U.K. 2015 in Review: BBC Under Pressure, 'Spectre' Looms Large, ITV and U.S. Deals in Focus
Adele also makes headlines by setting sales records, and an Amy Winehouse documentary hits all the right notes.
Another year, another hectic 12 months in the life of the U.K.'s entertainment industry.
While the local box office largely mirrored that of the U.S., buoyed by a bumper year for blockbusters, including Jurassic World, Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron, there was plenty of Britishness to celebrate on the big screen. Arguably the most British franchise of all, James Bond, made a return with Spectre, and then there was a certain Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which opened late in the year and not only introduced two new British stars, John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, but was almost entirely shot at the famed Pinewood Studios.
On the small screen, ITV continued its international buying spree, while the BBC had to cope with a double-whammy of knocks, the first in the form of Jeremy Clarkson's unwanted fist and the second assault coming from the British government itself via $1.15 billion in cuts.
Here is The Hollywood Reporter's look at some of the biggest stories of 2015 from the U.K.
'Spectre' Looms Large
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is undoubtedly the biggest thing to land in cinemas in 2015, if not this decade. But with its box-office success almost guaranteed, much of the conversation in the U.K. revolved around the proudly British James Bond franchise.
Spectre, the 24th 007 film, was released in the U.K. on Oct. 26 and landed with the sort of expectations that can only come when your predecessor -- Skyfall -- was an unexpected runaway hit, topping $1 billion internationally and becoming the highest-earning film in British cinemas and the most successful British film of all time.
Director Sam Mendes joked to The Hollywood Reporter just prior to the Spectre premiere that he didn’t feel any pressure at all – “Absolutely none! Yeah, there’s a little” – but the film’s initial results must have been a huge sigh of relief. Spectre opened in the U.K. to record-breaking numbers, with first-night figures of $6.4 million and first full-day revenue of $9.2 million, the biggest Tuesday gross of all time, swiftly followed by the biggest-ever Wednesday haul of all time with $8.8 million.
But in the U.S., where the film opened 10 days later, despite topping the box office for two consecutive weeks, Spectre’s figures tracked lower than those of Skyfall. It made $73 million in its first week, compared with $88.3 million three years earlier. The numbers were echoed elsewhere in the world.
Although Spectre now looks unlikely to match the $1.1 billion set before, it’s nearing the billion-dollar mark globally, still a stunning achievement. And while there is unlikely to be another Bond movie until 2019, the big news in 2016 will likely be surrounding whether Mendes returns for a third and who will be stepping into Daniel Craig’s bloodstained brogues.
Changing (Top) Gears
While it is unlikely bookmakers would have even accepted bets on there being another major Top Gear controversy this year, few would have predicted the major engine troubles that would emerge from the BBC's hugely successful motoring show.
On March 10, Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson, a man regularly labeled the U.K.'s most controversial on-air personality for a string of remarks over the years considered racist, sexist and homophobic, was suspended by the broadcaster for punching a producer. Reports emerged that the "fracas" occurred after a day's shooting when Clarkson demanded -- and didn't receive -- a steak.
The news made headlines in the U.K., with widespread debate over what the BBC, a publicly funded organization, should do with the unruly yet ratings-driving personality, already said to have been on his "last warning."
Eventually, the news came through that Clarkson's contract would not be renewed, leading to even more frenzied speculation over what he would do next and what would happen to Top Gear, a brand estimated to be worth $75 million and broadcast in more than 200 countries.
After months of rumors, "sources close to the individuals" and other enlightened chatter, the BBC announced that it would be carrying on, sans Clarkson, with its flagship car program. Chris Evans, a former "enfant terrible" who caused major headaches for the broadcaster while a radio DJ in the 90s, was unveiled as the new host.
As for Top Gear's outgoing, outspoken former figurehead, he didn't exactly do badly after the angry meat-based assault.
In July, it was announced that Amazon had pounced for Clarkson and his co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May and signed them up for a new car show in a three-season deal said to be valued at up to $250 million. Even Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos admitted the arrangement was "very, very, very expensive" but worth it for the Amazon Prime streaming platform.
Both the new-look Top Gear and Clarkson's as-yet-unnamed Amazon road rival are due to air in 2016. There are likely to be plenty of headlines still to come.
The BBC Under Attack
In the BBC’s long-running and widely-celebrated history, 2015 will likely go down as the year the vast public broadcaster hit some seriously rocky ground. Not because of dubious captaining, although that’s not something that has escaped it in the past, but due to the British government throwing some significant icebergs in its path.
Soon after Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party won the general election in May, it was announced that as part of ongoing “savings” in the public sector, the BBC would be burdened with the cost of paying for the annual license fee which is offered for free to viewers over 75. The Department of Work and Pensions previously picked up the tab, but the shift meant that, by 2020, the BBC would be facing an additional bill of around $1.15 billion, a significant chunk of its annual $7.8 billion income.
The government also said the BBC's "size and scope" would be reviewed.
The move was immediately slammed by critics in the U.K.’s creative industries, described as a “drive-by shooting” and, by some, as proof that the government was rewarding Rupert Murdoch and the Conservative press for their pre-election support. Indeed, one of the attacks leveled against the BBC in the wake of the cuts was that it had grown beyond its garden walls with “imperial ambitions” and that its online presence was looking to “completely crowd out” daily newspapers. It was also criticized for buying formats such as The Voice, which competed with commercial broadcasters such as ITV (The Voice later switched to ITV, which had bought its creator, Talpa).
