John Battsek

Source: Screen Archive

John Battsek

Ventureland co-founder John Battsek knew the chance to tell a postive, upbeat story about the UK 1980s pop band Wham! could very well appeal to sought-after young audiences.

Wham!, directed by the US filmmaker Chris Smith, was one of two new features the Oscar-winning documentary producer had at Sheffield DocFest last week. The other was Laura McGann’s Sundance hit, The Deepest Breath, about Italian freediving champion Alessia Zecchini, which was acquired by Netflix late last year. 

Wham! is also a Netflix film. The archive-based doc about the band fronted by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, was pitched to Ventureland by producer and renowned album cover designer Simon Halfon, a close friend of Michael. Together they took the project to Netflix and to Smith, who had made Tiger King and Sr for the streamer. Although Smith had been more of a fan of The Smiths (Battsek in turn had preferred The Cure), the director did not take too much convincing to board the project.

“[Michael and Ridgeley] both stated clearly that Wham! was about the exuberance of youth,” says Smith, who quickly did his research. “Just by the nature of what it was, [the band] couldn’t go forever. That for me was one of the most beautiful things about the movie, that it’s about this temporal nature of youth.”

“I knew at the outset it was just going to be a really enjoyable telling of a positive story about two great friends who lived the dream,” agrees Battsek.

The band split up in 1986, seemingly without any rancour as Michael embraced his solo career. Battsek notes that “an element [of the story] is George battling with his sexuality and his inability during those years to be able to come out.”


Source: Netflix


The mood of the film, though, is relentlessly upbeat. “The style of the movie, the momentum and the editing style, we’ve made it in a way that we hope will make it appeal to a younger audience,” Battsek says.

Part of the plan is a single-day UK release via Altitude on around 250 screens on June 27. This is a strategy that Battsek’s films Never Give In, about football manager Alex Ferguson, and Eric Clapton: Life In 12 Bars have pursued before. 

“[The film] is unlikely to make a huge amount of money in a day but it can definitely do well enough that for everyone concerned, it is worth their while,” Battsek explains. 

Upcoming projects

The UK-based producer exited Passion Pictures in 2020 after a 20-year run which included winning an Oscar for One Day In September and an Emmy for Manhunt: The Search For Bin Laden. Battsek set up London and Los Angeles-based Ventureland with Kerstin Emhoff, Ali Brown, and Paul Hunter the same year. 

Ventureland, says Battsek, is “moving more into series” while continuing to make feature docs. In spite of challenges in the sector post-pandemic, he maintains his belief that documentaries still work in cinemas. “It is a slightly paused theatrical marketplace but I think that will pick up again.”

He speaks of the many funders, producers and distributors ready to get behind docs: “A24, who we made The Deepest Breath with, Neon and other companies in the US are absolutely up for financing documentaries. And there are a lot of equity companies that are also into the idea of financing documentaries, companies like Amplify, Closer Media, Wavelength and others like that. Ultimately, all of these people gravitate to strong stories.”

Two further Ventureland productions are being released in the UK in the coming months. Bobi Wine: The People’s President is set for UK cinema release in September by Dogwoof. National Geographic holds worldwide rights for the film, about the Ugandan opposition leader, activist and musical star, which it picked up after its Venice premiere last year. Meanwhile, The Deepest Breath will receive a one-week theatrical release in the US, UK and Ireland from July 14 before streaming globally on Netflix from July 19.

Ventureland’s David Beckham series wrapped shooting last weekend and is already “a long way down the road in terms of editing,” says Battsek. Directed by Fisher Stevens, it is expected to appear on Netflix later in the year. US actor-director Stevens was a producer on Battsek’s earlier football themed doc Once In A Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story Of The New York Cosmos (2006). He also produced the Oscar-winning dolphin-hunting film The Cove (2010) and more recently directed climate change doc Before The Flood (2016) and co-directed Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher (2016) with his partner Alexis Bloom.

“He’s a master of all trades,” as Battsek puts it. The fact Stevens knew nothing about Beckham’s story made him the perfect director for this series, believes the producer. “It’s a journey of discovery for him. He came at it fresh. For someone as famous as David Beckham, that seemed like a smart choice.”

Battsek describes the documentary as “the whole nine yards. It is everything. It’s not just a football story. It’s about [Beckham’s] life, how he grew up, where he grew up. It’s about Manchester United and Real Madrid. It’s about Los Angeles. It’s about pop culture. It’s about all components and aspects of his life.” 

Looking ahead to projects in the pipeline, Battsek says Manchester United series 99, directed by Sampson Collins, whose credits include Gazza, for Amazon, isis close to “wrapping shooting and is in the thick of the editing.” It is due to start streaming in 2024.