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Interview: Steven Garrett, Character Seven

Like the spies and detectives whose stories he has brought to the small screen, Stephen Garrett has a knack for being at the right place at the right time.

The Kudos co-founder sold his company to Shine for £35m in December 2006 – shortly before the financial crisis of 2007/8 – on the back of hits like Spooks and Life on Mars. Since leaving in 2014, Garrett has executive produced the most talked about UK drama of the year, The Night Manager, with The Ink Factory.

In February he also launched his new production company, Character Seven. He’s now readying another John le Carre TV adaptation with The Ink Factory, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which will be scripted by Slumdog Millionaire writer Simon Beaufoy.

Garrett was approached by Simon Cornwell, one of Le Carre’s sons and co-founder of The Ink Factory, about working on The Night Manager on the day he announced his departure from Kudos. The Ink Factory was then in the early stages of developing the series. Primarily focused on film, it wanted a lead executive with a strong TV drama background to steer the project.

“It was a thrilling conversation in so many different ways,” says Garrett over the phone from Los Angeles, where he now has a home with his Californian wife. “Le Carre had been my inspiration for Spooks.”

Under Garrett’s watch, the script departed significantly from the novel, particularly in the final two episodes. He also brought in director Susanne Bier. “Le Carre’s stories are very British and very male. So it just seemed interesting if one was going to refresh and update a novel written over 20 years ago to have a director who was both not British and not male.”

Bier shot The Night Manager like ‘a six hour movie’, working out of sequence across all six episodes and stitching it together in the edit suite. “When it works it looks effortless, but it requires huge, huge effort, concentration and clarity of vision,” says Garrett.

Garrett says it is too early to announce on and off screen talent for The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. After all, Beaufoy hasn’t yet started writing it. But the same filmic principles employed on The Night Manager will apply: Beaufoy will adapt all of it, and there will be one director across the series.

He also stresses that its setting in Cold War-era East Germany means that it is far removed from the aspirational glamour of its predecessor. “The Night Manager was international travel you wanted to go on yourself, whereas this one will be international travel you will be happy that others have gone on on your behalf.” But, like all Le Carre’s work, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, is more than just a spy story or thriller. “It really is a Trojan horse for an exploration of character, human frailty and moral ambiguity,” explains Garrett.

And it is also incredibly difficult to adapt for television. “Spies tend to be loners. When they do talk to people they are not telling the truth to their loved ones or the people they are working with. So it is really challenging storytelling to communicate what someone is really saying or what they intend to do.”

The Cold War setting does make it easier though. Technical advances like smart phones and the internet make modern storytelling difficult, says Garrett. “Think of how many movies or TV shows you’ve seen where someone’s cell battery has gone or they have lost their phone. You need to recreate a world where there is no technology to generate suspense and isolation.”

Beyond Le Carre, Character Seven has a small slate of projects which Garrett says he is about to start pitching. He has already gone public with one of them: a London set supernatural series called The Rook which he is making with Lionsgate and Twilight author Stephenie Mayer’s indie Fickle Fish for Hulu.

“Essentially, the idea is to try to tell stories that organically have transatlantic appeal,” says Garrett of Character Seven’s slate. “So inevitably those are bigger scale stories.”

Like many recently launched drama indies, Character Seven is hoping to tap into the huge demand for scripted content from broadcasters on both sides of the Atlantic as well as global digital players like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu.
Garrett reckons there are now 450 scripted shows broadcast in the US alone. “What that means is everyone is looking for ideas that are distinctive.” He picks out Amazon hit Transparent. “It is now lauded as one of the great pieces of scripted drama and explores a subject that was considered untouchable within very recent memory.”

For now, Character Seven comprises Garrett and one head of development in LA. “We will expand according to what happens and when it happens. But for the moment, it is liberating to be working in a very nimble fashion.”

Education Westminster School; Merton College, Oxford
1978 Granada trainee
1987 Channel 4 commissioning editor for youth programmes
1992 Co-founds Kudos, overseeing programmes such as Spooks, Life on Mars and Law & Order: UK
2006 Kudos is acquired by Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group for £35m
2014 Leaves Kudos
2016 Launches new indie Character Seven. Executive producer on The Night Manager, in collaboration with The Ink Factory

Posted 16 November 2016 by Tim Dams

Ross Kemp on extreme doc making

Televisual Factual Festival: “Iraq, Syria and Libya in one year was a bit of bridge too far for me – I’m getting old!” says Ross Kemp, as he lists some of the eight countries he has travelled to for his latest Sky1 series Ross Kemp: Extreme World.

But it looks like the former EastEnders star is going to be travelling just as much in the next 12 months, as Sky has just greenlit Extreme World for a sixth series.

It’s over ten years since Kemp swapped Albert Square for life as a documentary maker, winning a Bafta along the way for Ross Kemp on Gangs and a nomination for Ross Kemp in Afghanistan. He’s since made 75 films, which have won widespread acclaim for bringing current affairs to a much wider audience.

This is partly because of the proximity to extreme danger that Kemp often puts himself in. His latest series, for example, sees Kemp and his crew pinned down by sniper fire on the front line in Syria, with bullets visibly ricocheting off a wall above him.

He also manages to earn the trust of and ask challenging questions of interviewees who are rarely seen on camera, including a Columbian assassin who calmly explains how he tortures and kills his victims (it begins by scratching their eyeballs out with a needle). 

