How Film4 became a pint-sized Oscars powerhouse

The Brits are off to the Oscars next Sunday, although it’s unlikely many of them will come home full-handed. The highest-profile nominees – Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Christian Bale and Richard E Grant – may dominate the headlines, and, in the case of the first two, the Baftas, but all are outside chances at the Academy Awards, set to be pipped to the post by American actors.

Yet in one corner of central London, awards season has, for some years now, been soundtracked by the constant noise of corks popping. Film4, the feature-film production arm of Channel 4, has, over the past few years, established itself as a pint-sized Oscars powerhouse. This year, it has a total of 13 Academy Award nominations, thanks to The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’s Queen Anne romp starring Colman, Weisz and Emma Stone, and Cold War, Paweł Pawlikowski’s follow-up to Ida.

By comparison, moneybags outfits Netflix and Fox Searchlight each have 15 – which is the number Film4 managed in 2016, when its nominations were spread between Carol, Room, Amy, Ex Machina, Youth and 45 Years. Over the past decade, Film4 has taken 18 Oscars back to its HQ.

Danny Boyle poses with young actors and two of Slumdog Millionaire’s eight Oscars.
Danny Boyle with two of the stars – and two of the Oscars – of Slumdog Millionaire. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/REUTERS

Founded in 1982, and owned by its broadcaster parent, the company deals entirely with development and production, while most of its peers also handle distribution. Its knack for optioning unlikely books, then matching them to fruitful film-makers, is the stuff of legend. Few would have clocked the publication, in 2005, of Q&A, an obscure first novel by an Indian diplomat; fewer still can have missed Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s film adaptation, which three years later won eight Oscars and took almost $400m.

Film4 also prioritise spotting new talent then fostering it for as many films as possible: longtime collaborators include Boyle, Lanthimos, Martin McDonagh, Steve McQueen, Jonathan Glazer, Andrea Arnold, Lenny Abrahamson, Michael Winterbottom, Asif Kapadia and – for the past 35 years, at least – Mike Leigh.

For many years, the company was run by Tessa Ross, but after she departed in 2014, a brief tenure by David Kosse saw the annual budget jump from £15m to £25m. Under current director Daniel Battsek, Film4’s strategy is to invest more funds in fewer films, with the aim of being self-sufficient by next year.

Battsek, 61, has found fans among Film4’s talent stable, with Leigh praising his “long experience and his charming enthusiasm” and well as “great style”. Jonathan Glazer, whose Holocaust drama due in 2020 is already attracting awards talk, reports that working with the company on Sexy Beast and Under the Skin were “good experiences”.

Battsek is similarly understated, declaring himself both optimistic and pessimistic about The Favourite and Cold War’s chances in Hollywood next Sunday, as well as disappointed that two other of their contenders – Leigh’s Peterloo and Steve McQueen’s Widows – weren’t better liked by voters. “I think Widows achieved everything it set out to creatively, but it didn’t feature in the awards. I thought it had more commercial viability as well, but it didn’t quite perform as we hoped and expected at the box office.”

Three of those films (Widows being the odd one out) also had financial backing from the British Film Institute, which, since 1997, has ploughed lottery money into homegrown cinema, alongside Film4 and that company’s de facto rival, BBC Films. All three companies have a public service remit, although the terms are more explicit at the BFI; their “diversity criteria” (introduced this year) mean only films that actively promote underrepresented groups can compete for certain Baftas.

Daniel Battsek at the European premiere of Widows at the opening night of the BFI London film festival on 10 October 2018.
Optimistic and pessimistic … Film4 director Daniel Battsek at the gala opening of Widows at the 2018 London film festival. Photograph: John Phillips/Getty/BFI

At Film4, Battsek reports that around 30% of its cash is ring-fenced for projects by first-time and diverse talent, but it is a historical favouring of more daring fare, such as 1985’s My Beautiful Launderette, which has given them a credibility edge over the BBC, which has tended towards more populist heartwarmers, such as Billy Elliot. As industry expert Charles Gant points out, as fond as BBC Films is of a costume drama, it’s unlikely it would have been comfortable with one as outre as The Favourite.

Yet Battsek believes the key difference between the companies is one of capacity, with the Beeb’s £10m needing to stretch far wider than Film4’s own annual budget (the BFI, by comparison, has £80m to spend over five years). This year, BBC Films has no Oscar nominations; since 1992, it has won just three Academy Awards (from 46 nominations) – 10% of Film4’s total in the same period, and less than 50% of the BFI’s since it started funding films in 1997.

But there are fresh indications BBC Films is seeking to take a leaf from its rival’s book. Its director, Rose Garnett, left her role as head of creative at Film4 two years ago to take over at BBC Films following the departure of Christine Langan (to Baby Cow, Steve Coogan’s production outfit).

