Independent UK producer Jonathan Weissler lifts the lid on the British film industry in general, and his own career in particular, in this BLOUIN ARTINFO exclusive.
What are the challenges of producing in the UK?
The single hardest part of my job is finding and developing good scripts and finding the money to pay for that process. Financing is hard, but if you have the right cast and budget and package, it’s doable. Film production itself is hard but if the plan is well made and the director behaves himself it’s doable. Selling a film is hard but doable. And ensuring the film actually receives the money it is owed is tedious but as long as you have solid contracts and a good lawyer, it’s doable! But the single hardest thing I do is script development.
Most UK producers I know work the same as me, in that they work with limited funds to purchase and develop scripts. We cannot compete against the Hollywood studios or the two or three big UK production companies. Every time I read a script the chances are it has been turned down by the five Hollywood Studios, another ten L.A. companies and a few companies in London. It doesn’t matter how good your relationships are with the agents and the writers – it’s purely a matter of economics and the fact is most UK producers don’t have $500,000 to option a hot script. So the writers go to where the money is and as a result most producers I know end up fighting over scraps!
There are small development funds available through government sponsored schemes, but the funds available are low and the bureaucracy needed to get a green light on a spend is tedious and often means you cannot work as fast as you would like. And a lot of them are locked into certain story niches which mean that commercially successful or crowd-pleasing films are not given priority.
So myself and a lot of other good producers I know tend to self-develop. I have great taste in movies and know what I love. I am now working with talented writers working to order and creating an environment where we decide what films people want to see and then work out how to make them. That logic sounds pretty obvious and in most industries it’s considered the norm, but in the film industry we are late learners and it’s mixed with a genuine need to create and tell new and different stories. As a result most films that are made do not recoup and, frankly, are not very good or appealing to audiences.
The other big problem is a lack of understanding in smart script development. Too many scripts don’t spend enough time in the oven, so to speak, and too many English scripts are rushed into production. Too many American scripts are too. Partly through ignorance of the filmmakers but also the need to actually make the film. We don’t get paid unless the film gets made – so filming, even if it’s rushed into production, is the only way we can earn a living. This mechanism is a vicious circle that really impacts the quality and commercial prospects of English films.
I really admire Tim Bevan and Eric Felner at Working Title for the balls it takes to simply cancel a project – even in Pre-Production if they don’t believe the script or cast is good enough. The whole adage, ‘we can fix this on set or in the edit suite,’ is simply not true.
With my background of Line Producing I am pretty good at physically making films and I have really good relationships with many financiers and distributors. I know in intimate detail that every film has a value in the market place and it’s critical to make that film for less than it’s worth. That way you can get your money back. That sounds pretty obvious too, but too many films are budgeted at the wrong number. I see all the time good producers and bad producers alike running around town with projects that are not worth the money, no matter how good the film will end up being.
Saying that, it’s hard to know what to back and what to turn down. I am good friends with the guys who made “The Kings Speech” and I know for fact that if I was offered a £5m period drama about a King who has to overcome a speech defect and as its climax he has to make a speech – I would have turned it down. I would have suggested it at best as a TV movie to be shown on a holiday weekend! My favourite film of last year was “The Intouchables” and if I was offered that film I would have turned it down too. So as the great writer William Goldman says, ‘Nobody knows anything.’
I have had a successful career producing a lot of movies, often for the fee and the hope that they will be good and that the backend points will mean something. And I’ve even produced a couple of hits! But I am 37 years old and it’s taken me a long, long time, too long even, to realise this model is wrong. In the last year I have pretty much turned down every offer that has landed on my desk and really stepped back to re-evaluate and rebuild my slate of films. I make movies because I love movies. I’m the guy who shoots a 6-day week and on my day off spends it in the cinema watching three films! But I haven’t yet produced “Close Encounters,” “Fight Club,” “Goodfellas,” “City of God,” or “Requiem for a Dream,” and it’s this that I am now addressing!
So a lot of challenges that face producers I think I understand and again it all comes back to Script, Script, Script.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got two movies coming out in cinemas this year. I have “Luck,” which is directed by Bafta-winning director Liviu Tipurita and tells the story of the world’s luckiest man. Only that when we meet him we find him homeless and living on the streets of London. We then discover he can choose when he is lucky and when he is not. He decides he’s going to be lucky again, but only if he can persuade ten strangers to do ten good deeds.
It’s a great film and a modern fable. We shot last year in central London locations and it was tough shoot with lots of bad weather and all the drama of shooting 100% on location in Soho, Southbank, Oxford Street and pretty much every other tough location in London. But we have a tremendous film and a tremendous lead performance by Tom Radcliffe and I have high hopes the film can connect with audiences.
I also have the film “White Lie” coming out. It’s a co-production between my company Balagan Productions and the French company Heska Productions. It’s a thriller starring David Birkin and Paul Bandey about a young writer who has his novel stolen by his mentor. It ends up in a remote house overnight where we learn everyone has secrets and there is betrayal, affairs and murder! It’s kinda like a modern day Hitchcock film and it premiered in Cannes this year and had a French cinema release in July.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
For the last year I have been successfully turning down every offer I have received. In fact the more I turn down the more I get offered. Go figure! However I have been using this time in a smart way.
Now I am getting very close to launching a new slate. I have a movie called “Benson Child Clown” by these amazing new South African writers about an African child soldier searching for his young brother in a war-torn land. We are making it for a certain cost and shooting in South Africa. If we do it right it could be another “Killing Fields.”
I am also doing “Blue Messiah,” which is a horror movie about a sociopath who meets the Devil in Jerusalem. It could be another Angel Heart or Omen! We are making it for a certain budget and it all depends on casting.
I also have a comedy called “Kingdom of Frank” about a hapless guy who accidentally becomes King of an African country and then America wants to build an army base on his land, the UN get involved and he suddenly finds diamonds! While this is all going on he’s falling in love with an American aid worker and if we do it right we could have a really entertaining feelgood movie.
I also have a slate of six genre films that I am planning on shooting back-to-back. They are all thrillers and adventure films. They are designed to be profitable movies that can employ a lot of people. I will be talking about that in a lot more details after we officially launch the slate later this year.
I also have a completely new and revolutionary science fiction story but it’s a little early to talk about it. As I said earlier, it needs a little more time in oven.
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