One firm rule of movies is the star never dies early on. Yet in Steven Soderbergh's new flick, 'Contagion', Gwyneth Paltrow's character is killed off in the first reel. That, she explained recently, meant the audience knew no one was safe.
It is the same in another forthcoming film, The Four Year Plan. The key character rubbed out may be rather less photogenic, but Iain Dowie's sacking after 15 matches in charge of Queen's Park Rangers gave out much the same message: no one was safe.
Dowie is the first of seven QPR managers (and caretakers) featured in a startling movie which goes behind the scenes during the turbulent period in which Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone were in charge of the west London club. From the outside the club appeared a basket case during this time. This eye-opening film confirms that is what it felt like much of the time on the inside too. As then-captain Mikele Leigertwood says: "The last three years has been a nightmare to be honest."
Ecclestone (nicknamed 'mini-me' to Briatore and vice-chairman Amit Bhatia) has only a cameo role but the billionaire figures, in a revealing scene when he walks into the dressing room before a game, looks at the water bottles and energy drinks, and says "we need to cut down on this expenditure".
Elsewhere in the film, financial meetings are covered in which other cuts are discussed – such as how many flowers are provided in executive boxes, and how much is spent on hospitality meals. The match-day bill for flowers is slashed by two-thirds, saving £10,000 a season. Ishan Saksena, the MD, explains: "The philosophy [in football] is if you are spending so much on players, what is another 10, 20 grand here or there? But when you add up those 10, 20 grand, it's like a few million which we can use to buy players." Meanwhile the directors travel to matches by helicopter and Ferrari.
The real star is Briatore who, whether in shot or at the other end of sporting director Gianni Paladini's phone, dominates the film like Tony Soprano, already ready to terminate the employment of another hapless manager. He variously describes them as "idiot", "prick" and "crazy". The film also confirms the suspicion, widely held at the time, that he influenced team selection.
What it reveals, however, is that sometimes he did so to impressive effect. One episode focuses on a match against Cardiff City. Briatore and Paladini are shown discussing tactics before the match. Briatore states that Gavin Mahon, who is returning from injury, must be brought on during the game and a way needs to be found for this message to be transmitted to the caretaker manager Gareth Ainsworth. Do they send a text, phone or go via the masseuse?
With the match scoreless after an hour and Mahon still on the bench, Briatore simmers in the directors' box. "That prick in the dug-out is choosing to lose the game. If he loses this game I'll sack him," he says. Finally he orders Paladini to tell Ainsworth to bring on Mahon. Paladini reluctantly leaves the directors' box. Minutes later Mahon is seen preparing to come on. Standing behind him, in the tunnel, is Paladini. In the next scene Mahon rises to head in an 80th-minute winner, in the directors' box Briatore goes wild with a sense of joy and vindication.
It's a scene to chill any manager. As is the contempt shown by the directors towards Dowie and later managers Jim Magilton and Paulo Sousa. The latter is told to change his team at half-time, via a phone call from Briatore to Bruno Oliveira, Sousa's startled assistant. When Sousa blames the loan of leading scorer Dexter Blackstock to Nottingham Forest on the board in a post-match press conference, he is accosted in the managers' room by Paladini (in front of the bemused Keith Curle and Mick Jones, then on the staff of visitors Crystal Palace, now working with Neil Warnock at QPR). The conversation is in Italian, but the tenor is clear even without the sub-titles.
Such behaviour is anathema in football but the film is also aimed at an audience beyond the game. There will be those who will think that if Briatore, a successful businessman, wants to micro-manage, as he may have done in his other companies, why not in football? What is the difference between influencing team selection and telling his production director at Benetton to change a clothing line?
Even before Sousa has gone (fired for breach of contract over the Blackstock incident) Paladini and Briatore discuss the next appointment. The job spec features a low wage, but a big bonus for promotion, and making use of the players they have. He'll be told, says Paladini "we won't break your balls as long as you win". Magilton accepts this deal but lasts only a few months. Caretaker Mick Harford has a brief run, then Paul Hart is appointed. Five games later he's out.
Next up, Neil Warnock, who says as he is introduced to young striker Antonio German: "Have you shook hands a few times with new managers?" In The Independent columnist, however, QPR have finally found the right man and the film concludes, after the scare over the possibility of suffering a points deduction over alleged contract transfer irregularities, with promotion.
There are shots of the team training, and clips of matches, but this is not a film about how a team is prepared, it is about how a club is run. The title comes from Briatore's target when he buys into Rangers, "to be Premier [League] in four years".
It is given resonance by film of a protest by Rangers fans as things go awry: "Four-year plan – you're having a laugh," they chant as police hold fans back. As this illustrates, Briatore is not popular among QPR fans, but as the Italian points out in another scene, "we saved the club", before threatening to sell and see it "go back to League One". The irony is that his plan was achieved – within four years of Briatore's arrival, QPR were in the Premier League. He and Ecclestone have since sold up. Bhatia and Paladini, both of whose passion for QPR is evident, remain.
The film won the best documentary award at the recent Marbella Film Festival and Ad Hoc films are now negotiating a pre-Christmas limited cinematic release. It arose, said director Mat Hodgson, "organically". He had been doing corporate filming for the Mittal family, the co-owners to whom Bhatia is related by marriage.
This led to filming at QPR which became a film project. "It wasn't commissioned as a vanity project, it's warts and all," said Hodgson, who adds that none of the QPR directors, when they saw the final cut, asked him to make any changes. "Films like this don't get seen because people are too protective of themselves," said Hodgson, "they deserve credit for allowing us to show what it is really like to own a football club."Reuse content