Company has films screening at Cannes, $65 mil deal

Five years after U.K. pubcaster Channel 4 cut its movie arm back to basics, Film4 is finally firing on all cylinders again.

The company is advancing on all fronts, with Lenny Abrahamson’s tiny Irish movie “Garage” premiering in Director’s Fortnight, Harmony Korine’s “Mister Lonely” in Un Certain Regard, the $25 million Gotham satire “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” pre-selling strongly in the market, and a $65 million deal just closed with DreamWorks for its biggest ever project, Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones.”

It’s been a long road back from the turmoil of 2002, when drama topper Tessa Ross was given the task of rebuilding the production operation virtually from ground zero, shorn of its distribution arm and with a modest $20 million annual budget.

“For the first time in four or five years, I think people feel Film4 is doing what it was built for 25 years ago, feeding creative talent, nurturing an industry,” Ross says. “I feel there’s proper creative juice now.”

Her confidence has been buoyed by the success of Kevin Macdonald’s “The Last King of Scotland” and Shane Meadows’ “This Is England.”

Yet her two most visible upcoming projects, the Simon Pegg-Kirsten Dunst comedy “How to Lose Friends” and “Lovely Bones,” are the only two left over from Film4’s previous, more expansive regime.

Neither is typical of the new Film4 — except in the creative values that her team has brought to nurturing them.

” ‘Lovely Bones’ is not our business, it’s not what we do,” she says. “It’s not our job to go out and buy American literature and set it up with a big director, and I can’t imagine that this would repeat itself.

“But what we did was make a point of caring a lot about the author of that novel and the public who loved it. It was important that we had to show the publishing industry and the film industry that we cared enough to help it reach its fullest potential.”

That effectively meant handing the project over to Jackson when he came knocking, and supporting him in where he wanted to take it — which, given Steven Spielberg’s long interest in the book and his friendship with the author Alice Sebold, unsurprisingly turned out to be DreamWorks.

“I’m the titular executive producer, and I’ll contribute as much as Peter asks me to,” Ross says. “At the moment I seem to be getting a lot of emails.”

It’s a long way from such heady Hollywood heights to the edgy low-budget territory of F4 projects such as “Hunger,” the biopic of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands by video artist Steve McQueen, or human trafficking thriller “Hush” from digital studio Warp X.

But the common factor, says Ross, is a determination to help the filmmakers realize their vision.

“We’re not looking for types of films. We’re not saying we need a romantic comedy, a horror movie, a historical drama. We’re deliberately led by the nose by what the filmmakers want to do.”

That can mean making telepics for rapid U.K. broadcast which get a theatrical life abroad, such as Michael Winterbottom’s “Road to Guantanamo,” Gabriel Range’s “Death of a President” and Ken Loach’s upcoming “These Times.”

Peter Carlton, Film4’s senior production exec under Ross, believes the banner is moving into a more cosmopolitan phase. “We were very, very British-centred in the first few years, but now we’re recognizing that some stories merit an outside eye,” he says.

There’s a strong international flavor to many of Film4’s upcoming projects — whether that involves U.K. filmmakers looking abroad for stories, or foreign directors casting their eye upon Britain.

Film4 is working with Danny Boyle on his next project, “Slumdog Millionaire,” based on a novel about an Indian streetkid who wins the local version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

It’s also backing “Vinyan,” a supernatural thriller set in Thailand to be directed by Belgian helmer Fabrice Du Welz, starring Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Beart; and “Unmade Beds,” a relationship drama about young Londoners by Argentine helmer Alexis dos Santos.

Among larger-scale projects, F4 is putting together the finance for Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s “How I Live Now,” set in a war-torn Britain of the near future, to shoot later this year.

Winterbottom is heading to Italy to shoot “Genova,” an emotional ghost story about a family dealing with bereavement.

Sarah Gavron is in post on her movie about the Bangladeshi community in east London, “Brick Lane”; Anglo-Irish auteur Martin McDonagh has shot his dark hitman comedy “In Bruges” in Belgium for F4 and Focus; and Asif Kapadia is finishing his Arctic-set drama “Far North.”

Projects currently lensing are more traditionally British include the latest Mike Leigh pic, and Sharon Maguire’s London terrorist drama “Incendiary.” Anand Tucker’s family drama “And When Did You Last See Your Father?” had its market premiere in Cannes.

Ross hopes that some of these follow the path blazed by “Last King of Scotland,” which “represents the best of our ambition, to grab world attention” with projects that have “a slightly different taste.”

“A lot of filmmakers now feel we are their home,” she says. “Kevin Macdonald may go off and make big studio movies, but when he wants to do something that he knows I can support, where he knows my money can help him, where I can win meaningful battles, he’ll come back here.”

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