BBC Films Talks Biggest Ever Sundance Slate, Fresh Voices, Netflix, BAFTA & New Movies With Ruben Östlund, Reggie Yates & Anna Rose Holmer

(L-R) Herself, His House, The Nest, Never Rarely Sometimes and Surge BBC

EXCLUSIVE: BBC Films is at the Sundance Film Festival with a record five movies playing in official selection. It’s one of the UK producer-financier’s biggest hauls at any overseas festival.

Debuting in Park City this year are Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself, Remi Weekes’ debut His House, Sean Durkin’s Jude Law-starrer The Nest, Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Aneil Karia debut Surge starring Ben Whishaw. Each project was developed from an early stage by BBC Films, which also backed production. Weekes’ Midnight thriller His House is already making waves after Netflix snapped up global rights yesterday.

In a wide-ranging interview, we spoke to the revamped BBC Films team, led by former Film4 executive Rose Garnett since 2017, about Sundance, BBC Films’ direction, the growing challenge posed by streamers and the #Baftasowhite furore.

BBC Films rarely discusses development projects but today we can also reveal a host of intriguing new films being backed by the Brit funder, which has an annual budget of $14.3m (£11m).

First up, the group has boarded Palme d’Or winner Ruben Östlund’s Triangle Of Sadness, the anticipated fashion world satire in which a pair of models find themselves at a crossroads in their careers. Due to shoot in coming months, the $11m project is The Square and Force Majeure director’s biggest production to date and his first entirely in English.

Reggie Yates Shutterstock

The financier is also working with Brit actor, writer and broadcaster Reggie Yates on his debut feature as writer and director. Co-developed with Hillbilly Films, whose Polly Leys was a co-producer on The Full Monty and producer on Idris Elba starrer Second Coming, the comedy project is due to go into production this year. The script is “warm, dynamic and direct,” the broadcaster tells us.

BBC Films is following up its recent work with North American filmmakers Eliza Hittman and Sean Durkin with the new film from U.S. director Anna Rose Holmer (The Fits) and editor Saela Davis (Hala) who are jointly directing a psychological drama called God’s Creatures. The Fits duo are teaming with Ammonite and Lady Macbeth producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly on the Ireland-set feature scripted by Shane Crowley.

As we revealed yesterday, the financier is teaming with The Nest director Sean Durkin and former Film4 boss Tessa Ross on a new project about the Von Erich family, a dynasty of wrestlers.

Finally, the London-based outfit is also working with writer-director Dionne Edwards and producer Georgia Goggin on their debut feature, Pretty Red Dress. The London-set feature about family, gender and identity, is due to start shooting first half of this year.

Here’s our interview with BBC Films Director Rose Garnett, Commissioning Executive Eva Yates and Head Of Development Claudia Yusef.

Deadline: The BBC had nine projects total at Sundance last year, including Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. This year, BBC Films has five movies at the festival. Given the film team’s direction since you joined, that doesn’t feel like a coincidence…

Rose Garnett: This year, lots of great projects came together at the right time. But definitely when we got here and began to think about what success looks like and the landscape we want to be in, it felt like Sundance was the festival that we wanted to have a real presence at quite quickly.

Deadline: How do you achieve that?

Garnett: I think it’s about admiring the festival for a long time. Eva knows it really well. It’s about BBC Films being an invigorated, dynamic space for new voices, for author driven voices, and stories about now. It’s that sense of urgency that we want all our work to be imbued with in very different ways. Sundance feels like a festival where, through the work, we can begin to make the announcement of who and what we are. This festival probably does that more than any other. But every film finds its right home. We’re never trying to get a film to back into a space that we think is right for it. Build it first, and then explore festival options.

Deadline: Last year, speaking at the Zurich Summit, you said when you joined BBC Films you reinvigorated the slate and the mission. What did you mean and why was that necessary?

Garnett: I think the necessary bit isn’t as key, because I think if you’re joining somewhere you want to think about what it’s going to be, rather than what it has been. We inherited a wonderful department with a great legacy and a great set of films. So it’s not that it was necessary. As we all joined, it was more about the question, ‘what do we want to do in this space?’

Deadline: And that mission was…?

Garnett: It was about going back to the heart of what public service film-making could be and what being a public service department means in this extraordinary organization with these freedoms to really explore authorship, new voices and what the future of mainstream looks like. And to think about the platform of the BBC in terms of how your work can be seen, both on linear TV and iPlayer.

