More British Film Creatives Push Into Television

Limbo Cannes Film Festival
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Among an impressive list of U.K. projects to debut at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, two of the most high-profile are TV dramas — underscoring how British scripted series are now rivalling the country’s proud tradition for indie cinema in terms of creativity, and — some might argue — even eclipsing it.

Psychological thriller “The Third Day” stars Jude Law and Naomi Harris, and is set on a mysterious British Island. With backing by HBO and Sky, the inventive six-parter is created by Felix Barrett, the founder and artistic director of renowned theater group Punchdrunk, and Dennis Kelly, the writer of “Matilda the Musical” and cult TV show “Utopia.”

Meanwhile, BBC-backed “A Suitable Boy” sees “Monsoon Wedding” and “The Namesake” director Mira Nair make her television debut with the adaptation of Vikram Seth’s classic novel set in 1950s India. Adapted by Andrew Davies, the doyen of period TV drama, “A Suitable Boy” has been well-received since debuting on the BBC this summer. Last month, Netflix swooped for most international rights, except North America and China.

Asked why he has made his first foray from theater to the small screen, Barrett cites the innovation of today’s TV drama. “The Third Day” is accompanied by a live event which will be filmed and aired online over 12 hours between episodes three and four.

“It feels like TV is very versatile,” says Barrett, citing the support of risk-takers such as Sky and HBO. “They’re encouraging us to go further. They’re enabling things that never would have been greenlit a few years ago.”

Kelly, meanwhile, says the “crazy endeavor” of the project helped to attract its A-list talent, as did its highly regarded directors Philippa Lowthorpe, whose credits span TV dramas including “Three Girls,” a BAFTA winner for miniseries, and series “Call the Midwife,” for which she won a BAFTA for director, to features such as “Swallows and Amazons,” and Marc Munden, who has helmed dramas such as “National Treasure,” BAFTA winner for miniseries and director, and “The Mark of Cain,” which also won a BAFTA for director.

Kelly has worked across film, TV and theater. “I’ve seen no sort of qualitative difference between them … those weird hierarchies have just dissipated,” he says. “The idea that TV was a thing you did if you couldn’t do film has just evaporated as people from film flee towards TV.”

And fleeing they are, as indie film becomes more and more difficult to finance in the U.K. BFI figures show that spending on U.K. independent film production fell by 45% to £175 million ($228 million) in 2019. Digital disruption, increased competition for audiences and the collapse of physical video and TV markets for features have all contributed to the decline, as have rising talent costs because of the scripted TV boom. By comparison, the British Film Institute figures show high-end drama production hitting a record $2.27 billion in 2019. COVID-19 has only made the situation harder for indie filmmakers, with financiers becoming ever more risk-averse.

More than ever, it is the feature film production arms of Britain’s public broadcasters, BBC Films and Film4, and the BFI that form the financial backbone to many U.K. independent films looking to get off the ground. It’s no surprise that many of the country’s features premiering at Toronto are backed by one or more of these funding stalwarts.

The Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan-starring “Ammonite,” for example, was backed by BBC Films and the BFI. Written and directed by Francis Lee, the biopic of 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning is produced through See-Saw Films and is a gala presentation at Toronto.

The BFI also backed Ben Sharrock’s “Limbo,” together with Film4. Full of wit and heart, it’s about a Syrian asylum-seeker who finds himself in a purgatorial state on a remote Scottish island. It has already closed deals out of Cannes through Protagonist Pictures, whose head of sales George Hamilton is confident there is demand in the market for such films.

“ ‘Limbo’ occupies a different space in the market, and it is a story that is best told in a feature-film format,” Hamilton says. “The thirst for quality and original filmmaking very much remains.”

He points out that, by the time the film is released, cinemas are likely to have been up and running for more than six months in most territories.

“Whether it be through traditional theatrical distribution, premium VOD models, or a wide digital release, we aim to give film lovers across the globe an opportunity to watch this highly relevant film as soon as possible.”

“Limbo” plays in the Discovery section of Toronto, as does “Wildfire,” another film backed by the BFI and Film4, alongside funding bodies Screen Ireland, Northern Ireland Screen and the Wellcome Trust. Cathy Brady’s debut is billed as an emotionally stirring exploration of two sisters struggling to emerge from a traumatic past on the fractious Irish border.

Natascha Wharton, senior development and production executive of the BFI Film Fund, says the three films backed by the BFI deliver on the organization’s “commitment to support the early careers of ambitious filmmakers, of backing projects which take risks where the commercial sector cannot.”

As the commercial sector retreats further from risk-taking indie film backing in the wake of COVID-19, it’s likely that public funders including the BFI, the BBC and Film 4 will become more important to U.K. filmmakers’ funding plans — unless, of course, they move into TV first.