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British New Wave Rides on Market Changes

As Seen in Variety

Published: 17 May 2019

The U.K. production scene has been dominated by a phalanx of successful producers for many years. A fresh wave of U.K.-based producers is now also getting international attention. The producers are navigating a business that offers unparalleled opportunity, and facing fundamental challenges. With the key funders putting an emphasis on inclusion and diversity, female producers have risen to the fore and the new faces also reflects modern, multicultural Britain.

“There is a great old guard we can look up to, but also such excitement about debut British filmmakers,” says Julia Nottingham, who produced Lucy Cohen’s “Kingdom of Us” and “XY Chelsea,” which premiered at Tribeca. “If you look at the BIFAs [British Independent Film Awards] and BAFTA debuts, the films are so exciting, and the good thing is that financiers are up for taking those risks and finding new talent.”

Nottingham set up Dorothy Street Pictures last year and Great Point Media secured investment for her. It has also injected funding into Creative England’s iFeatures debut filmmakers initiative, which has yielded features including William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth.” Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, who is Irish but London-based, produced the film and applauds Creative England and the BFI for taking a chance on the team. “We hadn’t made anything before so that was a great risk,” she says. “It’s those sort of funders that allow us to break into the industry and give us the time and space to figure out what sort of filmmakers we want to be.”

The reality for many is doing commercials and/or third-party work alongside building out their own slates and there are calls for better early-stage support. “There needs to be an acknowledgement of the work producers do during development,” says O’Reilly, who is finishing up on “Ammonite” with Francis Lee. “That’s so undervalued and that lack of acknowledgement means that work doesn’t equate to earnings.”

Veteran producer Michael Kuhn, one of the founders of Inside Pictures, a training and networking program for film executives and producers, says independent producers are adept at finding ways to prosper during times of change, noting the advent of the streamers in the current environment, and acknowledging the tough sales environment and decline of home video. Kuhn thinks the English funders need to be better at helping the emerging producers build sustainable indie businesses at a time when retaining rights is more challenging than ever.

How and when fees are paid is an ongoing discussion. “Producers are getting together and talking about these things, and talking to [producers’ lobbying group] PACT and BBC Films and Film4,” says Sarah Brocklehurst, producer of “Animals,” which Emma Jane Unsworth adapted from her own novel and premiered at Sundance. “It would be great to see some principles, and guidelines implemented, and to curtail some of the practices and expectations that have become quite common.”

Australian Sophie Hyde helmed “Animals.” Having a director from beyond the home turf of the main U.K. backers makes it harder to win their support, but also opens up opportunities. “Even if you don’t get money from your obvious British funders you can keep going,” Brocklehurst says. “British producers should be thinking more about co-production. It’s what [continental] Europeans do and it means you can access more soft money.”

“We’ve started realizing it’s easier for us to get support in [continental] Europe, where the potential to get interest in the form of a co-production is higher,” says Merlin Merton, co-founder of Blue Shadows and producer of Dekel Berenson’s “Anna,” which is in the shorts competition at Cannes. “There seems a greater emphasis on forming transnational relationships in Europe, which is lacking in the U.K. at an indie level.”

Through his Silvertown Films banner, Bennett McGhee is taking an international approach and teeing up projects with French, German and U.S. partners. He is producing “Mughal Mowgli,” which stars Riz Ahmed, who co-wrote and is also producing, the debut feature from Bassam Tariq, a winner at Sundance for short “Ghosts of Sugar Land.” Pulse Films produces and BBC Films is financing. “With the projects I pick and the talent I work with I’m trying to be really international,” he says. “I have a U.K. political thriller [“Reason of State”] written by Matthew Orton, who’s an amazing young British writer. It has a German director, and Black Bear Pictures in the States are financing it.”

McGhee won a BFI Vision Award, which gives emerging producer and filmmakers funding to develop slates. Michelle Stein, founder of Manchester-based Escape Films, and Emily Morgan, producer of Rungano Nyoni’s “I am Not a Witch,” have also been recipients. They are among the producers who say they value the BBC Films, BFI and Film4 support, but are also thinking more broadly.

“They can’t fund everything,” says Morgan. “I’ve made contacts at other financiers including with Jim Reeve [at Great Point Media] … then there are really interesting players like Mubi, with what Bobby [Allen] is doing there, forging his production and development department, and the sales agents.”

Stein is exec producing Moin Hussein’s Cannes Critics’ Week short “Naptha.” Film4 backed the short and is behind the writer and director’s first feature, “Birchanger Green,” which Stein will produce. She says the sales agents are active, but unless major talent is attached are more likely to come in when there is flesh on the bones. “If you have a draft already and want to do revisions, or a later-stage development, they are more open to that because they know what it is by that point; those funds tend to be skewed to later-stage development,” she says.

Altitude Films, Independent and Protagonist Pictures are among the sales firms active in production. A good reason for them to be involved is the threat of the streamers who will take global rights off the table. David Kosse is formulating Netflix’s international film strategy from the U.K.

“I think they are interested but also very selective — it’s not easy to take a film to the streamers if you don’t know them,” says Dominic Buchanan. He does know them, having produced Netflix’s breakout hit series “End of the F***ing World.”

Having set out to work with filmmakers from different backgrounds and ethnicities, Buchanan says the U.K. business is more diverse, but more needs to be done. “A lot of people are talking the talk, but I haven’t seen that many buyers buying these films and exhibitors putting them out. And that feeds into my TV thinking too — are these stories better served on television where there is a proven audience for them?”

Moving into TV is following the money with TV drama booming. There is also a creative rationale, says “Gwen” producer Tom Nash, who joined Ink Factory last year. “You can focus on the creative and what’s best for the project, and that [film or TV] decision can come further down the line,” he says.

Personnel changes at BBC Films and Film4 have spurred renewed competition between the two and the wider U.K. scene is evolving fast. The new wave of producers are finding their place in that changing landscape.

Written by Stewart Clarke.