Kemp makes his documentaries through his indie Freshwater Films. Each film is usually shot over a two-week period by a six strong crew on the ground – Kemp, plus a cameraman, soundman, a producer, fixer and director. Back home, two or three researchers will research each programme for roughly five weeks, with two further weeks of research on the ground to secure access. Post production, which takes place at The Farm, usually lasts six weeks.

“It says Ross Kemp on it, but it is very much a team effort,” says Kemp, getting out his mobile to show pictures of him and his crew on the ground in Libya. “I own the company but I feel like I work for it and they tell me what to do...I get bossed around!”

As the years have gone on, he says it has become easier to gain access to stories. “It is because we are trustworthy,” he explains. “Always leave the country that you are in – the fixers, the people on the ground and the ones you have interviewed – in as good a state as you can. Then you will get asked back.”

He says his research team starts with a big pool of possible locations and stories, narrowing them down to the ones where they know they can gain access. “Access is the most important thing,” he says.

But why do many of the people on camera want to talk to him at all, particularly the likes of a Columbian assassin? “It happens a lot. We spend a lot of time convincing people that their message is important. He thinks he is going to die at any second. So it becomes a cathartic moment for him.”

Kemp’s trademark style is to take the audience with him on a journey into danger zones. And that is very deliberate, he says. “Audiences don’t want to be talked down to. They want to be informed but in a way that is inclusive and they feel they are part of the journey.” He describes himself as “the conduit to the story.”

It means asking direct questions the audience would ask. But once the interviews start, he says, the most important thing to do is to listen and not to judge. “My mum was a hairdresser, so I grew up in a hairdressing salon. I spent my time listening to the ladies and their stories – and I loved it. You’ve got to have an honest interest in human beings.” The series, he adds, is “about understanding human beings.”

It’s also, of course, about venturing to hostile environments. So what about security? Again, he pulls out his mobile, to show a video of him and his crew crossing the Libyan desert in a 4x4. Under his feet, in the passenger seat, is a machine gun. “This is our security,” he says. The crew also had an ex-army security advisor with them in Syria, Libya and Iraq “just in case we get in to trouble.” It is the first time he has had any advisors, he says.

Kemp spends more time on the road making films than he does at home with his young family. So how does he decompress? “White wine is a good one,” he laughs. “I like going to restaurants and chilling out with my friends and family. There is no deep psychosis.”

He and his team also practice a support technique called TRiM (Trauma Risk Management), which is used by the British Army to help soldiers cope with traumatising events.  “We just sit round a table at the end of the day. No matter whether it has been a harrowing interview or you have been shot at or witnessed someone being killed, we all talk about it individually – camera, sound, myself and the director. And that is a very good way of escaping Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other kinds of trauma related things. You have got to talk about it as soon as you have witnessed it and share it with other people. Otherwise you trap it at the back of your head.”

Ross Kemp was speaking at The Televisual Factual Festival this week

Age 52
Education  Shenfield High School, Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art
1990 Makes first appearance in EastEnders
1999 Leaves EastEnders. Signs two year deal with ITV, appearing in various dramas
2006 Sky’s Ross Kemp on Gangs wins Bafta best factual series award
2009 Ross Kemp in Afghanistan and Ross Kemp: A Kenya Special both nominated for Bafta awards
2016 Commissioned to make sixth series of Ross Kemp: Extreme World

Posted 11 November 2016 by Tim Dams

Lenses in focus

As cameras become more powerful, a far greater range of lenses are being used to give shows a distinct look. Tim Dams talks to leading DoPs about the lenses that make their kit list

The changes that have swept through the camera market in recent years have made the choice of lens ever more important to a production. In particular, the surge in popularity of large sensor digital cameras means that lenses are now one of the most important factors for giving shows a distinct look.

Many opt for lenses that can counter the clinical sharpness of digital cameras.

The effect of quality lenses can also be more easily appreciated on digital cameras, given their advances in resolution, high dynamic range and wider colour spaces.

“Lenses are the last item a DoP has left these days to give a show a certain look and feel,” says DoP Micheal Snyman, whose credits include BBC hit The Night Manager.

It means a much wider range of lenses are now being used, from Primes (lenses with a fixed focal length), zooms as well as specialist lenses such as anamorphic or vintage.

They are being used on a much wider range of productions too, with high end lenses often being used on lower end productions. Indeed the lenses themselves often cost a lot more than the cameras they are put on.

The choices available also mean that a DoP will spend more time experimenting with lenses before a production to establish the perfect look.

DoP Gavin Finney, who won Baftas for his work on Wolf Hall and The Fear, says: “Lenses have a very powerful effect on the overall look and are always a starting point. Everything follows from the lens choice.”

In drama, many DoPs will use a combination of lenses – Primes from manufacturers such as Cooke, Arri and Zeiss, Leica and Panavision – as well as zoom lenses from the likes of Angenieux, Arri and Fujinon.

DoPs prefer to use Primes where they can. “I feel a prime lens will always give you better backgrounds and you stay true to your look,” says Snyman.

However, zooms bring the advantage of flexibility and speed during a shoot. DoP Brendan McGinty, who works across drama, commercials and factual and won an RTS Award for his photography on ITV's The Secret Life of Twins, says Angenieux zooms have been the mainstay of Hollywood film-making for the past 30 years. “They are incredibly good zooms.”

