom Lazenby, Jackie Malton, Jake Riddell, Kathrine Smith
Series producer Kara Manley
Director John Hardwick
Director Craig Pickles
Line producer Mary Hare
Director of photography Graham Smith
Series designer Eryl Ellis

Posted 07 February 2014 by Tim Dams
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