U.K. Production wing faces challenging '09

It certainly wasn’t a disappointing first foray down the red carpet at the Golden Globes for Film4 topper Tessa Ross, who is credited with breathing life back into the film production wing of Blighty’s troubled pubcaster Channel 4.

“Slumdog Millionaire,” which was developed and co-financed by Ross after she optioned the book it is based on at manuscript stage, won the four categories it was up for, including best film and director for Danny Boyle.

That wasn’t the only good news for Ross, as two other Film4-funded pics triumphed on the night.

Sally Hawkins, the energetic lead of Mike Leigh’s London-set comedy “Happy-Go-Lucky” won the actress (comedy or musical) prize and Colin Farrell scored actor (comedy or musical) for his turn in Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges.”

Just back at Channel 4’s London HQ after a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles, Ross is still buzzing from the Globes recognition. “My cheeks ached from smiling — it was like I was at my wedding. There was so much love for ‘Slumdog’ and there was so much British talent in the room,” says Ross, who is controller of film and drama at Channel 4.

Despite the Globes success and growing Oscar buzz for “Slumdog,” it is not all good news for Film4, which faces a challenging 2009.

Commercially funded but publicly owned, Channel 4 (of which Film4 is a unit) has been hard hit by the deteriorating advertising market. Last April, it announced its first operating loss since 1992, and in September, it axed 150 staffers, 15% of its workforce, as part of cuts aimed at saving £100 million ($140 million) over two years.

So far, none of the six Film4 editorial staff have been pinkslipped, says a relieved Ross.

Channel 4 CEO Andy Duncan is lobbying the government hard for a public subsidy of approximately $185 million a year by 2012 to fund its public service commitments. However, it looks as if the pols are leaning toward a merger of Channel 4 and RTL-owned web Five.

With budgets being tightened, will Ross be able to repeat her Film4 successes since she rebuilt the film arm in 2002, including “The Last King of Scotland” and “The Motorcycle Diaries?”

“The squeeze will go on. All I can do is keep going with a little bit of cutting and some shadow boxing,” says Ross, who knows she won’t be getting the $15 million budget she’s had every year since she took the Film4 job.

“Until budgets are clear, I’m taking on very little. I don’t want to close the doors, but I have to be realistic about the fact that there’s not going to be a massive amount of activity.”

Film4 will likely commit to five-to-seven projects this year and fight to keep previous commitments alive.

To some extent, Ross agrees that “Slumdog’s” success will make Film4 one of the last Channel 4 divisions to feel the pain.

“Big, noisy success is brilliant, and it’s hugely valuable at making an organization visible at times of great pressure,” she says. But she doesn’t expect to produce a “Slumdog” every year.

She sees Film4’s role in developing emerging Brit filmmaking talent as important than awards kudos.

“Public service is defined by its ability to take risks,” she says, and adds that her mission is to “create a new mainstream by going to the edges.”

The edges excite Ross, who is enthusiastic about Film4’s deal with Mark Herbert’s digital film studio Warp X, which has delivered a string of youth-skewed, low-budget pics including “Donkey Punch” and “A Complete History of My Sexual Failures.”

Another key objective is providing established Brit talent with a home they can return to — “a growing Film4 family,” as she puts it.

She is immensely proud that directors Mike Leigh, Kevin Macdonald and Shane Meadows have returned.

“We’ll bring you the best British stuff, we’ll seed it, we’ll stand by our filmmakers,” she promises the paymasters.

As a result of Ross’ insistence on fostering the new and cherishing the old, Film4’s upcoming slate includes Ken Loach’s “Looking for Eric,” a project partly originated by Gallic soccer star  turned thesp Eric Cantona; Macdonald’s “Eagle of the Ninth”; and Leigh’s untitled 2009 project.

New relations are struck with artist-turned-filmmaker Sam Taylor Wood, who makes her feature bow with “Nowhere Boy,” the Matt Greenhalgh-penned account of the late John Lennon’s early life.

Hiring a debut director from the art world is a risk but, as Ross points out, so was making “Slumdog.”

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