The appointment of Tanya Seghatchian earlier this year to run the U.K. Film Council’s production fund completed a significant trifecta for women in the British film industry.
Seghatchian joined Tessa Ross at Film4 and Christine Langan at BBC Films in a formidable triumvirate of female execs in charge of Blighty’s three cornerstone public financiers.
Their combined budget of £35 million a year gives them the power to influence much of what gets developed and produced in the U.K. Take the latest crop of British kudos contenders: “Made in Dagenham,” “Another Year,” “The King’s Speech,” “Tamara Drewe,” “Never Let Me Go” and “127 Hours” all had backing from one or two of them.
With writer-director Andrea Arnold (“Fish Tank”) this year becoming the first woman to win the BAFTA for best British film and “Mamma Mia!” done by a femme-heavy creative team breaking box office records last year, talented women have never enjoyed such a prominent position at the forefront of British cinema.
In fact, Seghatchian, Ross and Langan are just the most visible of a female legion occupying top jobs across the industry. Women run the British Film Institute, BAFTA, the British Screen Advisory Council, the British Independent Films Awards, several regional screen agencies, the London Film Festival and, until recently, the Edinburgh Film Festival.
Seghatchian, Ross and Langan are also surrounded by several other women in key supporting roles, notably Lizzie Francke and Natascha Wharton at the UKFC, Sue Bruce-Smith, Tracey Josephs and Katherine Butler at Film4 and Jane Wright, Paula Jalfon and Isabel Begg at BBC Films.
Indeed, women are so ubiquitous in the industry’s public institutions that their presence at the top hardly seems remarkable.
“The fact that women are in these three jobs is a coincidence. I hope it’s the natural way,” says Ross, who has led Film4 since 2002 and previously gave Langan her first film job as her assistant at British Screen. “As more women are able to do the job and have the lives they want at the same time, it is inevitable that talented women will be seen in more prominent roles.”
“Christine, Tessa and Tanya are very bright and very different individuals who each happen to be very good at their jobs,” says Elizabeth Karlsen, producer of “Made in Dagenham,” about the struggle for equal pay 40 years ago. “The fact they are there creates a profile and gives a confidence that women can do those jobs well. It’s just been a very slow process for the message to get through.”
Liza Marshall, who runs Scott Free in the U.K. and was formerly Channel 4’s head of drama, believes there’s a reason why woman tend to fill the top commissioning roles.
“Women are particularly good at development,” she suggests. “Not always, but often, they are good at listening and multi-tasking, and they are maybe less preoccupied by their own egos.”
Yet Langan, Ross and Seghatchian all say they detect no gender differences within their own teams. “I’m working every day in development with men who are thoughtful and sensitive and nurturing,” Langan says. “It’s a bit of a red herring to suggest that women are different. Women can be tough, mercurial and have egos, just like men.”
But with women calling the shots in Blighty, is it easier for female talent and material to catch a break? “I don’t think women particularly commission other women or go for particular types of subject because they are women,” argues producer Andrea Calderwood, a former exec at the BBC and Pathe.
Certainly, none of the trio believes their own taste is defined by their gender. On the other hand, Ross concedes that female talent might sometimes be more comfortable communicating with women in power.
“Maybe being a woman with another woman talking about an idea can bring recognition and resonances — I don’t know,” she says. “If you deal with people whose job is to dig into themselves, it’s about how you make it possible for those people to relax enough in dealing with an institution to get the best of themselves on the table.”
Whether by coincidence or not, more women writers are coming through the ranks. “What I see is a new generation of writers with really strong, sharp new voices,” says Seghatchian, highlighting names such as Laura Wade, Polly Stenham, Lucy Prebble, Moira Buffini and Destiny Ekaragha. Ross points to Abi Morgan, working simultaneously on new projects with two radically different directors, Phyllida Lloyd and Steve McQueen.
Women directors still face much greater obstacles but Lloyd, Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Gurinder Chadha and Susanna White have defied the odds, and the likes of Sam Taylor Wood, Gillian Wearing, Joanna Hogg, Lucy Walker, Clio Barnard and Sophie Fiennes are making a name for themselves.
“This job has enabled me as a woman to work with more women at a high level,” Seghatchian notes, “incredibly talented individuals who I would be lucky to work with, whatever their sex.”