EXCLUSIVE: Film4 chief Daniel Battsek is having a busy fall. The company has a total of seven movies across the triumvirate of festivals, including Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri which blew the doors off the Sala Darsena in its first screening this morning at the Venice Film Festival. The international audience applauded, laughed and emoted throughout the tale of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a mother who makes a bold move after her daughter’s murder.
The darkly comic and moving pic, which also stars Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, is the first film in which Film4 put up half the budget as part of a 50/50 co-fi strategy implemented by former F4 chief David Kosse and outgoing Channel 4 chief exec David Abraham. It could also be one of its biggest payoffs. Film4 is partnered with Fox Searchlight on the movie which has Oscar buzz zooming around the Lido today. Respected industry veteran Battsek, who joined the company in July 2016, is looking to keep that model alive.
Another fall fest title that’s a co-fi along with Three Billboards is Sebastian Lelio’s Disobedience, starring Rachel Weisz. The Toronto-bound pic is in partnership with FilmNation. The remaining pics are Andrew Haigh’s Lean On Pete which was here over the weekend and next goes to Canada; as are Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, Clio Barnard’s Dark River, Michael Pearce’s Beast and Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not A Witch.
Film4 is known as a home for high-quality commercial and critically successful titles (think Slumdog Millionaire, The Iron Lady, 12 Years A Slave, Room) and is a major developer of talent. It’s helped nurture such filmmakers from their early directing days as Danny Boyle, Steve McQueen, Alex Garland, McDonagh and more.
I recently chatted with Battsek about relationships with talent, the current and upcoming slate, strategies going forward, and how he’s settled into what is one of the UK’s top movie jobs. Here’s our talk:
DEADLINE: How is Three Billboards structured differently than other movies Film4 has been involved with over the years?
DANIEL BATTSEK: It’s a model that forms part of the strategy that was put together by David Kosse with David Abraham in order to have a bigger financial stake in a certain number of films for a more preferential place in the overall waterfall; and/or have a complete 50/50 deal where you’re equal partners which is the case with Three Billboards.
DEADLINE: Plans going forward are to stick with that model?
BATTSEK: Yes, it’s part of what I’ve been doing since I’ve been here. It’s looking for opportunities whereby we can invest in a similar fashion. But it’s all part of an overall financial and creative plan. We have to balance. If we’re putting $3, $4 or $5 million into a movie, that’s a big chunk of our overall budget so we can’t do that that too many times.
So, as I investigate our slate for 2017-18, I’m looking at where are the one or two opportunities for doing something like that: bigger risk, bigger reward and then how do we make sure we have enough money to invest in the other types of films that we want to be involved with.
DEADLINE: Can you break down the “others”?
BATTSEK: It goes from the Channel 4 remit films, for which we cordon off an amount of money within our budget to ensure we can invest in new talent, diverse talent, first-time filmmakers right the way through to shorts. It’s so that we have a protected amount whatever else is going on above it that is always going to do that vital part of what Channel 4 and Film4 is all about.
Then there’s everything in between: There’s the 50/50 co-fis, there’s the all the movies in the rest of that space where we are putting in a bit of equity or just our license fee. It’s a sort of horses for courses situation. We’re always looking to invest our money in the most commercially viable way possible given that there are always other people trying to do that as well.
DEADLINE: Do you expect things to change dramatically in the transition from David Abraham to Alex Mahon?
BATTSEK: I don’t think so. Film4 has evolved from Tessa (Ross) through David (Kosse) through me into a very creative financially viable and very functional part of the Channel 4 organization and I’ve met with Alex Mahon a couple of times and we’ve talked about how she views Film4 and it’s a very positive response from her and the board.
DEADLINE: Any thoughts on how Brexit is going to affect the business going forward?
BATTSEK: It has an effect on the country and has an effect on all business and Channel4 is a business and we’re part of that business, so we definitely need to be aware of the effect which is mainly an economic effect. But, it also has potential to culturally have an influence over what we do. For us in particular it doesn’t have a very specific “Oh, we can’t do that anymore” effect. But it affects businesses we’re connected to like sales companies.
Not wishing for a weak pound, but it does attract foreign investment because they’re getting more for their money. I’m not saying it’s beneficial, but it hasn’t been detrimental to what we’re trying to do.
I don’t like anything that sets up cultural barrier or potentially sets up cultural barriers. What’s great about the film business is that free movement of people and of ideas.
DEADLINE: Is there a way to plan for it?
BATTSEK: We’ve got so much to focus on in terms of the movies we’re trying to make, and trying to make the very best of those, that I think if we try and look too far out into the political landscape, which is so unpredictable, I think we could get sidetracked. I’m only focusing on things that have a direct effect on things that we’re here to do.
DEADLINE: Film4 works with British talent but has also had some movies recently shooting in America. Is there a reason you would shy away from that? In terms of the Film4 remit, you have to have certain British elements.