Finney says he will use Primes where he can, but with very tight schedules being able to change focal length quickly is a great help. He cites new zooms like the Arri Alura. “They are even sharper and have better resolution than some Primes. They are also very neutral, so they match a wide range of other lenses.”

Zooms, of course, are most popular in sport, documentary and factual production where the action is often fast moving. Here lenses such as Canon’s 17-120 mm CN7 Cine-Servo zoom and Fujinon’s Cabrio 19-90mm T2.9 zooms are regarded as good quality lenses at the more expensive end.

The increasing dominance of the precise, often clinical look of digital cameras has also boosted the popularity of anamorphic and vintage glass.

Anamorphic lenses impart a shallower depth of field, oval bokeh (the photographic term for the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light) and vignettting (a reduction of an image’s brightness or saturation at the periphery compared to the centre).

McGinty prefers modern, spherical glass but says anamorphic lenses bring a painterly quality to production, imbuing it with romance, nostalgia and sentimentality. In commercials, this can prove a big hit for a DoP. “The client will look at the monitor and think, ‘Wow – that is magical – you have transformed my world,’” says McGinty.

Finney says the decision to go with anamorphic or spherical is dependant on the story. “Like most DoPs, I love the anamorphic aspect ratio and would shoot practically everything this way if I could. Framing in 2.40 is beautiful, and dynamic, and the shallow depth of field of anamorphics gives you great separation between foreground and background.”

Finney notes that anamorphic lens choice is more limited and they are heavier and slower, so it depends on how a DoP is going to photograph the film. “We couldn’t have gone anamorphic on Wolf Hall because the lenses are too heavy and too slow. I tested a wide range of anamorphic lenses for a feature film coming up and it was amazing the range of different looks available within the anamorphic family. Iespecially liked the new Cooke anamorphic range.”

Most anamorphic lenses are expensive, but there are cheaper solutions available from manufactuers such as Holdan.

Vintage lenses can also help to counteract the over-sharpness of some modern cameras, as well as helping to evoke a period feel in drama. Their popularity is such that Cooke recently announced it is bringing back its Speed Panchro lenses from the 1920s-1960s, but with PL mounts for modern cameras.

Q&A: Gavin Finney
DoP credits Wolf Hall, The Secret Agent, Unforgotten, The Fear, Mr Selfridge

Which are the primary lenses in your kit list for most dramas? I always have a full set of primes from 14mm to 180mm and then two or three zooms. If we have two cameras, we usually share the same set.

What lenses did you use on Wolf Hall? We used Leica Summilux primes. They are very fast at a true T1.3 with no visible vignetting, loss of contrast or sharpness. This was crucial in being able to shoot just by candlelight. They also have virtually no chromatic aberration, but do have a slight pleasing bloom around highlights, which meant I didn’t have to use any filtration at night. Another selling point is they are around 1kg lighter than Master Primes, which counts for a lot when you are shooting hand-held 10 hours a day!

Which lenses did you use on the Secret Agent? We used Panavision Primos. They just had the right look for the way we were representing that period. It’s quite a gritty story and I liked the transparency of the Primos without looking too modern.

How long do you test with lenses before a shoot? A lot, I’m always going into test rooms, even before the main test period to try out different looks. Lenses have a very powerful effect on the overall look and are always a starting point. Everything follows from the lens choice.

Do you prefer one particular brand of lens? No preference, they are all good and all have their particular merits. We are very fortunate to have such a wide choice. Cookes are great for flattering faces, Ultra Primes are cooler and more clinical, Leicas are slightly warmer but very sharp, and amazing wide open. I’m always searching for a new look that is appropriate to the story we are trying to tell, so I wouldn’t want to be constrained by owning my own lenses or always using the same set.

Q&A: Michael Snyman
DoP credits The Night Manager, The British, 
Of Kings and Prophets, The Red Tent

Which are the primary lenses in your kit list for most dramas? I like to use the Panavision Primo series for most of my drama work at the moment. I really enjoy the look of these lenses. I feel out of everything on the shelf these days they compliment HD incredibly well. If I’m shooting with multiple cameras on any given day I find HD cameras vary in colour greatly. The Primo’s have no or very little colour difference from lens to lens which is a really good starting point to try balance things up between cameras. They also flare beautifully and do incredibly well in the highlights and lowlights.

What lenses did you use on The Night Manager? I used the Primo’s on The Night Manager. They really do cover a great range of lens sizes. I liked them for their speed, colour and I they feel gave the show a certain quality, a kind of buttery feel.

Anamorphic or spherical? I don’t think you can say anamorphic vs spherical. There is no comparison to be made. Some shows beg for anamorphic and some don’t. They are so very different and they accomplish two very different looks. I feel like a lot of TV is missing anamorphic. It is such an amazing format and with the newer generation cameras it has become so much more cost effective to shoot with anamorphic. The only ones preventing us from shooting anamorphic are the format requirements from the broadcasters. I feel like they are missing a trick for sure.

Are you a fan of vintage lenses? I love to use vintage lenses. I feel they bring something to the party that HD could do with; they are softer, more cinematic and they break down the sharpness of everything. You have just got to know what you are dealing with in terms of look, colour and the actual mechanics of the lens.

