Funding for first features

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Ben Roberts, Director of the BFI Film Fund, discusses the current landscape for filmmakers trying to make their first feature and how the BFI can support them.

14 June 2016


Matimba: You're listening to BFI Network podcast. I'm Matimba Kabalika, the talent coordinator and content editor of the site. At the Network, we're into discovering, developing and funding new and emerging filmmakers. We wanted to bring you up close and personal with the people who hold the most influence and have the best understanding of how things work. The BFI Film Fund invests around £18 million a year in production of feature films, so I went down to the other end of the office to catch up with the boss, Ben Roberts, and find out just what that means for emerging filmmakers.

Ben: It's a lovely morning, isn't it, Matimba? 

Matimba: It is a lovely morning. So your official title is Director of the Lottery Film Fund. Is that right?  

Ben: It is. Sometimes the word lottery drops out. 

Matimba: Okay. I know, Director of the Lottery Film Fund. I should know.  

Ben: [inaudible 00:00:54] that we use lottery money.  

Matimba: What can you see from your office? 

Ben: I can see the BT Tower. Actually, I can see the back of quite a few offices of producers.

Matimba: Oh, okay.  

Ben: Who I sometimes think must look up and look in to see if we're in, and look for the white smoke coming from the building to see if they're going to get funding.

Matimba: So just to set a bit of what we're going to talk about today, I am Matimba, and I look after the network, new and emerging talent.

Ben: Yep, you do very well.  

Matimba: Thank you, which is kind of why we're here today, to talk about funding for first features. So I thought it would be a good idea to pick your brain. How much, in terms of lottery money, is the Film Fund investing when it comes to first features in particular?

Ben: So we, broadest level, we do in production terms, around 25 films a year. We have about £18 million a year to spend on production, and of that, I'd say we probably do about eight first features, and all our funds are open, so they run all year round. You just apply in to us. It's all done online, and we make decisions every week. But for first features, because we receive such a high volume, we decided that it would make more sense if we gathered those applications up and looked at them every quarter in a pile. So every quarter, we're probably looking at somewhere between...I don't know, I lose track. Maybe 40 to 50 applications that are coming in for a first feature, and of that, we are probably supporting the very end of that process, two or three per round. The success rate is, unfortunately, low, which means that you really have to stand out from the crowd.  

Matimba: And we don't fully finance. Where will filmmakers make up the rest of the funding?  

Ben: Well, we don't fully finance, and actually our investment in production varies, so as a rule of thumb, it's anywhere between 25% of a budget, and it can exceed 50% of a budget, generally where the budgets are lower and the filmmakers are less established, our investment is higher, because there is less available financing out there for filmmakers who are untested by the market. Instead, it's more likely to be a combination of various public, or semi-public, funds, as well as us, there are the nations and regions in terms of the funds they have. So depending on where the filmmaking team is coming from, there are funds available in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, as well as Creative England's funds, and a couple of small regional funds as well.

Then there are the broadcasters, obviously, so there's the BBC, and Film4 who do some first feature production as well. And then of course, there is the tax relief which everyone is entitled to in the UK.  

Matimba: And so has it always been like this, or do you feel like things have changed in the last few years? What was it like, say, five years ago? What was the landscape like going into making a first feature?  

Ben: I don't think it's changed wildly. I think that first features are a kind of experimental space, so there's lots of risk. It's always been an area that's relied very heavily on public money. What's happened in the last 5 to 10 years, I guess, is that the marketplace, overall, has kind of got a little bit more crowded. There are more filmmakers just making a film, finding finance themselves, and getting a film made. Costs of getting a film made have come down if you just want to make a film digitally, and not necessarily finish it and deliver it technically. And then of course, the question is well, what happens to all those films?

Matimba: Yeah, kind of, that's my next question. I mean, it seems like there's a lot of variables going into making first features, so what does success look like? Is it box office, is it festivals?  

Ben: Well, I think a lot of people who are making a film are making it because they want a lot of people to see it. They may have convinced their friends and family to give them some money. So success can be quite financial. So I would say to anyone who's thinking about what a successful first film for them looks like, I would not go into it expecting that it's going to be financially successful. Don't go into it on that basis, because the chances are, it won't, but that doesn't mean it's a failure.

For us, I think success is much more about a film being able to serve as a strong demonstration of someone's unique abilities and talent to have a career in an industry that has some very high drop off rates along the way. So films that are not entirely homogenous, films that are somewhat distinctive, and stand out from the crowd, all kind of obvious things. Easier said than done.

Matimba: Yeah, well you mentioned that it's really hard to get theatrical releases, even for first features. So if you're not going to be making money, and you're not going to be getting a wide theatrical release, how are you making your mark? How are you establishing yourself as a filmmaker?

Ben: Well, yeah, good question. I mean, lots of people won't, so that's important to acknowledge, I think. Lots of people won't. How do you make your mark? Well, you try and get into a festival. There are some films that manage to find a life through an alternative distribution model, that by hook or by crook find their way onto an iTunes platform, or similar, and actually work better on a platform that has a broader audience. I think films like Nina Forever, the Blaine brothers' film, Caradog's first film, The Machine, which was an incredible success on iTunes, and actually, those kind of iTunes numbers, even though the theatrical success wasn't strong, those iTunes numbers were really his currency in terms of raising finance for his next film.

