In a rare public speaking engagement, BBC Films director Rose Garnett took to the stage at the Zurich Film Festival yesterday (September 28) to discuss how the organization has changed under her tenure, and how the nature of public service broadcasting is evolving.
BBC Films remains a stalwart of the UK business and in recent years has backed movies including Judy Garland biopic Judy (pictured), LFF 2018 closer Stan & Ollie, Joanna Hogg’s critical hit The Souvenir and Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake. Under Garnett’s tenure the funder — long seen as a more conservative operation than fellow UK broadcaster Film4 — has started to move in a bolder direction.
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“When I moved to the BBC we reinvigorated the team, the slate, and our mission,” Garnett explained. “It was about going back to the heart of public service – how could we help build a landscape with new voices and possibilities? How could we bring stories that people didn’t know they wanted into the mainstream? How could we invite a generation of filmmakers who didn’t feel like they had a place at the table to come and tell their stories?”
She continued, “It was about making films that the market doesn’t necessarily know they want yet, and building a generation of filmmakers who will make films that become part of our communal conversation.”
“Myself and the team also ask why a film deserves licence fee payers’ money. If we can answer that question, then we do it. If we can’t answer it, particularly if the film is going to be made somewhere else, then you just celebrate the fact that the work is being made.”
Garnett, who joined the BBC in 2017 from Film4, explained that the role of public service broadcasters [PSBs] such as the BBC has “changed massively” in recent years.
“The BBC in the UK used to be the only show in town, it could do what it wanted, on its terms. Now it’s not. Part of being a public service broadcaster is about really knowing what your mission is, and reinventing what you do for the next generation – why do they need us and why should they pay for us? That’s a question that we ask ourselves all the time.
“PSBs are important because of our relationship to risk. We sort of have no skin in the game apart from enabling people and their work, we get good value for money but we don’t have to make a profit. That gives us an incredible freedom and permission [to help] filmmakers find their voice.”
Garnett and her team – which she claimed now better reflects UK diversity levels – have put a significant emphasis on unearthing new voices. One good recent example is Rapman (real name Andrew Onwubolu), the Youtube star director behind online series sensation Shiro’s Story, whose feature directing debut Blue Story was backed by BBC Films and is set to be released in the UK by Paramount next month.
“My kids saw Rapman. We instant messaged him. But it wasn’t because we wanted to be ‘down with the kids’ – we watched Shiro’s Story and it was proper filmmaking. He came in two days later and said, ‘I never thought I’d be walking into the BBC’.”
Garnett has encountered some local criticism for backing the next film from American filmmaker Eliza Hittman, Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, because the feature had no pre-existing British connection. The BBC executive defended the decision.
“In the film division we do occasionally work with talent that isn’t UK and isn’t telling UK stories. It’s unusual for us but it’s exciting when it happens. Eliza’s film began as a conversation in London about abortion rights in Ireland, because the referendum was coming up, but when the referendum legalised abortion in Ireland, the logical thing was to migrate that story to the U.S., where those rights are under attack. It is very American and I couldn’t be prouder to be part of it.”
BBC Films has also been putting more resource behind the English-language debuts of European filmmakers.
“We like being a stepping stone for European directors to make their first English-language films. We’ve done [Austrian filmmaker] Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe and [Dutch filmmaker] Sacha Polak’s Dirty God and we’re really proud of those.”
BBC Films employees only 15 people, out of 22,000 total employees at the broadcaster. The division’s budget of $13.5m (£11m) is less than other public funding bodies in the UK and abroad but Garnett explained that tight parameters can be turned into positives.
“We’re small and we’re quite poor, so we have to be really fast and have a real clarity of purpose. It makes us more nimble and more responsive.”
Garnett said that the organization maintains a healthy rivalry with Film4 and the BFI – and that they have a collective job to “stick together and keep a thriving independent film industry going” – but that its real competitors are “much bigger, darker”, in a nod to the significant inroads that American companies, in particular Netflix, have been making in the UK.
“How we help independent film, not just the making of them but also how they get seen, is our collective task.”
The BBC’s own streaming service, BBC iPlayer, can be a boost to BBC Films’ productions going forward, Garnett said.
“iPlayer gets a huge amount of hits in the film page. Making that a curated dynamic offering will become more and more important and more and more people will watch films [on the service].”
Garnett said that Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake has “been huge on iPlayer across the board, including with young people”, though she did not disclose specific viewing numbers.