‘If you set out to get rich, you’re doomed’
The veteran producer of movies such as Atonement looks forward, in his new role as head of ﬁlm for Shine Pictures, to ‘climbing the populist ladder’ with quality ‘arthouse crossover’ ﬁlms. He speaks to Kirsty Allison
The Guardian, Monday 15 December 2008
Paul Webster’s office at Shine Pictures drips with movie executive success despite being in the unlikely location of Clerkenwell, in central London, not Hollywood. Promotional posters and award glitz for producing films such as Atonement ($128m gross), The Motorcycle Diaries ($58m), Pride & Prejudice ($121m) and Sexy Beast ($10m) sit alongside reminders of his early days distributing cult classics such as The Evil Dead.
Webster joined Kudos in 2004 and was responsible for introducing the company to his “old friend” Elisabeth Murdoch two years later. Her company, Shine, paid £22.89m for the producers of Spooks and Hustle, with a further £1.97m contingent on future performance. Webster was made head of film for Shine Pictures in July and now runs a company with an annual turnover of £30m. The company is a joint venture with distributor New Regency, giving Webster access to funding from Fox, part of the News Corp empire.
He met Murdoch in 2003 through mutual friends in the film business but refuses to elaborate on their friendship. “She’s a muncher!” is all he says, referring to her PacMan-esque ability to pick up media commodities. As part of Shine’s acquisition spree, she went on to acquire Reveille which makes Ugly Betty and had an ancillary movie production wing.
“Nobody knew about it, so Lis said why don’t you handle that as well, which meant we were gifted a heap of American projects,” Webster says.
Kudos’s next film will be a western – The Staked Plain. The film, financed by Focus Features, the specialist film wing of Universal Pictures, has “entirely been born out of television people” from Reveille. Webster says this supports his belief and that of Stephen Garrett – executive chairman of Kudos – that “writing and directorial talent can migrate back and forth between TV and film in the UK”.
Yet Webster’s career – more illustrious than the careers of most in the UK film business – hit a road block of sorts when he previously tried to unite a film unit with a TV broadcaster.
He was chief executive of FilmFour in 2002 when it folded after just four years, with losses of £3m in 2000 and £5.4m in 2001. These may have been small sums in Hollywood terms but they were enough for the board of Channel 4 to close it down.
Webster claims that FilmFour was not a failure financially; he blamed the “overall situation” – by which he means a failure of the parent company to understand film financing – coupled with the advertising downturn. He claims it cost more to close down FilmFour than it did to run it. The business reopened with Tessa Ross at the helm three months later with smaller budgets and strategy. Webster worked for Ross as a producer on The Motorcycle Diaries and Touching the Void.
“What we originally tried at FilmFour was to turn it into a standalone business that was not subsidised in effect by the television channel,” he says. It proved too difficult. “Not least because the relationship between a broadcaster and a film company is always going to be fraught because the broadcaster will always want your product/programming immediately.” He hopes Shine’s distribution deal with New Regency will circumvent that problem.
“It’s kind of an adage of the film business that all the films that get made after departure end up working,” he adds.
Webster now sees television as supporting the film industry in the UK, with film existing “on the rump”. This co-dependence is what he and Garrett – who founded Kudos along with Jane Featherstone – envisaged before they teamed up at Kudos. Webster says that Featherstone reads film scripts, and they talk about talent, “but she’s got a day job, Stephen kind of straddles both”.
He adds: “It’s hard to make cold economic judgments as a film producer. If you set out to get rich you’re 99% doomed to failure, you’ve got to be driven by a passion that supersedes paying the rent.”
Webster’s position is a far cry from his start in the business – as a dispatch clerk in the basement of the Gate cinema in Notting Hill. He was 23 and the explosion of German New Wave cinema was beginning. “I got the bug,” he says, “I was going down to the Electric to watch double bills every night.”
He started distributing cult films in the UK with Osiris before producing at Palace Pictures in the 1980s. He went on to independently produce films such as The Tall Guy, before setting up Working Title’s LA office and being made head of production for Miramax on films including Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love. When FilmFour was disbanded in 1998, he briefly returned to Working Title, producing Pride & Prejudice and Atonement with the director Joe Wright. Recent projects include David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day and the forthcoming flamingo documentary The Crimson Wing (a collaboration between Kudos and Disney).
“It’s important to make films that travel,” Webster says. “You can’t make films that just appeal to the UK market, because you’re forced into making films of such a small budget that the demands are too rigorous of an audience – and then you’re driven into an arthouse ghetto. There are, of course, exceptions like Mike Leigh but I think there’s a greater consciousness of making a film connect to an audience.”
Webster is, unsurprisingly, very supportive of state-funded subsidies for independent films such as the Film Council’s New Cinema Fund. “It’s like the pebble you throw in the pond – eventually the ripples do hit the shore and it’s essential to have avant-garde and audacious work being done because the periphery always informs the mainstream,” he says.
“I’m not in the business of art films, I work in a much more commercial arena but I benefit from it. I’m really interested in how far we can climb the populist ladder here at Kudos, my ambition is to reach broad worldwide audiences with an arthouse crossover working with talented directors,” he says, citing Wright as an example.
He is scathing about some digital filmmaking, which he sees as encouraging poor-quality movies. “It has resulted in a lot of very cheap movies which look very cheap, and unless you’re someone like Michael Winterbottom, who has an innate understanding of visual storytelling and like the freedom of being able to continually direct, rather than spending years of putting together the money required for film budgets, ultimately you gotta have the welly; you make your film cheap, you gotta have the money to sell it, you still need that, I mean Michael [Winterbottom] works with Angelina Jolie and has Ben Affleck – he follows the same course as all of us. We all doff our hats to the power of the actor, the power of the movie star, it’s very, very real. The reason we got Atonement greenlit was because Keira was it in, y’know.”
The currency of talent aside, what about the very real threats to cinema – piracy and the recession? He actually manages a giggle before pointing out that this is not the first time the death toll has rung for cinema – it has survived television, video and DVD.
Regarding piracy, he believes it is the responsibility of distributors to adopt more progressive ideas. These could include releasing movies online, on DVD and in the cinema at the same time. The huge marketing spend of studios – the average is $250m for each big release – tends to make such big gambles unattractive. Staged releases – ie in different countries at different times – allow for mistakes to be rectified.
With plenty of companies in dire financial straits, the fear is that many downturn-hit parent groups will downsize their film arms. Webster shrieks “hold on to your hats!” when asked about this year’s financial collapse. From Hollywood there are currently widespread reports of studios reducing production and development slates – Viacom/Vantage, Lionsgate and the Weinstein company recently cut back staff, and distribution companies in the UK have been dropping like flies.
Webster believes the deal with New Regency (and the access it provides to News Corp funds) gives his business enough support to withstand the current turmoil. “I think when you’re in the middle of the maelstrom you just have to stick to your principles,” Webster says.
“It’s a time not to be afraid and not to go back to the kitchen sink of storytelling … I have a crude and unshakeable belief in the power of long-form storytelling and there will always be audiences for that, we just have to find new ways of telling those same stories.”
Education Left Burnt Mill comprehensive in Harlow, Essex at 17
1975-79 dispatch clerk, Gate Cinemas and Cinegate Ltd
1979-81 joint MD, Osiris Films
1982-88 head of theatrical distribution, Palace Pictures
1988-1995 independent producer. Set up Working Title’s LA office
1995-97 head of production, Miramax
1998-2002 chief executive, FilmFour
2004-present head of film, Kudos Pictures/Shine Pictures