Jones exit heralds UKFC shake-up

AS ROBERT JONES CLEARED HIS DESK at the U.K. Film Council last week, nine candidates to replace him as head of the org’s flagship Premiere Fund trooped in for their interviews.

The nine invited to present their credentials at the Lubyanka of Little Portland Street (so called by satirical industryites, in allusion to the org’s supposed Stalinist tendencies) were selected from 18 applicants, all eager for the job of investing £8 million ($15 million) a year in “popular, commercially viable” British projects.

With a drought blighting the U.K. filmmaking landscape, there are clearly no shortage of producers willing to risk the opprobrium that the post inevitably attracts, in return for a large salary (at $300,000 a year, Jones was the org’s highest-paid employee) and real power to make movies happen.

But is a producer really the best person to run the Premiere Fund? That’s a matter for much debate, both inside and outside the Film Council.

Some have accused Jones and Paul Trijbits, head of the more cultural New Cinema Fund, of usurping the role of indie producers by interfering too much in the creative and financial aspects of projects the funds invest in.

Far from building a sustainable industry, say the critics, this has just emasculated the indie production sector, thus perpetuating a culture of dependency upon the UKFC’s patronage.

In a spirit of conciliation, new UKFC chair Stewart Till has signaled that he sees the Premiere Fund job evolving into more of an acquisitions role. He has told candidates they should not expect to get executive producer credits, which Jones controversially negotiated as a condition of his employment.

But Jones will be a hard act to follow as he heads off to launch his new venture for Entertainment Film Distributors and New Line. A talented, hard-working exec, he was unafraid to bruise a few egos by backing his own judgment. But that judgment, from “Gosford Park” to “Vera Drake,” stands up well to scrutiny, and his 58% recoupment rate compares well with any public fund around the world.

There were misses, to be sure (“Sex Lives of the Potato Men,” “Miranda”), but Jones was also frustrated by a shortage of commercial scripts, which forced him further into arthouse territory (“Young Adam,” for example) than originally envisaged.

In light of that experience, UKFC insiders say there will be a review of the Premiere Fund’s remit following the appointment of Jones’ successor. There’s even talk of a town hall meeting between the UKFC and the industry in April to air festering grievances about all the org’s operations. In this new era of glasnost and perestroika, whoever is chosen to take over the Premiere Fund will need to be ready for the job to change under them.

Fox raids Chicken House

Stuart Hill’s debut novel “The Cry of the Icemark” has become the latest Brit kids fantasy bestseller to be snapped up by Hollywood.

Fox 2000 Pictures has optioned the book, with Courteney Pledger and Sarah Radclyffe of London-based Jigsaw Films attached to produce.

In an innovative move, its British publisher Barry Cunningham will also take an executive producer role through his new Chicken House Entertainment division, set up last year to manage the film and TV rights of the authors in his stable.

“Cry of the Icemark,” which has sold 25,000 hardback copies since its U.K. publication in January and goes out Stateside in April via Scholastic, is set in a quasi-Nordic prehistory (echoes there of “Lord of the Rings”). It tells the story of a teenage princess fighting to liberate her clan from a powerful invading army, helped by her best friend, a witch’s son.

“What Fox were so keen on was the strong teenage heroine,” Cunningham says. “It’s got snow leopards, vampires and werewolves, but what’s so great is the sense of real children in a frightening, impossible situation.”

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