Q&A: Brendan McGinty
DoP credits The Secret Life of Twins, The Six Queens of Henry VIII, River Monsters: Lair of Giants

Which are the primary lenses in your kit list? For zooms, I only ever call on Angenieux. Tonally, they hit exactly what I would like from a zoom lens and integrate perfectly with the primes I favour. Its all about the relationship between the sharp area of the picture and the defocused area, and theirs’ is gorgeous. Master Primes are my favourite primes, not least because of their speed. They can hit T 1.3 and be sharp and linear. I also use Ultra Primes, particularly if I am looking for more lens flare in a project.

What lenses did you use on Secret Life of Twins? (McGinty won the RTS best photography award for Secret Life of Twins) I went for more exotic glass – the Russian Luma Tech Illumina Mk.II lenses. They are fast aperture lenses. We shot lot of that film wide open on these very fast lens at T1.3 – the same T stop as Master Primes. But what they uniquely had was tons of flare. Their bokeh is also very ‘painterly’. They are not lenses for something like a car commercial where you want any degree of precision. But they were perfect for the film. We wanted our foreground twins to sort of pop against a more painterly defocused background.

Anamorphic or spherical? I am definitely more in the world of spherical glass. I think that in my heart I am a ‘realist’ and I like to relish in the beautiful reality of the world. For certain projects, where I’m shooting something very romantic and I want the world to look photographically artificial, then I will employ anamorphic glass. I shoot a fair bit of ‘beauty’ work in the commercial world, and anamorphics can be great for that.

Do you prefer to invest in lenses or cameras?
The investment in lenses is probably a safer bet. Camera formats come and go, but people are still shooting on lenses 100 years olds.

Posted 27 October 2016 by Tim Dams

Riding the drama boom

With drama production buoyant, there are concerns the scripted sector is facing a ‘sub-prime mortgage moment’.

Late last month, the cast of Netflix’s The Crown sat down for a read through of the entire second series of the £100m drama. The first series of the expensive royal biopic only launches in November, but Netflix is already committed to series two.

Four years ago Netflix wasn’t producing any originals – now it has 30 scripted shows in production. And this number will only rise as the company targets $6bn in content spend next year, and is aiming for a 50:50 split between original commissions and acquisitions.

Netflix is just one of many companies like HBO, AMC, Sky and Amazon to have clocked on to the power of expensive, high quality scripted to attract subscriptions and audiences. Amazon, for example, recently announced that it plans to double its budget for original content to an estimated $3bn.

British producers such as Left Bank (The Crown), Lookout Point (Amazon’s The Collection) and Archery Pictures (Sky Atlantic’s Riviera) have been a key beneficiary of this scripted boom, aided by tax breaks for high-end drama.

It’s a boom that will be highly visible at this month’s Mipcom TV market, which has a record number of international drama screenings including Carnival Films’ Jamestown, about the first British settlers in North America. Other big budget British-made dramas launching at Mipcom include Left Bank’s The Halcyon (below).

US TV networks will make 500 original scripted shows in 2017, almost 20% more than in 2015 – which was itself a record, said John Landgraf, chief executive officer of FX Networks this summer. “We are ballooning into oversupply, and that balloon will eventually deflate,” Landgraf said. “I continue to believe there is a greater supply of TV than can be produced profitably.”

BBC Worldwide chief executive Tim Davie also highlighted the growing competition in scripted last month when he noted that 1,310 international drama series have launched this year, calling it “a staggering number.” Davie was speaking at the RTS London Conference, where the scripted surge became a major talking point. 

Sky Vision boss Jane Millichip caught the ear of the broadcasting bosses in attendance when she warned that warned that the drama sector “could be heading for a sub-prime mortgage moment” if it didn’t invest wisely.
She pointed out that international distributors were investing heavily in drama. “There is a gap appearing in the international deficit and we need to be a little bit wary,” she said.

Millichip cited the example of zombie drama Z Nation (pictured below), produced by US indie The Asylum for cable network Syfy which was sold to Sky’s free to air service Pick in the UK. “I bet Pick wasn’t on their business plan when they forecast their UK licence fees,” she said.

Concerns about the amount of drama being produced run parallel with worries about the rising costs of making shows with film star casting and high levels of creative ambition.

Viewers demand higher quality and ultimately more expensive shows, said Kevin MacLellan, chairman of NBC Universal International. “This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the new reality. Increased choice has resulted in increased expectation.  So we as an industry need to figure out how to pay for all this new higher quality programming.”

Millichip put forward a few ideas for funding that doesn’t come from the international pot, including government funding, foundations, branded content or media agencies. Davie also said he was looking at third party money to fund drama. “There’s lots of capital out there.”

Few at the RTS conference believed the drama boom was likely to run out of steam soon though. Indeed many British broadcasters talked about their plans to push into the genre for the first time.

Virgin Media spoke of its plans to commission a slate of new dramas from All3Media indies, while UKTV’s director of commissioning Richard Watsham said the broadcaster will “definitely commit ourselves to drama.”

BBC1, meanwhile, has an extra £30m to spend on drama following the move of BBC3 online. The latter is still commissioning drama, including the upcoming Edinburgh University-set thriller Clique.

And Sky has an increasingly expensive drama slate, with shows such as The Young Pope, Hooten & The Lady, Tin Star (pictured below) and Guerilla.

Netflix’s Ted Sarandos revealed that he is preparing to employ commissioners in the company’s London office amid plans to increase original productions in the UK. The OTT platform is already backing new British projects including Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and a four-part adaptation of Watership Down with BBC.

