Seven leading producers gathered in London in mid-November to discuss the nature of producing independent films in the UK, addressing hot button issues such as co-production, sustainability, synergy with television, targeting local audiences and the key role of Working Title Films.
The participants in our producers’ roundtable:
■ Alison Owen set up Ruby Films in 1999. She is in post with Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre
■ Jeremy Thomas founded Recorded Picture Company in 1974. He is in post on David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method
■ Stephen Woolley set up Number 9 Films with Elizabeth Karlsen in 2002. Their most recent film is Made In Dagenham
■ Nira Park set up the UK’s Big Talk in 1995 and has scored success in both TV and film. Upcoming projects include Paul and Attack The Block
■ Robin Gutch is managing director of the UK’s Warp Films. The company’s Tyrannosaur, directed by Paddy Considine, premieres at Sundance
■ Andrew Eaton is co-director of Revolution Films with Michael Winterbottom. His latest production is film and TV series The Trip
■ Damian Jones’ credits include The History Boys and Adulthood. The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent, is about to start shooting
Screen: Why isn’t the UK a good co-producing country?
Alison Owen: Ever since we stepped out of Eurimages and we raised the bar to 25% on the minimum spend for the tax credit, we haven’t been able to offer much to most European co-productions.
Jeremy Thomas: The tax credit has been designed to help the industrialised film business, which is the studio system. On a budget of $100m, they can take $20m out of the UK.
Stephen Woolley: I have discovered the studios don’t include the tax credit in their budget figures, so they’re keeping the budget numbers down to balance their books. I think that’s outrageous…We all support Harry Potter and James Bond because they give the employment to people here in the UK. They also allow us to make our films because someone who has just come off 20 weeks on Harry Potter can afford to shoot your film for five weeks or six weeks. We like the activity, the problem is how those films are put together in terms of funding. That is kind of scary for us.
Are you also suffering as a result of the contraction in the US specialised marketplace?
Jeremy Thomas: We are all suffering and anyone who says they’re not suffering has some very lucky situation going on with the US. Because even when you find your deal with the US, they know they can make such a tough deal, because there are no buyers. In the past, you could easily get 50% of your budget out of America on the right project. I do see some green shoots. The market seems to be picking up but we will never get to the same place as we were before. We will have to reinvent our films and make them even better.
Stephen Woolley: Miramax shook the world up. We did 12 movies for them and a lot of those films probably wouldn’t now find a home. Miramax were bullish and everything was terrific for a brief moment in the new wave that followed the Weinsteins. Now it’s almost back to ’70s and ’80s time, when the demand for European cinema is at an all-time low. And so when we go in there with our scripts in our hands saying, ‘Can you pre-buy this for X amount?’, they just laugh at you.
Does the strength of TV in the UK help or hinder film production?
Nira Park: I set up Big Talk from an attic some 15 years ago and we were still in that attic until about four years ago. We’ve only been able to survive through continuing TV productions. That’s where our main talent relationships come from and for many years our overhead. TV is harder than it used to be, but it is still easier to get television productions off the ground than to get a film greenlit. The turnaround is faster and the funding is simpler and more reliable.
Alison Owen: And there is always an audience in television. It’s always been the great advantage and disadvantage of the film industry that we share a language with the US, depending on where we are in the economic cycle and exchange rate. The UK would be able to be much stronger if it were culturally protected like, for example, the French industry. You don’t get so much of a problem with TV because people always want to watch local television.
Jeremy Thomas: The English language could be a disadvantage. France, Italy, Spain and Japan are protected by their language but our cinema is so dominated by industrialised product that we don’t even have a chance. And when these digital screens are put in by the UK Film Council at large expense, you still can’t get into them.
It appears that a lot of great US talent is migrating to TV.
Robin Gutch: Perhaps TV is becoming the intelligent story form of the generation that is to come, because film-makers are going to think, ‘If that’s what you can do on TV, will cinema any longer be the ultimate aim?’
Jeremy Thomas: When you look at the quality, the budgets, the outstanding writing, the level of these series in America, they are a different budget, a different world. We are the 51st state in cinema and now TV is very hard competition.
Andrew Eaton: TV money is so much better for us, the deal is so much better for us because of the terms of trade. We’ve done a couple of shows in the last few years which were paid for by TV money predominantly. We did a show for BBC2 called The Trip; the first thing Michael [Winterbottom] and I did was to cut it into a film for Toronto, and we sold it for quite a lot of money. The BBC wanted to stop us showing it at the London Film Festival a couple of days before it went on TV and we were amazed they would think like that. It’s only extra publicity for what’s on TV. If we could find a way to get the broadcasters, and the BBC in particular, to think more imaginatively when it comes to platforms and how you could structure something, we can use our expertise to sell movies internationally, but we would have the TV money and the TV brand.
Damian Jones: This conversation is so refreshing and reflective of the nature of British producing because I don’t think about the overview every day. I’m at the coal face trying to get films made. I don’t step back and see the bigger picture which is daunting for the next generation. I always think of myself as an entrepreneur rather than a member of the British film industry.
