The barrier between film and TV is coming down as UK producers exploit different platforms to match finance with creative ambition.

“Stephen Frears’ big joke is that we should have made it for telly,” says UK producer Christine Langan of Frears’ 2006 film The Queen, a co-production between Granada Film Production and Pathé UK. The ‘joke’ is that if it had been small screen only, the film may have disappeared into TV schedules without trace. Instead, it premiered at the 2006 Venice film festival, received six Oscar nominations, a best actress Oscar for Helen Mirren and took $123.4m at the global box office.

The Queen later screened on TV in June 2007 and was one of the most viewed films of that year. Frears’s film followed the normal roll-out pattern. However, an increasing number of projects are blurring the lines between theatrical and TV and most in the UK TV industry believe it is the future.

Zen, a stylish Italy-set crime thriller was set up as a co-production between the UK’s Left Bank Pictures, the US’ WGBH Boston Masterpiece and Italy’s RTI Mediaset for the BBC. It screened as three feature-length episodes on the BBC this year and may be released theatric-ally in Italy. The project accessed the country’s production incentives to shoot entirely on location in Rome.

‘In America there is more crossover. We should have more of that here’

Andrew Eaton, Revolution Films

“TV is becoming more filmic,” says Marigo Kehoe, Left Bank’s managing director. Ambitious productions such as Zen, which stars Rufus Sewell, can secure about 40% of their budget from broadcasters. The producer has to raise the rest through co-production arrangements and international sales.

Ruby Films’ executive producer Paul Trijbits cites Ruby’s BBC project Toast, based on the memoirs of popular food writer Nigel Slater starring Helena Bonham Carter and Freddie Highmore. The BBC screened it as a one-off TV film over Christmas 2010, garnering 6.2 million viewers, and it is being sold as a theatrical project internationally by K5 to territories such as Australia (Transmission) and France (UGC). Toast also screened at the Berlinale in February and may receive a five-print cinema run via Momentum Pictures in the UK.

Toast had exciting film elements, [including] the script by Lee Hall, a fantastic cast and wonderfully gifted first-time director in SJ Clarkson,” Trij-bits explains. “The script by Lee Hall is written on a broad canvas of emotion that targets people in a particular way.”

The $4.9m (£3m) film secured more than 50% of its budget from the BBC. The rest comprised international pre-sales and further backing from LipSync Post Production and the regional film agency Screen West Midlands. 

Revolution Films’ Andrew Eaton produced Michael Winterbottom’s tragi-comedy The Trip, which was entirely financed by the BBC. Shot as a six x 30-minute series, a 90-min-ute feature version has been sold around the world by The Works International, including a US sale to IFC Films, and screened at the Toronto and London film festivals. The Trip series then aired on the BBC in late 2010.

Eaton points out the motivation behind this kind of release structure has to be creative but notes the BBC was “not keen” on a festival debut prior to broadcast. “They felt it diluted the impact of it being on TV but I feel it had the opposite effect. It was like an extra press screening which generated buzz for the series,” he says.

He believes the same benefits were enjoyed by Red Riding, Revolution’s acclaimed three-part drama for Channel 4, which screened theatrically on one screen in London at the BFI before its UK TV transmission. Feature and TV versions have sold around the world. 

“Part of the problem in having something fully funded by TV [is that] they need to feel it should be primarily on TV,” says Eaton. 

Indeed, a BBC spokeswoman says, “Given the current pressure on budgets we are always keen to explore additional sources of programme finance to guarantee the best and highest quality shows are on the BBC. However, our duty to licence fee-payers means we need to defend the right to premiere our original commissions on BBC TV in the UK.”

Christine Langan, now head of BBC Films, believes exposure to a film festival can be a good thing. “It is both personally satisfying for the film-makers and potentially beneficial commercially,” she says. 

Eaton is sure traditional thinking on film and TV has held sway for too long and more imaginative cross-platform thinking is required in the digital age. “Exploiting film rights is a way of bringing extra money to the table [for TV projects],” he says. “There is a bigger issue in how to attract the biggest audience to shows and how to get the best out of every possible platform. In America there is more crossover. We should have more of that here.”