How to make a movie mogul

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Nearly 200 million cinema tickets are sold every year in the UK. A business course for filmmakers should help them keep up in an expanding global market, writes Martin Whittaker

Working in the British film industry is often likened to a rollercoaster ride, up one moment, down the next. Keith Bell knows this from hard experience. He worked as a television producer before moving into film and setting up a production company, and then spent years banging on doors to try and get movies made.

Two years ago, he and his writer-director partner Neil Marshall succeeded with the release of their horror film Dog Soldiers, which did well at the box office. "You can be developing a project which nobody wants to touch for ages, and then a film of a similar genre will do well and then people are all over it," he says.

While Hollywood seems stuck on sequels and remakes, the UK's film industry has no shortage of ideas and creativity. But we lag behind American studios in terms of business acumen.

"The thing we fall down on is our knowledge gap on just how the business works," says Mr Bell. "You go to America and speak to people in Hollywood and they know the business inside out.

"Mention a film and they will quote you the opening weekend figure and what it has done globally at the box office."

According to Skillset, the sector skills council for the audio-visual industries, the management and business side of film-making is often seen as the Achilles' heel of the UK industry.

Now Skillset's business training programme called Inside Pictures is aiming to close this knowledge gap. The fast-track programme is aimed at industry executives and producers and includes master classes hosted by some of the industry's most senior figures.

The list reads like a Who's Who of the UK and US film industries. It includes writer and director Richard Curtis of Notting Hill and Love Actually fame, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who co-founded Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg.

Keith Bell went on the course last year and was impressed, saying it broadened his horizons as a producer. "It changed my ways of thinking from a UK-based producer to someone with a world view. But also just how I work and how I react to the intricacies and the kind of rollercoaster that is the film industry."

This programme is part of a much bigger picture. A year ago the curtain came up on the British film industry's pound;50 million strategy to boost skills in the industry in the face of increasing competition in a burgeoning global business.

Over the next three years, it is estimated that worldwide spending on films at cinemas and on DVDs or videos will rise by 6.3 per cent each year, reaching pound;53.9 billion in 2007.

And whereas in 1974 the UK had just 1,275 screens, in 2002 there were more than 3,000, taking 176 million cinema admissions.

Stewart Till, chairman and chief executive of United International Pictures and chairman of the UK Film Council, says a course in business and management is long overdue for the film industry.

"The film industry is the ultimate people business," he says. "We are only as good as the people working in it. What we are trying to do with Inside Pictures is to take a relatively small number of people and give them a very intensive training period where they learn from close contact with the very best in the industry."

The course is now in its third year and consists of three week-long modules, including seminars and workshops in London and a week touring major studios in Los Angeles. The programme's director, Jill Tandy, co-managing director of Qwerty Films, believes it is already having an impact.

"There's a lot of evidence from the people we have taken on that they are already growing their businesses by taking on more people, producing more movies and raising more finance."

She says it gives participants a chance to hear the sometimes harsh realities of the business from its top people.

"They talk through films they have worked on, what went wrong, what went right, what were the business considerations, what they should have thought of, what they didn't think of. Every single one of these guys had to work their way up through the system, so they know what it's like to succeed or fail. They're very good role models."

Nicole Finnan, 35, is the finance and commercial director of Ecosse films, which made hits Mrs Brown and Charlotte Gray for the cinema and Monarch of the Glen for television.

She said the Inside Pictures programme had given her a much better understanding of the industry worldwide. "It goes through production to distribution to exhibition as well as the studio system. And we had access to people in the industry you would never have access to otherwise.

"We signed confidentiality clauses because they gave us real inside information from their own experience. And who else could you hear it from other than the masters?" she said.

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