Quest for U.S. financing compels BIFA to redefine British indie film

LONDON — Blighty’s state of independence has been redefined. With recent changes to the British Independent Film Awards’ (BIFA’s) rules, another chapter has been added to the saga surrounding those baffling conundrums, “What’s indie and what’s not?” and the even more touchy “What’s British and what’s not?”

BIFA now admits pics financed through U.K. offshoots of the U.S. majors as long as they qualify as “British” under Blighty’s tax authority rules and don’t exceed a budget of $15 million.

It’s an approach that aims to be as inclusive as possible while acknowledging “how difficult it is for independent producers to get films made,” explains BIFA topper Johanna von Fischer.

Adds indie producer Pippa Cross of BIFA’s advisory committee: “We have to move with the times and constantly make sure that we’re allowing in every film, which should be part of our process for the broadest possible reasons. We should welcome all foreign money to this country, because that’s what’s serving the industry best. It doesn’t serve the industry to be excluding our colleagues, talent or cash.”

U.K. Film Council’s Premier Fund topper Sally Caplan, who’s also on the BIFA committee, acknowledges that, ideally, studio-financed films would be excluded, but that the quality of the movie is what matters, regardless of who supplies the cash.

“That’s a feature of independent filmmaking: to be execution-dependent rather than star- or effects-driven, which is usually the case when it’s below a certain budget level,” Caplan says.

DNA Films co-topper Allon Reich, whose outfit is 50%-owned by Fox Searchlight, concurs.

“The budget usually defines levels of creative freedom,” he says. “The higher the budget, the bigger the pressure. On the whole, there’s no definitive definition of ‘independent,’ and at least the new BIFA one is clear and does make some sense.”

DNA productions are likely to benefit from the regulations, as are Working Title pics, since Working Title is owned by Universal.

However, Working Title did not score any BIFA noms this year.

Meanwhile, DNA’s “The Last King of Scotland” and “The History Boys,” which are up for multiple BIFAs, might have passed even under the old regulations, given that both are co-productions with Fox acting as one of several sources of finance. The only pic that probably would not have been admitted under the old regulations is HBO’s “Starter for Ten.”

Still, in previous years, BIFA admitted “Shaun of the Dead,” which was produced and financed by Working Title’s low-budget arm, WT2.

“We let ‘Shaun of the Dead’ through because it so obviously encapsulates the spirit of low-budget British independent filmmaking,” Cross says. “Independence is as much about the targets you set and the kind of film you want to make as it is about finance.”

In effect, one could argue that the regulations clarify lines that had previously been blurred.

Cross says that while producers of single-finance films don’t have the same problems of raising coin as indie producers, they still have the same monetary pressures when comes to spending.

“The less money you have, the more challenging it is to produce a film, no matter if you have a studio behind you or not,” she says.

“But why don’t they just call it the ‘British Low-Budget Awards?’ ” counters “The History Boys” and “Venus” producer Kevin Loader, who’s not in favor of admitting studio-

financed pics to the BIFAs. “You have to ask what ‘independent’ means, and it doesn’t mean a film wholly financed by a U.S. studio.”

While Loader is not the only one who thinks that BIFA got it wrong, many Brit bizzers believe that the awards’ purpose is to raise the profile of homegrown talent rather than debate ad nauseam whether a pic is truly independent.

“I’m in favor of the changes because it’s rewarding the talent that we’re also interested in,” Pathe-U.K. topper Francois Ivernel says. “It’s good for the talent, and that way it’s good for us.”

Indeed, British talent has been squeezed most as the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards increasingly turn to Hollywood.

“Technically, BAFTA has no ‘Britishness’ restrictions, and its decisions are not jury-based,” Pathe-U.K.’s financial topper Cameron McCracken says. “What that means in practice is that the BAFTAs have been able to sacrifice some of their ‘Britishness’ to position themselves as a keystone in the Oscar campaigns for Hollywood movies.”

It’s that “Britishness” gap that BIFA intends to fill.

“BAFTA brings the spotlight to Britain, and we can benefit from that and say, ‘Well, what about all those wonderful British films?’ That’s why we thank BAFTA, because they made space for BIFA to grow,” von Fischer says.

The conclusion of many is that for BIFA to grow and to turn into a notable platform for British talent, it needs access to studio-financed pics — and while these pics might not pass as indie in financial terms, BIFA would be shooting its own foot if it didn’t nominate pics that fit the indie picture at least creatively.

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