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01 October 2012

This month's BFI London Film Festival reveals much about British film-making. Louise Tutt reports

Glasgow-based producer David Smith is so convinced of the strength of his debut feature Shell he withdrew the film from the Edinburgh International Film Festival line-up earlier this year. Instead, the low-budget art-house film written and directed by UK rising talent Scott Graham will make its UK premiere this month at the BFI London Film Festival (LFF) which runs from October 10-21.

“You need to have the right platform for your film,” explains Smith, who co-produced the film with Margaret Matheson of Bard Entertainment. “We didn’t feel the profile was right in Edinburgh where it wasn’t eligible for the Michael Powell award [for best British film]. We received such an enthusiastic and honest response from London.”

The LFF is the annual shop window of the UK film industry and the work of a wealth of notable first-time filmmakers is on display this year.      

Shell director Graham is one of three UK filmmakers in the running for the LFF’s Sutherland award for best directorial debut. He is joined by Tom Shkolnik for The Comedian, about a young stand-up struggling to deal with a break-up from his boyfriend, which is making its world premiere in London, and Sally El Hosaini, whose My Brother The Devil, about two Egyptian brothers caught up in London’s gang culture, first made an impression at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

It was a challenge to narrow down the Sutherland’s UK selections to just three, says Claire Stewart, the LFF’s new festival director and head of exhibition at the British Film Institute (BFI). 

“There is such great new British talent on show this year,” she says. “ You see within all three of these films this very tenacious filmmaking and new filmmakers who are very unafraid.” 

This artistic fearlessness has a global appeal which suggests a commercial life beyond the rarefied atmosphere of an international film festival. The Comedian is being sold by French sales agent Celluloid Dreams and Shell, which tells the story of a father and daughter living in a remote petrol station in the Scottish Highlands, made its world premiere at Spain’s San Sebastian International Film Festival in September and is being sold by France’s Bac Films International. It will be released by Verve Pictures in the UK.  Verve has also picked up My Brother The Devil.

Similarly, Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s Good Vibrations, a UK-Ireland collaboration, co-produced by Revolution Films, is based on the true story of a man who opens a record shop amid the glowering violence of 1970s Belfast. Now playing in the LFF’s musically-themed Sonic strand, it first opened the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in July. The Works has international rights. 

“It’s a really energised time for British filmmaking,” suggests Stewart, an Australian and the former artistic director of the Sydney Film Festival. “We have made some structural changes to the programme that gives those British films great profile within the selection.”

Stewart’s most significant innovation is the introduction of an Official Competition for which two UK films have been selected:  Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday, produced by Revolution Films, about a family struggling to survive when the father was sent to prison, which was shot over five years, and Sally Potter’s Ginger And Rosa, a coming-of-age story about two teenage girls set in London against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is produced by Christopher Sheppard’s Adventure Pictures. Both premiered in early September at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where the critics agreed these are two directors working at the very top of their game.

“Both those films, in very different ways, are very evocative and powerful dramas,” says Stewart.

The strong UK seam which threads throughout the LFF is there in the festival’s glitzy gala extravaganzas. The opening night film is Tim Burton’s black and white stop motion animation Frankenweenie, which was made at London’s Three Mills Studios by over 200 UK crafts people. Mike Newell’s Great Expectations will close the festival. Helena Bonham-Carter and Ralph Fiennes star in the film which is produced by Steve Woolley and Liz Karlsen’s Number 9 Films. 

Both titles are poised to feature in this year’s BAFTA and Oscar seasons. They are likely to be joined by a trio of crowd-pleasing UK titles, also screening in the festival as gala presentations: Roger Michell’s period romance Hyde Park On Hudson; Paul Andrew Williams’ story of an unconventional choir Song For Marion; and Quartet, the directorial debut of the UK-based Dustin Hoffman, about the residents of a home for retired opera singers.

Those films all shot in the UK last year, helping to propel UK filmmaking towards an aggregate production spend of a record-breaking £1,272m, according to the BFI. Of this, £1,102m came from inward investment, those footloose international productions such as Warner Bros’ The Dark Knight Rises, 20th Century Fox’s Prometheus and Sony Pictures’ Skyfall, which consider the UK’s film tax credit and experienced crews and facilities a financially viable draw. 

2012 is on course to be as buoyant. A recent report by Oxford Economics predicts the spend by incoming productions to incrementally rise year on year in the period to 2015.  This summer’s Olympic Games in London did not overly dent the number of visiting and local film shoots, with facilities such as Three Mills and Pinewood/Shepperton reporting filmmakers worked around the disruption in the capital, front-loading the first half of the year. In the summer, 20th Century Fox’s The Counseler,  Universal Pictures’  Kick Ass 2, and Paramount Pictures’ Jack Ryan shot in and around London.

However, despite the LFF’s impressive line-up of home-grown films, producers say raising finance for independent UK productions remains a challenge. International sales estimates and the value of licence fees continue on a downward trajectory in most territories.

“I had a very positive experience making Shell. The challenge is making a living out of it,” says David Smith, who produces films through his Broken Spectre outfit and also has a day job working for Scotland’s Creative Enterprise Office. 

“It is very, very hard at the moment,” agrees Fiona Neilson the producer of Mat Whitecross’ Spike Island, which is making its world premiere in the LFF’s Sonic strand. “You are left with bigger gaps to plug with equity or private equity.”

Through Fiesta Productions, the company she runs with Esther Douglas, Neilson raised the financing for the film about five aspiring musicians heading to see the Stone Roses in concert in the summer of 1990, from the UK Film Council, the BFI, BBC Films, sales agent Bankside Films and UK distributor Revolver Entertainment. Rock band Coldplay, long-time university friends of Whitecross, who directs their  music videos, came in with private financing.

“All of those parties coming together made it possible in a very difficult climate,” Neilson explains. “But we still had to defer and cut everything significantly. We did a lot of things I wouldn’t want to continue to do because I won’t be able to continue working.”

Inspired by Revolution Films, where Neilson worked for 10 years and where she met Whitecross who worked as a runner, she believes the key is to develop a broad array of projects. 

“You just don’t know, taste-wise, where things are going to be in two years when you are taking [a project] out to finance,” says Neilson. “The way we make films is by being incredibly passionate and dogged and trying to drag everyone else along to the party by saying ‘we are going to make something really brilliant for you’.”

Another way to make a UK independent film is to be a producer-with-money. Mark Foligno produced Rowan Athale’s Wasteland, a heist movie set in northern England, screening at the LFF in the Thrill section following a sold-out world premiere in Toronto. Foligno’s Moli Films uses the government’s Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) to raise equity financing from private individuals of up to £2m each time to invest  in four to six commercially-minded films a year. 

“Raising money on EIS is not something all people can do,” says Foligno, who points out he was able to set up the company through the sale of his previous venture, the post-production house Molinaire.  “You have to have very good teams in place to make sure the interest is there from potential punters, you have to go out and find those investors. Finding people who can part with £10,000 or £50,000 is a skillset in itself and those people are few and far between in an economy which is struggling.”    

”We have to give investors the confidence the investment is real, that we will return the money and more, to them. Once we have a mini-hit like we are hoping to have with Wasteland that becomes a game-changer. Once you have a hit it can be very lucrative.”

Foligno is a hands-on producer rather than (just) a financier. “What I find exciting is how creative producers are here,” reflects Stewart. “What it means to be a producer here is something far more fluid. It really does mean to be a creative collaborator in the true sense of the word.”


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