Julia Stuart Andrew Orr

Source: Sky

Julia Stuart, Andrew Orr

Coming off a year in which three of its highest profile titles to date were released, Ferrari, The Beekeeper and May December, UK pay-TV giant Sky has unveiled a raft of new projects as part of its Original Film lineup.

Many of the new titles have emerged from its development slate, including action thriller Black Ops which will star Ashley Walters as real-life UK special agent Carlton King who was hired to protect a group of people on Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi’s hit list. Walters will produce with Nagajan Modhwadia for their production company SLNda and Allan Niblo for Vertigo, with Rowan Athale and Ameir Brown co-writing the script.

Also on the slate is Blarney, an Irish romantic comedy produced by Graham Norton’s So Television, Reflektor and Tiger Mountain that Dan Mazer (Borat, I Give It A Year) will write and direct; Romulus, a sci-fi thriller based on Frederik Pohl’s novel Man Plus with Lorcan Finnegan (Vivarium) attached to direct and Rupert Preston and Ed Caffrey producing for Sunrise Films; and a new adaptation of Robert Harris’s bestselling novel Fatherland produced by UFA/Fremantle with German filmmaker Dennis Gansel attached and Kris Thykier of Archery Pictures exec-producing.

Sky has also taken UK rights from GFM Animation to Sneaks, a family animation about a group of misplaced sneakers lost in New York City, with a voice cast that includes Anthony Mackie, Martin Lawrence, Macy Gray, Laurence Fishburne and rap stars Mustard, Swae Lee and Roddy Rich. Fishburne also produces with Len Hartman, Gil Cloyd and Helen Sugland.

Team players

The Sky Original Film team is led by Julia Stuart, who has worked at Sky for 17 years, and was there from the launch of the division in 2018 under Ian Lewis, who departed the company in 2019 in the wake of Comcast’s £32bn takeover.

Stuart was appointed director of Original Film in 2021, and in 2022, as part of expanding the team and looking to bring in someone with market experience in theatrical, sales and packaging, Andrew Orr was hired as head of Original Film, joining from UK sales agency Independent where he served as managing director for 17 years. Orr started the week before Cannes Film Festival’s 2022 edition, as the acquisition deal for The Beekeeper was being finalised, and runs many of the projects as well as overseeing the development slate.

The division’s head count now numbers 10, including Laura Grange as commissioning manager, Sabrina Parmar as assistant commissioner, and Janay Carrott and Amy Lotherington as development executives.

Stuart describes the last year as “a game-changer” for the Original Film team, led by the wide UK releases of Ferrari and The Beekeeper, as well as handling a prestige title like May December. It’s a long way from the first film to emerge from the Original Film arm, the animated comedy Monster Family in 2018, which topped out at £362,000 in UK cinemas in a day-and-date release.

“We were playing in the big leagues suddenly,” says Stuart. “That’s what we’ve been working towards but we finally hit it last year.”


Source: Venice Film Festival


The UK cinema release of Ferrari was done in partnership with Black Bear, while The Beekeeper and May December were overseen by Sky’s regular local partner Studiocanal. (As well as distributing films for Sky, the latter company regularly sells on its own productions to become part of original films lineup, including The Secret GardenA Boy Called Christmas and Liam Neeson action film Retribution.)

Both Stuart and Orr cite Ferrari as a film they could “bring the full weight of the Sky machine to, accessing all part of the business to maximise how we released that film. How we released it and how it will come onto Sky had lots of buy-in from other areas of the business.”

As well as a glitzy Leicester Square premiere in late December, Sky Sports engaged in a special broadcast in which Mann turned up at the Austin Grand Prix with Ferrari stars Adam Driver and Patrick Dempsey.

Ferrari was a statement of intent for us,” says Stuart. “It showed that we can work at this level. We can work with big talent, we know how to do this. We will look after your films so please bring them to us – that’s the message we were hoping to put out into the world.”

“It was great to show that with the right film, we can throw everything at it,” she adds. 

Sky also had a big success with Working Title-produced holiday comedy Genie starring Melissa McCarthy and Paapa Essiedu, which went straight-to-platform on December 1 and became the top-rated Original Film of 2023 on Sky Cinema. That type of broad, mainstream title is still Sky’s wheelhouse, more than edgier fare such as May December which Stuart pre-bought UK-Ireland rights to at script stage several years ago from Killer Films and Rocket Science.

“There’s no exploding helicopters in that one but we do want to make sure we have something for everyone; the slate needs to feel varied,” she says. “It’s not obvious for us but we had faith in the filmmakers and knew it would be a great film that would be talked about. We will always have room for that.”

Ferrari was also bought at script stage, although as a more obvious fit for the lineup. “There are some movies that we really debate – Ferrari wasn’t one of them,” says Stuart. “We’ve got a slightly male-skewing audience, we’ve got Sky Sports, we’ve got Formula One…”

Changing strategy

When the Original Film division was first established, its modest plan was to put out six films a year, but ambitions quickly grew as access to talent and projects expanded. The number grew to 12, then went above 20, before settling in at its current level of around 16 films per year. 

The slate is focused on what Stuart describes as “that customer-facing, super-commercial space, things that we know work – big tentpole action movies like The Beekeeper, family films. That is our heartland, while leaving some room for awards, prestige, chewy projects”.

“We are cast-driven,” she adds. “We need names in our projects.”

Stuart reports to Zai Bennett, Sky’s managing director of content for UK and Ireland, who gives the ultimate greenlight on projects and can provide the broad overview of what’s coming down the pipeline through the Sky Cinemas channels’ studio output deals. (No changes are planned in light of the recently announced restructure which has brought the UK and Ireland content teams under the leadership of Cecile Frot-Coutaz, with Bennett now reporting into her.)

