The BBC Films ident — a faux-cosmic Big Bang in purplish blue — dates back to 2007. It was launched when Tony Blair was British prime minister. Steve Jobs had just unveiled the first iPhone. Now, in a different moment for the BBC, films and everything else besides, a new logo is finally replacing it. Simple white on black. Nothing celestial.
The woman responsible for the corporation’s film-making arm is its director Rose Garnett. We meet outdoors on a chilly day in London’s Holland Park. The pandemic soon turns the conversation to cinemas. Garnett is optimistic: “Cinemas will make a comeback. There will be the right film at the right time.” She adds a postscript: “But film was changing before coronavirus. And a lot of that’s good, by the way.”
Graphical tweaks aside, the sharp-eyed will spy a new name on the logo too. What has been BBC Films since 1990 is now to be BBC Film. The departed “s” signals a modernised brief some time in the making — explicitly wider than cinemas, crossing platforms, spanning screens.
Fittingly, the new ident has already appeared on film festival previews of Small Axe, the much-anticipated suite of five features about the West Indian experience in Britain, directed by acclaimed film-maker Steve McQueen — which will air next month in the UK on BBC1. (In the US, it will be available through co-funder Amazon.)
Storyville, the BBC’s TV documentary strand, will sit under the same banner. And seven BBC-backed films that were recently released in cinemas have been assembled for a quick-fire season on BBC2, collapsing the typical “window” of years between theatrical release and TV premiere.
Swaddled in a parka on a picnic bench, Garnett does not go in for loud displays of industry power. Still, her star has kept rising since leaving Film4 for the BBC in 2017. (Her credits there included the Oscar-nominated Room and The Favourite.) Interesting times are always a given at the corporation. Even so, 2020 has been eventful, with Downing Street svengali Dominic Cummings reported as planning to “whack” the BBC before forthright new director-general Tim Davie took charge. Garnett can also play the straightest bat: “Tim is asking all the right questions.”
In her three years so far, she has taken collegiate pains to bring her work into the heart of the BBC — mi content es su content. Amid feverish change, what drew her to the corporation remains oddly traditional. “Public service is a loaded term, but that’s why I took the job.” The challenge she set herself has been updating the machinery of public-funded creativity.
The BBC2 season is one outcome — a showcase of new British film-makers with spiky modern spins on audience-friendly genres, elegantly connecting the public with BBC product, the films with an audience. Fyzal Boulifa’s Lynn + Lucy upends expectations of kitchen sink drama; Claire Oakley’s Make Up is eerily ghost-story-ish and sharp about sexual identity.
Contemporary too are the price tags. Garnett’s entire budget is just £11m. “Lunch for a year at a studio,” she smiles.
Add in Small Axe and Storyville and the result feels like a blueprint for public-funded film now that “film” means 1,000 things at once: punching above its weight, developing new voices, backing select big names working in longer forms (for Steve McQueen, the still potent heft of Sunday nights on BBC1) or less so (Jonathan Glazer has made a pair of deftly disturbing short films for BBC2). Yet some may still need persuading. With coronavirus ravaging entire economies, does the whole case for public-funded film now need restating?
I ask Garnett to do that; she answers fluently. Her first priority is making content for the BBC licence-fee payer, she says. Then comes the wider cause of British film-making: taking time to nurture films rich in potential whose lack of intellectual property or star actors deters private investment. That, in turn, helps keep an industry working, whether crews or new directors such as Oakley or Boulifa, whose first movie might be intriguing but whose third could win an Oscar.
“In a creative economy sense, what we do enables other people to make money later,” she says. “Anyway, on a good day, we get all of that done.”
Garnett points out that internationally, none of this makes Britain an outlier. “Most of Europe has very robust public funding models.” Now, the need for “Covid-safe” sets — with associated skyrocketing costs — has only put more weight on their shoulders.
In the past, director Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, State of Play) has made UK movies with and without public funding.
“A financial adviser will ask you, ‘What level of risk are you comfortable with?’” he says. “It’s the same with backing films. And in Britain, public funders are the ones who take the risks that actually make film vital and viable.” Besides BBC Film, money can come from Film4 or the British Film Institute, co-funder of titles in the BBC2 season.
But Garnett is rare in so clearly articulating her mission. Last year, she enjoyed a major commercial hit with Blue Story, the first feature by director Andrew “Rapman” Onwubolu. It cost just £1.3m but made £4.7m in the UK alone. Even so, such box office coups are too much like gold dust to base a whole strategy on.
Results are usually the stuff of the long game, however much of a risk when the corporation’s future lies in the hands of politicians. A cursory list of UK careers launched by public funding would include McQueen, Danny Boyle, Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Paul King (Paddington). The most unexpected people can owe their breaks to public funding. A decade before Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes made his scriptwriting debut with Gosford Park, a period whodunnit heavily backed by the then newly formed UK Film Council.
An organisation of noted self-confidence, the Film Council’s closure by government in 2010 was not universally mourned. Its task had been refuting the idea that public money made dour, spinachy films the actual public never wanted to see. Then, backing commercial projects, it was attacked for aping the market. Now, it is Garnett’s turn to square the circle. BBC Film, she says, should not be making “am-dram versions of what should actually be much bigger budget films”. Equally, little interests her less than the “cul-de-sac of films only appealing to the people who make them”. She is, she smiles, greatly looking forward to the BBC1 premiere of Judy, the Garland biopic BBC Films co-produced, “Renée Zellweger’s Oscar and all.”
Inevitably, we come to the streamers. Garnett has built relationships with them both as co-producer (Small Axe) and supplier of content. His House, directed by first-time feature maker Remi Weekes, is another inspired new BBC film, a knockout horror story about refugees in London. It might be the best of the BBC’s new wave, but doesn’t feature in the BBC2 season. Instead, it was bought by Netflix, which releases it next week. The season itself may represent another case of great minds thinking alike. Netflix has spent billions on a high-walled content library designed to fix audiences in place. For the BBC, pulling Garnett’s films on to traditional channels feels like playing the streamers at their own game.
Equally astute has been Garnett’s response to the need not just to increase audience numbers but to broaden the backgrounds of the film-makers she works with. The two tend to go hand in hand. Rapman came to Blue Story having built a vast fan base on YouTube; Weekes made His House after advertising campaigns for brands including Nordstrom and Swarovski. (It is worth acknowledging too that, unlike much of British film, BBC Films has a well-respected record of supporting black film-makers.)
For all the crossed platforms and collapsed screens, Garnett’s long game may even throw a life jacket to beleaguered cinema operators. Industry analysts have pointed to the relative strength of cinemas in countries — Germany, Spain Australia — with a greater depth of domestic content to screen.
The BBC has long been expert at facing in two directions at once. Internationally, its soft power is legendary — much like the movies. “British film projects us to the world,” Macdonald says. “I’d have thought if you were an ardent Brexiter, you would be desperate for films to get Britishness out there.”
But it also tells stories to Britain itself. That, Garnett says, is the point. “The preciousness of film is being a mass medium,” Garnett says. “And the joy of a national broadcaster is the connection it has with its audience. If you put those together, then your ability to tell stories about the full breadth of British life that British people actually embrace, well . . . ”
For a moment, she looks almost cosmic. “I can’t help being excited by that.”
The ‘British Film Premiere’ season begins Saturday night with ‘Apostasy’, BBC2; ‘Small Axe’ begins on November 15, BBC1
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