Directors Without Borders: The Producers of Lion give the Lowdown on International Co-Production

by Emile Sherman, Iain Canning and Angie Fielder

When international co-productions work well, one plus one can equal three. They’re a great way to combine the creative, financial and production resources of two or more countries.

We’ve been working for nearly 20 years as producers and executive producers of independent film, and in international sales, marketing and acquisitions. Our companies, Australia-and-U.K.-based See-Saw Films and Australia-based Aquarius Films, use international co-productions as a key strategy to tell great stories. We’ve produced films set and shot all over the world, with characters, writers, directors and actors from countless different countries: films like The King’s Speech, Macbeth, Life, Slow West, Mr. Holmes, Shame, Oranges and Sunshine, Disgrace, $9.99 and the upcoming How To Talk To Girls At Parties, and our TV series Top of the Lake and Banished.

First off, what is an international co-production? Whether the co-production is official or unofficial (more on that later), there is most likely a producer from each country, and finance coming out of each country. Linked to the finance is an expectation that certain parts of production will take place in each country, and certain key creative roles and heads of department (HODs) will come from each of the countries. Countries that are party to co-production treaties have various forms of government subsidies for local film, whether through direct subsidy (in the form of equity investment) or indirect (such as tax credits). These subsidies exist in order to support local productions—increasing their chances of being financed and putting more money on the screen as well as into the local economy.

Most independent films can exist within a country’s local framework, accessing local support and subsidy while still employing a limited range of international elements. Sometimes, though, you need to pool resources with another country to tell the best version of the story.

When you are looking to do a co-production, do your research first. Research what subsidies the countries, or their educational institutions, offer filmmakers. (We recommend the Screen Australia and British Film Institute websites as good sources of information for Australian and U.K. co-productions.) Think about what makes your film a co-production—location, cast, director, screenwriter, other HODs—and start reaching out to the organizations that will inform your decision as early as possible. Also, know how far you are willing to compromise when those organizations step in.

The decision as to how to structure your film or TV show is a crucial one, and one that we producers, along with our business affairs teams, spend a lot of time getting right. Look for a great business affairs person on your team that can spearhead this structuring. He or she will be instrumental in making sure that the deals are properly researched, set up and executed. Messing this up can mean forgoing readily available subsidy support, reducing the value and impact of what ends up on screen or, even worse, forcing creative compromises on a production rather than opening up creative potential.

Dev Patel plays Saroo Brierley in Lion, an Australian-qualifying production shot in India. Photograph by Mark Rogers / Courtesy of Long Way Home Productions

Quite often, a film will work as an unofficial co-production, in which businesses pool know-how and resources to make the best film, but don’t receive the benefits of an official co-production (i.e. each production company does not get to access local subsidy as if it was a local production). Top of the Lake was an unofficial co-production between Australia and New Zealand. Because Jane Campion is both a New Zealander and an Australian, we were able to qualify as both a New Zealand production and Australian production without subjecting ourselves to any of the creative constraints of an official co-production. (This situation, however, is rare). The constraints would have required us to balance the key creatives between the countries in proportion to the co-production split. So because we spent a majority of the money in New Zealand, we would have had to use a majority of New Zealand HODs and cast. We ended up drawing on the great pool of talent in both countries, but we were not locked into the strict formula of an official co-production. If elements of the shoot work best in an unofficial co-production format, vet your potential partners by seeing what else they’ve worked on and getting references.

Always consider the pros and cons before making a decision to format film as a co-production. You want to maintain the integrity of your project, after all. 2010 Oscar-winner The King’s Speech had an Australian lead character and actor in Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue, as well as a director with an Australian passport in the English-Aussie Tom Hooper. We looked at structuring it as a U.K./Australian co-production, but the disadvantages (restrictions on HODs, as well as splitting the shoot) outweighed the advantages (an increase in access to subsidy). Similarly, on 2015’s Macbeth, we had an Australian director, Justin Kurzel, and many Australian HODs. Again, we looked at structuring it as a U.K./Australian co-production, but one of the technical rules of the co-production treaty made it impossible: Two of the screenwriters were not from either of the co-producing countries. We also looked at setting it up as a purely Australian film, to bring in the higher Australian subsidies. But we weren’t able to find the right landscapes in Australia, and we would also have faced stringent casting restrictions by the Australian unions. For all those reasons we focused on the more obvious choice of structuring it as a purely British film.