Jeremy Thomas: Business is a dirty word here. Even producing has still got a crude image of someone with no understanding, brutalising everyone around them. But it’s not true. We’re all cultivated. I like literature, photography, design, art and music very much. I like all the elements that go into a movie; I also like business, the cut and thrust. If you’re a producer who has to go to the coal face many times with a film, you’ve got to enjoy it.
Alison Owen: Otherwise you’d have a nervous breakdown. Fortunately Ruby has been successful in converting a number of projects for TV.
Several of you have built sustainable businesses. How has that been achieved?
Alison Owen: Sustainable, but only just. It’s important that we own more of our own works and share in the revenue.
Robin Gutch: If you take a company like Warp, which was set up by Mark Herbert in his garage with public money coming from Screen Yorkshire and NESTA to get Chris Morris’ short funded, it wasn’t even conventional film funding. It’s very difficult to see where the sort of cultural and industrial investment which seeded our company is going to come from in the future.
Jeremy Thomas: Everyone is in the same position. I don’t think the industrialised industry is having an easy time either. They have to spend $200m to get it out on the same day everywhere to avoid the hateful crime of piracy which is killing our business. Our government needs to protect us from that crime. We should all join together and try and explain to another generation that this is harming the film business.
There is hope money will come back into production when VoD takes off. In the meantime, how are you making movies?
Andrew Eaton: We are probably all going to get by. The biggest problem is lack of aspiration. You look at the fashion industry or the gaming industry, they are so much more successful. They go directly to the public, there is a real relationship between the point of sale and the manufacturer. We don’t have that connection. We all get by because we’re all pretty smart at it. But it’s what comes after that is worrisome.
Alison Owen: Where are all the young people, the innovators? I’d love to see more younger people involved in the process than there currently are in the industry.
I don’t think a teenager really knows what a producer does.
Jeremy Thomas: There’s no dignity in the job because there are 50 producers on the film. Anyone gets a producer credit these days.
Stephen Woolley: That’s the reality in Hollywood. At the studios, they have their own development department, their own production managers, casting or music departments, they don’t need you to do that. When you make a film with a studio, you realise you’re the director’s mate, you’re the stars’ mate, that’s what you’re doing there. We don’t have the studio. Developing Made in Dagenham, I didn’t have a director two or three months before shooting. I look at how much it took at the box office last night, we do everything.
Jeremy Thomas: Most of us know how to direct the film, load the camera…
Stephen Woolley: I directed scenes in Made In Dagenham when Nigel [Cole] went off and had a baby. That’s how close we have to be to our films; that’s not what you do in Hollywood. So the whole notion of what a producer means is completely mucked up by the fact everyone in Hollywood is a producer. As a producer in LA, you’re a speck of sand on the beach. Here in Europe, we can develop material we like, things we’ve been inspired by. We thrive on that. The positive thing is that there is still a possibility of us as creative producers becoming involved in our material and excited about material and excited about making films.
Do English audiences want to see British films?
Alison Owen: Older ones do, I think. Younger audiences are less keen to see British films. I think there is the odd exception, like Shaun Of The Dead and StreetDance.
Robin Gutch: I think it’s partly because the British industry don’t make enough films for that audience. Kidulthood came out of leftfield because no-one was making films about teenagers at the time.
Alison Owen: The teenagers I know personally are generally less excited about the idea of British films. When they’ve got a little money, they would rather go see something American.
Nira, how did you connect with young audiences on Shaun Of The Dead? Were you specifically targeting a younger British audience?
Nira Park: It actually previewed terribly. I don’t think Universal quite knew what was going to happen. But just through their support and the support of people we had worked with in TV, buzz screenings and getting the word out there, it worked. It was a slow burn. It was the same with Hot Fuzz.
Damian Jones: The industry was completely taken by surprise with Adulthood’s opening weekend and subsequent success.
Andrew Eaton: I remember saying to the UK Film Council, ‘If you’re going to spend public money, why don’t you do a massive piece of market research into who’s going to see these films, like an advertiser would do?’ That would help us to come up with ideas.
Alison Owen: Even Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz were more a twenties demographic weren’t they? There is a big cultural reason why UK teenagers don’t go and see as many movies as American teenagers, which is the drinking age. They can’t get into bars in America until they are 21 so they go to the movies and rock concerts. They’ve got to go somewhere for a date.
What are the implications of having a studio-owned UK company like Working Title?
Jeremy Thomas: I like to have them as a competitor. And they are a beacon of what level of success can be reached in the international marketplace.
Stephen Woolley: Most of us around this table have worked with them. There has always been a Working Title-type company making films in the same arena as we are, whether that company be called Goldcrest or Handmade. They’re uniquely British but have a strong connection with a studio. They don’t just provide employment, they have a diverse output. They can make Shaun Of the Dead, Oscar-winning films or sequels to their comedies. They are essential as part of the business we are in and one of the most important elements of making films in Britain. It’s our responsibility around this table to keep Working Title or DNA alive. We want them to be successful. We all have to respect the fact that whenever one of us here has a hit movie, it keeps us all alive.
Jeremy Thomas: You cling on to anyone else’s success.
Stephen Woolley: I probably wouldn’t have been able to make a deal with Sony Classics [on Made In Dagenham] if it hadn’t been for An Education.
Andrew Eaton: The King’s Speech is going to help all of us.
Jeremy Thomas: We all produced it! [laughs]