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New look BBC Films in good shape

Development pipeline pumps out projects

LONDON — With Mel Gibson set to star in “Edge of Darkness” and Ellen Page attached to “Jane Eyre,” BBC Films has arrived at Cannes in much healthier shape than many feared this time last year, when news broke of a major restructuring at the movie arm of the U.K. pubcaster.

After the exit of longtime topper David Thompson to launch his own production venture, BBC Films is now run by an editorial board comprising general manager Jane Wright, senior commissioning editor Christine Langan and exec producers Joe Oppenheimer and Jamie Laurenson.

Wright, a 10-year veteran of BBC Films, says her own initial doubts about the transition have been completely assuaged.

The collective structure means that “every serious project now gets a rigorous, full and complete discussion” at the board’s weekly development meetings, Wright says. The board reports to BBC fiction supremo Jane Tranter, and meets with her every fortnight.

“The bugbear that the TV drama people have of a bottleneck with Jane (Tranter) doesn’t apply to film,” Langan said.

BBC Films is reaping the harvest from a heavy investment in development over the past couple of years, gearing up for a promised 50% increase in the unit’s $20 million production budget.

In the end, however, the film budget has only been upped by 20% to $24 million, after the government awarded the pubcaster a lower-than-expected rise in its funding.

That has made it harder to juggle the sums to greenlight the glut of projects coming through the expanded development pipeline. But Wright describes that as “a challenge, not a problem.”

Production is under way or imminent on Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” Tom Hooper’s “The Damned United,” Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop” and Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank.”

New projects include Debbie Isitt’s “Nativity,” a semi-improvised comedy about a kids’ Christmas show; and Lynne Ramsay’s long-awaited “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which finally seems to be gaining momentum to shoot this year. U.S. producer Jennifer Fox (“Michael Clayton”) is on board this New York-set drama about a schoolboy killer.

The film unit is also working closely with the BBC sports department on feature doc “The Road to Glory” by Anthony Wonke, about the British Olympic gymnastics squad.

BBC Films develops its own projects and takes U.K. TV rights, but is flexible about how much equity it invests in each production, typically in a minority position alongside other co-financiers. In the case of “The Damned United,” a Peter Morgan script about English soccer coach Brian Clough, it took a bigger than usual leap to get the project made.

BBC Films is putting up more than $4 million of the $10 million budget, with Sony taking worldwide rights. Langan said it reflects the commitment to the talent involved.

“The market sees it as a football story, but what’s so exciting is that it’s so much deeper than that. That sort of thing is harder for the market to see,” she said.

Wright and Langan argue that fears among British filmmakers that BBC Films would lose its identity and become absorbed into Tranter’s fiction department have not been borne out.

“The powers that be see BBC Films as very distinct,” Langan insists, rejecting the suggestion that its editorial agenda has become “more televisual than filmic.” She cites the “Jane Eyre” project with Page and Ruby Films as evidence. The BBC made a fresh TV version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel last year, and Langan said, “If we were TV-minded, we wouldn’t be doing ‘Jane Eyre’ again so quickly.”

After many years in their own separate central London office, the film team finally moved May 13 to join the rest of the drama department in BBC Television Center.

Completed films to be released this year include two Keira Knightley frock pics “Edge of Love” and “The Duchess”; another high-profile period romance “Brideshead Revisited”; Mark Herman’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas,” a child’s-eye view of the horrors of Auschwitz; and John Crowley’s “Is There Anybody There,” about a kid growing up in an old folks’ home; and “Revolutionary Road,” the Kate Winslet/Leonardo Di Caprio drama directed by Sam Mendes.

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