NETWORK Weekender 2016

BFI NETWORK and its partners take over Sheffield, for three intense days with 40 of the most exciting emerging producers in the UK.

8 December 2016
crowd of producers standing outside
By James Weddup
James is Project Partnerships Manager in the BFI Film Fund, supporting BFI NETWORK and our dedicated partners across the UK.
“A vulgarian. An enemy. A grasper, a groper, a bad cop, a bête noire.” 
Who do you think these terms are describing? Not, in fact, a certain US politician – they are all, terms used to describe common perceptions of “the Producer” at the BFI NET.WORK Weekender. The Weekender is an annual training event that this year focused exclusively on producers and asked the 40 attendees to consider the question, ‘What is your identity as a producer?’ If they didn’t recognise themselves in the terms listed above, then the Weekender gave them three days to consider alternatives, build their skills, form bonds and redefine what it means to be a producer in 2016. 
After a rousing welcome by BFI Film Fund Senior Executive Lizzie Francke, the Weekender kicked off at its base of Curzon Sheffield with a triple threat of a session called Producer Mastermind: Finding Your DNA, featuring Rosa Attab, Jean des Forêts and Jeremy Thomas. Three very different producers with productively divergent opinions, they covered vast ground, from modes of working with auteur directors, to the importance of tea and toilets, and how to fight with your collaborators – in a nice way. They described various models of producing, from Jean’s work on Julia Ducournau’s blistering debut feature Raw (more on that later); to Rosa’s analysis of financing films with predominantly non-white casts and the need to insist in the face of doubt that there is an audience out there hungry for them; to Jeremy’s breath-taking experiences of working on films with the colossal scale of Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. Over-riding messages were the importance of cherishing the relationships you develop with directors; the necessity of “talking to yourself” and reflecting on experience, especially if it is painful; and the stimulating paradox of a job that can be terribly hard and lonely and yet at the same time, in the words of Jeremy, “so much better than work”.
a panel of 4 people talking at the front of a cinema
Near the end of that session Jean, with reference to philosopher Gilles Deleuze, described cinema as the experience of “meeting something new” and suggested this is what audiences want when the lights go down. This thought recurred throughout the weekend, and fed into the next session of the day – a case study of Warp Films from Warp Head of Production Barry Ryan in conversation with ex- colleague, producer and Weekender host Caroline Cooper Charles. This charted Warp’s journey, from an office in a spare bedroom (plus part of the landing) to one of the UK’s most exciting and respected production companies. Barry described how he joined Warp as a ‘gun for hire’ and set about making low-budget films that dispensed with traditional development process and created dark, distinctive new worlds. He presented some rules for keeping to tight budgets: no studio shooting, no night shooting, minimal lighting, no more than four weeks’ duration for shoots.
Other tips: 
Don’t make something intended to be cool – because by the time it’s released it won’t be – make something that you know is good. 
Tailor your content accordingly for different markets – a four part This is England series was re-packaged into two films for the Norwegian market;
Look at co-op models for returns: Warp created a model where everyone on the production got a slice of recoupment. Parity, fairness and transparency should be your guiding concepts. 
Barry also gave everyone the reassuring advice that the experience of making, failing and learning from this is essential to every producer. Feeling better about the failures behind (and ahead) of us, we headed for dinner and bed, ready for a packed day two. 

people sitting in a cinema

Saturday saw much of the BFI Film Fund de-camp to Sheffield to share their skills with the participants, starting with an interview between Lizzie Francke and fellow Film Fund Exec and producer Mary Burke. A drive towards storytelling was Mary’s impetus to get into film. She described how to identify the best collaborators for you, how you should fall in love with them (but keep it non-physical) and how you should hang on throughout a project to the single, driving vision you were trying to achieve at its inception. A final, sage piece of guidance: do not use your own money on a project, even in the most desperate circumstances. 
The rest of the day was taken up with fantastic, detailed advice and case studies from the BFI Business Affairs and Production teams – looking at contracting with writers, funding your film, and giving a production case study of a recent BFI-supported title. Judging from the amount of notes being scribbled in the room, it was a very useful day, and Q&A breakouts (including one specifically for documentary producers) enabled people to dig down into the detail and ask searching questions. 
The schedule for Saturday night said only “Surprise Film”, with the title itself under strict embargo. Those who’d eaten meat for dinner may have started feeling somewhat queasy, as the lights went down and Raw began. Stylish, stomach-churning, personal and political, it was a clarion call of a choice – a first feature whose success comes through the filmmakers having absolute confidence in their vision and creating an original and fearless aesthetic to express it.
Day three commenced with an intimate conversation on distribution between BFI Audiences bigwig Ben Luxford and Curzon’s Head of Programming and Events, Damian Spandley. Ben offered a sobering statistic: there are 660 films released each year in the UK that cumulatively take only 8% of the total box office. How can producers carve out some elbow room for their films amidst all this competition? Ben and Damian looked at what went right for some success stories they have contributed to: Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, John Dower’s Louis Theroux doc My Scientology Movie and Carol Morley’s The Falling. They spilled some trade secrets on what distributors look for when they’re picking up films, and how to maximise returns through exploiting as many windows for release as possible (with a few examples of films that unwittingly shot themselves in the foot here). Across an hour the hirsute pair ran the gamut from working with self-distribution models to what drives the big online platforms when they build their catalogues. The closing message was that even if, in this fast-changing industry, you can’t rely on anything anymore, we are working in an exciting and vibrant marketplace and great films continue to surprise us.
people sitting in a cinema
We closed the Weekender with a session that looked back over the three days and asked the producers to reflect on what drives them to strive to make challenging films against the odds. The key motivators people picked out were taste, passion and innovation; being vulgar and grasping for profits were, strangely, nowhere to be seen. A sense of common purpose had brewed over the three days and was palpable by this last session. The weekend had been – to go back to Jean’s reference – like the best cinema: we had all ‘met something new’, encountering a wealth of knowledge and a group of tenacious people fizzing with ideas and brimming with passion. During Mary’s session, she had impressed the need for each producer to build a community around them – so they can see what’s being developed, understand the market, and have people to turn to when it’s tough. This is exactly what the Weekender accomplished: participants arrived knowing a few people, and left with a burgeoning and vital peer group that we hope will run and run.