I Love Committees As Long As I am Chairing Them

Interview with Nik Powell: The Powell Broker, Creation, March 1997, p. 38 - 39.

What prevents the European cinema from being as successful as that in Hollywood?


The diversity that Europe represents is from an industrial point of view its weakness. Cultural diversity bites, if you like, with industrial logic. If the European film industry wants to be as successful as Hollywood, then it has to organise itself like Hollywood. Which basically means Hollywood makes 150 films a year at budgets ranging from $50 million to $ 100 million, it spends tens of millions on development, but only produces a small number of films compared to Europe. If you want to compete with someone, as the Japanese found out in the 50s and 60s, then you have to organise yourself in that way.


My gut reaction is that it shouldn’t, but if the European film industry decided that it did want to organise itself in that way, then it would need massive government aid and the necessary structures would have to be set up. In much the same way back in the 60s, Europe approached the decimation of its aircraft industry by putting together the Airbus consortium, which is now the second biggest supplier for the passenger airlines in a market that was previously 90% dominated by three American companies, of which there is now only one.


The European film industry, certainly during the time that I have been in it, has become more aware of the market realities of our business. The big question always is whether Europe should compete or whether it should exploit, trade on and continue to harness its cultural diversity in smaller pictures. In the main these pictures do not travel outside national borders, and certainly not outside Europe. But out of these thousands of small pictures that are made from Russia through to the tips of Spain a small number of films will become big. This year Breaking the Waves has become a prime example that draws audiences throughout the world in this niche markets. It is being exploited very effectively by the Europeans and particularly by the Brits, more effectively than the Americans would have done. We are the world leader in the niche market, it is like being the world leader in 4 wheel drive cars, and we are the Range Rover. That is where we should stay and that is what we should develop. The niche market itself has doubled since the early 80s, through a combination of demographic changes and entrepreneurial companies like Miramax exploiting them.


Maybe there is a way to have a two tier industry. One tier is a smaller structure than Hollywood, but still a structure that is capable of making a slate of European larger budget pictures each year that appeal to the world-wide market place on the one hand, and on the other a continued diversity of smaller films that get made across Europe. The other issue that has to be addressed by Europe is to make the national funding mechanisms more accessible from abroad, in the same way that the labour market in Europe is now free.


Which influence does the European Film Academy have on this process?


The European film Academy is not the only institution to carry on this debate. But we have a very illustrious and now expanding membership who can make a proper contribution to that debate, and they are drawn from across Europe. This Academy is no different from the national academies of the world. All academies carry a number of activities. The central one is always the awards, the other activities have to do with film education and awareness. A certain strand of any academy is always to lobby for its members with both government and commercial interests. Finally, throughout the year there are seminars and workshops given by our illustrious members at different festivals in different places. Last year they had Jan de Bont to talk about action movies, there were masterclasses by the late Kieslowski, we had students coming to Zanussi’s house. We expanded the general assembly and organised it more, where we now have a lecture by a major figure from the industry each year.


The Academy does not have a point of view as to whether Europe should organise itself to compete with Hollywood. Because of the diversity of its members, it may well wish to support more effective exploitation of the existing diverse film making activities in Europe. That ranges from a very small number of big budget films to thousands of small budget films. But out of these come wonders of cinema, continuously every year. We have to look for a more effective promotion and distribution of those small number of films that rise to the top, films that are strong enough to withstand the competition, as Breaking the Waves and Secrets and Lies have done this year.


Which role will the European film award FELIX play in the future?


We have to build up an award which is presently low profile into an award of major importance. It will take maybe five years to turn this into a high profile award, and maybe ten years or more for it to come anywhere near to being the European Oscar. Only if it is high profile is it helpful to the films which are winning it. It’s a chicken and egg problem. But this year for instance I was pleased to see that Breaking the Waves, which is a truly European film, won it and has gone on to get Oscar nominations. We are well timed with our awards in December, even if it may become a pointer as to who is getting nominated for the best foreign film awards and acting prizes. We try to become part of that awards process. People will see the European Film Awards as feeding directly into the whole awards season, which starts in December. It takes in most of the national awards: at least the British, the French and the various American ones like the Golden Globe. We should become an important award ceremony, not just in terms of promoting our own films, but also making the voters of the bigger awards, like the Oscars, aware of these films. I think we can say this year perhaps for the first time we did come close to being that.


We have to get the support of the distributors throughout Europe, we have to make sure they take it seriously, support it and help us develop it. We have to get the support of television to broadcast it. The ceremony was re-broadcast for the first time after several years on the French-German cultural channel ARTE. Eventually we need to be on popular television as well. We need our membership to vote for some of the popular films that have had distribution, that are already known, hence the award can enhance the success of those films. Again, this year I was pleased with both the nominated films and the winners, because these are films that are known, have been distributed in most of the major territories, and have found their audiences. With the broadening of the membership of the academy from a hundred to thousands, the academy will in fact regularly nominate films with either existing broad appeal or a potentially broad appeal.


