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UK creative leaders urged to take risks; Working Title bosses point to end of studio era

The willingness to take risks will keep Britain’s cultural industries relevant in a rapidly changing world, experts told today’s Creative Content Summit in London.

Howard Stringer, chairman of Sony, kicked off the conference this morning by saying that the world was changing so that “news and commerce literally travels at the speed of light” and for the UK to thrive he noted “the importance of encouraging a culture of risk taking…We need to allow ourselves to be disrupted out of our complacency. Companies today need to find ways to develop disruptive technology on their own…or partner for technology growth.”

He said that another key tenet was to “encourage Great Britain to keep promoting technology and engineering. Engineering is fundamental to this economy and this society.” Related to that is the “importance of protecting intellectual property.”

Michael G Wilson, one of the producers of the James Bond franchise for EON Productions, spoke of another kind of risk taking. “Don’t be afraid of change,” he said pointedly.

Complacency has no place in a franchise, even a successful one, he said. At a time when the films were “becoming more and more fantastical,” he and Barbara Broccoli came to a bold decision to reinvent Bond. “Pierce [Brosnan] was well-liked and the grosses were going up, but we knew we had to change,” he said.

Market research told them that changing actors, putting poker in a plotline and taking out gadgets and one-liners weren’t at all what the audience wanted, but they made the leap anyway with Casino Royale starring Daniel Craig as the new 007. The gamble paid off. 

Pinewood chief executive Ivan Dunleavy said that the studio was taking its own kind of risks by investing in films again after a 30 year break. The company is also pushing ahead with global expansion in Toronto, Berlin, Malaysia and soon in the Dominican Republic. Expanding UK offerings to meet with more demand than capacity will also be a challenge in the future.  

Also speaking of a rapidly evolving film industry, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, the co-chairmen of Working Title Films, noted how the balance of power was shifting. Bevan said: “Distribution was absolutely king 25 years ago, now the balance has shifted. Access to distribution is easy, it’s the access to creative quality, or even to financing creative quality, that’s rare.”

Fellner added: “The studio era is coming to an end” – although he doesn’t think Hollywood will go away – “even if the studio model as we know it ends, I don’t see the demise of LA. The agents are there, there is still talent there.”

Bevan doesn’t predict that the film format will be radically changing. “The good movie that is 100 minutes long has lasted 100 years and there’s no reason to think it won’t last another 100 years.”

Bevan and Fellner were decidedly bullish on working in Britain. Fellner said: “We tried to turn being in the UK into a positive thing not a negative thing, in the beginning it was all about Hollywood. It’s actually a fantastic thing to be here in the UK, it’s good to look east, not always be looking west.”

They praised the UK film tax credit in particular for making the territory more affordable.

Bevan said: “You can also make things cheaper. There are brilliant crews and they aren’t unionised to the level of the US. You’ve got that skills base. And thanks to the tax credit we can make these films cheaper.”

Plus, Britishness sells abroad. Bevan added: “There’s an international appetite for British culture. With cultural specificity…the audience tends to respond to it. Billy Elliot and Four Weddings have that kind of cultural specificity.”

The pair pointed to one reason for Working Title’s lasting success is to work on a diverse slate of projects at once. “We make sure we’ve got a bigger slate…to balance more risky fare,” Bevan added.

Harry Potter producer David Heyman pointed to the strength of the UK’s post-production sector, saying that 95% of the VFX for the later Potter films were done in Britain. “The VFX houses are as good as anywhere in the world,” he raved. Heyman praised Warner Bros for being “adaptive and smart” in dealing with a new level of franchise like Potter.

Warner has since purchased Potter’s UK studio base, Leavesden Studios. Warner UK president Josh Berger said: “Britain was becoming our second home, and it made sense to buy the studio to be that home.”

EON’s Wilson pointed out his list of pros of shooting in the UK: the rule of law and an honest and pragmatic government, the tax credit, working in the English language, world-class writers, directors and composers, a depth of actors and crowd performers, post production that’s second to none, and great studios.

The cons he pointed to were expense, poor weather conditions (“especially this summer,” he quipped) and the exchange rate risk.  Of the latter, he said: “the tax credit goes some way to reduce the risk.”

In addition to the talks and a networking lunch, delegates were treated to seeing the new Bond Skyfall trailer two hours before it hit the Internet today.

The conference also covered other creative sectors such as music, theatre, literature, video games and fashion. Other speakers included Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes, fashion designer Stella McCartney, and Sony Music UK chief executive Nick Gatfield.

The UKTI’s British Business Embassy at London’s Lancaster House is hosting the UK’s largest-ever series of trade and investment events, overlapping with the London 2012 Olympics. Sectors to be addressed in coming days include education, healthcare, energy, infrastructure, engineering, retail and global sports.

Readers' comments (1)

  • And what happens if Disney decides to buy Pinewood? How will that affect independent filmmaking then?

    Will the indies have to start investing in their own studio space to avoid paying potential high rates imposed by the likes of Disney et. al as a consequence of any such buyouts?

    And Michael G Wilson is a fine one to talk - he seems to have only made James Bond films - where's the diversity? And Bond has been bankrolled by the Hollywood studio system each and every time.

    We got the Harry Potter contracts here in the UK (as with Bond) as we offer such attractive tax incentives to Hollywood - tax incentives that, unless the government curtails to Hollywood, would see studio money go elsewhere. Us Brits ARE talented, but the US VFX industry is suffering because their own industry isn't providing sufficient support to the home team.

    Sigh.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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