I'm a little loathe to really promote alternative distribution models as the way to go for everybody, because it's easy to say, "You can do it," But of course, what you've got is a massive field of content, which is not a word I like, but it's very hard to just go out with your own film and put it out there onto a platform and find any kind of voice or profile. So you have to listen to the market, you have to listen to the festivals. There are increasingly acquisitive platform buyers who are looking for content for online platforms. So if someone comes to you with a strong offer, don't be a snob, and take that opportunity to get to market. If you've got an expert in the field who's saying they'll help you release your film, do your homework on them, but rely on experts, because it's not easy to get your film out there yourself.

Some people can do it, but marketing, distribution, contacts with press, journalists, the ability to screen a film, get it placed in the right places so that it gets some kind of visibility. I used to be a distributor, so I know that there are nuances to how you get your film in front of people, and expertise can make a difference. So find an ally.

Matimba: It's always a good bit of advice. So in terms of...let's talk about on the up and up, because we talked about the practicalities of stuff, iFeatures, Microwave, can you talk a bit about the opportunities that you see in those schemes?  

Ben: Yeah, look. I think the beauty of having some public money available for films is that there are less pressures on that money to make a return on itself. For a filmmaker, try and capitalise on the opportunity to be a bit more daring in your approach. But Microwave is a London-based scheme. There's a similar scheme that we support in Wales called Cinematic, which is another very low-budget scheme. You don't have a lot of money to make your film through those schemes. You're talking about somewhere between £100,000 and £300,000. IFeatures has a little bit more money to invest, but not much more, so again, you're talking about projects that are achievable in terms of how many weeks you going to shoot for? How many characters are you planning to pull into your story?

Part of the selection process for those schemes will be do they excite that team? The way everything gets looked at is generally by a bunch of people who are very passionate about cinema, sitting around staring at a piece of paper. So really try and convince people who are going to be staring at a piece of paper that you can take a limited budget and turn it into something exceptional. 

Matimba: And just to bring it back full circle to the fund, what is it that excites you as someone who's looking to support first time filmmakers? What gets your pulse racing, so to speak?  

Ben: What gets my pulse racing? A genuine sense that we may have a film that we haven't seen before. What would get us all leaping out of our seats, I think, those project which have slightly more, kind of, energized characteristics. So if I think about films like, these aren't all first features, but I look to some of the recent American Independent Cinema that I go on and on about. So films like Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, and David Mitchell's It Follows, those films which are really, really smart, because we're always...we're a public fund, and we're slightly, we think we're refined. So we're always looking for an element of intelligence in the work. We want the writing to be strong, we want it to be saying something interesting, slightly bigger than the story, if that makes sense. 

So for me, a film like It Follows, which is a horror film, but it's also about sexuality, and it's also geographically and socially about particular type of urban decay, and it's also referencing a particular type of American horror cinema, so it's layered. Those big, baloney thematics around your subject matter, which I think take quite a lot of maturity and insight for filmmakers to get onto paper.

Matimba: And what would you say about arguments that there's not enough transparency? People, I think, sometimes feel that you and your team up on the fifth floor... 

Ben: Faceless bureaucrats.

Matimba: Faceless bureaucrats. What would you say to counteract that?  

Ben: We're probably not. I mean, we're probably not transparent enough, but I think we have issues around how available we are. We're turning over a lot, and we're turning most of it down. And we kind of took a decision not to overshare, because A, it may seem disrespectful, but I think it's actually having a certain level of respect for creative people. Just because we don't necessarily support what they are doing doesn't mean that it's not worth supporting. We try to do a bit more in terms of making ourselves visible. You can definitely look us all up on the website. Some of us have got Twitter accounts. We try to make ourselves available at events and stuff like that, but it's actually quite a small team. So I think we're limited in how much we can do.

But it was interesting when I was on this panel in Berlin last week, Katriel from Israel, you know, my opposite number at one of the Israel film funds basically said that he moved himself off the equivalent of our fifth floor, and into a shop on the street.  

Matimba: Shoe shop.  

Ben: A shoe shop on the street.  

Matimba: So people could walk in.  

Ben: People could walk in, and just talk to him. Now I'm not sure how some of our team would respond to that, let's put it this... 

Matimba: How about you going to Costa for three months, and having a permanent desk?  

Ben: I would happily do that. I just won't say which Costa. Like a treasure hunt.  

Matimba: And if we find you, you can get the money.  

Ben: If you find me, you get the money.  

Matimba: Big thanks to Ben Roberts, Producer Marie, and the BFI Network team. The music you heard was from Rory Dempsey. If you've enjoyed this podcast, there's loads more where this came from on the BFI Network site. We'd love to know what you thought about the podcast, so why not tweet us @BFINetwork? Try it again.  

Marie: I'm going to say something, I’m really sorry...

Matimba: Bless you. I didn't hear you say sneeze. I thought you went, "I'm going to say something. I'm really sorry." And I was like, "Oh my God. Is it that bad?"  

Marie: You should not be doing this.  

Matimba: You should rethink your career.