The Film Council's new head of commercial production, Robert Jones, has a heavy burden to bear. If he fails to generate a flow of hit mainstream films the whole of the UK government's recently revamped film support strategy could be in jeopardy. Adam Minns asks if he has what it takes.
Bryan Singer was nobody at Sundance 1993. His debut Public Access was impressive enough to win, but flawed and had to share the prize with Ruby In Paradise. Public Access did not even get a US release until Singer hit with his next film, The Usual Suspects.
As much as anything else, Robert Jones was last week appointed head of the UK's most important public film fund because of Sundance 1993. On the back of Public Access, he offered to help Singer make his next film. Although only credited as executive producer, Jones worked on Suspects from beginning to end, putting the financing together - and back together when German backers WMG dropped out.
If Jones can pull off the same feat as head of the National Lottery fund for commercial films at UK film body the Film Council, he will validate the entire overhaul of public support for the sector. This year the council controversially moved to focus a section of lottery funds on films it hopes will be commercially, rather than culturally, successful. The spotlight is on Jones, who, as head of the $16m (£10m)-a-year Premiere Production Fund, must turn the ambitious but still ill-defined strategy into a hit.
As an independent producer, a buyer for UK distributor Palace Pictures and a consultant for PolyGram Filmed Entertainment (PFE), Jones has spotted a string of young film-makers destined for great things. At Sundance in the same year, he saw a short by Paul Thomas Anderson, who would go on to direct Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Jones produced Anderson's feature debut Hard Eight.
"Part of Palace's spirit was looking at things in a different way, an original way, not taking things at face value, and Robert personifies that spirit," says producer and former Palace co-chief Stephen Woolley. "He is always looking for an original way of achieving something. His appointment to the council is very healthy for the industry."
As a buyer, Jones has demonstrated an impressive eye for material. He acquired Quentin Tarantino's debut, Reservoir Dogs, as well spotting another film from a newcomer, Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave.
"For a decade and a half he has proved that he has an uncanny nose for successful pictures," says producer and Palace co-founder Nik Powell. "He has a consistent track record as a chooser of films and material for Palace and PolyGram."
"We had quite a good run with him," agrees Universal Pictures International's Sally Caplan, who worked with Jones at PFE. "He brought us Shallow Grave and The Usual Suspects."
The projects that Jones has recently produced, such as Simon Magus, Dad Savage or The Serpent's Kiss, have not made a commercial mark. Magus at least was not conceived as a mainstream film. Jones was keen to support its director, Ben Hopkins, who he saw as a singular talent and who he presumably hoped would go on to make a more commercial film.
United Artists Films chief Wendy Palmer, who co-financed Magus as well as selling Jones' films while he was at Palace and PFE, argues that his tastes are not that esoteric. "Given the resources available to independent producers in the UK, the films he produced were actually heading in an interesting direction. I know what he bought. I don't think he is as esoteric as some people who are less complimentary would say."
Many who have worked with Jones praise his understanding of the commercial marketplace, noting his time working at a distributor. Woolley, for example, cites his "business acumen" and his ability "to negotiate and do great deals".
"He would have strong views about the marketplace," he recalls. "Even before he officially worked for us, we would consult him on what he felt the market would take."
Jones will need all his commercial savvy and deal-making skills when it comes to devising a strategy for the Premiere fund. Some see the job as a poisoned chalice, based on a policy that no one is sure how to implement. Certainly, $16m is not a lot of cash when it comes to making what are supposed to be popular, mainstream films. "Truly commercial projects won't go the Film Council because they won't need the money," says Palmer. "Robert will have to encourage people to come to the council and offer them deals that are interesting."
Jones' time hustling as an independent producer and distributor at least means he knows how to attack the market and cut an attractive deal for both sides. This is a man who started at Palace in an office above the Scala cinema selling videos over the phone. Seen as experienced but still young, he is also well-liked and may win many over. But, with the council's critics, not to mention the press, waiting for him to fail, he will need to fight his corner. "He'll have to be a bit more thick skinned," says Palmer. "A lot more thick skinned. Anyone who does that job has to be."