Sky takes all UK-Ireland rights and is increasingly moving away from the day-and-date strategy it adopted in its early years. Now, for features it wants to give a wide cinema release to (decided on a case-by-case basis), Stuart says Sky is committed to respecting the UK theatrical window – which post-pandemic averages around 45 days.

Honouring the windows means Sky can now book its films into all of the major circuits, including Odeon, Cineworld and Vue – something it couldn’t do with day-and-date, where it struggled to get enough cinemas for its releases.

“The numbers are shrinking for day-and-date so it was becoming less viable,” says Stuart. “The awards qualification criteria are also changing so I think you either do or don’t commit to a full theatrical release at this stage. And we want our films to have that kudos of being in cinemas.”

“We’re trying to balance up making sure it still feels new for our customers while giving exhibitors enough space for the films to work,” adds Orr. “We engaged and respected that window on Beekeeper and Ferrari and both films have delivered theatrically.”

Released on December 26 and January 12 respectively, Ferrari grossed £4.2m at the UK box office and will land on Sky Cinemas on March 1, while The Beekeeper has earned £3.7m so far with its transmission date still unannounced.

May December

Source: Cannes International Film Festival

‘May December’

May December was released in UK cinemas through Studiocanal on November 17, grossing nearly £300,000 on a three-week window before it landed on Sky. 

“We had originally planned to give May December a full theatrical window,” says Stuart, “but we were tied in by other dates in the end.” (Netflix, which took North American rights at Cannes, released the Cannes Competition title onto its platform on December 1 with Sky following a week later.)

Ultimately, the leading metric for success for Stuart and her team is still, and always will be, engagement with its pay-TV audience.

“It’s nice when things work at the box office but we will always want to make sure that people value the at-home experience and are watching our films [there],” says Stuart. “We have great data on our audience which really helps us make decisions. We know what they love, what they value.”

They even get feedback from the call centres that are at the customer-facing coalface for Sky, setting up regular briefing sessions with them to find out what Sky Cinema subscribers are enjoying, what they’re not, and future films they’re excited about. “Customer closeness we call it,” says Orr. 

Live-action family films score very highly with Sky Cinema viewers. Last year a relatively obscure Australian drama called The Portable Door, starring Christoph Waltz and Sam Neill, was among the top-rated originals.

But Sky is also very specific about what it doesn’t want – it’s even listed on the commissioners page on the website: “We are not looking for horror, period drama or small-scale, niche drama.”

“We’ve seen in the past that they don’t work, they don’t rate for us,” explains Orr. “We don’t want to waste people’s time, we’re very clear and straight with producers about what we think will work and, if they can be within those guard rails, how we can help them maybe with cast or development.”

Sky doesn’t fully finance but it is making significant investments, and often steps up to get involved in the overall package with producers. “If we want the projects to happen, just giving them an offer [for rights] is sometimes not enough,” says Orr. “We have to engage that process and help the producer, which is not that dissimilar to what I was doing before I joined.”

When it comes to avoiding period drama, Stuart clarifies, that doesn’t apply to a project like Lee, the Kate Winslet produced and starring biopic about Second World War photographer Lee Miller. It means the type of British costume drama that the UK industry has long exported globally. “There’s a very specific audience who love it but our customers don’t seem to watch that kind of very traditional period drama,” says the Sky exec.

Sky co-financed Ellen Kuras’s debut feature, which premiered at Toronto with Winslet receiving warm notices for her performance, and is planning a wide theatrical release including red-carpet London premiere for Q3, again working with Studiocanal.

As for horror, Stuart says “never say never – we’ve got an eye out but we would need cast and that can be hard with horror”.

What’s next

There are currently around 15 projects in active development, including the four listed above. Others include family animation Bollywoof, which Embankment Films is selling.

Currently in post-production are Robin And The Hood, a childrens fantasy adventure starring Naomie Harris and Gwendolen Christie, and Euros Lyn’s vampire thriller The Radleys starring Damian Lewis, which Sky developed with Debbie Gray’s Genesius Pictures and Cornerstone Films is selling internationally.

“We’re developing in that very specific way where we’re trying to get projects that we can convert into production, which is what everyone wants to do but we do it in a very commercial way,” says Orr. “And we do it in areas where maybe we’re not being served by the marketplace, in certain areas of family, live action, animation and even action which we still get from the market but we’re now starting to develop on our own too.”

The team is also supporting the occasional UK debut feature, as it did with Julia Jackman’s Bonus Track from a script co-written by Josh O’Connor. “We’ll always want to do smaller British films that we can originate and develop,” says Stuart. “It’s a great chance to introduce new talent.”

Stuart and Orr attended the first few days of EFM, keeping tabs on their own projects and with their eye on a couple of the big packages that were announced in the lead-up. They head to markets knowing which projects they want to bid on and get those signed off ahead of time.

“There is always room for us to acquire those big packages but it’s rare that we’ll turn up a market, be shown a promo and go, ‘We should buy that’,” says Stuart, without specifying what the Original Film division’s overall annual budget is (“it’s healthy”).

Bollywoof c Embankment

Source: Embankment/Sky Cinema


Following the success of Genie, another holiday-themed comedy is lined up for this Christmas which they can’t discuss yet. “A Boy Called Christmas was massive for us as well [in 2021] so we will always look to have a Christmas movie of a fair size in that space every year,” says Stuart.

Winning the rights to major market projects like Ferrari, May December and Lee has laid the groundwork for the future, and they expect to announce more sizeable acquisitions soon (including a big action vehicle they picked up at the Cannes market last May).

“We know the size and scale we want,” says Stuart. “Everything has a very clear purpose now.