U.K. Film Council shows fresh style

New funding topper supports range of indies

LONDON — In U.K. film circles, Tanya Seghatchian was best known for being the exec who brought J.K. Rowling’s debut novel “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” to David Heyman’s Heyday Films as well as for producing low-budget, acclaimed pics such as Pawel Pawlikowski’s “The Last Resort.”

Now Seghatchian has stepped into the spotlight with her new role. As head of the U.K. Film Council’s development fund, she’s responsible for doling out government coin to Britain’s indies, and her newest slate is an eclectic mix of seven pics, with topics ranging from John Lennon to FDR to Biafra. The fund will hand out $640,000 to the seven projects.

The largest single grant — $230,000 in development coin — goes to producer Norma Heyman’s passion project “The Lives of Lee Miller,” about the model-turned-WWII photographer, with helmer John Maybury (“The Edge of Love”) on board.

Also on tap:

  • An adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel “Half of a Yellow Sun,” set during Biafra’s struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria, with producer Andrea Calderwood (“The Last King of Scotland”), $80,000.

  • Helmer Michael Winterbottom’s “Promised Land,” set in Palestine at the end of WWII, Andrew Eaton producing, $50,000;

  • John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy” written by scribe Matt Greenhalgh (“Control”) with Ecosse Films’ Robert Bernstein and Douglas Rae producing. $70,000;

  • “Hyde Park on Hudson,” which teams helmer Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) and producer Kevin Loader with Daybreak Pictures’ David Aukin and Hal Vogel for an account of the 1939 visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s house, $95,000.

The latest awards, which have been reserved for established filmmakers, follow Seghatchian’s announcement in April of awards for first-timers, with six projects from debut helmers receiving $150,000 in development coin.

Since she was named Development Fund topper in March 2007, Seghatchian has worked to revamp the org.

“I wanted to create an environment in which great projects could be unearthed and developed into great films,” explains Seghatchian. “To do this I’ve created two new channels, one to specifically support first-timers as well as a stream for established filmmakers. The restructure enables all types of applicants — writers, writer-directors, producers — to bring their projects to us.”

Last November, Seghatchian made a splash with the announcement of the Signature strand of the development fund, which awarded coin for both new talent and award-winning filmmakers. The first group of six projects was awarded a total of $910,000, with the largest single award going to helmer Bruce Robinson (whose “Withnail and I” is a cult classic of British cinema), who received $500,000 for his long-awaited comeback pic “The Peculiar Memoirs of Thomas Penman.”

While Seghatchian has been keen to develop new talent, the latest crop of projects point firmly towards her ambitions to turn the U.K. Film Council into a home for the country’s top-tier filmmakers as well. “The producers have chosen to come to us for funding,” explains Seghatchian. “Development is very risky for anyone so if we can produce a mechanism to protect these filmmakers’ vision then we’re very happy to do that. I see my function here as enabling as many projects to emerge from out of the U.K. as possible. I feel we can make a difference.”

“We feel this selection of films gives a flavor of what we’re trying to do to create a home for talent-driven writers, directors and producers in the U.K. who have proven themselves and want to keep working in the U.K.,” Seghatchian tells Variety.

The development fund had spent $43 million on projects from the time the U.K. Film Council was established in 2000 up until Seghatachian’s appointment in March last year. The public funding org, which received its coin from the U.K. government courtesy of the National Lottery, has had to contend with industry gripes about how it invested its coin. Complaints from U.K. film execs have accused the funding org of being too insular, not doing enough to nurture new talent or support established filmmakers while question marks also existed over the tastes of the org’s fund toppers.

When the Film Council announced her appointment, Seghatchian received a near-universal thumbs up from film execs, because of her taste and understanding of the biz. She now has a budget of $24 million to invest over three years to make her own mark on the U.K. film industry.

“I really don’t think I can comment on what was said before I took on this role,” says Seghatchian diplomatically. “But what I can say is that I’m passionate about the role I have here and the real value that the fund can bring to film projects in the U.K. so I’m happy that the industry feels that what the fund is doing is working.”

While in her Fund job, Seghatchian maintains her production banner, whose development projects reflect her diverse taste.

Helmer Sophie Fiennes is re-teaming with philosopher-intellectual Slavoj Zizek (“The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema”) to make “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,” a docu that traces the influence of ideology on contemporary culture.

Producer Alison Owens, whose Ruby Films banner previously made “Brick Lane” and “The Other Boleyn Girl,” is adapting Posy Simmons’ graphic novel “Tamara Drewe” with Moira Buffini writing and directing.

While the shift from producer to fund topper brings with it undoubted opportunities and the ability to gain a strategic overview of the U.K. film industry, Seghatchian admits to missing the chance to get her hands dirty on an individual project and “share every moment with a writer, producer or director,” as she puts it.

Just don’t ask her which of the projects is her favorite.

“You know I can’t answer that,” she replies laughing.

And while every project being developed may not actually make it to the big screen, the chances are that traces of Seghatchian’s cultured fingerprints will be on a significant number of Brit films in the years to come.

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