Headline Pictures co-founder Stewart Mackinnon talks to Screen about Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet and the growth of the company

Headline Pictures was formed in 2005 by Stewart Mackinnon and the late Mark Shivas (1938-2008).

Over the last seven years, the London and Newcastle-based production company has painstakingly put a strategy in place for Headline to operate across film, TV and new media.

The company has been working with such high-profile companies as Scott Free, PR giant Edelman, Participant, Microsoft, Freemantle and the BBC - but until recently, hadn’t actually completed any films

In 2013, two films that Headline has been developing for many years, Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet and Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman are being given big mainstream theatrical releases.

Another, Reykjavik (about the meeting in Iceland between Reagan and Gorbachev that helped trigger the end of the Cold War), starts shooting in Berlin in mid-March. Mike Newell will direct a cast led by Michael Douglas and Christoph Waltz.

Mackinnon acknowledges that it has taken Headline a considerable time to bring its first projects to fruition.

“My background has been solely in television for the last 20 to 30 years,” the Headline boss notes. His credits include Border Crossing (1993), When the Dog Bites (1988) and the Grierson-award winning The Miners’ Tapes (1984).

“When I was a young man in this business, I thought one of the strengths of British television was that it was a federal structure. You had regional BBC and regional ITV,” Mackinnon says of the strong regional emphasis in British television also underlined by Channel 4 in its early years. “Maybe 10 to 15 years ago, things retrenched. Channel 4 began to change. The commitment to (the) regional voice was no longer (there).”

When he set up Headline, Mackinnon therefore immediately began to hatch plans to “make content for an international market…It was clear there were very little or fewer opportunities for a regional company to survive. If one looked forward, there were real opportunities for one to make high quality content, whether it be for film or for television or for the new media.”

Headline has a range of high-profile investors (Mackinnon won’t disclose their identities) from outside the media world.

“My argument was that if we put together a company which retains ownership of content, we can build value in the company over the long term by retaining rights.”

Early in its existence, looking for inspiration and instruction, Headline undertook its own, in-depth study into British film production companies. “We could not find any more than a hatful - less than five - companies in the UK that were profitable as film production companies,” the Headline principal observes.

During the research, Mackinnon discovered various familiar home truths - namely that companies with backing from major corporations and with access to distribution were far better placed than smaller rivals. He had also seen the transformation in the TV landscape as the changed Terms of Trade allowed producers to hold onto rights.

Headline therefore aimed for a “factory model.” The aim was to produce “high-end content in a cost effective manner” while retaining rights. It has taken seven years for that model to function in the way Mackinnon anticipated. “We don’t have deep pockets like a studio does, where we can afford to lose huge sums of money. What I had to do was to demonstrate in the business plan I put together that we had a model that could be sustained for long enough to get us to the position we are in today.”

In all its arrangements with partners from the BFI to BBC Films, Headline has made clear that it will strive to hold on to rights. The company never wants to be in the position where (as Mackinnon puts it) it “has to give everything away” to get a film funded.

“I would have loved to done this faster. We could have done. We certainly considered acquiring scripts but those who work in the industry know that for 500 scripts that are fully developed, there are probably only 15 that can be made every year. The 15 that are made probably have a very good team behind them. The only reason for you to be offered the script would be if you had the funding and the reputation - but principally the funding - to put this together quickly.”

Coming up with the business plan was all very well. Headline needed to prove its credibility by moving films into production. Two of its high profile early projects, Alec & May and Peter Pan in Scarlet, have taken longer than anticipated to reach production (although both remain on the Headline slate) .

Others, like Drivers, the 13 x 1 hour series scripted by Michael Hirst that Headline is developing with Scott Free and the 8 x 1 hour Philip K Dick adaptation The Man in the High Castle have also inched forward slowly.

However, Headline’s Chairman Adrian Gifford (formerly of Newcastle-based law firm Dickinson Dees) and the company’s shareholders believed in Mackinnon’s business plan. Early on, the recruitment of Mark Shivas (a former head of drama at the BBC who had been instrumental in setting up BBC Films) gave Headline credibility.

Following Shivas’ death, Christian Baute (ex-Celluloid Dreams) came on board.

The idea for a film adaptation of Quartet (a drama set in a home for retired musicians) was floated to Shivas by playwright Ronald Harwood. Actor Tom Courtenay had long been lobbying Harwood to adapt his 1999 play (itself inspired by celebrated doc Tosca’s Kiss) for the screen.

“Mark (Shivas) asked me what I thought - could we make this as a film?” Mackinnon recalls. On the face of it, Quartet wasn’t an obvious commercial property. It was aimed at a “grey” market. However, Harwood’s stock was very high thanks to The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. Jamie Laurenson (then of BBC Films) was an early champion of the project.Harwood was determined to “set the bar high” and look for a major director and cast.

For Headline, this posed a dilemma. “The tension from a company point of view was that we thought if it goes over a certain level of budget, we will lose it to the studio…we knew that if we made this film for any more than £10 million, we were into an American funded studio film. This was very much Christian (Baute’s) advice. If we tipped over that, we were into a different world and would lose control.”

Headline’s strategy is to hire outside producers to oversee its projects. Finola Dwyer was brought in. Through cinematographer John de Borman, the screenplay reached Dustin Hoffman. “He saw the same things we saw in the story and we knew would open doors for the cast - we could access the most prominent cast. And it was financeable.” Now, the film is set for a major release. With partners like US distributors The Weinstein Company and BBC Films, Mackinnon acknowledges the risk that Headline’s position in setting Quartet up will be overlooked.

“I am more interested in five or 10 years from now, when the industry judges us on the range of things we’ve done and on the ways we’ve done than from a creative and commercial point of view,” the Headline boss states.

“You can have filmmakers working on a subject that is about important human values but dealing with it as if it is a piece of dead meat…Headline doesn’t want to do business like this. It wants to do business in partnership with people who share the same values that we do.”

Headline recently struck a deal with Microsoft to develop a 13-part drama series. The contract was negotiated with a member of the Microsoft board (Mackinnon won’t reveal which one) just before highly experienced former CBS President Nancy Tellem was appointed entertainment and digital media president of Microsoft. The series is a thriller looking at cyber crime.

“It chimes with what Microsoft are concerned with,” the Headline boss explains. “The idea is that we develop this and produce it for traditional outlets. We may kick it off as a film but we will certainly do it as television. But also, on their Xbox, their interactive (platform), they (Microsoft) want to broaden the demographic - that is their plan - and run it as more of a television company.”

The series is currently being written. “It (cyber-crime) is coming more and more on people’s radar and with so many dimensions for us all. It is the new war front,” Mackinnon suggests.