BATTSEK: Yes, absolutely we do and we support our filmmakers and the vision they have whether it is one that takes place in this country or elsewhere. It so happens that a number of filmmakers we have supported from day one, for one reason or another, set their most recent project outside the UK. That’s their prerogative and we support them.
I do see our role as supporting of British film content and filmmakers, so wherever I can I’m going to try and make movies here. As I look at the slate developing, I can see plenty of projects that should they come to fruition they’ll be made here.
DEADLINE: What’s the competitive landscape right now in the UK to get those projects?
BATTSEK: The BBC have always been competition to us and will continue to be I’m sure. I’m on my guard!
DEADLINE: You work in a relatively low to mid-range budget space. It can be difficult to get those movies away nowadays.
BATTSEK: It’s a mixture. Sometimes it’s really hard to get those movies made so there’s that pressure and then other times there are people who will come in and rip them off the table and do them themselves. So you have to both keep your cards close to your chest and at the same time be out there to promote and get them made, and it’s trying to balance that.
We develop our own material, so we do control to a greater extent the material that we have optioned. That’s a tremendous asset to have and power in the marketplace to have great material that filmmakers either are attached to or want to become attached to because then you can go out and create the environment that you want to create around those projects.
DEADLINE: And there’s more competition from the Amaflixes of the world.
BATTSEK: Yeah, for sure and I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing. I mean I want those filmmakers to feel like they can continue to make the movies they want to make. Obviously I want to be the one that they’re making them with but I’d rather that there were other people who saw the value both creatively and financially of investing in the filmmakers that we’ve nurtured than people closing the door and saying, “Oh, well no one’s interested in that sort of filmmaking.”
It’s definitely a plus and can occasionally be a minus when there’s a filmmaker that we’ve nurtured and we want to make their next movie and they turn around and say “Hey, Netflix just agreed to finance it 100%. Sorry, but thanks.”
DEADLINE: Is it indeed harder to hang onto that talent that you’ve helped prop up?
BATTSEK: Talented people are always going to be in demand whether from studios, specialist divisions, Amazon, Netflix. I put a lot of effort, and everyone in the Film4 world going way back has put a tremendous amount of effort, into creating that connectivity between those filmmakers and Film4. I think we’ve been very, very successful at that. So even when those filmmakers have the opportunity to do work elsewhere, they’ve been incredibly loyal about trying to ensure that Film4 has a seat at the table one way or another. Even when it’s not something that those new partners are desperate to arrange.
DEADLINE: Have you guys taken a bath on anything recently?
BATTSEK: (Laughs) Not everything has turned out exactly how we would have wanted it to, but we are very well organized. We’re never the sole financier, we’re almost always building films that have an international sales element or a studio element. Films are rarely put out there and needing everything to come into place when the movie is done, or else.
DEADLINE: How has your experience at Miramax and Cohen Media Group, both in the UK and U.S. helped inform this job in the past year?
BATTSEK: I think that the experience and the knowledge and the contacts that I have built up over however long it’s been, having that U.S. and UK perspective — both viewing each territory from within and from without — I do think is a big asset in terms of the movies we are trying to make. (It’s) understanding the marketplace in terms of who would be our partners, but also in terms of the audience. I still am very connected to that world in America.
I now seem to have people who’ve worked for me sort of positioned in various companies all over the place, so I like to think that I could sort of, in a Manchurian candidate way, flick a switch and suddenly they would all do my bidding (laughs). But that means I’m very aware of the way in which the market fluctuates.
DEADLINE: So with all these movies unspooling at festivals and what you have in the pipeline, what are you looking forward to?
BATTSEK: In terms of the films, not that I was involved in their initiation, but that have been birthed while I was here by coming into production or through production, what I’m most excited about is this tremendous variety of tone and authorship in terms of directors and writers that spread across the movies. To mix Three Billboards, Lean On Pete, Disobedience and Killing Of A Sacred Deer with films from newer filmmakers like Clio Barnard’s Dark River, Michael Pearce’s Beast and Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not A Witch, it’s kind of great to have all of that going on at the same time.
(Recently) I’ve been to the set of Lenny Abrahamson’s new movie and been to Peterloo, Mike Leigh’s project, both of which are happening in the UK and are very British. That’s pretty exciting and then before that I went to Chicago to visit Steve McQueen in the last week of shooting Widows.
It’s pretty incredible to have all that going on. And then there are a couple of movies that had started their life under previous ownership, but I’ve been here to see them come to fruition like Bart Layton’s American Animals and Stephen Merchant’s Fighting With My Family.
We have a couple of other things brewing. I’m excited about Mothering Sunday. I have a good feeling about it. It’s based on the Graham Swift novel. Alice Birch is adapting it and we’re producing with Liz Karlsen and Stephen Woolley. It’s one of those British projects that if I was running Miramax or Cohen, it would be the sort of thing that American audiences would want to see.
I think we’re doing what we set out to do.