The ethos of UK film commissioners

The ethos of UK film commissioners

UK film commissioners yield immense power, deciding if a script ends up on screen or in the bin. But what makes a good green-lighter? Hannah Gal finds out… 

When I ask Peter Webber for his view of film commissioners, the Emperor director humorously replies: “They are all incredibly talented, discerning and completely charming people, without exception.” Joking aside, as the deciders of what projects move from script to screen, film commissioners yield immense power; from spring boarding careers and directly affecting livelihoods to impacting modern culture and the social agenda.

While film greenlighting within the private sector is largely governed by box office performance, the reality of film commissioners within the UK’s public sector is different.“BBC Films and Film4 are the broadcasters involved in film development and production in the UK, along with the BFI,” explains Ed Wethered, development executive at BBC Films.

The production investment from these organisations makes a very valuable contribution to the film industry in the UK, but, as Wethered points out, of particular value here is the money spent in development, as a huge number of films made in the UK start life on one of these slates.

Combined with the paucity of similar funding in the US, this creates a particular appetite for UK developed films, which in turn means that running BBC Films or Film4 is a very significant position in terms of determining which films end up getting made.

With an overall annual budget of £11m, BBC Films’ vast majority of projects are feature length, where the commissioning team consider the slate as a whole; the audience for the project; how similar type films might have fared; the project’s stand out quality; what it can contribute to British culture; and whether commercial partners will be interested in investing in it.

For Sam Lavender, commissioning executive at Channel4, film commissioning is about nurturing talent and not operating from a purely commercial outlook. “Much like the BBC we back talent and create an environment where people can produce their best work,” he says. “We think of commissioning in terms of filmmakers’ careers and their ability to continue making films.”

Lavender adds: “Channel 4’s ethic is ‘keeping a long term vision and the understanding that it takes time to mature and achieve full potential. Take 12 Years a Slave for example, which is McQueen’s third film: we saw the director as an artist with a vision and allowed it to grow so he didn’t have to compromise his vision.”

The commissioner also says that he sees Cannes 2014 as a good reflection of Film4’s talent supporting ethos, famousely championed by Tessa Ross. “We showed two established, high quality filmmakers with Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner a

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