Three Billboards Outside Ebbing puts focus on Film4 ahead of Baftas

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The hot favourite for best film at the Baftas on Sunday and in next month’s Oscars has American stars and a Missouri setting but distinctly British roots.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was a 50/50 joint production between Film4, the movie arm of Channel 4, and Fox Searchlight. Made for $15m, it has so far grossed more than $100m worldwide.

The film should generate a windfall for Channel 4 at an uncertain time for the publicly owned, commercially funded broadcaster.

It faces a battle for quality content — and viewers — with deep pocketed streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon and is also waiting to learn if it will have to move its headquarters from London to another British city.

Three Billboards is the first film given the green light since Channel 4 increased Film4’s annual budget from £15m to £25m — a move it hopes will yield greater returns and allow the division to become financially self-sufficient.

Any profits will flow back into Channel 4. “We’re not for profit,” says Daniel Battsek, Film4’s director. “When we make a profit it goes back into [the company] and enables us to continue to invest in these more commercial projects.”

During the three-and-a-half decades since it was founded, Film4’s movies have won 32 Oscars — its successes include 12 Years a Slave and Slumdog Millionaire.

Daniel Battsek: ‘We’re not for profit. When we make a profit it goes back into [the company] and enables us to continue to invest in these more commercial projects’ © REX/Shutterstock

The bigger annual budget gives Film4 “the potential to make a healthier return”. But there are risks attached with spending more on movies so Film4 tries to work with partners: it co-financed Three Billboards with Fox Searchlight, the specialty film division of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox.

He joined the company in 2016 after stints at National Geographic Films and Cohen Media Group, a New York-based film company. He also spent five years as chief executive of Miramax, the independent film group founded by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, joining it after they had sold the company to Disney and departed to found The Weinstein Company.

“It was a great brand and had a huge [film] library but it was kind of a start-up when I got there,” he says. He never overlapped with the Weinstein brothers and says he was stunned to learn of the recent allegations about Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour. “It was beyond my understanding.”

Film4’s not-for-profit model gives it a unique place in the British film firmament. The company has long relationships with acclaimed British and Irish directors, such as Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), having backed them when they were relatively unknown.

Martin McDonagh, the Oscar and Bafta nominated director of Three Billboards, has worked with Film4 on all of his prior movies. Mr Battsek says money is ringfenced each year for first time directors “so that we can continue to support a diverse and exciting crop of filmmakers . . . it’s where we hope to find the next Lenny Abrahamson or Steve McQueen.”

“We’ve found that filmmakers feel a sense of loyalty [to Film4] and try to find a seat at the table for us.” He points to Danny Boyle, who made Trainspotting with Film4 and its sequel, T2 as a co-production with Sony. “Sony didn’t need Film4 to be involved but Danny insisted on it.”

Meanwhile, he said the streaming giants “have changed everything . . . they create opportunities for independent filmmakers to get their movies made. But they can also be partners of ours. We can’t compete with them on pricing but we can compete on the material that we are developing and the talent that we work with and develop.”

The company has new movies from Mike Leigh and Asif Kapadia, the director of Amy, who is making a documentary about Diego Maradona. But for now Mr Battsek’s focus is Three Billboards and the Baftas, where it has nine nominations, including Best British Film, Best Director, Actress and Original Screenplay. “By any metric [the film] is a hit. It will be wonderful if it turns some of these nominations into wins.”