ITV's 'Queen' takes odd path to screen

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LONDON -- Best picture Oscar contender "The Queen" has industry pundits pondering how U.K. broadcaster ITV wound up birthing one of the biggest homegrown commercial and critical movie successes of the year.

The scenario was an unlikely one in view of the fact that commercial broadcaster ITV has little or no track record in moviemaking. Broadcaster involvement in film here is dominated by BBC Films and Film4.

The Helen Mirren starrer -- which garnered six Oscar nominations, 10 British Academy Film Awards noms and has already secured Golden Globes and most recently SAG crowns -- initially got the cold shoulder by certain reps in the film industry when it was being hawked around the capital.

But a series of fortuitous events brought the project into the realm of ITV, the film's producers recounted in the wake of its awards honors.

The film's originators have all worked in and around television and previously teamed to produce the critically acclaimed ratings hit "The Deal," a fictional dramatization of Tony Blair's rise to the top of the Labor party and subsequent election as prime minister, which aired on Channel Four in the U.K.

"Deal" producer -- and one-third of the "Queen" producer team -- Andy Harries is controller of drama, comedy and film at ITV Prods., the production arm of U.K. commercial broadcaster ITV Plc.

The origins of "The Queen" grew out of Harries' long-standing working relationship with Mirren -- they had made "Prime Suspect" at Granada together -- and the "Deal" team, which encompassed director Stephen Frears, scriptwriter Peter Morgan and cast including actor Michael Sheen, who played Blair in the telefilm.

"Peter (Morgan) really found his voice when he was writing 'The Deal,' and we thought we'd like to continue to look at the Tony Blair era and the (so-called) Blairite generation," Harris said. "I was at a read-through for 'Prime Suspect' and was struck by the way people around Helen Mirren genuflected towards her, the sort of respect and some kind of awe she inspires because she's so famous. A lightbulb appeared above my head, because I just thought it would be brilliant if Helen played the part of the Queen here."

Harries sent Morgan's initial draft to Frears but was a day late. During the previous 24 hours the director had taken delivery of another script, "Mrs. Henderson Presents," and committed to make it. Frears, a director who picks projects largely on the quality of the script, pledged to helm "Queen," but only after he had fulfilled his commitment to the team behind "Henderson."

For Harries, the delay waiting for Frears proved to be a blessing in disguise. "It gave us about 12 months to set up 'The Queen' as a movie. A lot of people around town here turned it down," he said.

"I always wanted to produce the project myself and wanted Granada to be the production unit on it," Harries said. "That meant I kept control of the project and I could put the finance together out of Granada to make sure it had a strong television end by selling it to ITV."

The delay also meant that the window for theatrical distributors would be slightly shorter than normal because ITV wanted to schedule its television debut around the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana's death in September.

The broadcaster coughed up half the initial budget of the project, or just over £3 million. It ended up costing £8 million ($15.7 million) to make.

The majority of the cash balance came from French-owned, British-based production and distribution company Pathe U.K., which took theatrical distribution rights to the project here and in France and also picked up worldwide sales duties.

Then a healthy deal was done with Daniel Battsek-led Miramax Films, brokered in part by the projects' New York-based executive producer Scott Rudin.

Pathe U.K. managing director Francois Ivernel said the French-owned production, financing and sales operation came on board "with the concept it was going to be a movie."

Said Harries, "I immediately liked Pathe because that company completely got the project and were perfectly happy to have a slightly smaller window of exploitation than normal."

Not everyone was happy, though. When ITV got cold feet after two days in preproduction and canceled "The Deal," Harries and company had to scramble to make sure the project didn't simply disappear. The team's knight in shining armor for that project was U.K. broadcaster Channel Four and its head of drama and film, Tessa Ross.

"It was a difficult telephone call to Tessa (Ross) to tell her 'The Queen' was destined for ITV," Harris said with a sigh.

The movie has provided Pathe Distribution its biggest boxoffice success since "Chicken Run" and one of the largest ever on Ivernel's watch in charge of the operation, with more than £8 million ($15 million) grossed to date. The U.K. distribution arm recently relaunched the picture on 150 prints across the country in the wake of its success during awards season.

Said Ivernel, "I think in a way, because we are not a British company, and not being British myself, I had an idea of how popular this film would be outside of the U.K."

Should it win the best picture Oscar, Harries will be joined onstage by Christine Langan, who has since left the ITV stable to join BBC Films, and Tracey Steward, billed by industryites as one of the U.K.'s star producers, having worked on a slew of titles including "Henderson."
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