We have to make sure that we have a strong relationship with the media throughout Europe. We have been too parochial so far when we made our various announcements regarding the EFA or the FELIX. On the one hand we should be concerned by the comments of the German press, on the other we must get the press in Western Europe to be excited about us, about what we do, our awards, about our crisis and all those things that happen in academies. It should be explained to the press and the industry, maybe not so much to the public at the moment that it took 50 years to build up the Oscars or the BAFTA awards to where they are now, and that we’re trying to do this in ten years. The Oscars have been through exactly the same difficulties as the FELIX awards. After the war, as Sam Goldwyn pointed out, they were in disarray, the industry stopped supporting them and it was saved by independent producers. Now, of course, the industry wouldn’t know what to do without them. They are such big bringers of business, it is just such a fantastic free promotion for films throughout the world. It is not as if we are unique. The French Cesars went through a huge crisis ten years ago, from which the academy rescued them by handing the management over to a producer-promoter. The Golden Globe awards, which were tiny, were build into an important award ceremony by the famous pop programmer Dick Clark. It was called Dick Clark’s bandstand.


Should European film makers confront Hollywood or collaborate with it, as much as they can?


To be frank, I don’t think there is any choice. As things stand, there is only collaboration. There would be a choice if they were able to persuade governments to take protection measures, if that is what you mean by ‘confrontation.’ Personally I think that such a course would be disastrous. I think the feelings of the Academy would be similar. Hollywood controls the main distribution systems of the world. Unless you wish to be excluded from the market place, at least with big budget movies, you have to collaborate. Indeed, the fruits of such collaboration can be incredibly positive and beneficial to the films and European audiences. For instance the signing up of small German films by Warner Brothers, while correctly upsetting the independent distributors can bring those pictures to a larger audience. After all we are in the business of pleasing audiences throughout Europe, and we need all the help we can get to reach those audiences. European film makers, I think, have to play a double game. As we must also continue to support the independent distributors, we must not give all the most commercial films to the Hollywood distributors. On the other hand, when the situation is right there must be a way of collaborating with the Hollywood finance and distribution system. Film makers should be able to choose which tier they want to go in on. They don’t have that any more in America. There they have a tiny tier of very tiny independent distributors, and all the ones that are serving the second tier of the market, like Miramax, now become owned by the studios. In Europe we’ve still got fantastic independent distributors, who have resources and know how to bring a film to audiences. It is very important that we feed and maintain that distribution system.


We still have a lot to learn, particularly on the development side. Development in the UK is now not too dissimilar from what it is in the US, spending a long time and decent money on it. Scripts like The Crying Game or Michael Collins, to mention two of Neil Jordan’s projects, spent nine years in development. The average for [our production company] Scala is four or five years. I think you will find the US average is not too dissimilar.There has been a lot of optimism in the industry over the past two to three years, and Breaking the Waves and Secrets and Lies are both very much part of that.


Where do you think that optimism comes from?


The success of these films is really important, because it reaffirms the confidence that financiers, governments, distributors and the film makers themselves have in the industry. As any financier will tell you, confidence is everything. That is why it is important that we continue to have small pictures from Europe, or indeed like Shine, from Australia, that do great business in America, and in Europe, and in the rest of the world. We need several of those each year. If we stop having them, then film making and film financing will become extremely difficult. The governments will lose the incentive to be involved, and money that is currently coming into Europe from elsewhere will run away. This is one of the good periods for European film, even if the Europeans themselves do not realise it.


Which role do purely national successes play?


I think that having national successes is very important in terms of having confidence from exactly the same people but within national borders. National comedies from most countries, for example, don’t cross borders as easily as other forms of film entertainment. There may come a time, and I am talking fifty years from now or maybe sooner that, when the modern media have given the European nations more understanding of each other’s cultures, which in turn will make those national films more entertaining to audiences in other countries with different cultures. The major reason why people abroad find an American comedy, or sometimes a British comedy, funny is because the culture that they are laughing at is well known to them. And indeed, we find this with some French comedies. When they are dealing with cultural assumptions that we know about, then they become very funny. There is always the difficulty of language - comedy based on language always finds it hard to travel. A lot of it is about how things are said and how they are pronounced. There is a double use of words, and you can’t do that in translation or subtitles. You don’t strike me very much as a person who likes committees.


How have you been drawn into the EFA?


I love committees as long as I am chairing them. Throughout my life I have been involved in partnerships, so I am very familiar with the process of trying to make people with different points of view, different backgrounds and different egos work together. I have been doing that since I left school at 16. It is nicer to chair meetings that to participate. Although it is more relaxing to participate.