(L-R) Rose Garnett, Eva Yates and Claudia Yusef BBC

It’s about having an appeal to as many people as possible, while at the center of that, keeping a really strong sense of what we are here to do and what we can uniquely do: be a home for people and projects that haven’t yet found their space, that need time to develop. With the more established film makers, they need privacy in order to explore what they want to do next. At the same time, embracing and inviting in films that perhaps are more instinctively audience facing, like Judy or Misbehaviour. So, to make sure we’ve got a really mixed palette.

At the center of it is a sort of dynamism based on the philosophy that ‘probably this film needed our help to get made, this film needed the belief of a department and a team that aren’t driven by market forces and that aren’t driven by being reactive’. When we get involved in a film, we need to invite rather than persuade other people to believe in it. That’s a key difference to a lot of other funders out there. Of course, we are lucky to have great partners, too, such as the BFI.

Deadline: Widest possible audience vs original voices is always a tricky balance…

Garnett: Really tricky. As is having a robust relationship with being bold and making sure that we’re curating, we’re rigorous, we’re expansive, we’re generous. But it’s not about one point of view. It’s not about one perspective. It’s a massively privileged job. It’s about how you use that privilege wisely and with generosity.

Deadline: You probably hate the word edgy. But the perception is that since you joined, BBC Films’ direction has become more adventurous and edgy, more bold and risky.

Eva Yates: Adventurous is a good word. We’re working with a really broad range of voices, so there are always going to be things that sit at all ends of extremes. That’s kind of the point. If the work is going to provoke a conversation, then we’re interested in what that conversation is. But we put development at the center of everything. We’re thinking about how we build people in a way that goes beyond just one film.

Claudia Yusef: We’re not interested in making niche films. We’re not interested in making films that are noisy for the sake of it or being hip. It’s none of that. It’s really about who are the most exciting voices coming through and how can we support them. How can we be part of their story. And how can we give them the support they need to ensure that their voice is best protected and amplified.

Deadline: The previous incarnation of BBC Films backed quite a few broad-appeal movies which went on to make quite a lot of money. I’m thinking of films like Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, D’Mrs. Brown’s Boys Movie, even Lady In The Van. I don’t immediately see as many of those types of movies on your slate. Given the public service remit of the BBC, is that important?

Renée Zellweger in 'Judy'
Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment

 Garnett: Judy has made a lot of money. Blue Story has made money. People Just Do Nothing: Big In Japan could do very well. Look, films are made to meet audiences. We don’t have one definition of what success is. Every film is built, financed and developed in a bespoke way to suit the team behind it. We’re over the moon about Renée’s [Zellweger] journey on Judy. The minute we saw that first bit of footage, that’s what we were hoping for.

Deadline: Film4 was vocal a couple of years ago about making larger investments in productions and improving their recoupment possibilities. Is that important for you?

Garnett: It’s not a priority. We’re glad if we get money back, because we put it straight back into making more films. But that doesn’t motivate us.

Deadline: The lineup feels more global than ever. You’re working with Ruben Östlund, Eliza Hittman, Sean Durkin, Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis…

Garnett: And Jane Campion…But they’re the outliers. The vast majority of what we do is British-built, British-based and British stories. That said, film is global. The BBC is global. Being part of an international conversation of excellence is really exciting.

Yusef: Being able to bring world class filmmakers like Jane Campion [whose The Power Of The Dog shoots soon] to UK licence fee payers feels very justified.

Deadline: You haven’t done a foreign-language film yet, right?

Sundance Film Festival

 Yates: No, but we will. I mean, the things we have coming this year which are not English language will be from UK-based film makers who are working in languages that are appropriate to the stories they’re telling. His House is partly in Sudanese dialect, because it tells the story of two Sudanese refugees. But again, it’s a small piece of the big picture.

Yusef: We have parameters and we absolutely can look each other in the eye and say, ‘Should we be doing this? Why should we be doing it? Who’s it for? Is this is a good use of our resource, both financially, in terms of energy?’ But it’s also about saying, ‘This is going to be a great piece of work. This is a great voice, and we could back that great voice as we’re one of the world’s best creative organizations.’

Deadline: Some eyebrows were raised on this side of the pond over your involvement in Never Rarely Sometimes Always seeing as it was shot in the U.S. and is from a U.S. director and producers…

Garnett: Well, we built the movie. It began in a café in Soho with me and Eliza having a cup of coffee. It was originally going to be shot in Ireland but then changes to local laws meant that the U.S. became a better fit. We’re very proud to have been part of it.

Deadline: Will you work with Netflix?

Garnett: We are. The Power Of The Dog is a Netflix acquisition. We developed the film. [This interview was done just before the His House deal on which BBC retains a free TV/iPlayer window in UK].

Deadline: How difficult is it untangling rights and windows with them?

