At the annual conference of Australian film and TV producers, the English producer Stephen Garrett sat at one end of a panel dedicated to 'The Rise of the Super Indies'. The conversation was about the independent television production houses that have grown large enough to go beyond a project-by-project basis, and the articulate 55-year-old has earnt his position by virtue of founding Kudos, the British company whose small screen successes include Spooks, The Hour, Life on Mars, Lip Service and SBS One's new drama, Hunted.
Drama is a dirty word when it comes to financing movies – you try to use
other words, but then in a meeting someone will go, 'It’s a drama,
Garrett is one of the people who have helped to contribute to the diffusing of the line between quality cinema and mass-market television, to the point where the traditional divide has now been reversed. Television is where many people seek quality, particularly in the drama genre, while the cinema has become the preserve of franchise blockbusters that offer sensation and thrills across the globe.
“High-end TV drama, in particular the pay cable stations in the United States, UK and elsewhere, have very cinematic stories being told in very cinematic ways, often by moviemakers, with movie stars in them,” observed Garrett. “As television sets get bigger, and home projection systems grow, the blurring between the two worlds just grows by the day.”
Garrett's success with Kudos was commercially vindicated in December 2006, when the company was bought by one of the largest production houses in the world, Elisabeth Murdoch's Shine. Garrett is now the Chairman of Kudos Film & Television, as well as the Executive Chairman of Shine Pictures, and what those titles make clear is that as well as advancing the cause of television Garrett has stayed committed to the idea of producing movies. The reason, as he tells it, is simple.
“I'm a failed film director – so much of a failure that I never even tried to start. As a teenager that's what I wanted to do, but when I finished university I went to Granada Television because there wasn't really a British film industry at the time,” Garrett recalls. “I still wanted to direct and applied for certain film schools, and that's when I looked at the world and thought harder about what I might be good at, and I got excited by TV drama and also saw that that with so many talented directors I might be a B+ film director, but I thought I could be an A-grade producer of some kind.”
In the last 15 years through Kudos Garrett has helped produce half a dozen feature films, including David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, Sam Miller's Among Giants, Lasse Hallstrom's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (pictured), and Bharat Nalluri's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. “That's really productive,” adds Garrett, “but if that was our core business I'd be telling this to you out in the street.”
Why, with television being in the midst of what many call it's Golden Age, would you bother spending years trying to get a single movie made? What attraction does the cinema retain to extend its spell when rational evaluation suggests steering clear of a business that is not really a business and offers scant satisfaction?
“It has to be magic, because it's as if we're all under a spell of some kind. Actually, it's a kind of madness, perhaps an addiction. You don't do it for financial reward, but there is something magical about the big screen,” Garrett suggests. “There's a fantasy about creating something that has an impact – the problem is that most of the time it has zero impact. When people ask you what you do, if you say film producer they ask you what ones and you know that you're probably talking to someone who hasn't seen your film, and what's more probably hasn't even heard of it. That's a kind of existential death.”
Garrett, a married father of one who resides in London, can draw the sting out of such self-doubts with his sense of humour, but he also believes that there is a growing gap in the film business as the traditional production powerhouses, Hollywood's half dozen studios, make less films, increasingly favouring either very cheap comedies or horror yarns or incredibly expensive special effects franchises. Los Angeles is interested in the next Paranormal Activity and the next Avengers, leaving the middle ground, especially drama, to independent producers and companies.
“Drama is a dirty word when it comes to financing movies – you try to use other words, but then in a meeting someone will go, 'It's a drama, isn't it?'” admits Garrett. “The breakout movies, such as Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech, and going back to Four Weddings [and a Funeral], are indie movies, and if you look at the most profitable movies on the cost of production versus income they are among the most profitable movies of all time. There will always be opportunities for those.”
Garrett promises that he won't let his producing success go to his head and make a late grab for the director's chair –“there's already been one genuinely great producer turned director and that's Matthew Vaughn,” he says, citing the filmmaker behind X-Men: First Class and Kick-Ass – and will try to pursue both mediums with series such as Hunted, an espionage thriller starring Australian actress Melissa George that was a co-production with American cable powerhouse HBO, and movies such as Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, despite the years required to get the latter made.
“Salmon Fishing is a beautifully peculiar piece of fiction that if you had to pitch it and someone asked what genre it is, you'd have to say it was that familiar genre of the political satire romantic comedy,” concedes Garrett with a laugh. “I can't think of another movie you would describe that way. Only when you have a screenwriter like Simon Beaufoy, do you have something that might work on the big screen, and even then it's an odd creature of a film. I want to be part of a world where those kind of films are made and can be seen, but it's a challenge.”
Hunted screens on SBS ONE at 8.30pm on Saturday nights.