U.K. Indies Unite in Challenging Times

The U.K. production boom, while good news for crews (and audiences), has not necessarily proved a boon for independent filmmakers.

Largely generated by the streamer wars, film and high-end television production spend in the U.K. hit $7.6 billion in 2021. A closer look at the figures, however, revealed that the majority of that spend was on high-end TV production, which had nearly doubled compared to 2019, while expenditure on film grew only by 3%.

Worse, the boom has created a scarcity of resources, from crew and soundstages to generators and actors (one agent even told Variety productions were struggling to find Winnebagos to accommodate their clients on set). The scarcity has in turn pushed up prices. It’s another blow to already small margins on independent films, on top of COVID safety measures, low cinema attendance and general inflation, which has turned even the price of fuel into an additional financial burden.

Independent film box office is “still very challenged,” acknowledges Ed Guiney, co-founder of Element Pictures, which has produced features such as last year’s Directors’ Fortnight contender “The Souvenir Part II.” “And then the other real challenge in that world is just the huge cost increases everywhere.”

Throw in a global pandemic and the tech-induced disruption of traditional distribution chains and suddenly the situation looks dire. “What I’ve seen over the last two years and two months is a lot of producers wondering ‘How the hell am I going to get back on my feet?’” says Kirsty Bell, founder and CEO of film financier and studio Goldfinch, which as well as producing traditional film has also expanded its slate to podcasts and NFTs.

“Unless we can find a way of kick-starting a lot of these independent productions back into the arena, which is what we’re trying to do with a lot of our different programs [at Goldfinch], I think we’re missing a trick,” Bell says. “The studios are effectively snuffling up all our brilliant crews because they could kick-start themselves a lot quicker.”

Despite the doom and gloom, however, many producers are feeling hopeful about the future of independent cinema in the U.K. and Ireland. Guiney, whose company also has a television arm (responsible for smash hit “Normal People” and the upcoming “Conversations With Friends”) and operates two cinemas in Ireland, says he is probably “more optimistic about film now than I was maybe three months ago.” He cites both the returning appetite of distributors and the gradual restoration of normality that has seen audiences slowly come back to cinemas.

“I think there’ll probably be some massive, unexpected hit that is a lightning rod for that, that people do come back [to cinemas] for, that isn’t a Marvel movie or Star Wars movie.”

Daniel Battsek, director of Film4, which has “Enys Men” in Directors’ Fortnight, as well as “Birchanger Green” and “Nezouh” at the Cannes Film Market, echoes Guiney’s optimism.

“There’s signs that some of the more independent films, some of the films that play to those much harder to get demographics, especially the older audiences, are starting to show signs of returning.”

While the U.K.’s presence in the Cannes festival lineup is relatively limited, there is a sense that this year’s market will make some return to its pre-pandemic intensity, a sentiment supported by the flurry of activity from U.K. sales agents in the weeks leading up to the event.

Producer Mia Bays, director of the British Film Institute’s Film Fund and herself a producer, says while the U.K. film organization is “absolutely acutely aware of all of the problems facing the sector,” she, too, retains confidence in the U.K.’s independent film industry. Not least because it isn’t the first time the industry has faced a crisis — and come through the other side.

“We have been through cycles, that does help,” says Bays. “There are connections between what’s been before and then there are a whole new set of circumstances.”

Still, the BFI remains focused on alleviating the current difficulties. The organization is in the midst of a 10-year funding strategy in consultation with the industry, which is scheduled to be published in the fall. The plans will set out the BFI’s objectives and remit, particularly with regard to its distribution of funding, from April 2023 to 2033.

One theme that has emerged from the pandemic, however, is that of mutual support over competition. “We need to really, as a group — as the independent film community of the U.K. — we really need to pull in,” says Bell. “And get the best projects that have the best chance of success and show everybody you know, this is what’s being produced in the U.K. and it’s going to sell and it’s going to sell really well.”

Bays also hopes for a forthcoming era of “perhaps more collaboration, post pandemic. Understanding that we are all in this together.”

Battsek concurs. “There are always challenges in independent film, distribution, exhibition and production,” he says. “I think that that’s a perennial issue, just the very nature of that business. The pandemic created extra challenges for each of those, very significant challenges. So it’s really a case now of, you know, how do we support each other, if you like, through the recovery period?”

That support extends beyond just producers and to cast and crew, who, despite the mercurial lure of television and tentpole movies, are willing to negotiate on quotes for the right project, as confirmed by one agent who spoke to Variety on condition of anonymity.

“Many of those filmic amazing moments have come from the independent space,” the agent says. “Great scripts, great directors, great artists, great voices. So for our clients – who really do look for magical material, importance in filmmaking – knowing that most of that lives very specifically in that world of independents, that is a major, major focus.”

Because above all, those in the industry are united not only by the challenges of the past two years but by their love of film, particularly independent film, and their unshakeable belief in its importance, especially as a “vital cultural contribution,” as Bays puts it.

“[Independent film] incubates talent, we take risks in form and ideas,” she explains. “It’s often where the high budget studio space comes to pluck and develop talent that maybe we started.”

It’s for this precise reason that Goldfinch has launched schemes such as their short film grant initiative First Flights and its break-away special edition, launched in March, geared specifically toward emerging and established female indie filmmakers. First Flights has produced eight short films in 18 months and, since its inception, connected with over 3,600 filmmakers.

“Independent films are so wonderful,” says Goldfinch’s Bell. “They can spawn so many different offshoots from them and stars, giving people opportunities to develop something. People who go into the film industry have honestly always come from this place first, from their heart.”

 

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