U.S. players back Brit pics but with new cautious agenda

Focus Features made four British films in the past year, yet when it passed on financing the Sam Mendes drama “On Chesil Beach” this summer, it highlighted a significant shift in the Anglo-American relationship.

Despite the shakeout in the U.S. specialty sector, stalwarts such as Focus, the Weinstein Co., Sony Pictures Classics and Fox Searchlight remain key players in the Brit production game. But their approach has become more cautious, and their agenda more commercial.

“On Chesil Beach,” based on Ian McEwan’s novel and set to star Carey Mulligan, is the kind of blue-chip literary drama, developed under its deal with Mendes, that the distrib would have financed in an instant a couple of years ago.

But the marketplace has changed. With a budget hovering around $12 million, Focus simply couldn’t see the upside for such a niche project, however prestigious.

Overall, Focus clearly hasn’t lost its appetite for Brit fare. It has had a prolific year in U.K. production, with Kevin Macdonald’s Roman adventure “Eagle of the Ninth,” Joe Wright’s hit-girl thriller “Hanna,” Cary Fukunaga’s fresh take on lit classic “Jane Eyre” and Lone Scherfig’s rom-com “One Day.” Some of these pics were financed before Focus tightened its criteria, but all have a more commercial balance of genre and budget.

“Our money has to work harder now,” says Focus Intl.’s London-based president Alison Thompson. “The international market has diminished, DVD for specialized cinema in the U.S. is no longer delivering the same numbers, so our films have to have the potential to do better than they used to.”

Focus is now concentrating on two budget levels — $6 million-$8 million for niche fare, and $20 million for crossover projects. British films remain high on the agenda, partly because they tend to have more international appeal than U.S. indie pics. That helps Focus cover its risk with foreign sales. Focus also took international rights to Mike Leigh’s “Another Year,” which ended up selling to Sony Classics for domestic.

“Everyone here has a liking for quality, director-driven British material,” Thompson says. “We look at dozens of potential new projects every week. There’s stuff out there that’s potentially interesting, but unfortunately not a sensible marriage of budget and product. We’re still going through a process of educating ourselves about the new realities.”

Paul Trijbits of Ruby Films, the company behind “Jane Eyre” and “Tamara Drewe,” which pre-sold to SPC for the U.S., says, “It’s become much more black and white pre-selling to the Americans. If you hit all the elements they are looking for — an excellent script, a director somebody loves and the right budget — they will still go for it. But in the past, they might have taken a gamble on something where those elements weren’t all exactly right.”

Adds SPC topper Michael Barker: “What hasn’t changed is that we’re very much filmmaker-driven. We very much wanted to be involved again with Stephen Frears. What’s different is that you have to make an educated guess about the type of independent film the public is there for at any given moment.

“What’s also different is that a couple of years ago we would become involved with budgets on a much higher level than right now, with the attrition of DVD in the specialized market,” he adds.

Miramax may have gone, but a revitalized Harvey Weinstein is also back on the hunt for the kind of British projects he built his original empire upon.

“We will continue to be very active and bullish,” says TWC’s U.K.-based exec Lucas Webb. “Harvey has a long-running history in taking the best of British talent and cinema round the world and crossing it over into the mainstream. But of course, everyone’s more conservative these days.”

Over the past couple of years, TWC pre-bought “Nowhere Boy,” “The King’s Speech” and “My Week With Marilyn,” which is currently shooting. It’s no coincidence that all three are about iconic figures easy to communicate to a global audience — John Lennon, King George VI and Marilyn Monroe. But as evidence that the company will still take risks on new talent, Webb points out two are by first-time directors, Sam Taylor-Wood and Simon Curtis.

“It’s about the right material, the right talent and the right price,” Webb says. “We’ll pre-buy if something ticks all the boxes, but if it’s a bit riskier, we might look at an acquisition further down the line, as we did with ‘Submarine’ at Toronto. But in tough economic times, we still support British stories and British filmmakers.”

Fox Searchlight is the most enigmatic of the specialty labels still active in Blighty. “Never Let Me Go” is the last of several films Searchlight backed under its longstanding co-financing pact with U.K. producer DNA Films. Searchlight also co-financed Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours,” an American project produced by the same British team that made “Slumdog Millionaire.” Beyond those specific relationships, however, Searchlight isn’t hunting widely for U.K.-based material.

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