The Kid Stays out of the Picture

Everyone would like to be a film producer. Our insider reckons you should think twice.

So, you want to have a go at making movies. How might you go about doing it? Could I – a two-time feature film producer and 20-year veteran of the industry – offer you any advice, perhaps?

Yes, I can: don’t do it. It’s a terrible idea. It’s a thankless job and you will hate it.

But listen, if you can’t be dissuaded and your heart really is set on pursuing this ill-judged dream, then maybe I can give you some pointers.

cash rules everything around me (c.r.e.a.m.)

To start with, you’re going to need to raise some money. As an independent feature producer – i.e. a freelancer – you’ll be operating within certain parameters and realities. The starkest and most troubling of these is the bleak fact that the overwhelming majority of independent feature films in the UK lose money for their investors. The money that they bring in – from box office receipts, home entertainment, TV sales and international distribution deals – is very often a lot less than the cost of producing the film in the first place.

Why is that? Well, fewer people go to the cinema these days and they go less frequently than they used to. Moreover, when people do go to the cinema, for the most part they tend to go and see big-budget (think £100 million plus) Hollywood blockbusters, foregoing the less splashy, less starry fare that the average independent budget tends to be able to produce. As of 2023, the average budget of a UK independent production was just over £2 million, while the average UK box office for an independent film is in the region of £200,000. Whereas DVD sales were once a reliable fallback, with per-unit profits of approx £4, that market has been more or less entirely wiped out by the streamers and video-on-demand platforms, where the equivalent return in royalties to the producer is closer to 10p per stream. All that’s to say, in the words of the British Film Institute’s Research and Statistics Unit, the situation for the UK independent filmmaking sector is ‘challenging’.

So how do you get anyone to finance your film when it’s likely going to end up losing money? One way might be to partner up with an existing independent production company – someone like HeyDay (responsible for the Harry Potter series, the Paddington movies and, most recently, Wonka), SeeSaw (The King’s Speech) or Element (The Favourite, Poor Things). These companies have a track record and level of expertise, as well as a book of contacts, that will make it more attractive for potential investors to give you their money. However, this is easier said than done. Assuming you do attract their interest, you’ll soon be fighting a battle to stay involved in your own film. Expect a certain ruthlessness and be prepared to fight for your corner, or you may find yourself being pushed – or at the very least, eased – out of your project.

When I was starting out, I nearly got the support of Sheffield-based Warp Films (credits include Submarine, This Is England and Four Lions) for my debut feature, but was subtly warned off the deal by their production executive Mary Burke (subsequently a commissioner at the BFI) who, without explicitly saying so, suggested that I might soon find myself forced off my own film. Not everyone in the business is as considerate of newcomers.

your money’s soft, mate

As a UK-based producer, though, you do have another option open to you – the public funding sector. The BFI, BBC Films and Film4 are rightly seen as the backbone of the UK film industry. Without them and the ‘soft’ government/lottery funding they provide, the independent sector would be non-existent. Their money is ‘soft’ in that it can be recouped in last position, after your other investors get their money back.

Therefore, having public money in your film vastly reduces their risk and makes people more likely to back you. Moreover, having any of the public funders behind your film is a huge stamp of approval, drastically increasing the chance that your film will get picked up by a distributor or be invited to premiere at a major festival.

Of course, getting their money is far from simple. Firstly, demand wildly outstrips supply. Everyone wants a piece of the BFI’s money, but not only was there not a lot of it in the first place (their most recent ‘production fund budget’ was just £79 million, spread over five years), there’s now even less of it thanks to government cuts to arts funding. Secondly, because these public funders are spending government money, their remit is to invest in projects that have ‘cultural value’.

This, for a long time, meant investing in a certain type of filmmaking, where the influence of social realists like Ken Loach and early Mike Leigh cast an overarching shadow. When done well, these films can be marvellous. When done badly, they’re poverty porn. Little thought is given to whether or not there’s an audience willing to pay money to see these sorts of films. Certainly, this sort of misery bias could be to blame for 2016/17’s unofficial ‘Sad Farmer Trilogy’ – God’s Own Country, The Levelling and Dark River – three films released within six months of each other, all funded by at least one of the public funders and all showcasing the various ways in which life in rural Britain is grimmer than Chernobyl.

keeping the british end up

In terms of the soft money funders, the BFI are the major players. Until quite recently, though, the organisation had felt a little fusty and short of ideas, relying on a certain chumocracy and cronyism which led to a lot of the same producers and directors being funded over and over again, regardless of the creative or commercial value of their projects. Since the appointment of Mia Bays as the head of the film fund in 2021, however, things have started to look up. Bays is a passionate film lover with an all-too-rare background of production time in the trenches, which has made her very aware of the issues facing producers. She oversaw a much-needed refresh at the BFI, bringing in new and younger commissioners to assess projects (although Lizzie Francke, perhaps the commissioner most guilty of funding films by her friends – Peter Strickland, Clio Barnard, Thomas Clay – has just departed her ‘editor-at-large’ role).

nepo, baby!

BBC Films have produced some gems lately, such as the Bafta-nominated Peckham-set rom-com Rye Lane and the high-paced trans thriller Femme. They also laid down the cash for Sweet Sue, a semi-improvised comedy drama written and directed by Leo Leigh – son of Mike – which absolutely no one went to see. Diversity matters, but nepotism clearly still counts for something.

As a further case in point, the head of Film4 these days is a certain Ollie Madden – a nice enough chap by all accounts, but someone whose appointment in the role was something of a surprise given his previous lack of experience. Did he get the job because his Dad is Shakespeare in Love director John Madden? Who’s to say.

tuna sandwiches for dinner, forever

So, the public funders definitely offer some hope, especially if your dad is very senior in the industry. But before you quit your day job to follow this doomed path to frustration and misery, you should also be aware that you’re going to need to find a way to cashflow your existence for at least three years. As the producer you’re almost always the last person to get paid: if you get paid at all. Your producer fee – worked out as anything between 5% and 10% of the total production budget, which is then split between you and everyone else who gets a producer or executive producer credit – won’t get paid to you until the film goes into production. Leaving aside the obvious but often unacknowledged fact that your film might not go into production at all (in which case your producer fee is £0), it’s important to recognise that even in the best-case scenario, the development process on your film will take at least two years.

That’s because this involves writing the script, attaching your director, casting your actors, hiring your crew and closing the financing. More often, it may be a lot longer than that. (I once worked on a feature film for five years before we got it financed; it then didn’t go into production for another 18 months.) Even then, your producer fee will get paid out in tranches: one third on the day the film starts shooting (the fabled first day of principal photography); one third on the day the shoot wraps (assuming it does); and the final third (many, many months later) when the finished and edited film is delivered to your funders. At every stage of that payment schedule you run the risk of having your fee deferred, withheld or refused unless everything goes to plan.

we still believe

There’s also the unspoken but strongly held hope that, despite the odds and all evidence to the contrary, maybe, just maybe, your little independent feature might break out in the way The Full Monty to Trainspotting did and you’ll never have to work again – whenever I see Gareth Ellis-Unwin (one of the producers of The King’s Speech), I am equal parts seething with jealousy but also inspired to have another roll of the dice. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that I’m about to do it all over again on another feature film. I’m either a glutton for punishment or, more likely, very aware that there’s little chance of me getting employed to do anything else.

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