British movie company Film4 is the biggest Oscar powerhouse you've never heard of

Rose Garnett, an executive at the British movie company Film4, has found herself in an unusual situation lately.

After watching Oscar nominees such as "Carol," "45 Years" and "Ex Machina," acquaintances in the entertainment business have walked up to Garnett and asked if she's seen those films.

That's an odd statement for a simple reason: Garnett is a principal at the company that helped make them.

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"They'll ask if I've seen these movies, and I'll say, 'Well, yes, actually,'" Garnett noted dryly.

Such is life for the executives at Film4, the biggest Oscar powerhouse you've never heard of.

Outside of 20th Century Fox, which has racked up nominations via all-category contenders such as "The Revenant," Film4 is behind more Oscar nominees than any of the major studios, including perennial Academy favorites the Weinstein Co., Warner Bros. and Walt Disney Co. Film4 has 15 nominations, including best picture contender "Room," which it developed and co-financed.

Still, as Film4 basks in an unusually high batting average, it also faces a crossroads. Under current director David Kosse, the company is caught between its traditional focus on developing high-quality films that yield all these Oscar movies and the increasing pressures of globalization and technology. The Oscar business isn't easy.

Formed in the early 1980s as a production extension of the government-owned television station Channel4, Film4 began hitting its stride a little more than a decade ago under former chief Tessa Ross. The company began solidifying a reputation for the kind of upscale movies that tend to win awards.

Though it is not sufficiently capitalized to fully finance movies itself, London-based Film4 is often the point of entry for filmmakers, acquiring material and helping to mold it into a camera-ready state.

Because the company is on board projects so early, it's often overshadowed when a film moves further through the pipeline. "Carol" and "Room," for instance, are most associated with distributors Weinstein and A24, which is why Film4's Oscar attention is so scant.

 In fact, the company is so under the radar that its executives won't be attending the ceremony.

Film4's approach has been to work closely with directors — finding a balance between the silence of an absentee investor and the hands-on approach of note-happy studios — then stay with them as their careers advance.

"In Britain there's an expression of 'riding the talent ladder,'" said Kosse, an American from the Pacific Northwest who has long lived in England. "We don't want to just make the film; we want to make the film before and maybe even the film before the film before."

"Room" director Lenny Abrahamson, for example, made three films with Film4 along with producing partner Ed Guiney, while the company has collaborated repeatedly with "45 Years" helmer Andrew Haigh.

Most famously, Film4 ushered into the world "12 Years a Slave" director Steve McQueen's first movie, "Hunger," nearly a decade ago, then followed him as he climbed the rungs to his 2014 best picture winner.

"I know a lot of companies say they're filmmaker-friendly because that's just the cool thing to say," Guiney said in an interview. "But they really do follow the director wherever he wants to go."

Guiney and Abrahamson are talking with Film4 about a new project, as is Haigh and his producing partner Tristan Goligher. And Film4 is working on new movies from British upscale favorites and past collaborators Andrea Arnold ("Wuthering Heights") and Lynne Ramsay ("We Need to Talk About Kevin").

"By definition we're a place that's not going to swallow you up," Garnett said. "We're a place where the ambition can be boundless but also safe."

Film4's business model is relatively straightforward. It takes only British television rights, for its premium-movie network. It has a number of equity investors providing funding for its movies, and also finances some of its films with National Lottery government funds. It aims to recoup investments as a profit participant on the films, collecting a portion of theatrical and ancillary revenue as well as fees when the movies sell to distributors.

But change has been afoot in the prestige-film world, whose movies now must compete with streaming and other digital services, among other forces. To stay relevant, a company like Film4 must expand the territories in which it operates — not always easy for movies with a strong British pedigree. Kosse said it's a matter of knowing your market.

"If you want to make films for a commercial audience, focus on that and be aware of it. If you want to make a personal film be aware of that," he said. "If you're thinking [about] films on a global scale, be aware of where the market in Latin America is going or that Russia likes certain types of films. We're not leaving the core of what we do. But we do want to have this awareness."

Kosse's goal is to continue the tradition under longtime predecessor Tessa Ross — known in the business for an unstinting devotion to quality — while expanding it for a more global minded commercialism.

A former president of Universal International, Kosse was brought in about 18 months ago after Ross' departure to help subtly expand the kinds of movies Film4 makes.

"Ex Machina," for instance, though a movie by a well-regarded novelist and screenwriter in Alex Garland, is also a genre play that worked well in international territories. (That film was developed by Ross.) The company is behind "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," a U.S. military-inflected movie from Oscar-winning Taiwanese American director Ang Lee.

Film4 this year has more money to reach these goals — about $35 million compared with about $20 million past years. The idea is to take a bigger position in individual films as well as broaden the number and type of movies it invests in.

Still, there are challenges. The specialty-film business is littered with companies that tried to walk the prestige-commercial line.

"The question is whether they can expand and become more international while still maintaining their core of British good taste," said an American independent-film executive with close knowledge of Film4, who asked not to be identified so as not to jeopardize their relationship with the company. "And that's not easy."

Focus Features, the U.S. specialty division of Universal, has struggled with that exact mandate, looking to retain upscale movies of a previous regime while also embracing genre and other commercial fare.

Kosse said he believes that these are lofty but workable goals.

"There's a certain ambition," he said. "We're not kidding ourselves that it's easy to achieve. But if you look at what we've been able to do with the movies this year and what we have in the pipeline, I think we can make films that fulfill these ambitions."

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 27, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Quiet film force - Britain's Film4, which is behind more award candidates than any other movie entity, has 15 nominations, including best picture contender `Room'" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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