'12 Years Slave' Backer Channel 4

Channel 4 chief David Abraham (far left) tells Variety that the role of its filmmaking arm Film4 is unchanged despite the impending departure of its boss Tessa Ross (above, with Channel 4 chairman Terence Burns and Steve McQueen)

LONDON – Speaking to Variety, David Abraham, chief executive of U.K. broadcaster Channel 4, has reaffirmed the network’s support for independent British filmmaking following news that Tessa Ross, controller of film and drama, is to leave in September.

Ross has been a doughty champion of innovative and risk-taking independent filmmaking during her decade-long tenure as head of Channel 4’s filmmaking arm Film4, which has backed such films as Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” and Kevin Macdonald’s “The Last King of Scotland.”

This approach to filmmaking, which is in line with Channel 4’s remit to deliver content to the audience that “demonstrates innovation, experiment and creativity in the form and content of programs,” and that “exhibits a distinctive character,” will continue after Ross’ departure, Abraham says, but her successor will be encouraged to shape Film4’s editorial policy.

“In a creative leadership role like this there’s a clear set of parameters set out in our remit,” he says. “What I would expect is that the tastes and the passions of the person who takes the role will, over time, build on what Tessa has done, and inevitably there will be new flavors that will come from that leadership.”

Abraham emphasizes that the basic strategy of Film4 will not change.

“There is a clear link in our remit around what we are meant to be doing with Film4 in terms of that balance between both developing new talent and supporting established talent in projects that have a very distinctive flavor, and doing that in as sustainable way as we can, because Channel 4 is doing this from within the body of its activity as a broadcaster, and effectively the funding of Film4 comes from within the revenues that we generate as a commercial broadcaster.”

Abraham also underscores the link between Film4 productions and the Film4 channel and Channel 4 in terms of the windowing of the films once they come out of theatrical distribution.

“That basic model that underpins it won’t change, but of course you’d want a strong creative leader to bring their own perspective to their editorial choices,” he says.

Ross’ departure is unlikely to have a large impact on Channel 4’s drama output as the part she plays in this respect is a “support role” to the head of drama, Piers Wenger, Abraham says.

“There is often overlap in terms of talent between film and drama, so you want a close collaboration. On a day-to-day basis our drama is run by Piers,” Abraham says.

“Because Tessa has a drama background, there are a certain number of talent relationships that she would have supported Piers in, but there’s quite a lot that he would have brought in himself and will continue to do that once Tessa goes.”

Given that Channel 4 is a “pretty intimate organization,” in Abraham’s words, Ross and Wenger, who reports to Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s chief creative officer, have worked closely together, and that is likely to be true of Ross’ successor too.

“There would have been a regular conversation between Tessa and Piers around directors, writers, and creative opportunities, and certain projects migrated between the teams, so the work of Shane Meadows began at Film4 and migrated into drama, and the work of Danny Boyle has been in Film4 but recently migrated into Piers’ drama team,” Abraham says, referring to Boyle’s recent TV police drama “Babylon.”

“That is one of the things that enrich Channel 4’s relationship with talent, in that we are offering opportunities in both mediums. That is increasingly where the energy is these days, between film and TV,” he says.

Channel 4’s approach to filmmaking will remain distinct from that of the BBC, he says.

“We are more experimental. We have got a stronger track record in working with first-time directors… and that has been reflected quite often in the awards for first-time filmmakers,” he says.

“The BBC’s editorial choices tend to be somewhat more mainstream than ours, and our product is a bit more youthful, and has a bit more edge and is more experimental. ‘Under the Skin,’ which was in development for about 10 years, is a piece of work that is clearly experimenting in so many aspects of filmmaking, and that connects to, again, some of the core purposes of Channel 4 that is to experiment in the forms of the medium.”

The British production sector has been evolving in the past few years, with several production companies having been bought by Hollywood majors or other multinational media companies. To help sustain the independent sector, Channel 4 has launched its Growth Fund, through which it will invest up to £20 million ($33.3 million) over three years to take minority stakes in small- and medium-sized independent production companies to help them grow and develop.

