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I see from your CV you acted as a student mentor at Westminster University?
I was at Westminster in the early 1980's and people from the real world would occasionally come in and teach which was always very exciting so I've always offered myself up for that. In 1997 and 1998 I mentored the graduation class for their final projects. I met up with them all, I read all their scripts and went on set on a couple of the films. It was a good thing to do.
It seems that training is almost as important as funding for the Film Council.
There is an enormous amount of training available, either formal or informal. I was one of the founding members of the New Producer's Alliance, which started out with about 12 disgruntled producers and now has about 1500 members. Most of what the NPA does, apart from the networking, is training seminars that I think are vital. But there are still some severe gaps in that field, and it is one of the Film Council's jobs to identify those gaps and find out the most practical and cost effective way of dealing with them.
Where would you say the main problem lies?
Well it's probably in the development area, how to move from draft to draft. And I think that goes for writers, producers, development executives and possibly even financiers. We are a lot further ahead than a lot of our European counterparts, countries where development has been really lagging behind and where legally the written word is sacrosanct and belongs to the author. Also, because there are still so few sources where you can fully finance a film, I think there are many producers who lack business skills and what I mean by that is, many lack the ability to price their project correctly. Many will actually succeed in finding the finance but with incredibly complicated financing structures, mixing and matching public funds with other bits and pieces. There is a lack of market knowledge - why a certain kind of film should be made for X rather than Y. Many producers know too little about what motivates a distributor, how it works, how they make their money back.
British producers are also traditionally scared of appearing too commercial.
Well I think you have to be very careful here. It's too simplistic to say, 'let's go out and make a mass market film', It still has to be good but I think what has to work is the combination of elements - a particular script with that director and that cast, in that genre, for that audience. You need to work out why it should cost what it cost, not to just fix a budget and then try to raise the money, which is what many producers do.
How does the Film Council attempt to change that way of thinking?
Robert Jones, Jenny Borgars and I apply our own experience. We believe we have skills to apply and we are using them as each team is making funding decisions, selecting projects that we want to invest in creatively and working very actively with the producer. There is a training fund that targets key areas that need help but all the funds are actively trying to
promote better practise. That doesn't mean that every film we invest in will achieve critical or commercial success, because they won't.
Typically what percentage of the budgets are you funding and what sort of budgets are you looking for?
So far we've looked at features with budgets ranging from £380,000 to £3.1m and, on average, we've been funding between
25% and 30% on each.
And how many films do you imagine you'll back over the three years?
Well we aim to back between six and ten feature films a year, and up to four films on television.
Can you talk us through the films in your first slate?
The projects we have invested in are: Alex Cox's Revengers Tragedy. Set in Liverpool in the near future, it's written by Frank Cottrell Boyce who wrote Welcome to Sarajevo and Pandaemonium, amongst other things. We've just done a pilot for it so Alex has been able to use every piece of equipment from HD, DV to Super 16 and mixed and matched everything together. We've also put some money into Paul Greengrass' Bloody Sunday, that's in post production at the moment, and we've invested in a piece of Irish animation called Ape by Rory Bresnihan. We've put money into This is not a Lovesong, and that's an extremely low budget piece - around the £400,000 mark, which Simon Beaufoy is writing and
Billie Eltringham is directing.
So the pilots aren't just to test the director's skill, they are used for testing stock and technique?
Absolutely. But when we started the pilots that wasn't necessarily the intention. Someone came up with the idea and why not? Better to try them out now.
How do the pilots work?
The filmmakers get £10,000 and they go out and shoot a mini trailer consisting of a couple of scenes. In addition we're inches away from getting our shorts program up and running. Tier one is for extreme low budget, digital filmmaking through 12 national regional partners. Then tier two is in collaboration with FilmFour, which deals with bigger budget shorts but looking at more specific areas, particularly undernourished and underdeveloped genres. We are doing a slate of comedy shorts and a slate of culturally diverse films with Forest Whitaker's Spirit Dance.
The way we are doing it is that instead of people applying to us directly we decided, and this is very much Film Council thinking, to get filmmakers used to the advent of digital technology through shorts and filter this through in areas like exhibition and distribution. It's all layered. In a way people can graduate through the shorts and hopefully have an interesting project later, then we can do a pilot with them. It's not overly structured because people can come in at any level to do anything, including seasoned directors like Alex Cox, dropping back down to do a pilot because they want to try something new.