See-Saw Films considered structuring 2010 Best Picture The King’s Speech as a U.K./Australian co-production. Courtesy of the Weinstein Company

On the other hand, Steve McQueen’s 2011 feature Shame was set in New York, and the authenticity of shooting it there was always central to our plan to tell that story, but it was driven by U.K. talent both in front of the camera (like stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan) and behind it (like writer Abi Morgan and editor Joe Walker). It qualified as a U.K. film, notwithstanding that the shoot took place in the U.S. We were therefore able to access U.K. tax credits and equity as a fully fledged U.K. production, as well as some tax credits from New York.

Once you’re off to the races as a co-production, hiring a production services company is essential. You won’t know everything about how a foreign country’s film industry works—unions, regulations, bureaucracy—if you’ve never filmed there before. You also won’t have a local network like you would in your own country—of crew, HODs, suppliers, etc. Our production service company runs the offshore country’s side of the production, allowing us to rest easy knowing we have the best crew, the appropriate permissions and paperwork, and the best production approach. Getting the assistance of local production services companies is, for us, the only way to work in developing countries such as India and Cambodia, where language and culture present barriers to communication. But it’s also important in, say, Germany, where the film industry is heavily regulated in a different way. A good company will help you solve creative problems, as well as logistical ones. To find the right production services company, look at other films that were shot in the same country and find out who they used—talk to producers and line producers to ask about their experiences.

The next step is being very clear about your expectations: the kind of film you’re making, the scale and caliber of your project, the talent and how they like to work, your budget, the director’s vision, how you run your accounts, contingencies, reporting.

Unofficial Co-production Case Study: Lion

Though it wasn’t an official co-production (no finance came from India and the entities who own the film are not Indian), our film Lion worked very well by combining international resources to the best effect. The story of a young boy’s separation from his family and rural Indian village, his subsequent adoption by Australian parents, and his eventual journey back to his hometown, Lion was shot both in India and Australia, with a screenwriter (Luke Davies), director (Garth Davis) and HODs from Australia. We were able to set the film up as an Australian-qualifying production. This meant we could access Australian tax credits (the Australian Producer Offset, a refundable tax rebate) as well as equity from Screen Australia. Post-production took place in Australia and we worked with the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance to bring in foreign cast like the British Dev Patel, American Rooney Mara, British Divian Ladwa and, for a few days, the Indian child actors Sunny Pawar and Keshav Jadhav.

We then engaged Pravesh Sahni’s India Take One Productions (Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi) as the production service company for the Indian shoot. We’d spoken to a number of other producers and line producers who had worked with India Take One, and these conversations confirmed they were the right company to go with. We also gained valuable insight into the challenges of filming in India, and the idiosyncrasies of working with this particular team—intel that served us well during pre-production and filming.

Our Australian key creative team, the HODs and a few key crew travelled to India, though the rest of the crew (and many of the cast) needed to be made up of locals. We used a mirror system for HODs, whereby a foreign HOD works alongside our Australian HOD. Though this may not seem cost-effective, it is entirely necessary. For example, the Australian 1st AD knew how to run the Australian team on set, how Australian directors and cinematographers work, and the parameters for Australian hours and turnarounds. The Indian 1st AD, meanwhile, worked alongside the Australian 1st AD to run the local crew and ensure the shoot worked within Indian regulations and culture.

Lion director Garth Davis and producer Angie Fielder on set. Courtesy of Angie Fielder

Co-productions can be complex creatures. They involve a significant amount of additional bureaucracy—in an industry already overburdened by legalities and paperwork. But we have never been put off by any of this. If you want to maximize your chances of making a great film, put money on screen and draw the best creative talent from across borders, co-productions can be a highly successful strategy. We are thankful for them. MM

Emile Sherman and Iain Canning are Academy Award-winning producers at See-Saw Films. Angie Fielder is a producer at Aquarius Films.

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2017 issue. Top photograph by Mark Rogers.

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