The EFA members of the assembly who come to Berlin are extremely cooperative people. Last December was much easier than I thought it might have been, but our members were fantastic and supportive, and restrained when they should be restrained, but also articulate and making their contributions. What I had regarded as a challenging and potentially stressful experience for me ended up being a hugely enjoyable one, just because the members are great. The administration is very German in its thoroughness, it was all very well prepared, I was incredibly impressed. It would have never happened in Britain.


How do you see the future of film making in the UK?


In the UK we are moving very quickly away from a situation where there was only a very tiny amount of money in the industry, either state or commercial. Today there is a large amount of cashflow released into the industry, particularly from the National Lottery, and the industry’s ability to cope and use this additional cash will determine the future. The British film industry, ironically, has had its most high profile and successful time during a period of real financial stringency. There is a reason why that is the case: there were very few of us producers, very few films were getting made, but when you had a film financed you had the best people at least in the UK working on your film. You started out with a fantastic script, you had a great director, you had the best heads of department, this is the reason why those films were good. We are going to move into a situation now where the money will be easier. That inevitably means that scripts that are either less commercial or less well developed will find their way into production. You don’t grow hugely talented film makers overnight, so there will be a period of adjustment. The money will come in, although not necessarily on great projects. Those additional films will grow new emerging talent. During the period of adjustment it will be much easier to make a film, but it will be much more difficult to make a really great film. You have the same amount of talent spread over a much larger number of projects.


How do you see the relationship between cinema and TV developing in the UK?


It is a brilliant relationship, and it doesn’t need to develop. We are incredibly lucky, unlike America, that we have a television industry that develops talent that is absolutely right for cinema. Since the 60s, our television, God bless it, has made the kind of programmes that enable people to get a fantastic training in every department, particularly in the directing and script department. One prays that the new commercialisation of television in the UK does not irritate that. Channel 4 in particular came in at a very important point, but the BBC are now re-committed. Channel 4 has always done a mixture of the arthouse and the commercial. The BBC has less of an overall policy, and has suffered from not having one but I think it will now potentially all come together. I don’t see it at all changing, but what do I know about television?


BSkyB has had a major impact on British film, because of its major impact on American film, paying them lots of money. It hasn’t entered the British film industry in the same way as Canal + has entered the French film industry, or has been forced to enter it.


How do you usually identify new talent?


Lots of ways: short films, people who have been making original commercials, people who have been working in television but produced unique and outstanding work, those are the kind of more obvious ways. The less obvious are people who are moving from one discipline to another. For instance a writer has a good idea, and now he wants to direct it as well.


Ian Softley came in with what we thought was a great idea for a picture, Backbeat, which he had already himself started developing, and it was a condition for us, that he directed it if we wanted to get involved in it. It was his ‘grasp’ of the material and his intelligence that made it clear to us that he could do it. Neil Jordan had already made Angel for television, Steve and me saw that and it was just incredibly exciting: This is obviously a new talent on the screen. Not that I ever worked with the Coen Brothers, but when I went to see Blood Simple with Joel and Ethan Coen in its first ever screening, a commercial screening at the American Film Market, there was me, Paul Webster who is now Head of Production at Miramax but then was working with us, and Sam Raimi, the director of The Evil Dead. The theatre was jammed in the beginning, and by the time the film ended, the theatre was practically empty. All these exploitation buyers had come in thinking that they were going to see an exploitation movie, and they got this wonderful, dark, noir thriller. It was clear a new talent had been born. Michael Caton-Jones did a really funny short, then did Brond television, then did his first film with us, Scandal. Barat Nallurei, who has just finished Downtime, had made a very low budget little picture in Newcastle. Both him and his producer were based in Newcastle, and they had this really, really good script, I mean a really exceptional script. They had developed and understood the material. They quite clearly knew what they were doing. So we came in to cooperate and help them do it, basically. David Evans, who has just finished Fever Pitch, has done some exceptional work for television. He and Amanda Posey, who was our head of development at the time but who went on to produce it, read the Nick Hornby book which is now a big hit but then was still in galley stage, and they immediately wanted to do it as a picture. Then myself and Steve came along to help it into production. Shane Meadows, for instance had been making very low budget video shorts in Nottingham. He has made about 20 over the past 5 years.


How did you discover Shane Meadows?


My colleague Steve Wooley met him at the Raindance Festival best pitch awards ceremony here in London. Steve was just knocked out by his work and he said: ‘Come, let’s make a film together, please.’ [laughs] No, he said to Shane that he wanted him to link up with Scala, to produce his first feature film. They got on really well and Shane agreed to that, they went through some of Shane’s next ideas for feature films and they fixed on one particular idea about an unemployed youth in Nottingham, based on Shane’s personal experiences. This was already in development, moving on but in the vein of his existing work. Nine months later we were in development with Shane’s film, which is called 24/7, financed by the BBC. Steve and Imogen West, who is going to produce the film for Scala, worked in detail on the script and budget. Shane both writes and directs.