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British Filmmakers Gunning for Genre Glory

U.K. movies punch above their weight, but challenges remain

The creatively rich, diverse lineup of British films at the Toronto Film Festival — headlined by David Mackenzie’s historical epic “Outlaw King,” Wash Westmoreland’s costume drama “Colette” and Steve McQueen’s crime thriller “Widows,” among others — suggests that the ambitions of the country’s film folks remain high, even while the challenges they face continue to mount.

In many ways “Widows” is an example of what is right about the British scene. The movie offered creative progression for the director, both in terms of scale and a move into a new area, a U.S.-set genre pic. This was, in large part, made possible through the first-look deal the film’s U.K. production company, SeeSaw Films, has with New Regency, which allowed it to secure the rights to the source material — Lynda La Plante’s 1983 TV series of the same name.

Not many U.K. producers have such deep-pocketed backers, and a recent report on British independent films commissioned by the British Film Institute proposed the creation of an independent fund that would support producers in the development of more commercial projects than those backed by the public funds, such as the BFI Film Fund, or the film arms of the public broadcasters, BBC Films and Film4.

While U.K. dramas have often struggled to generate stellar returns at the international box office recently, British directors have found increasing success with genre movies, such as Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” and Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” The BFI report urges the local biz to embrace genre filmmaking.

See-Saw’s joint managing director Iain Canning, who won an Oscar with “The King’s Speech,” says: “There is a point at which drama taps out in terms of perceived returns and what takes away that cap, historically, has been genre in some shape or form.” Allying a standout filmmaker such as McQueen, whose “12 Years a Slave” won the Oscar for best picture, with a genre project adds to the value of the property in the eyes of distributors.

“There is an interest in making films with genre elements with [filmmakers with] distinct voices, and ‘Widows’ is an example of that. That is a great space for us as a company to grow into because it brings together an ambition for bigger canvases, and working with those filmmakers whose work you have fallen in love with,” he says.

There has been a generational shift as filmmakers who were inspired by the genre movies by auteur filmmakers of the 1970s and 1980s who had “something to say about the world” seek to emulate them. “There’s maybe less fear about combining your artistic talent and a genre with that generation than the previous one,” Canning says.

Ben Roberts, the director of the BFI Film Fund, supports this gravitation toward genre. “I would love us to engage with more creatively rich genre material with something to say,” he says, adding that ambitious genre filmmaking doesn’t have to mean big budget, using a U.S. film to illustrate the point. “‘Get Out’ is a recent template for making a film at a low budget with something very significant to say by a filmmakers who is very connected to the work, that resonated and landed commercially,” he says.

A report commissioned by U.K. producers’ body PACT estimated that there was a drop in the international market value of U.K. independent films of about 50% from 2007 to 2015, which has led to a squeeze on budgets. Producer David Parfitt, who won an Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love,” premieres Trevor Nunn’s espionage drama “Red Joan” at Toronto. He says its budget — “north of $10 million” — is about the same as that of his debut feature, “Henry V,” which he made 30 years ago, despite inflation. He says that films in this “dangerous” mid-budget range are tough to finance. “There are more demands than ever for big names to be in place before you can start to get the money,” Parfitt says. “Red Joan,” about a Soviet agent working at a top secret British nuclear research facility, stars Sophie Cookson and Judi Dench.

Parfitt benefited from the fact that his development slate was supported by film financier Prescience (which recently rebranded itself as Hindsight Media). “It was great for us to be able to develop the script with [writer Lindsay Shapero] and then go out to the buyers with a finished script,” he says.

Having the U.K. distribution arm of Lionsgate attached before production started was “central to all our [international] deals,” Parfitt says. “When you have got a film that is so British if you go to the international market without a U.K. distributor that is tough because the foreign distributors would say, ‘If you can’t get a fantastic distributor in the U.K. why are you looking to us?’ ”

With Brexit looming, the BFI report recommends that the U.K. maintains its membership of Creative Europe, the European Union’s program for supporting cinema, and rejoins Eurimages, which funds European co-production, and most British producers support such proposals.

“There is a tendency to think that our future is more with the American industry than Europe, but it has to be dual-tracked,” says Kevin Loader, producer of Armando Iannucci’s absurdist satire “The Death of Stalin,” and Iannucci’s next film “The Personal History of David Copperfield.” “I would be sad if we were not part of the European community of filmmakers.”

The idea for “Stalin,” an adaptation of a Gallic graphic novel, was brought to Loader and Iannucci by French production company Quad, and it was their backing and that of France’s Gaumont, which handled sales, that gave Loader the faith that it would work in foreign-language territories.

Comedy is a genre with which British filmmakers have often had success, and so far this year “Stalin” is the most successful independently produced British film at the U.S. box office, apart from kids’ films.

But what gave Loader confidence that “Stalin,” which launched at last year’s Toronto, had commercial potential was the involvement of Iannucci. “He has a comic reputation of the highest order,” he says.

Loader is skeptical of whether British filmmakers should make bigger-budget movies. “We are very good at making dramas and comedies … engaging films about the world in which we live,” he says.

Click here for a selection of some of the many British films at the Toronto Film Festival.

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