Garnett: It’s all in the negotiation. But it has been incredibly smooth so far.

Deadline: Will you work with them more going forward?

Garnett: Every project will find its right home and we’ll always look for the right home for every project. But we’re also deeply connected to theatrical distribution. Our own iPlayer platform is very important, too.

Deadline: Just before our meeting an alert popped up in my inbox saying Netflix will spend $20BN on content in 2020. How do you compete?

Garnett: [Laughter] Listen, we do a lot with a lot less money…You can’t live in the space of what other people might be doing. You have to live in the space of what you can do well and what you can offer, and hope that people continue to choose to work with you. The streamers are the new normal. This is the world we all live in. These are the choices everybody’s got. It’s got huge upsides and also massive challenges, and actually I think it makes us feel more determined about what we can offer, what we can offer well and what we can do uniquely. People know that we’re here for the long haul and for the story.

Yates: We’re here to talk about careers, not just projects. We’re here to talk about experimentation, we’re here to talk about developing a project on its own terms, we’re here to make sure that creatives have bespoke relationships among a really small team and that we speak as one voice. Our justification is only the work. It’s really easy to make an assumption that working with Netflix will be faster. All these films we’ve got at Sundance joined our slate around two years ago.

Deadline: Are you having more dialogue with the industry about TV?

BBC Films

 Garnett: We’re working very closely with BBC drama and BBC comedy. Shows like Sally Rooney adaptation Normal People and People Just Do Nothing. It was probably a little more siloed before. Having Charlotte Moore as a head of content has been great. It feels like we’re all in it together now.

Yates: TV is much more a part of our conversation with talent today than it was 10 years ago.

Yusef: Also, young talent don’t particularly think of themselves in terms of genre anymore. It’s more about voice.

Deadline: It feels like there is a lot of excitement around new voices just now. Movies like Les Miserables from France have really hit home. Blue Story here.

Yates: That’s where a lot of our excitement lies. I would say that is an embrace of new voices. But I think there’s always been so much energy around new voices.

Yusef: I think we’re in a very healthy phase of new talent at the moment. I think it’s exciting to us how many people cross our desks every week who we would be really thrilled to work with.

Garnett: Volume-wise it’s expanded a lot from five or 10 years ago. It feels like there’s a very healthy appetite for first films and a very healthy pipeline and infrastructure for them.

Yusef: Doorways have opened to a lot of people who may not have thought to come and ask for funding in the past.

Deadline: That said, we’ve just had the BAFTA nominations. Your movies got four nominations, or five including Micheal Ward’s Rising Star nomination for Blue Story. But there was widespread frustration over the lack of diversity. Director Steve McQueen said the awards risk becoming irrelevant if they don’t change. How big a problem is this?

The Souvenir

 Garnett: I think the industry and BAFTA are now two different questions. I think there’s some extraordinary work that the industry has made this year. It’s great seeing Renée’s journey. Sorry We Missed You is a wonderful film. I’m so happy Micheal Ward will be celebrated. I’m also really disappointed that a lot of films we were part of last year weren’t recognized and seen. I guess the two most obvious examples in terms of their impact were Blue Story and The Souvenir. It was a real shame not to see them being acknowledged in the BAFTA film nominations. BAFTA have said they need to do things differently and that would be very welcome.

Yusef: I would love to be a part of that conversation.

Deadline: Do you think decision makers in the UK film industry are from diverse enough backgrounds?

Yusef: Probably not.

Garnett: You need a range of perspectives in leadership roles. You need a range of tastes. And as people get into decision-making positions, it’s really key that those decisions are being made by people that reflect the world we live in and recognize the stories we need to hear. That’s an ongoing conversation, I would say, around all creative industries in this country at the moment…Everyone who recruits has a responsibility.

Deadline: There are a number of creatives who have gone on record to say how much they enjoy your approach, Rose. McQueen has been a vocal supporter. He said in one interview that ‘your genius has everything to do with your gender’. What do you make of that comment? [BBC Films’ staff is 80% women]

Garnett: [Laughter] I live in a pleasurable combination of excitement and outrage, and that goes a long way…

Deadline: What is coming up for BBC Films?

Garnett, Yates & Yusef: A lot. Just to give you a flavour: Mughal Mowgli with Riz Ahmed, Stacey Gregg’s thriller Here Before, Supernova with Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, The Souvenir: Part II, Microwave film Sweetheart, People Just Do Nothing: Big In Japan, Kevin Macdonald’s Guantanamo Bay drama Prisoner 760, Clio Barnard’s Ali & Ava, Ammonite, Misbehaviour

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