EXCLUSIVE: It’s been a little over six months since respected 10-year Universal veteran David Kosse took over the reins at Film4, the prolific and award-winning movie division of the UK’s Channel4. Now, he’s in Cannes with five movies in the Official Selection — four in Competition alone. As Kosse sees it, though they were put into development before his arrival, their British-meets-international flavor is in some ways indicative of the future of the industry which Channel4 has a mandate to support and which the exec will continue and expand upon.
Meanwhile, the first film he greenlit at Film4, Lenny Abrahamson’s drama Room, has buyers clamoring off of a FilmNation promo reel here and, Kosse believes, is an awards-season contender. With strategic steps he’s taken since taking over the UK’s top movie job, Kosse’s given some indication of what’s to come. We sat down recently to talk about the legacy of Film4, the future of the British industry, and how an American came to run one of the most venerable supporters of the British biz.
When Kosse was first mooted for the role of Director of Film4, folks could be forgiven for wondering at the move: Why would a U.S. studio exec with a significant portfolio and wide-ranging mandate as Universal’s President, International, segue to the feature arm of a UK broadcaster? But it made sense for both the longtime expat, and for Film4. Channel4 was eyeing a slightly expanded commercial mandate and at the time, Chief Executive David Abraham told me of Kosse, “Clearly, this is a very heavyweight executive with both strong creative and business experience. We’re hoping he’ll help us to continue to punch above our weight on the international stage.”
Kosse is a business builder who established Momentum Pictures in London in 2000 and later launched Universal Pictures International, growing it into a global operation with bases in 16 countries and years that saw more than $2B in offshore box office. But after a shake-up in Universal’s ranks and a proposed move to LA, he opted to stay put in London. The timing was right — he was looking for a change, wanting to get closer to the UK industry with personal, quality-driven and risk-taking films.
The Oregon native tells me, “I’d done just about everything in the film business besides pure production and development and this was an opportunity to have a significant development fund with a lot of autonomy, which I liked, with a clear mandate for quality and enough running room in a business that’s got more and more pressure all the time.” There was also the attraction of being able to “explore the opportunity to create great films without a pure profit mandate” and, importantly, there was the Film4 brand.
That brand is one of high quality known for commercially and critically successful titles ranging from the likes of 1994’s classic Four Weddings And A Funeral to Oscar winners Slumdog Millionaire, The Iron Lady and 12 Years A Slave – as well as blockbuster teen comedy franchise The Inbetweeners. It is a huge developer of talent and has nurtured such British and European filmmakers from their early directing days as Danny Boyle and Steve McQueen, and up-and-comers like Alex Garland (Ex Machina), Yann Demange (’71) and Ben Wheatley (High Rise, A Field In England, Sightseers). Film4 is in Wheatley’s next, Free Fire, which is exec produced by Martin Scorsese.
That’s a fairly wide range. In his office at Channel4’s modern glass and steel London headquarters, Kosse says a term often bandied about is “alternative mainstream.” That’s borne out of how Channel4 defined itself when it first launched in the ’80s and needed to carve out its spot on a playing field that included the BBC and ITV. “We want to be the disruptive voice, but with scale. It’s more alternative, but we’re still a mainstream channel. On the film side, that would be the same thing.”
The company has a development fund and an equity fund, currently investing about £15M per year. In many cases, F4 has traditionally taken minority positions in movies in the £20M-£25M range. Kosse’s not offering up precise details, but smart money would see him spending more aggressively in the future for a bigger chunk of the equity. That could be gleaned from F4’s involvement in Blackbird, a provocative love story that stars Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, which it is co-financing and on which it retained UK rights. (The move doesn’t mean the company is getting into distribution; it’s being strategic.)
Kosse also boarded UK TV rights on Amy, Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary that has an Out of Competition screening here in Cannes. This marks a rare F4 deal which came ahead of the theatrical release – but now if Amy hits, there’s upside in being in early. The money spent, however, is not coming from the production fund and I’ve since learned that feature acquisitions for Channel 4 will now report to Kosse.