“Original programming gets more viewing,” said Netflix content boss Ted Sarandos, who explained that originals are good for customer acquisition and help to distinguish Netflix from rivals.

However, the growth in drama investment was also welcomed by many panellists at the conference. Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt welcomed the millions of pounds being invested in drama by the likes of AMC, citing its co-production Humans which was shot in Britain and “did extraordinarily well for us and also did incredibly well for AMC.”

BBC Worldwide’s Davie also noted that dramas don’t need to be high concept or long running to succeed in the international market place. “Happy Valley worked beautifully for me,” he said

And Stephen Lambert, chief executive of Studio Lambert, said it wasn’t too late for indies like his to push into the genre. Lambert, who is making a three-parter for BBC1 about the Rochdale sexual abuse scandal, said: “The only way to de-risk is if you have enough irons in the fire so that the hits pay for the failures.”

NBC Universal ceo Steve Burke also suggested that companies like his would continue to invest heavily in big budget drama. “Today the middle of the market is just gone. There’s no such thing as an okay show. People will do whatever they can to find one of those great big breakthroughs.”

Posted 13 October 2016 by Tim Dams

Mipcom: pick of the British shows

The international market is awash with new dramas, and many of them will be making their debut at this month’s Mipcom international programme sales market, which kicks off in Cannes this month (17-20 October).

Here we highlight some of the top UK shows heading to the Riviera. Drama dominates the selection here. Other big dramas screening at Mipcom include Carnival Films’ tale of the first British settlers in North America, Jamestown, and Company Pictures’ The Missing 2 (both have official screening slots).

As ever, there will be a big British contingent at the market. Some 2,000 of the 14,000 participants are from the UK this year, according to Mipcom organisers Reed Midem.

Riviera (Drama)
Producer Archery Pictures/Primo Productions
Sky Atlantic
Sky Vision
Riviera’s south of France setting is bound to prick the interest of buyers at Cannes - as is the talent attached to this Sky Atlantic thriller set in the opulent world of the ultra-rich.
Created by Oscar-winning writer and director Neil Jordan, and co-written by Booker Prize-winning author John Banville, the 10-part series stars Julia Stiles, Adrian Lester, Iwan Rheon and Lena Olin.
Sky Vision’s director of drama and comedy Kylie Munnich said: “From the powerful opening scenes, buyers and audiences will be hooked by this visually stunning, original drama, set in a world we could only dare hope to know.”
Riviera launches on Sky Atlantic in 2017.

The Halcyon
Left Bank
Broadcaster ITV1
Distributor Sony Pictures Television
Left Bank’s 1940s set drama is one of the buzz titles at Mipcom this year, with a world premiere screening on the Sunday night of the market.
The Halcyon tells the story of a glamorous five-star hotel at the centre of London society at the start of World War Two. Starring Steven Mackintosh and Olivia Williams, it shows life in the capital through the prism of war, and the impact it has on families, politics, relationships and work, set to the music of the era.
Sony’s president of distribution Keith LeGoy said: “This new series has it all: exceptional writing, gripping storylines, a spectacular setting and a stellar cast.”

Rillington Place (Drama)

Producer A BBC Studios production in association with Bandit Television
Broadcaster BBC1
Distributor BBC Worldwide
Hollywood stars Tim Roth and Samantha Morton lead the cast in this drama about serial killer John Reginald Christie and the miscarriage of justice that saw a man hanged for a crime he didn’t commit.
The 3x60 drama is directed by Craig Viveiros (And Then There Were None) and written by Ed Whitmore (He Kills Coppers) and Tracey Malone (Born To Kill). BBC Worldwide’s president of global markets Paul Dempsey, said: “A true crime story starring world class talent combined with executive producer Phillippa Giles, known for her work on the award winning Luther and Silent Witness amongst others, at the helm, makes for a great drama.” 

The Level (Drama)

Prod Company Hillbilly Films
Broadcaster ITV1
Distributor DRG
ITV crime drama The Level leads distributor DRG’s slate at Mipcom.
Starring Philip Glenister, Karla Crome and Laura Haddock, it’s glossy thiller that tells of a young detective (Crome) and her loyalty to a drugs trafficker (Glenister). She is sent back to her home town to help solve a murder, to which she’s inextricably linked, but her past begins to cast a dangerous shadow and she has to fight to stay one step ahead of her colleagues – and the killer.
EVP content & acquisitions at DRG Noel Hedges said: “British Crime series have long been popular with international buyers and we have good early interest for this title, as well as some early pre-sales.”

Gun Shop (Factual)

Producer Rogan Productions
Broadcaster C4
Distributor Cineflix Rights
A British documentary set in a US gun store, this film explores one of the most contentious issues in America. “It’s the type of high quality, fixed rig character-led shows in demand from buyers all around the world,” says Cineflix’s Chris Bonney.

Common Sense (Entertainment)

Producer Studio Lambert
Broadcaster BBC2
Distributor All3Media International
The latest show from format kings Studio Lambert, Common Sense is comedy round up of the week’s top talking points - brought to life by ‘normal’ people in everyday situations – at work, on a tea break or relaxing in a bar.

Exodus (Factual)

Producer Keo Films
Broadcaster BBC2
Distributor Hat Trick International
BBC2’s acclaimed series captured the personal stories behind the migration crisis, giving 75 cameras to people embarking on perilous journies to Europe. Hat Trick International’s Sarah Tong calls it a series that is highly relevant for a global audience.”