Abraham says that this move to assist fledgling companies is in line with the broadcaster’s remit. “One of the reasons we are doing that is that in order to deliver the remit of supporting the new, one does need to have a healthy ecosystem in which you are counter-balancing the consolidation that exists amongst the bigger companies, and that is certainly the case in terms of television production.

“In film, there are so many different sources of funding and finance, there are so many different vehicles out there, that if anything it could be argued that, particularly in a more buoyant economy, there are too many films being made, and not enough films that have enough of a platform. And I think that is another thing that distinguishes what we offer because we have the dedicated Film4 television channel, which is the biggest thematic film channel in the country in terms of viewing, and the opportunity to draw attention, audiences and critical noise around the projects that we do,” he says.

“The economics of the industry, at the end of (the value chain) where the entrants are coming in is quite fragile. Through the BFI, Channel 4 and the BBC there is a significant amount of support for newer and more experimental work, which informs people’s careers longer term, because you would expect younger directors to be more experimental early on and then to evolve their arts as they become more established, and that transition from the start to the more mainstream is where we are particularly good, because we have proven that we have given a platform to people who can demonstrate their talents, and go on to do much bigger and broader projects as they mature in their careers, and that’s the same in television as well, it’s what Channel 4 is particularly good at.”

Abraham says that Film4 has generated a solid return on investment for Channel 4, while also hitting its creative targets.

“Versus the batting average in the independent sector for filmmaking, Film4 probably does pretty well. We are involved (as a minority investor) with some more commercially successful and mainstream projects, as well as completely funding smaller and more experimental projects.

“Just as we have a balanced scorecard approach to the creative decisions, we similarly try to do that from a commercial point of view.

“Effectively, we spend £15 million ($25 million) a year (on film production through Film4), and we could spend all that on one project. We could get a much bigger slice of the equity and we may get very lucky, but in order to deliver the remit we are trying to get the right balance about the number of projects in each of the different levels of the industry, whether it is Mike Leigh (“Mr. Turner “) at one end or Clio Barnard (“The Selfish Giant”) at the other end. I think we get the balance pretty good, and when Film4 is involved in a project it tends to galvanize the financing, and it gives us the opportunity to be in reasonable positions in these projects.

“On the other hand, we would tend towards wanting the primary beneficiaries of upside to be the producer, the director, the writer and the talent involved in the project because in a sense that will enrich the industry for the future.

“So there is a balance to be struck between the sustainability of Film4 in terms of its model and the delivery of the remit, which encourages us to allow success to be shared very fairly with the artists involved in creating the project. That can vary from project to project, but we have benefited from some hits over the years. If you look at the overall R.O.I. of Film4 for example, with the addition of something like “The Inbetweeners Movie,” which will come back for a second iteration this summer, it has quite a healthy effect on the bottom line.”

In the time since Abraham joined Channel 4 as chief executive four years ago, he says he has had a good working relationship with Ross, who has been with Channel 4 for 12 years, and their ambitions for Film4 have been the same. He wishes her well in her new role as chief executive of the U.K.’s National Theater.

“We’ve enjoyed working with each other a lot. Channel 4 is the kind of place where everyone does what they believe in and editorial she has entirely done that,” he says. “The timing of this is a positive one from the point of view of her having the opportunity to lead another national institution, which has a huge importance and impact, and I’m very sorry that she is leaving from a personal point of view, but I wouldn’t want to get in the way of her achieving her ambitions and her potential on a new stage, and I can’t think of a better one than the National Theater.

“I imagine we will probably — for all sorts of reasons in terms of talent relationships and other things — collaborate together in the future.

“Truth be told my job isn’t to tell any of our commissioning people what editorial choices they should make. They are here to pursue their passions and she has done that brilliantly.

“We have worked together to increase the budget of Film4 since I came here (May 2010). When I got here it was below £10 million ($16.6 million), and now it is £15 million ($25 million) a year, and we have sustained that consistently over the last four years, and that has meant many more projects have happened as a result of that decision. We’re both really thrilled that those opportunities have been created by Film4 in those years coming from a time when to be honest the opportunities were much more restricted.

“We will no doubt find someone who will achieve something similar in their own way in the future.”

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