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BIFAs Suggest U.K. Film Industry Is Healthy, but Producers Face Challenges

Kudos show suggests U.K. film industry is healthy, but producers face challenges

Boffo Year for BIFAs Masks Indie
Courtesy of Netflix

Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” is leading the field in what looks like a banner year for the British Independent Film Awards, but amid the celebrations, producers are grappling with unprecedented change.

The BIFAs are a bellwether for the U.K. biz. “We see it as a health check on what things are looking like — there is always a lot of talk of trying to build a platform for newer filmmakers and to make the industry more representative of the nation — and what this does is give a snapshot of where are,” BIFA board member Deena Wallace says.

Film4’s head of creative Ollie Madden is impressed by the spread of films this year and the awards’ overall development. “In the past there has been a little bit of a tension between wanting to retain its indie spirit and wanting to be a slick-enough and heavyweight enough awards ceremony to attract the [major] talent,” he says. “They are really getting that balance right now.” Film4 racked up 58 noms, sweeping the helmer, scribe and pic categories. It is crucial to the health of the sector during what the British Film Institute characterizes as a “transformational moment.” In a report on the British indie biz earlier this year it said the traditional model for indie film “is no longer fit for purpose.” Key areas for action it outlined including maximizing the value of rights, growing younger audiences, and launching funds for neophyte film firms and for development.

Breaking new ground is, paradoxically, one way to cut through in a climate of risk aversion, says Ed Guiney, co-founder of Element Pictures, producer of “The Favourite” and “Disobedience,” which have a combined 18 BIFA noms.

“You have to lean into the unique, the different, and the unexplored. That ethos combined with a commitment to talent at the center of it has served us well.” Co-founder Andrew Lowe adds the realities of indie film make an international perspective essential.

“It’s always difficult to make a film; if you are going to go through the pain of that, you want the elements together to get it out to as big a market as possible internationally rather than just doing it for a domestic audience,” he says. “That’s not sustainable anymore.” Bringing through a new generation of thoroughbreds is a challenge. The wider issues facing the business are exacerbated for debut filmmakers. There are notable exceptions, such as Matt Palmer’s “Calibre,” which has three BIFA noms.

Producer Al Clark says the battle to get features with first-time directors becomes harder still for a film such as “Calibre.” “This was genre, so gets caught between folks saying, ‘it’s genre, therefore the market should pay for it,’ meaning you should go out and presell it, but not being able to do that because it’s a debut director,” he says.

Ultimately, Netflix picked it up as an original. After winning the best British film prize at the Edinburgh Film Festival, “Calibre” launched globally on the platform, which remains both disruptor-in-chief and a potential savior for indie films. Clark says the film’s team had to have a “big conversation” about how they wanted it to be seen. “We came to the conclusion we’d rather millions of people watch it than a country-by-country theatrical release, if we were lucky. It’s in 135 million homes worldwide.

It’s a leveller.” Film4 is committed to making at least four films from debut directors a year; Michael Pearce’s “Beast,” which has 10 BIFA noms, is a recent example.

“There is a huge opportunity for homegrown, authentic, relevant British films that speak to a young audience to work at the box office, and there has been a problem in terms of not enough of those kind of films being made,” Madden says. He thinks that a sideways look at the British music scene gives reason to be optimistic, with the emergence of grime and local hip-hop as examples of how British-originated artists can authentically connect with an audience.

With the BFI, Film4 and BBC Films, there is support for emerging talent, but producers say the system can feel exclusive.

“There’s a certain etiquette to how the support system for films work in the U.K. — and you’re either in the clique, or you’re not,” says Merlin Merton, a producer on “Butterfly Kisses.” “Films are risky by nature, and unfortunately the U.K. film industry is not built up to take those risks … there are a ton of highly talented creatives all dotted around the U.K. struggling to get something exciting, as opposed to compromised and apologetic, off the ground.” British indie film is clearly adapting to some sobering challenges, but come the BIFAs, champagne will be flowing as the awards celebrate the best the business has to offer.

“You are seeing some of the mini-majors and independent distributors really taking it seriously and making sure they support their talent, because it’s a key date in the awards calendar now,” Madden says.

Photo: The team behind “Calibre,” which has three BIFA noms, opted for worldwide distribution via Netflix rather than a theatrical release.