Unit to be integrated into fiction department

The BBC has embarked upon a major restructuring of its film production activities that will see BBC Films cease to exist in its current form as a dedicated movie unit separate from the rest of the pubcaster.

BBC controller of fiction Jane Tranter, who already oversees BBC Films, is understood to be planning to take more direct control of the film operations.

Although many details of this transition are yet to be resolved, BBC Films likely will move from its separate office in central London back to BBC Television Center in west London, where it will be integrated into Tranter’s fiction department.

It’s unclear whether BBC Films topper David M. Thompson will accept a different, and possibly diminished, role within this new structure or choose to move on after 12 years at the helm.

Responding to questions about whether the more integrated film operation would still have its own dedicated legal, biz and production team, Tranter said: “I envisage a group of people as dedicated to film as they are now, but more within earshot.”

Jane Wright, head of rights and commercial affairs at BBC Films, will be switching to a different role, although still exclusively focused upon film. The position of Isabel Begg, head of legal and business affairs, is reportedly unresolved.

BBC Films head of production Suzy Liddell, in charge of budgets and physical production, has already accepted a larger job as head of production across the Beeb’s entire drama slate.

Although BBC Film’s annual $20 million budget for film development and production will remain in place within Tranter’s larger drama budget, the BBC’s promise to increase its film investment by another $10 million this year, with a further rise again in 2008, looks increasingly unlikely to be fulfilled.

That commitment, made last year in a joint memorandum of understanding with the U.K. Film Council, was contingent upon the British government awarding to the BBC a hefty rise in its license fee funding. However, the pubcaster received a lower increase than it was hoping for, straining all of its budgets.

As word of the changes at BBC Films spread along the Croisette, concerns were raised among producers, financiers and U.S. studio execs that the new configuration could jeopardize the central position of BBC Films within the British movie industry. In recent years, the specialty arms of the Hollywood majors have come to regard BBC Films, along with Film4, as the primary source of high-end Brit projects for them to co-finance.

The current BBC Films slate includes “Revolutionary Road,” directed by Sam Mendes and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, co-financed with DreamWorks; Justin Chadwick’s “The Other Boleyn Girl,” starring Scarlet Johansson, Natalie Portman and Eric Bana, co-financed by Sony and Focus; Julian Jarrold’s “Brideshead Revisited,” co-financed by Miramax; David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises,” starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts and co-financed by Focus; and Gillian Armstrong’s “Death Defying Acts,” co-financed by the Weinstein Co.

It remains to be seen if BBC Films will be able to navigate such relationships as successfully when it loses the freedom and flexibility of its separate identity and structure and becomes absorbed within the BBC fiction department. Some industry insiders believe that, in any case, Tranter is skeptical about whether it’s appropriate for the pubcaster to invest in such big budget, star-laden international projects.

“BBC Films needs to do two things: to be the first place of excellence for films in the U.K., and to make films that are BBC films,” Tranter said.

Regarding whether an integrated unit will have the necessary flexibility for film deals, she said, “It’s a different marketplace, a different way of doing business, and the uniqueness of that must be preserved; otherwise, there’s no point.”

Tranter is one of the BBC’s fastest rising execs, and she’s highly rated by producers. But even her supporters are concerned that the amount of time she will be able to devote to film will be limited. That she is at the L.A. Screenings, rather than the Cannes Film Festival, is taken by some as an indicator of how thinly stretched she will be.

Reached in L.A., Tranter commented, “It’s true that BBC Films and television drama commissioning are moving toward a much closer relationship. The synergy between films and TV echoes that seen in other areas of our industry, and we want to allow for greater cross-pollination.”

She explained that she had “not yet worked through exactly how best to achieve this closeness,” acknowledging that “the uniqueness of both film and TV needs to be protected.”

“The corporation’s support of, and investment in, both areas will continue more powerfully than ever,” she added. “Both BBC Films and BBC drama are doing very well at the moment … and we hope that linking them more closely together will lead them on to even greater heights of creativity, modernization and excellence.”

Thompson could not be reached for comment.

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