Posted 12 October 2016 by Tim Dams

London Film Festival: best of British

The London Film Festival might not have the stature of A-list festivals such as Cannes, Toronto or Berlin (just 14 of its 246 features are world premieres), but it is an excellent showcase for British talent and the best of world cinema.

Some 29 British features play in the line up, from established UK directors through to first time feature directors.

Festival director Heather Stewart says the UK film industry is in good health, emphasising the “breadth of UK talent on display” at the festival. She compares Amma Asante’s ‘impassioned’ opening drama A United Kingdom with Ben Wheatley’s closing night gala Free Fire (pictured above), a ‘freewheeling, kinetic shoot-em-up’. Says Stewart: “You couldn’t find two more different films.”

Casting her eye through the programme, she picks out two films by British directors playing in the first feature competition: theatre director William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth (pictured above), an adaptation of an 1865 Russian novella about a young bride unhappily married to a wealthy mine owner, and debut writer/director Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling (below), about a young vet and her garrulous father struggling to maintain their Somerset farm. “Both of them are terrifically assured debut feature films,” says Stewart.

Elsewhere, new British talent is on display in Lone Scherfig’s gala feature Their Finest (below), which is scripted by Gaby Chiappe, who cut her teeth on EastEnders and Holby City and also has credits including Shetland and The Paradise.

The crossover between television and film is also apparent in comedy Mindhorn (below), scripted by The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt and co-writer Simon Farnaby. It’s the story of a washed up 1980s TV detective with a robotic eye that allowed him to literally ‘see the truth’.

Sightseers actress Alice Lowe also makes her directorial debut with dark comedy Prevenge (below). Lowe also takes the lead role as a pregnant serial killer – filmed while she was seven months pregnant. Lowe has a ‘unique voice’, says Stewart, noting the film’s ‘energy and inventiveness.’

Elsewhere, Garth Tunley, who previously starred In Kill List, turns director in inventive low budget Brit thriller The Ghoul; and Joseph Adesunloye also makes his debut in the cinematic White Colour Black, about a mixed heritage man exploring his Black British identity in Senegal. Stewart picks Paul Anton Smith’s first feature – Have You Seen My Movie? (below)– as one of the standouts of the festival. It’s a ‘totally brilliant’ montage of footage gleaned from hundreds of films which explores the cinema going experience.

Meanwhile, Shoola Amoo’s feature debut Moving Image (below) explores the gentrification of Brixton, and is billed as a gently probing mash up of fiction, documentary and performance art.

Fittingly, there’s a strong London theme running through the festival. Roger Mainwood’s Ethel & Ernest (below) is an animated adaptation of Raymond Brigg’s autobiographical book, while Pete Travis’ latest City of Tiny Lights is billed as modern London-noir.

Posted 06 October 2016 by Tim Dams

London Film Festival: diversity in the frame

The London Film Festival has built a reputation for promoting diversity in the film industry.

Last year, it made a splash by shining a light on films made by and starring women, opening with Suffragette and including galas for features such as Brooklyn and Carol.

This year, the big talking point at the London Film Festival is films made by and starring black talent. They take a prominent place among the 246 features from 74 countries that will unspool over the course of the 12 day event (5-16 October).

So the opening night film is Amma Asante’s Belle follow-up, A United Kingdom, a true interracial love story about the King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) and Ruth Williams, the London office worker he married in 1948 in the face of fierce opposition from their families and the government at the time.

Festival director Clare Stewart describes the film as “really powerfully directed and beautifully elegant – it is fantastic to see Amma going from strength to strength as a director.”

The star of A United Kingdom, David Oyelowo, also takes the lead in gala film Queen of Katwe (below). Directed by Mira Nair, it’s the true and empowering story of a young Ugandan chess champion from an impoverished township in Kampala.

Stewart also picks out other “really strong films” in the headline gala and competition sections that illuminate the BAME talking point – including Nate Parker’s slave revolt biopic The Birth of a Nation; Spike Lee’s hip hop musical Chi-Raq (below); Ava DuVernay’s documentary feature The 13th, about the disproportionate incarceration rates for black men in the US; and Barry Jenkins’ coming of age film Moonlight.

This focus comes as the British film industry grapples with the under-representation of BAME talent in front of and behind the camera. Creative Skillset’s most recent employment census, for example, showed that BAME employment in film production stood at just 3%, despite people from BAME groups now representing 13% of the UK population.

The issue came to a head during the #OscarsSoWhite controversy ahead of the 2016 Academy Awards.

Before that, though, the BFI had make efforts to tackle the issue. Last year it rolled out its Three Ticks model – now renamed the BFI Diversity Standards – to ensure film productions backed by the BFI Film Fund reflected the diversity of the UK.

The BFI has also organised the Black Star season, billed as the UK’s biggest ever season of film and television dedicated to the achievements of black actors in film and television. The Black Star season immediately follows the LFF, and Stewart says she wanted the festival to ‘amplify’ the Black Star programme.

The Festival’s headline industry event – the Black Star Symposium – will explore why opportunities for black actors to shine on screen in the United States and the UK remain limited, and debate what more can be done to effect change. Speakers include Oyelowo, Asante and directors Noel Clarke, Julie Dash and Barry Jenkins.

However, Stewart acknowledges that it would be a difficult talking point to sustain if there had not been enough films at the festival from black talent to help focus the debate.