While that marks a potential shift, one thing that will definitely not change is Film4 being “a place that takes chances on young filmmakers. We want to be involved in people’s first films,” says Kosse. “There is no change in the strategy. First-time filmmakers and nurturing talent are in the DNA of what we do.”
Although it’s a commercial broadcaster, Film4 parent Channel 4 has a public service mandate. Part of the mandate is helping to maintain and build the UK industry. As Kosse puts it, “Helping move people along that spectrum so that there is a next generation.” He notes that while it’s been a successful strategy and will continue to be, “We’d like to be more than just the place that makes the first film and then they say goodbye.” The roster of returning talent — McQueen, Abrahamson, Wheatley and more — suggests that belief in Film4’s proven team is at a high.
Still, the British industry is shifting, says Kosse. “With the amount of money coming in, in terms of the big movies getting made here like Star Wars, it’s much more about ‘What can the British industry be and what does that mean?’ ” He answers his own question, “The British industry is part of the global industry.”
That’s demonstrated to some degree by the four Competition films here in Cannes. Macbeth is directed by Aussie helmer Justin Kurzel and stars Irish actor Michael Fassbender and France’s Marion Cotillard. The Lobster, with an American and British cast, is helmed by Yorgos Lanthimos, a Greek director working in English for the first time. Carol, from American Todd Haynes, stars a Brit and a Yank (Cate Blanchett and Mara). And Youth is Italian helmer Paolo Sorrentino’s English-language riff on aging with Harvey Keitel, Michael Caine and Rachel Weisz.
Says Kosse by way of example, “If it’s a British writer and a British producer with a European or Latin American or Asian or American director, that’s a British film and that’s something we’re interested in. Certainly, I’m interested in a British film industry that knows its place in the global industry.” Film4 has been and will continue to be a “big storyteller of British stories, but it’ll also be a storyteller of more international stories with more international filmmakers and people. That’s my background as an American and my background with international production and distribution.”
He suggests that Film4 can provide an opportunity for non-British filmmakers who’ve found a great level of success in their native language to find a middle ground before “going off and just making an American studio movie. Make a 10, 15, 20 million dollar movie in the UK, find the story that merits that budget level — you can get the financing and you’re probably going to get that done more quickly; the development process is probably going to be less painful; and you’ll have more autonomy at that budget level.”
He adds: “The whole industry is going in a different way and Film4 can play a part in that. Very British stories can be told by somebody who’s not British.”
Now that he’s been in the post for six months, what does Kosse think he’s brought to Film4? “I think I bring a sense of where the market is. Historically the British film industry has been designed to make a film for the UK thinking about the UK, France, or Germany… Now, Europe is less important as a global market than the rest of the world. In America, even at the lower budget ranges they’re more attuned to that. If they’re making a horror movie, they’re thinking about Latin America and Russia as opposed to just the old markets. I’m not sure that in the British industry people have realized ‘What movies could we make for 10 million that actually appeal to Latin America and Russia and Southeast Asia?’”
Film4 Slate Highlights
DEVELOPMENT: Steve McQueen’s heist thriller Widows, penned by Gillian Flynn and produced by Iain Canning and Emile Sherman of See-Saw Films for New Regency.
IN PRODUCTION: Free Fire, directed by Ben Wheatley and exec produced by Martin Scorsese. Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson and Michael Smiley star with Andy Starke producing for Rook Films and Film4 co-financing.
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, which Film4 developed and is co-financing, just started shooting in Oklahoma with Shia LaBeouf starring. Produced by Parts & Labor’s Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy; Thomas Benski and Lucas Ochoa from Pulse Films; Pouya Shahbazian of Man Down Pictures. Film4 co-finances, with backing from BFI and Trudie Styler, Celine Rattray and Charlotte Ubben of Maven Pictures.
Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk with Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Steve Martin, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker and Garrett Hedlund. F4 developed the original draft with Simon Beaufoy. Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8 and Bona Film Group are partnered with Tom Rothman’s TriStar and Film4 on the adaptation of Ben Fountain’s acclaimed novel. Produced by Marc Platt, Ink Factory’s Stephen Cornwell, Rhodri Thomas and Simon Cornwell, and Lee in association with Film4.