The cuts have yet to take full effect but are almost certain to change the scale and scope of the BBC’s operations. That said, few expect them to significantly damage its dramatic output, currently on a roll with acclaimed shows such as Wolf Hall, Poldark and War and Peace, plus returning favorites such as Sherlock and Doctor Who.
But one thing the perceived government attacks have underlined is the love for the BBC from across the U.K. and beyond. Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Judi Dench, J.K. Rowling and Stephen Fry were among those who wrote an open letter to Cameron stating that a “diminished BBC would simply mean a diminished Britain," while Armando Iannucci used his keynote speech at the Edinburgh TV Festival to defend the broadcaster, arguing that the cuts were “bad capitalism” and that the government was urging it to “consider the benefits of assisted suicide.”
Speaking to THR, an angry Stellan Skarsgard – who appears in recent BBC drama River – laid into the British government for siding with big business over the public broadcaster. "Rupert Murdoch is in bed with Cameron," he said. "Of course they want to kill the BBC...anybody who is in the way."
Amy Hits All the Right Notes
With the unexpected absence of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise and The Program by Stephen Frears, Cannes’ 2015 competition lineup was a decidedly un-British affair (although The Lobster, a U.K./Irish/French/Greek/Dutch co-production, was considered the solitary flag-bearer).
However, away from the main event, one very British film grabbed much of the limelight on the Croisette.
Amy, Asif Kapadia’s doc looking into the rise and untimely fall of singer Amy Winehouse, had its world premiere as part of the festival’s Midnight Screenings and received almost instant universal praise.
The film was later released in the U.K. with spectacular results, earning over $5.7 million and passing March of the Penguins to become the second-biggest doc of all time in the country (it had already topped Kapadia’s own Senna to become the biggest British doc). In the U.S., where A24 released the film, it surpassed $8 million, and it now rests on a total global haul in excess of $25 million.
Amy’s journey isn’t yet over. The film now finds itself shortlisted for many of the major doc awards, including the Oscars. And at AFM it was reported that – no doubt inspired by the success of the film – an Amy Winehouse biopic was in the works, with Noomi Rapace the front-runner to take the lead.
As for Kapadia, he’s next executive producing a doc looking at another major name in British music: the rock band Oasis.
Adele Sets Records at Home and Abroad
Adele in November released her third studio album, 25, setting records in Britain and the U.S., among others.
First-week U.K. sales reached 800,307 units, topping the chart and outselling the rest of the top 75 records combined, beating a previous record of 696,000 set in 1997 by Oasis' Be Here Now.
Adele also set the record for the most downloaded No. 1 album ever with a total 252,423 digital sales in a week.
In the U.S., the album sold 3.38 million copies in its debut week to set a new record and also became the first album ever to sell more than 1 million units in the U.S. in two different weeks since Nielsen Music began tracking sales data in 1991.
The singer also announced a 2016 tour.
ITV Continues Its Acquisitions Spree
U.K. TV giant ITV continued its shopping spree in 2015, adding more TV production firms to its growing ITV Studios arm that has expanded in Britain, the U.S. and beyond.
In the spring, the company agreed to buy The Voice producer Talpa Media for up to $1.17 billion and kept Big Brother creator John de Mol, head of the Dutch producer, on board. Among other deals in 2015, ITV acquired U.K. production firms Mammoth Screen and Twofour and a minority stake in multi-channel network operator Mum.
Late in the year, after months of speculation, Brent Montgomery was formally named CEO of ITV America, previously known as ITV Studios U.S. Group. In his new role, the Leftfield founder/CEO, who has been a regular on the THR reality power list, will oversee ITV’s group of U.S. businesses. The company is now the largest independent producer of non-scripted content in the U.S.
U.S.-U.K. Relations in Focus Amid ITV Takeover Chatter
The future of TV industry relationships between U.S. and U.K. sector players were in focus in 2015 amid acquisitions and deal talk that led some to worry about how new American bosses could affect British TV.
After Viacom in late 2014 acquired British broadcaster Channel 5 and John Malone's Liberty Global acquired a stake in U.K. broadcaster ITV, to which it added in 2015, David Abraham, CEO of Channel 4, expressed concerns about American acquisitions of U.K. TV production firms and networks. "I’m incredibly proud of what this country is capable of doing, and we should really work to preserve what it is that makes us special," he said at the biennial Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge in the fall.
Arguing that the U.S. industry was more profit-focused, he said: "We do things differently here." Abraham also argued that a possible acquisition of ITV by a foreign buyer would have “profound” effects on the broader U.K. sector.
Others in the British industry said their experiences working with American bosses showed that they understood local programming drives success.
Chatter about possible bids for ITV erupted several times. Comcast's NBCUniversal was mentioned as a buyer in a report late in the year, but the company said there were no takeover talks. Previously, Discovery Communications was mentioned as a possible acquirer.
And Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries said the company had "no intention" to fully acquire ITV or do "anything further" after recently raising its stake from 6.4 percent to 9.9 percent. He called the increase "for the most part an opportunistic and financially driven transaction," saying it fit into the international cable giant's strategy of carefully investing in select content companies without big capital outlays.