The bottom line: behind the scenes of Film Finances

A look into the world of Film Finances, a linchpin of the UK film industry that has helped bring some of British cinema’s greatest films to the screen, including Dr No, Billy Liar, The Wicker Man, and the films of Mike Leigh.

Dr. No (1962)

Last Saturday, BFI Southbank hosted a study afternoon on the completion bond guarantor company Film Finances. The work of Film Finances is well known inside the industry (last year alone, the company supported 260 films worldwide), but has been slow to come on the radar of the academic community, in part because of the behind-the-scenes nature of its work.

In short, the company supports the potentially risky business of making independent films by providing a guarantee to financiers that a film will be completed on budget – it undertakes to cover additional costs if it is not. This requires an astute business sense and an understanding of filmmaking: part of the company’s role is to look at the script, the budget and the schedule and check that the second two are adequate for the first.

The afternoon provided some fascinating insights into the work of the company, and the treasures of its archive, suggesting a range of new ways to think about the history of British independent production.

Film Finances was founded in London in 1950. Since then it has helped some of the most celebrated films in British film history to make it to the big screen. These include The African Queen (1951), Peeping Tom (1960), Dr. No (1962), The Servant (1963), The Ipcress File (1965), The Wicker Man (1973) and, more recently, Vera Drake (2004) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), to name just a few.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

The company holds an extensive document archive dating back to its inception, which includes not only files on all of the films it has bonded, but also paperwork relating to the history of the company itself. Each film file includes scripts, budgets, shooting schedules, reports and correspondence and as such provides a rich record of the production of a film. Hearing more about some of these files was of particular interest to me as the senior curator of the BFI National Archive’s own Special Collections of production papers, scripts, designs, stills and posters.

The afternoon was divided into two parts to share the discoveries from the archive while providing a variety of perspectives on the activities of Film Finances. The first part consisted of presentations from five distinguished historians who have worked with the company’s papers to produce essays for a special issue of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (out now).

The second part of the afternoon was devoted to a discussion with the company’s co-owner, Steve Ransohoff and the renowned British director Mike Leigh, whose most recent film, Mr. Turner, was bonded by Film Finances (and backed by the BFI Film Fund).

Mr. Turner (2014)

Charles Drazin provided a fascinating overview of the foundation of the company and spoke in detail about two key personalities: Robert Garrett, who set up Film Finances, and John Croydon, who’d worked as Alberto Cavalcanti’s line producer at Ealing in the 1940s. It was Croydon’s job to review scripts and budgets and produce a report advising on the film’s likelihood to be successfully made with the resources allocated to it.

Very much ‘a man of his time’, Croydon found the New Wave cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s fairly distasteful, as Sarah Street reported in her presentation. He felt that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) was “unnecessarily sordid”, for example, and that A Taste of Honey (1962) was “a sordid story in the extreme”. However, he saw no reason for the company to not provide financial support and Film Finances can be seen as having played an important part in enabling these films, and other New Wave classics such as Room at the Top (1958) and Billy Liar (1963), to have been made.

Showing the range of ways of using the documents held in the Film Finances archive, Professor James Chapman talked about the role of producer Harry Saltzman, best known for being Cubby Broccoli’s partner in producing the Bond films (the first of these, Dr. No, was bonded by Film Finances). Chapman noted the often fractious relationship Saltzman had with the company, in part due to his tendency to not “regard a signed contract as an absolute agreement”.

Billy Liar (1963)

Professor Sue Harper focused on a single film, the 60s Oscar-winner Tom Jones (1963), which suffered from disastrous overspends and forced Film Finances to intervene (something the company only undertakes to do as a last resort if a film looks like it will not come in on a reasonable budget). As Harper pointed out, the film demonstrated the tensions that could exist between the creative and financial sides of a project.

Likewise, Justin Smith’s talk on Film Finances and 70s British independents focused on three projects, The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now (1973) and Lisztomania (1975), to explore the “fractured lines of communication between capital and creativity” in the British industry of this period.

After a short break, we got to hear more about the positive relationships Film Finances can have with creative talent. Director Mike Leigh observed that in a way he was perhaps not the most illustrative choice of filmmaker to explore the way Film Finances generally operates. Leigh is of course notorious for not working from a script and keeping a close lid on his projects – something that would seem, on the surface, to be an anathema to a company such as Film Finances.

However, Leigh pointed out that he has worked with the completion guarantor on all of his films from High Hopes (1988) onwards and that the experience has been nothing but a positive one. For Leigh, Film Finances gives him the protection and flexibility to work as he does. He used the making of Topsy-Turvy (1999), his film about Gilbert and Sullivan, as an example. The film required constant re-invention of its schedule and location requirements, in order to be made something which the support of Film Finances enabled.

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

As Leigh pointed out, in discussion with former Film Finances director Graham Easton, the relative distance occupied by the guarantor means its personnel can approach problems, or potential problems, with a perspective that can sometimes see solutions less clear to those in the thick of a production.

This point was seconded by Film Finances’ American co-owner Steve Ransohoff, who was keen to emphasise the importance of flexibility and good relationships with the producers and directors with whom the company works. Since the company’s inception as a British company in 1950, it has expanded to become a truly global organisation. As Ransohoff noted, its expansion followed financial incentives from governments seeking to support their film industries and now has offices all over the world.

Its British operation remains exceptionally strong, however, and the company’s heritage remains important to Film Finances, as demonstrated by the research into its history that Film Finances has commissioned, and its support of study events such as this. Hopefully more work will continue to be done to help us further understand this hidden history of independent British film production from the 1950s to the 1980s, and beyond.

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