U.S. plays prominent role in financing U.K. indies

LONDON — This year’s nominations for the British Independent Film Awards are dominated, paradoxically, by the American majors.

Of the five movies competing for top British Independent Film, only one, Anton Corbijn’s “Control,” was made without any U.S. studio finance.

Buena Vista (now renamed Disney) prebought U.K. rights to both Anand Tucker’s “And When Did You Last See Your Father?” and David Mackenzie’s “Hallam Foe,” Focus Features produced David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises,” and Richard Eyre’s “Notes of a Scandal” was bankrolled and distributed by Fox Searchlight.

The same pattern is repeated further down the list, with nods for Miramax/ BVI’s (now Disney Intl.’s) “Becoming Jane” and Fox/ DNA’s “Sunshine” and “28 Weeks Later.”

Independence is clearly an elastic concept where the U.K. film industry is concerned — and so is Britishness, with two director nominees (Corbijn and Cronenberg), six of the 15 acting nominees (Anne Hathaway, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Viggo Mortensen, Cillian Murphy, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Cate Blanchett) and two of the debut helmer candidates (Corbijn again, and David Schwimmer) coming from elsewhere.

And that’s not counting director nominee Tucker, who grew up in the Far East of Indian/German parentage, but has lived and worked in the U.K. since his teens.

These are issues that the BIFA organizers have wrestled with over the 10 years since the awards were founded as an alternative to the more Hollywood-centric BAFTAs. But in the end, enlightened pragmatism has won out over ideology — just as it did in the decision to nominate Kierston Wareing as most promising newcomer for her performance in Ken Loach’s “It’s a Free World,” even though the film was made for TV.

The BIFAs avoid adhering to a strict interpretation of their name to spotlight the essential strength of British cinema, which takes money and talent promiscuously from anywhere it can find them and, at its best, is truly independent from narrow parochial preconceptions.

What could be more English, after all, than “Control,” the black-and-white story of Ian Curtis — the lead singer of Manchester’s seminal post-punk band Joy Division? Yet the movie was directed by a Dutchman, produced by an American (Orian Williams) and financed by a diverse combination of Corbijn’s own cash, the Australian sales company Becker Intl. and a U.K. presale to Canadian-owned distrib Momentum Pictures.

“Eastern Promises” and “Notes on a Scandal” both present authentic visions of contemporary London — but the first pic is filtered through the dark lens of Canadian auteur Cronenberg, and the latter is given American pacing and production values by New York uber-producer Scott Rudin. Although BBC Films had a toehold in both movies, Focus and Fox were the dominant partners.

The U.S. majors and their specialty arms have long been important allies for U.K. producers and financiers. BBC Films, in particular, has skewed toward Hollywood co-production in the past year or so, in a bid to make bigger movies for a wider audience. DNA Films, co-producer of “Notes on a Scandal” and producer of “28 Weeks Later” and “Sunshine,” represents a marriage between studio distribution and U.K. Film Council lottery finance.

Film4′s presence on this year’s BIFA list offers a more classically British flavor. BVI (Disney) may have distributed Tucker’s “And When …” and Mackenzie’s Scottish oedipal drama “Hallam Foe,” but both were projects pieced together painstakingly, and at times painfully, by feistily independent local producers — Steve Woolley and Gillian Berrie, respectively.

Film4 also has nods for another low-budget pic grappling with contempo multicultural London, “Brick Lane” (showcasing the talent of debut helmer Sarah Gavron) and for the docs “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten,” “Deep Water” and “In the Shadow of the Moon.”

Still, this year’s BIFAs aren’t completely lacking true independent movies made entirely beyond the industry mainstream, as represented either by the U.K.’s public financiers or by the U.S. studios.

Indeed, “Control” proves that it’s still possible for outsiders to break through — though aside from “Control,” these films are generally confined to the “best achievement in production” category.

TIP SHEET

What: 10th annual British Independent Film Awards

Where: The Roundhouse, London

When: 6:45 p.m. Nov. 28

Top nominees: “Control” (10 noms), “And When Did You Last See Your Father?” (seven), “Hallam Foe” (six)

Web: bifa.org.uk

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