Garnett, who doesn’t give interviews, was instrumental in the development of many recent Film4 triumphs, including The Favourite and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which received seven Oscar nominations in 2017). According to the BBC’s press office, she has made significant changes to both the team and its mission statement, “developing a radically redrawn direction”.

Joanna Hogg (centre), with the stars of her new film, The Souvenir, at Sundance.
Joanna Hogg (centre), with the stars of her new film, The Souvenir, at Sundance. Photograph: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

The slate of films has been overhauled, with 40% of current projects new and focused on supporting the spikier end of British cinema. The first fruits of Garnett’s tenure are now being seen, with three of her films premiering at Sundance last month, including The Souvenir, the latest drama from British social realist Joanna Hogg, which took the international jury prize.

Hogg emails me on the way back from the film’s rapturous reception in Berlin to say that Garnett’s arrival at the BBC seemed to her “nothing short of a miracle”. She goes on to call her “unfailingly supportive and an absolute unwavering force allowing me full rein to my creativity and backing up and encouraging my risk taking instinct … Rose can only win. I’m convinced her influence in the cinematic realm is going to be felt for years to come.”

Forthcoming awards hopefuls from the BBC include Ammonite, an archaeological romance with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, made by Francis Lee, director of God’s Own Country; and Sorry We Missed You, a gig economy drama from Ken Loach. Loach had been with Film4 for years, but after it passed on the chance to back I, Daniel Blake in pre-production, it was the BBC which was handed what turned out to be Loach’s biggest ever commercial success (it also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes).

Ken Loach with his Palme d’Or for I, Daniel Blake.
Ken Loach with his Palme d’Or for I, Daniel Blake. Photograph: Joel Ryan/AP

Battsek, whose tenure began after this decision, says Loach is among those film-makers he hopes to lure back to Film4, and discusses industry horse trading with the easy cheer of a man who knows his company is sitting pretty, with new movies from Chris Morris, Michael Winterbottom, Armando Iannucci and Asif Kapadia due to debut later this year.

Film4 and BBC Films have, he says, “a healthy competition. Of course we do. You want to be driving for the best, and for the film-makers we want to work with to come and work with us. It keeps us on our toes.”

Peter Bradshaw’s top 10 Film4 productions

Clockwise from left … Trainspotting, Under the Skin, 12 Years a Slave, You Were Never Really Here.
Clockwise from left … Trainspotting, Under the Skin, 12 Years a Slave, You Were Never Really Here. Composite: Rex/Allstar

1. Under the Skin (2013) (dir Jonathan Glazer)

Jonathan Glazer’s magnificent sci-fi horror is Film4’s finest hour and also Scarlett Johansson’s. She is the predatory alien, seducing blokes on the streets of Glasgow and ingesting their life force.

2. 12 Years a Slave (2013) (dir Steve McQueen)

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in the brutal true story of Solomon Northup, a black man born free in 19th-century New York and sold into slavery in the south.

3. Trainspotting (1996) (dir Danny Boyle)

There’s an explosion of energy in this uproarious Danny Boyle film, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s novel about heroin addicts in Edinburgh.

4. My Name Is Joe (1998) (dir Ken Loach)

Loach’s tough social-realist drama has Peter Mullan in a prizewinning performance as a recovering alcoholic in Glasgow who falls in love with a health visitor.

5. P’tang Yang Kipperbang (1982) (dir Michael Apted)

A comic gem scripted by Jack Rosenthal made originally for Channel 4 television: a cricket-mad boy hears legendary commentator John Arlott in his head as he tries and fails to impress girls.

6. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) (dir Stephen Frears)

Thatcherism, racism and homophobia were tackled in this groundbreaking 80s comedy drama, scripted by Hanif Kureishi and starring Gordon Warnecke and a young Daniel Day-Lewis.

Stephen Frears’s beautiful laundrette (1985).
Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). Photograph: Alamy

7. You Were Never Really Here (2017) (dir Lynne Ramsay)

Lynne Ramsay created a Taxi Driver for the 21st century with Joe, played by Joaquin Phoenix, a traumatised ex-soldier who now makes a living rescuing trafficked women.

8. Cold War (2018) (dir Paweł Pawlikowski)

There’s a strange and terrible beauty in Paweł Pawlikowski’s poignant 50s-set film, inspired by his parents, about a Polish musician and singer who fall in love and have the chance to defect.

9. Four Lions (2010) (dir Chris Morris)

With brilliant fearlessness, this satire from director Chris Morris, co-written by him with Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, tackles the issue of British jihadis, trying for martyrdom and glory.

10. The Selfish Giant (2013) (dir Clio Barnard)

Oscar Wilde’s children’s story is passionately reinterpreted in this tough social-realist picture by Clio Barnard – not about a giant in his garden, but a dodgy dealer in his scrapyard, visited by two kids who have stolen some scrap metal.

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How Film4 became a pint-sized Oscars powerhouse