Studio takes equity stake in brace of low-budget films

With the first two indie features rolling under its new production initiative, the U.K.’s historic Pinewood Studios is making good on its promise to invest in young British talent.

In doing so, the studio is hoping to position itself as a standard-bearer for the entire British film industry, and not just as a home away from home for Hollywood blockbusters.

The first film out was “A Fantastic Fear of Everything,” a $4.8 million comedy starring Simon Pegg, co-directed by Chris Hopewell and rock star Crispian Mills, which shot this summer. Pinewood is co-financing with Indomina and Universal.

The second, Omid Nooshin’s $2.5 million train thriller “Last Passenger” starring Dougray Scott, is shooting. Pinewood is investing alongside the British Film Institute, a notable alliance between culture and industry.

Despite Pinewood’s iconic status, a gulf has long existed between its sprawling lot in leafy Buckinghamshire and the creative community of independent British filmmakers who ply their trade in and around central London’s Soho district.

Since it was founded by flour millionaire J. Arthur Rank in 1936, Pinewood has always stood for commerce rather than art, best known for the James Bond and “Carry On” franchises.

In recent decades, it has prospered as an offshore haven for lavish Hollywood productions attracted by the U.K.’s tax breaks, talent and crews.

One veteran producer with a foot in both camps has labelled this schism between the industrialized model and the cultural model of British filmmaking as the Soho-Pinewood Divide. But now Pinewood, which also owns nearby Shepperton, is looking to bridge the gap.

In March, it announced a plan to invest in a handful of low-budget films each year from new British talent.

“We want to make sure Pinewood isn’t just perceived to be that big studio where they make the Bond films and the big American movies,” says the group’s commercial director, Nick Smith. “We’ve got to get more of an affinity with the younger generation of British filmmakers.”

Smith says current management, which took over the studio a decade ago from Rank, has long wanted to develop a much more intimate relationship with customers rather than just being known as a big facility.

“We’ve had an appetite for first-time directors to be our customers, but we’ve not given them the tools to come and use our facilities.”

Pinewood initially experimented with ad hoc investments in Noel Clarke’s “4.3.2.1″ and Jordan Scott’s “Cracks.” The results were mixed — Smith describes it as a learning experience — but encouraging enough for the studio to announce its more formal production initiative in March. The plan is to invest in four films a year with budgets around $3 million-$4 million, providing a mix of facilities and cash for an equity stake.

Pinewood received 100 scripts within a week of the announcement. True to the studio’s history, Smith, who is working closely with producer Steve Norris to select the projects, is looking for commercial, not arthouse, fare, but is committed to taking a risk on first-timers.

“We learned to have more discipline and more structure about the way packages are put together and the way you work with other investors” Smith says.

Smith insists that the initiative isn’t about filling spare capacity, but about building long-term relationships. In fact, Pinewood and Shepperton have been bursting at the seams this year, with even mega-budget projects such as “Prometheus,” “Dark Shadows” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” complaining they can’t get enough space. Both “A Fantastic Fear of Everything” and “Last Passenger” squeezed into Shepperton.

“It’s quite challenging, but we make every effort to satisfy the needs of absolutely everyone,” Smith says. “The history of the British film industry is full of peaks and troughs, so we’ve got to prepare for the next trough by building our relationships with people coming up.”

The sums involved for Pinewood are small, but the symbolic and political value is significant. The press release announcing the production plan contained an approving quote from the U.K.’s Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, which was a clear indication of Pinewood’s larger agenda.

The studio needs ministerial approval to OK its $320 million Project Pinewood expansion, whose planning application was initially blocked and is now being appealed. The final decision is expected some time in 2012.

More broadly, Pinewood toppers are acutely aware that the studio’s prosperity is dependent upon the British government’s willingness to maintain its generous tax credit for incoming Hollywood productions.

Execs are determined to show that Pinewood is not merely the passive recipient of the government’s largesse, but that its success benefits British filmmaking as a whole. “We have a brand, we have a position in the U.K. film industry, and we’re absolutely trying to step up to the plate,” Smith says. “We have a genuine desire to help British directors and producers who are struggling to get their films made.” n

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