In the 12 years of David Thompson’s eccentric but effective reign as head of BBC Films, many people inside and outside had moments when they wanted to strangle him with exasperation, and fantasized about how much easier life might be with someone more straightforward in charge.
Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.
Controller of fiction Jane Tranter has embarked upon a major restructuring of BBC Films that will see it absorbed into her larger empire, moving from its separate West End office to BBC Television Center in west London.
The legal and business affairs team, led by Jane Wright and Isabel Begg, is being reconfigured, though Wright, at least, looks set to stay on as guardian of the flame.
Little is clear on the editorial side, but Christine Langan, the producer of “The Queen” who joined BBC Films last fall, will likely emerge as the key creative figure.
Thompson’s position is unresolved, but it’s hard to see where he fits into this picture.
The logic of Tranter’s move is remorseless. She’s bringing film into line with the rest of her department. She wants greater “cross-pollination” between film and TV, and movies with a clearer BBC voice. Film will still have its own dedicated staff, but “more within earshot.”
Film is not, however, a logical business, particularly for a broadcaster. The BBC may want to rationalize its film activities, but producers fear a rational BBC Films might turn out not to exist. Why, after all, would a pubcaster whose budget for original drama is under pressure want to pay $1.5 million for U.K. TV rights to movies developed in-house, when it can buy pics off the shelf for as little as $100,000?
The BBC insists that its annual $20 million film budget will be securely ring-fenced, and there might yet be more. Some producers might welcome the idea of a more neutral commissioning structure, instead of the active engagement in script and finance that BBC Films always sought, but if that support system disappears, many will regret it.
The big question is whether execs submerged within the fiction department will be able to interact as effectively with film producers, talent or co-financiers such as the U.S. studios, which see BBC Films, along with Film4, as their primary source of high-end Brit projects.
Producer Andy Paterson says, “Jane Tranter is an incredibly smart person, and maybe she can make it work. But what producers fear is that the cycle of TV commissioning, with its due process over a period of time, will be applied to film. Film needs instant decisions. We’re just entering a new phase of film financing, with all the hedge funds and the tax credit, and there’s a huge opportunity editorially for BBC Films and Film4 to control that. But it requires a level of sophistication and autonomy on their part.”
Thompson’s mercurial and often comically chaotic style drove his colleagues and industry partners crazy. But he remains hugely popular, and it’s arguable that his knack of muddying the waters is what enabled him to navigate BBC Films so successfully between the political reefs of the pubcaster and the wilder shores of independent film financing.
Tranter once worked for Thompson and saw his strengths and weaknesses up close. Her style is more direct and dynamic. She and Langan have stellar reputations, but both are on a steep learning curve when it comes to movies — Langan only crossed from TV into features two years ago, though her two producing credits, “The Queen” and “Pierrepoint,” would have fit the BBC brand perfectly.
This turmoil comes when BBC Films is prepping its highest profile slate, such as “Revolutionary Road” and “The Other Boleyn Girl,” laden with Hollywood stars and coin. Thompson was encouraged by BBC brass to deliver more mainstream fare, but Tranter is known to be skeptical about the way he’s gone about it. “There’s a desire for a more refined focus. We have a very quiet voice in some of these projects,” says one insider.
“Any changes we make will be for the greater good of film in the U.K.,” Tranter insists. But with BBC Films currently moving at a gallop, the fear is that she will need to rein it back in order to get control. Much remains to be resolved, but if she remakes BBC Films in her image, it’s going to be quite different.