Kevin Macdonald, Stephen Woolley, Ken Loach and others speak about their respect for Tessa Ross.

Film4 head Tessa Ross’ decision to step down from her job next September (story here) has taken the UK film industry by surprise.

Leading industry figures have been lavish in their praise of Ross’ achievements since she joined Channel 4 in 2000. (She became Head of Film4 in 2003, followed by Controller of Film and Drama in 2008.) Some have also expressed wariness that a period of instability could follow her departure from the Channel.

Oscar winning director Kevin Macdonald, in post-production on Film4-backed The Black Sea and who also has a new feature on the Lockerbie bombing in development at Film4 with producer Christopher Young, acknowledged he had no prior inkling of Ross’ plans. “I only heard this morning. Tessa sent an email saying what was happening. I think it is going to leave a huge hole in British film that will be very hard to fill.”

Macdonald contended that Ross had done “more for British film in the last 10 years than anybody else in that time.” 

“I don’t think anybody else who has supported such a range of filmmakers and such a variety of films, both commercial and utterly non-commercial,” Macdonald continued. “She has been a great supporter of mine in good times and bad times and I will miss working with her a lot. The thing about her was that she trusted the filmmakers that she chose to back. She didn’t micro-manage. She was very good at giving notes and making her opinion heard but she also leaves it to you, the filmmaker, to make your own mind up. It is support of the best kind.”

Macdonald also paid tribute to the way Ross “fought the corner” for Film4. “One hopes that whoever takes her place will be able to fight that same battle and make people at Channel 4 realise the importance of film to the brand of Channel 4 and the enormous benefits that accrue to the channel through its support of cinema.”

Mike Leigh, who has just finished Mr Turner with Film4, said: “An inspired producer, a profoundly intelligent commissioner, a tough leader and British Cinema’s first true Earth Mother, Tessa Ross will be missed by all of us in the independent cinema to which she has been so committed.”

Veteran producer Stephen Woolley of Number 9 Films, who has worked with all of Ross’ predecessors at Film4, described Ross’ departure as “a dreadful loss for the film industry” and not just for Film4.

“It’s a tightrope, making the kinds of films she has been making at Film4,” Woolley suggested. “She hasn’t made obvious choices. She has made some really brave movies. What I think is incredible is how she has taken Steve McQueen from Hunger to Shame to 12 Years A Slave…that’s where the difficulty lies with our business. We want instant results. We don’t look on toward the investment in the future. That is what Tessa was all about - investing in new talent and ideas and in new writers and new directors.”

Woolley, who called Ross an “inspirational” figure, described her departure as a “blow” for filmmakers with an independent vision.

“What is really, really annoying is that she is not staying in the (film) business,” Woolley said. He likened her decision to leave Channel 4 for a new job as Chief Executive at the National Theatre to that of Channel 4 founding chief executive Jeremy Isaacs leaving to become General Director of the Royal Opera House in 1987. “What great news for the Royal Opera House and what great news for the National Theatre but what bad news for the film industry. We really need all the talent we have and not just in front of and behind the camera but also in the boardrooms and in the bowels of the machinery.”

“It is hard to think of a more central figure in the British film industry than Tessa,” agreed Free Range’s Kevin Loader, producer of such Film4-backed features as Enduring Love and Le Weekend. “She has been the ‘mother’ of the British film industry as people affectionately said after the Slumdog (Millionaire) triumph. It (her departure) is going to leave a huge hole in leadership and support.”

Filmmakers like Roger Michell and Andrea Arnold, Loader suggested, “always felt that working with and for Tessa would allow you to do your best work.”

Hugo Heppell, Head of Production at Screen Yorkshire, said that Film4, under Ross, had “become the driving influence on independent British film.”

Director Ken Loach and producer Rebecca O’Brien of Sixteen Films commented in a joint statement: “Tessa has made an enormously valuable contribution towards keeping independent British cinema alive over the past thirteen years. We wish her all the best in her new role at the National Theatre.”

“Tessa has been the most extraordinary supporter of independent films and film makers and she will be sorely missed,” stated Gail Egan, one of the producers on Our Kind Of Traitor, which has just started shooting, as well as many other Film4 backed features.

“Tessa has great taste and she was immensely supportive. She will a hard act to follow,” chimed in Andrew Macdonald, producer of Never Let Me Go.

Ross’ planned departure follows on from that of Katherine Butler, Film4’s Deputy Head of Film, in January.

“There are a number of questions for Channel 4 about they see Film4 developing now,” Hugo Heppell said. “That will take time and that will inevitably create an amount of instability and uncertainty for production companies, filmmakers and other partners.”

More tributes

Ben Roberts, Director of the BFI Film Fund: “I am thrilled for Tessa and crushed for the rest of us. I do hope that Channel 4 hold true to her vision and values at Film4 as they begin the search for her replacement. Her legacy speaks for itself and she will be a hard act to follow.”

Jim Wilson, producer of Under The Skin: “I think Tessa built a philosophy at Film4 that’s as simple as it’s bold as it’s smart. And getting films made is such a baroque will-sapping process theres huge dividends in simplifying it.
Her main criteria are artistic. She’s backed filmakers who are cinematically ambitious. She’s created a culture at Film4 that trusts those filmmakers, which means they do their best work. The resulting films bring kudos — sometimes glory — to Film4, Channel 4 and to the British film industry, and for the long term. So the optimistic thing about what she’s done, is that it proves that what is good artistically - the pursuit of cinematic excellence and innovation - is good business too. In terms of the impact of her leaving? The National Theatres’s gain is the film world’s loss, but if her successor continues the philosophy, they and British film will prosper. Simple…”

Zygi Kamasa, CEO of Lionsgate UK: “We’ve worked with Tessa several times over the years and she is such an incredibly passionate supporter of quality British drama. Without her some of this country’s most original British films might never have gotten made. We wish her well at the National Theatre, however knowing how much she loves the film world, I have a feeling the industry will see her again at some point in the future.”

Iain Smith, producer and chair of the British Film Commission: “Tessa’s exceptional track record at Channel 4 speaks for itself. The National Theatre’s gain is the film and TV industry’s loss. She has been selfless and visionary in public service, and above all a finder and protector of talent in her work. A glance at her recent track record in particular shows how influential she has been.”