“It’s about bloody time!” said Clare Stewart, the BFI London Film Festival’s Artistic Director, in her introduction to the first woman to give the festival’s annual industry keynote address, the fourth. British producer Alison Owen focused her 40-minute talk at the Curzon Soho Cinema on "The Power Of The Story" and exhorted the film industry not to be afraid of the internet, but rather embrace its potential because “the internet is a container, not a substance.” (Previous keynote speakers were James Schamus, Ken Loach and, last year, Harvey Weinstein.)
Among Owen’s extensive credits are "Elizabeth," "Sylvia," "The Other Boleyn Girl," Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of "Jane Eyre" and "Saving Mr Banks," which closes this year’s festival. The British producer had only arrived from South Africa at 6.30am that morning, having come directly from the set of Phillip Noyce’s sci-fi fantasy "The Giver," which stars Alexander Skarsgard, Taylor Swift and Meryl Streep.
When she took the stage, Owen explained that she nearly missed giving the keynote address because one of her partner’s on the film, Weinstein, demanded that she stay until Friday – “until Taylor Swift is gone.” “I said, ‘Harvey, I can’t, I’m giving a speech on Friday,’” she said. “’What sort of speech?’ I said, ‘It’s actually the one you gave last year at the London Film Festival.’ That shut him up and I managed to get here.”
At the end of her talk, Ben Roberts, Director of the BFI Film Fund, conducted a short Q&A session with Owen in which she revealed that she’s a big fan of focus groups and test screenings and believes that the growth in high-quality television drama is an opportunity rather than a threat to film producers. She also revealed how she had attempted to secure the rights to "East Of Eden," one of her favorite novels, with the idea of creating a small-screen series, only to be trumped by Ron Howard. The two most imminent projects on her slate at Ruby Films are "The Fury," a suffragette drama written by Abi Morgan ("The Iron Lady") that will star Carey Mulligan, and her long-in-gestatation passion project, an adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s 17th-century Amsterdam-set love story "Tulip Fever."
At one point, Owen read out a quote from Joan Didion: “We tell each other stories in order to live.” It’s a principle that has certainly defined Owen’s own approach to the female-centric stories that have been her forte. Here are a few highlights from Owen’s LFF Keynote Address:
On the internet
“The first point to make is that to my mind it is crazy to say the Internet is going to kill off movies. The Internet is a container, not a substance. To say the Internet is the death of books and movies is like saying someone invented a new, more efficient kind of cup and it heralds the death of coffee - a new improved form of CARRYING something, which is essentially what the Internet IS, should be helpful to our business.”
On the death of drama
“People didn't suddenly wake up one morning and unanimously say 'I'm fed up with mid budget dramas. I'm only going to see action tentpoles from now on!” Human nature just doesn't work like that. Human nature stays the same, the one thing that stays constant, like death and taxes. And people still want good stories!”
On the power of movies
“Movies began as a communal experience. Even though we now watch them as DVD's, sometimes alone on our computers, mostly in the history of cinema it has been a communal experience. And even now, we prefer to go to the movies with a friend, with our family, with our partner. Even at home, we'd rather watch with someone else, given a choice. It's a different experience to watching a YouTube clip, or playing a videogame, or watching 'Come Dine With Me.' I would argue that it's a different experience from even TV drama: I would happily watch Eastenders alone, but I'd always much rather watch a movie with a friend. Even box set TV is more like a kind of 'visual novel', that can be happily 'read' in your own time -- sometimes twenty minutes, sometimes four episodes of Breaking Bad in a row… There's something about movies that makes us want to watch them with others.”
On the less is more approach
“Movies alone have the hideous capacity to do everything for you. So in directing movies, you have to figure how to leave things out -- because when you leave things out, you evoke the imaginative participation of the audience. That's when things get good. When movies do everything for you, they don't stick to your ribs very long, they don't last. We have this phrase: 'eye candy.' Well, somebody should note that candy is not good for you; it's not nourishing. So the greatest filmmakers are not the ones who put everything in; they're the ones who can figure things to leave out, and in doing so, invite your participation.”