Fortunately, says Stewart, “it’s a particularly strong year for black stories making it to the screen.”

Posted 05 October 2016 by Tim Dams

Drama boom spurs competition in indie sector

Talk to producers about how business is in 2016, and you’ll hear a great variety of opinions.

The majority, however, say that business is good overall, albeit ever challenging and increasingly competitive.

Among the standout trends in this year's Production 100 - Televisual's annual survey of the UK indie TV sector - is clear evidence of the drama boom that has seen broadcasters in both the UK and US turn to British indies for scripted content. Sports producer IMG Media takes poll position in the survey for the fourth year in a row. However, six out of the top ten indies in the Production 100 are predominantly drama producers (Carnival, Left Bank, Lime, Kudos, Tiger Aspect and Neal Street).

Carnival, the producer of Downton Abbey and The Last Kingdom, generated £110m in revenues over the past year, the highest ever figure for a non-sports indie taking part in the Production 100. Close behind is Left Bank Pictures on a turnover of £101m. As well as Outlander for Starz, the Sony-owned indie is producing the highly anticipated royal biopic The Crown for Netflix.

The drama surge
This drama boom has helped underpin growth in the Production 100, with the turnover of the top 100 indies rising from £1.77bn last year to £1.94bn. Kate Wilson, director of operations at veteran indie Hat Trick describes the business climate as “good, particularly in relation to high end scripted TV production.” Kudos’s chief operating officer Martin Haines adds: “It’s very competitive but we are enjoying the thriving drama market and the increased plurality of buyers.”

Haines’ comment underlines the pros and cons of the drama boom. Deep pocketed SVOD platforms Amazon and Netflix have helped to expand the small pool of drama buyers. But more and more production companies are going in search of the money that is being invested into scripted. Drama indies Sid Gentle Films and Eleventh Hour Films are two new entrants to the Production 100, both launched relatively recently to take advantage of the scripted surge. It means the UK drama market has become very crowded, notes Newman Street md Paul Marquess.

Indie launch boom
It’s not just in drama that competition has hotted up though. One of the other noticeable trends in the UK production sector over the past year has been the number of new indies to launch, often with backing from superindie groups.

Endemol, for example, backed new indies like Karen Ross’s Sidney Street and Derek Wax’s Wild Mercury, while Fremantle has taken 25% stakes in indies launched by well known execs including Laurence Bowen (The Eichmann Show), Gary Hunter (Top Gear), Justin Gorman (C4) and Colette Foster (Remarkable TV).

Elsewhere ABC has backed former Sky and BBC comedy boss Lucy Lumsden’s Yellow Door, while Kudos founders Jane Featherstone and Stephen Garrett have both launched their own new TV production vehicles, as have drama execs Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner (Doctor Who). David Heyman (Harry Potter) launched a TV operation with backing from NBC Universal and Tessa Ross (Film4) with investment from BBC Worldwide.

Competition grows

“There is an increasing amount of competition, particularly as execs leave broadcasters and set up their own companies,” says Hartswood Films’ director of operations Debbie Vertue. Illuminations md Linda Zuck says the market is increasingly overcrowded.
Indeed the spate of new indie launches has eclipsed all other deal-making in the indie sector over the past year. The consolidation that the market has witnessed over the past decade has slowed to a trickle, with All3Media’s acquisition of Indian Summers producer New Pictures the only sizeable deal since September 2015’s Production 100. 

Seeding new companies run by well-known executive talent rather than investing large sums to buy one of the dwindling number of true indies has become the new focus for the superindie groups looking to grow their UK footprint.

Commissioning chaos
Reflecting on the past year, many indies say one of the big challenges has been major personnel changes at broadcasters, particularly the BBC and ITV, following the departure of execs such as ITV director of TV Peter Fincham and BBC2 and BBC4 controller Kim Shillinglaw.

Artists Studio exec producer Patrick Irwin talks of “chaos in the UK broadcaster commissioning process”, while Blakeway director of production Andrew McKerlie says the job changes have caused “major delays in decision making and made the first six months of 2016 extremely challenging in the factual genre.” Talkback md Leon Wilson also says the changes in BBC and ITV entertainment have ‘slowed down the commissioning process for the first half of 2016.’

Slow to greenlight
In fact, many indies say that the commissioning process has become ever slower in the UK market. “Getting ideas fully commissioned and in to production feels like it is becoming harder than ever before,” says Firecracker’s chief creative officer Jes Wilkins. “We’ve had a number of ideas that have been verbally green lit with contracts agreed only for them to fall through because of personnel changes at channels, goalpost shifts or unexpected budget constraints.”

Budget pressure
Budgets are, as always, a big talking point in the Production 100. Between them, indies say that budgets have fallen an average of 2.1% over the past year. Keo Film’s financial controller Chris Day says there’s been “continued pressure on production margins as costs continue to rise but channel tariffs don’t.” Clelia Mountford, md of Catastrophe producer Merman Films says budgets are diminishing yet there’s “the same expectation for high production values from broadcasters.”

“Budget have held study for us, but due to increased creative demands, production costs and staffing costs, it seems like about a 5-10% decrease in budget levels,” says Maverick’s chief finance officer Ian Ayres.

