U.K. sales agents rejoice as Roberts rules film funder

Cannes Daily Spotlight 2012: Brits in Cannes

LONDON– The appointment of Ben Roberts as director of the BFI Film Fund has raised hopes among U.K. sales agents that policymakers have finally recognized the vital contribution of their sector to British indie filmmaking.

Roberts is CEO of sales company Protagonist Pictures, and previously served in international acquisitions at Universal. A popular and energetic exec, he will bring a real grasp of how exports underpin the financing and recoupment of British films when he takes up his new post in June.

Such expertise has been said to be lacking within the British Film Institute and neglected by its predecessor, the U.K. Film Council. The choice by BFI chief exec Amanda Nevill to put her faith in Roberts, ahead of candidates with more production experience, reflects her determination to rectify this.

Despite its many achievements in production, distribution and training, the UKFC spent a decade paying lip service to exports, but doing little to support them.

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With a net cost of $375,000 a year, the British Pavilion in Cannes was more expensive than UKFC’s entire $245,000 annual budget for promoting U.K. films and talent abroad, including aid for sales companies to take films to key festivals and markets.

A belated decision by the council to triple its export fund to $800,000 was thwarted by the org’s surprise abolition in 2010. The BFI took over in April 2011 as the strategic body investing lottery coin into the U.K. film industry, but exports were such a low priority that the export budget was lost entirely in the transition.

After protests, some temporary funding was improvised. But sales agents confide that the BFI initially seemed even more clueless than its predecessor about the commercial realities of its role. One internal consultation paper about export strategy was described as “laughable” by industry experts.

Sales agents were also furious at their dismissive treatment in the U.K. government’s Film Policy Review, published in January. Its only tangible suggestion, that BBC Worldwide should bring its muscle into film exporting, was taken as a slap in the face to the 30 existing U.K. sales companies. Since then, however, trade org Film Export UK has been lobbying hard for better recognition of the sector in the BFI’s plans for the future.

The appointment of Roberts has gone a long way toward placating the sales sector, with the hope that their contribution to the U.K. film industry will be better understood and supported in future.

“It’s no secret that Film Export UK found the Film Policy Review woefully inadequate in dealing with export, but we have been very involved in consulting with the BFI on their International Forward strategy,” says FEUK chairman Stephen Kelliher of Bankside Films.

“We try to help filmmakers create projects that work internationally, and it’s in the interests of British audiences that we help our filmmakers to find their feet abroad,” says Samantha Horley, managing director of sales house Salt. “We’re looking forward to export being moved higher up the agenda. Ben’s appointment sends out a loud message about that. At least we know now that every conversation about a British movie will have export in mind.”

Cannes Daily Spotlight 2012: Brits in Cannes
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