Mr 10 per cent takes his cut

British film has struck gold; Charles Finch has moved in on the action
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The Independent Online
"There's a lot of money around now," says Boyd Farrow, editor of Screen International. The British film industry has suddenly become a bonanza for producers, directors, actors and technicians, and, Boyd adds: "Who wouldn't want 10 per cent of it?"

Charles Finch would never deny that. Yes, indeed, he'd like 10 per cent of it. An Englishman, he has returned to Britain from Hollywood to become head of Motion Pictures, Europe for William Morris, one of the "big three" Los Angeles-based agencies that, these days, effectively control the American movie business.

Finch's principal role in his new job is to bring aggressive Hollywood- style agenting to Britain - or, in business-speak, to introduce "pro-active management" and "lateral thinking" to the London office. In plain English, it means that the agency is planning to become as powerful here as it is in Hollywood. The result may be a significant contribution to the long-awaited, elusive renaissance of British film-making.

Finch is 35. He wears a blue pin-stripe suit and a white shirt. His tie is artfully askew, hinting at both business-like efficiency and a casual disregard for button-down convention all at once. It would not be wise to meet in his office, he says immediately. "The phone," he explains. "I can't get anything done." He turns off his mobile and suggests walking to a coffee shop across Soho Square.

This is a good time to become a major player in the British market, and Finch could soon be very major indeed. The British film industry is going through one of its periodic, unexpected bouts of success. Moreover, that success is shortly to be compounded by an infusion of public money, the bulk of it from the lottery, which, it is hoped, will lay the foundation for three British "studios" - film companies that can compete internationally The government is committed to a maximum investment of just under pounds 100m in the studios over six years; the new studios are required to find another pounds 100m-pounds 180m of their own in matching funds to be eligible for the state's largesse. That would suggest a potential additional investment of at least pounds 200m in British films over the next six years.

Finch says: "This is an opportunity to make and finance British movies that will play in North America: that we can own in North America - commercial movies, like we used to make in the Forties and Fifties. The international market is looking more and more to England to supply a diversity of movies, rather than the sort of movies we became famous for."

WILLIAM MORRIS is usually referred to as a "theatrical talent agency". That bland description disguises the enormous influence of agencies such as William Morris and its rivals CAA and ICM, which are now involved in all aspects of "the entertainment business" - books, music, movies, television, theatre, personal appearances, commercials; almost anything that involves any sort of creative input. They are now more powerful than the film studios themselves.

In Britain, agencies have traditionally been more laid-back, more fragmented. "We had a time when the agency in the UK was not as dynamic as it could be," says Finch diplomatically. His boss, Arnold Rifkin, the president of William Morris worldwide, has been rather more blunt, telling Screen International that he didn't think British agents "knew how to do it". "Frankly, no one has taken advantage of the talent and opportunities that exist in Europe," he added.

Finch may well be an inspired choice to exploit that talent and those opportunities - not least because show business is in the blood. His father was the actor Peter Finch; his mother the writer Yolanda Turner. He went to Gordonstoun, and at 17 enrolled at the Lee Strasberg school of acting in New York. He wanted to be an actor and a director - "another Orson Welles", as he puts it. At 22 he made his first movie, Priceless Beauty, which he will happily tell you was "one of the worst directorial debuts in recent memory". It also involved him in protracted litigation with the film's producer, litigation that at 25 left him pounds 1m in debt. "They ruined my life," he says, less happily.

He was involved in 10 other movies, sometimes as producer, sometimes as director, sometimes as writer, sometimes as producer-director-writer. "None of them was my masterpiece," he says now. He was also offered the chance to produce the first Batman movie. "I turned it down: I didn't think it would be commercial," he admits ruefully.

His career as a film-maker drew to a close after he teamed up with Danny Huston, John Huston's son, to make a movie with Burt Reynolds. It was Finch's chore to approach the notoriously touchy American actor and ask him if he would mind making the movie without his hairpiece. "Run that past me one more time," Reynolds said. Having done so, Reynolds took him by the lapel: "Charles," he said finally, "we can do one of two things. I can knock you across this room, or we can forget we ever had this conversation."

Finch forgot it. He left Hollywood, moved to France, spent two years making an as-yet unreleased movie, and then abandoned his plans to become the new Orson Welles and became an agent instead. It was not an obvious choice for a former writer and director, but, he says, he was "looking for a business to get involved in that used my ability and expertise". He went back to LA, joined William Morris, and in January this year he was sent to London "with a brief to reinvigorate our business outside North America".

Finch's recipe to make the British film industry a world leader is remarkably succinct: "By making movies with universal themes that will travel throughout the English-speaking market; by being willing to compete internationally in the distribution and exhibition of those movies; by investing in our young talent; by staying on the coat-tails of the government to make them continue what they've started. And," he smiles, "to shake it all up and make the impossible happen."

William Morris, he says, will use its resources and client base to pull together projects before offering them to producers - a concept usually known as "packaging". But, Finch says, "I don't limit it to packaging. This is more comprehensive than that: we represent financiers, who we help in assessing projects; we represent the talent and help in finding the finance for projects; and once a movie's made, we help to sell it around the world."

FINCH's client list includes "financiers" - production companies such as Granada or Pearson, directors Michael Radford and James Dearden, producer Sir David Frost, and actors Julian Sands, Amanda Donohoe and Laura Bailey. In truth, it is not a particularly impressive line-up of talent. One of the problems Finch faces is that most of William Morris's big British names - Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Daniel Day-Lewis, Rufus Sewell - are signed to the Los Angeles office, not London.

"Where do English stars go?" Finch asks rhetorically. "They go to America. We need to develop our own stars." He cites the example of rising stage actor Paul Bettany. "He has enormous potential. If we can build stars here, then people will want to go to see the movies they appear in."

In the short-term, Finch has signed a deal with Ed Victor, the redoubtable American literary agent, to handle film and television sales for his clients. Since April, the agency has put together deals for the rights to seven books handled by Victor, among them Will Self's Great Apes and Ranulph Fiennes's The Feathermen.

Finch spends from six in the morning to eight or nine at night in the office, then goes home to spend another two hours on the phone to the States. Weekends are spent reading scripts and catching up with the trade press and movie magazines. "I don't work Monday mornings," he offers. "Why not? Because I hate Mondays."

"Half my time is spent dealing with bankers. They want to know that we have a real sense of the market, not just here, but in America and abroad. They want to know that we'll protect them. It's a hell of a lot of work."

"I read a script the other day from a guy we then signed, Damian Dibben. It's called Seventh Heaven and it's wonderful: it's a romantic comedy set in a small town in Devon or Cornwall in the 17th century. We're going to find a director and have the director work with the writer. Then we'll attach talent and try to find a producer. Finally, we'll try to sell the property."

It goes without saying that the director, the talent, the producer and the buyer of the property will all be William Morris clients. If not, then Charles Finch wouldn't be doing his job, or collecting 10 per cent.