With talent and production costs rising, producers are having to be ever more innovative to make budgets work – whether finding international co-production partners, ad funders or investing themselves into projects. “Increasingly, we find broadcasters telling us they like an idea but can’t pay for it, so we’re tasked with finding the money,” says Cactus TV head of production Lucy Eagle. Tiger Aspect’s COO Helen Wright says profit margins are decreasing as licence fees remain static or fall. “We are constantly seeking additional revenue sources and ways to bridge funding gaps.”

Development hell
Indies like Dragonfly and Remarkable say that funded development is harder to secure. It means that many producers are having to invest more themselves to generate broadcaster interest. Sundog director of production Iris Maor says the amount of unpaid development work required to get a commission often does not reflect the size of the commission. “The development process has become longer and more arduous, with expectations and deliverables higher than they have ever been,” adds Nerd’s development coordinator Jessica Hall.

Rights fights
In addition, several indies say that the secondary rights market is diminishing, as more broadcasters demand full buyout in return for a commission.  “This in turn has led to growth but uncertainty – with more work year on year, yet less IP ownership for the long term,” says Lambent Productions md Emma Wakefield.

October Films md Adam Bullmore says the business climate has been strong but there is a “constant conflict between shrinking budgets, rights retention or surrender, and escalating costs of production” which has hindered stronger growth.

Targetting UK growth
Despite these funding and development challenges, the majority of indies (72%) say that the UK is where they are seeing most growth in their business. Indeed, the average production company earns 66.5% of its revenues from UK broadcasters, up from 62.6% last year.

Many are optimistic about the outlook for the year ahead, saying that the commissioning landscape should be more stable having gone through so much personnel upheaval, as well as major one off hits such as the closure of BBC3 as a broadcast channel.

Others say that BBC charter renewal and the review of the Terms of Trade brought a chill to the indie sector, but that both have been resolved in a positively as far as producers are concerned which bodes well for 2017. “With the publication of the White Paper on the BBC and new personnel in place at ITV and now the BBC, day to day business should settled down and opportunities open up,” says Boundless md Hannah Wyatt.

Many hope that the big question mark hanging over the future of Channel 4 will also be laid to rest soon. The threat of privatisation is cited as a big issue by many indies, who worry that it would lead to a fall in programme and supplier diversity. “It would no doubt have a detrimental impact on high quality documentaries and specialist factual,” says Swan Films md Joe Evans. “If Channel 4 is privatised, the true indie community might as well shut up shop,” warns Tern creative director Harry Bell.

The Brexit effect
However, many indies say Britain’s decision to leave the EU creates new uncertainty for UK production. There is concern that Brexit may spark an economic slowdown, which would lower commercial broadcasters’ ad revenues and reduce their ability to fund new content.  But there is acknowledgement that the fall in the value of the pound has made content produced by UK indies cheaper for US and international broadcasters.

The outlook is challenging but positive, says CPL business manager Alexandra Kallis.  But, she adds, there is uncertainty about the impact of the EU referendum. Icon Films md Laura Marshall, meanwhile, speaks of a challenging outlook “with the impact of Brexit still unsure.” Arrow Media, meanwhile, says it is optimistic for the year ahead, despite Brexit.

Inhouse rivalries
Another uncertainly ahead for indies is the full launch of BBC Studios as a commercial division in April 2017. This will allow the corporation’s inhouse production arm to make shows for other channels in exchange for opening up more BBC production to competition from the indie sector. “It remains to be seen how BBC Studios coming into the market will affect business available for the independent sector,” says Dragonfly’s head of production Yvonne Bainton. Reef Television md Paul Hanrahan sees “additional opportunities” amid increased tendering to indies.

However, many indies express concern at the growth of broadcaster owned production divisions, notably BBC Studios and particularly ITV Studios. The appointment of former ITV Studios boss Kevin Lygo to run the broadcaster’s commissioning division is viewed with alarm by many, who say ITV is increasingly ordering shows from its ever growing production operation. 

“It’s tough out there – especially for a true indie. There are more companies than ever vying for fewer slots, we’re in competition with BBC Studios and ITV Studios (and all of its associated companies) and budgets get ever more challenging,” says Cactus TV’s Lucy Eagle.

True vs super indies
Not only has there been extensive superindie consolidation, but the inhouse commercial arms of the BBC, C5 and ITV are getting bigger, says Tern’s Harry Bell. “It doesn’t feel like a squeeze but a stranglehold.”

Smaller indies face inherent disadvantages compared to their superindie-owned rivals, believes Voltage md Steve Nam. “It is more difficult to be commissioned off paper alone and at a time of continued consolidation of smaller indies by big media groups with deep pockets and the ability to self-fund tape or take bigger risks, the environment can feel uncompetitive.”    

Talent quest

Indies also cite hiring and retaining skilled staff as a key challenge for their business. Indies like Bristol based Icon say it is difficult to attract creative talent to the region given the continuing dominance of “M25 companies.” Finding top talent “particularly for highly ambitious programmes” is a challenge for Nutopia, as it is for Red Planet in a drama market where competition is high.

Fellow drama indie Sid Gentle Films says there is a shortage of top class directors and heads of department, while Tiger Aspect says the drama boom has pushed up talent and crew rates.

Rough Cut commercial director Tim Sealey says: “The big challenge to our business is in attracting to and keeping talent within the company.  The business is very busy and there are not enough talented people to go around.”

And it is diverse talent – on and off camera – that many indies say they are looking to hire as they look to achieve diversity targets set by the leading broadcasters.

The full Production 100 report can be read at:

Posted 15 September 2016 by Tim Dams
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