Paul Webster, the prolific British film producer whose credits include Pride And Prejudice and Atonement, said he broke one of his cardinal rules while making his buzzy Princess Diana biopic Spencer.
Speaking to Film London chief Adrian Wootton for the annual Production Finance Market keynote during the London Film Festival, Webster recounted how the film being shot during Covid created cashflow issues for the production, and despite backing from French institution Cofiloisirs, the team were unable to gather enough money to complete pre-production.
“No British funders came through to support us,” he recalled. “The three producers, myself, Jonas Dornbach of Komplizen in Germany, and Juan Larraín, ended up funding development and early pre-production. “[That’s my] first rule of filmmaking, never use your own money… that required a lot of belief and faith, it was really stressful.”
“I was hoping that we’d have proper British money in the film, but for various reasons, nobody bit,” he continued. “And then STX came in and bought the British rights. So in fact, apart from the tax credit, there’s not a penny of British money in the film, which is a shame. I’m sad about that because…if the movie’s successful, it would be great to feed those institutions that support British film so diligently.”
“We didn’t actually get funding until January, and we shot the movie in February and March this year,” Webster added.
The producer also sounded a warning for the future of arthouse cinema in the era of streaming proliferation.
“We’re in a paradigm shift moment, it’s profound the change that’s happened with the arrival of the streamers,” he said while speaking to Film London chief Adrian Wootton for the annual Production Finance Market keynote during the London Film Festival.
“There are a lot of producers, and yes, there’s a lot more work, but I think that the amount of work is…just the tip of the iceberg. There’s all the other stuff that’s in development and all these producers running around chasing the same pots of money. So competition is fierce,” Webster continued.
“It’s a very, very difficult time for art house cinema right now. I consider where I’ve lived for many years is kind of art house crossover, I want to make films that have an audience, that are not just being made for the sake of it,” he said.
The producer explained that the impact of Covid was being more keenly felt on his side of the market. “Art house cinema going is not recovering at anywhere near the rate of commercial cinema going, because the arthouse audience tends to be older, and these are more circumspect people who are worried about going to public places still, so there’s a while to go,” he warned.
Webster has had his share of theatrical box office hits over the years – Atonement, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina – but recently dipped into streaming with Radioactive, which was released by Amazon.
The producer said that Amazon were “very good partners” but also said he had fears those types of projects might “disappear into this gigantic kind of machine of thousands upon thousands of titles”.
“We all know finding a film on the streamers is not that easy, and you have to know what you’re looking for. And that’s a challenge, I think,” he added.
Also on Spencer, the Princess Diana pic that just debuted to raves at Venice, Wootton quizzed whether Webster had any hesitancy about tackling the thorny subject of the royal family.
“It’s great for getting attention, but the product, the film itself, has to stand on its own two legs,” the producer replied. “There’s a whole industry around Princess Diana, and it doesn’t seem to go away. It’s nearly 25 years since she passed away, and still she’s one of the most recognized faces in the world. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to bums on seats. I think you still have to deliver the goods with the film, and hopefully we do.”