Yorkshire rejects Kuhn studio

Former Polygram topper Michael Kuhn and veteran producer Simon Relph were forced last week to abandon their long-held dream to launch a low-budget British movie studio.

A decade after Relph drafted his first blueprint, two years after he teamed up with Kuhn, and 14 months since they were awarded funding by the U.K. Film Council and Film4, the project fell apart when one key partner, Screen Yorkshire, got cold feet just hours before the final deadline to complete the financing.

Both Kuhn and Relph are adamant that there’s no going back. “We lost, move on,” says Kuhn bluntly. “It’s been a very, very long road, and to fall at the final hurdle is agonizing,” adds Relph. “I don’t believe it’s revivable.”

That’s a heavy blow not just for everyone involved, but also for the U.K. film biz, which is still over-reliant on investment from Hollywood, and desperately short of locally-owned companies capable of financing, producing and distributing their own movies.

Kuhn and Relph were bidding to raise £10 million ($19 million) to bankroll ten movies over three years. With budgets kept at a realistic level to recoup from the U.K. alone over the life of the slate, distribution guaranteed in advance, and filmmakers given generous backend in return for reduced fees, they hoped to lay the foundations for a viable business that would also give talent a real stake in the upside.

The UKFC and Film4 awarded £3 million ($5.7 million) to the venture last August, conditional on raising the rest of the finance. That took longer than hoped — the deadline was extended twice, and finally fixed at the end of October this year.

Kuhn forged an alliance with low-budget specialist Vertigo Films, the ruthlessly commercial outfit behind such lad-oriented pics as “The Football Factory” and “Dirty Sanchez: The Movie.” Vertigo agreed to bring its private investors, U.K. distribution and some of its own projects, starting with “Bronson,” a pic about Britain’s most violent prisoner.

That left the final piece in the jigsaw — a deal with one of the U.K.’s regional film agencies. Several had expressed interest, but Screen Yorkshire in northeastern England was the most passionate. The plan was for the org to invest £1 million ($1.9 million), in return for the studio setting up its HQ in the culturally vibrant Yorkshire city of Leeds.

But when the final application was submitted to Screen Yorkshire in early October, org was clearly troubled by the fact that both Kuhn and Vertigo would oversee the business from London. (Because of his age, the 66-year-old Relph had decided to take a back seat.) The board requested further detail about the benefit to the region.

This clarification was delivered on Oct. 30, with evidence that every pound spent would generate four times as much for the local economy. But at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 31, the message came back that the proposals weren’t “Yorkshire-centric” enough, and had been rejected.

“We were very enamored of the whole energy in Leeds, but always made very clear this was a national initiative. It was never intended to be a regional initiative to benefit one region as opposed to any others,” Relph says. “The whole thing is a bit mystifying.”

Although disappointed by the outcome, Screen Yorkshire production chief Hugo Heppell argues that it was natural for his board to be cautious, given that the coin requested was 20% of its entire investment fund across all media for the next four years. Heppell wasn’t party to the board’s deliberations, but suggests it might have responded more positively if Kuhn and Vertigo had submitted their final analysis the first time around.

As a result, everyone lost out. Screen Yorkshire may never get a better chance to attract a major national venture to its region. Kuhn and Relph, who were always driven more by idealism than by any thought of personal gain, have wasted years of effort.

Don’t count Kuhn out, however. He may have abandoned this particular scheme to help build a sustainable film industry, but he’s always got another bright idea up his sleeve.

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