PracticeAccounting FirmsProfile: Steve Joberns, film division partner at Shipleys

Profile: Steve Joberns, film division partner at Shipleys

With finances for independent British films so tight, Steve Joberns has played a leading role in ensuring some of our most successful movies have made it to the big screen

The camera moves slowly over the Hollywood Hills, a cloud hangs over the Hollywood sign, casting a long shadow. The camera moves away from the sign and heads towards Hollywood Boulevard, as we approach the camera swoops low over the many names of actors and actresses in stars on the pavement. We glimpse a few recognisable names but as the camera accelerates the stars become a blur, moving faster and faster until we reach the Chinese Theatre when the camera suddenly pans up on a man reading The Hollywood Reporter. The camera closes in on the headline, which reads ‘Heath Ledger Dead’.

Cut to

We pull out from the headline in the Reporter, which now lies on an office desk, half buried under a pile of other industry papers. The lead story at the top of the pile reads: ‘Is this the end for
Dr Parnassus?’

Terry Gilliam, director of the The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, looms over the paper, upset and angry, but also with a look of
defiance. His furrowed face suddenly changes, as if a light bulb has switched on inside his head. He pulls out his phone. and
makes a call.

GILLIAM (into phone)
Hi, it’s me. I’ve had an idea on how we can carry on and still use the filming we did with Heath. We’ll need to speak to the financiers to see if they’ll still go for it. But in the meantime get me the numbers of Colin Farrell, Jude Law and Johnny Depp.


Fade to an aerial shot of a busy and overcast London. Cut to an aerial close-up of Leicester Square, followed by the outside of an office building just off the Square. The sign by the door reads ‘Shipleys LLP’.

We cut to the office of Steve Joberns, partner in the film division at accountants Shipleys. He is working at his computer when the phone rings.

STEVE JOBERNS (into phone)
Hello, Steve here

Hi Steve, just to let you know that Dr Parnassus is going ahead again. But we’ll need your help…


This screenplay may not depict exactly how the events surrounding the production of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus unfolded, but it is based on a true story and Shipleys’ Steve Joberns did play a crucial part in ensuring the movie still made it to release, despite the death of its leading actor halfway through filming.

The plan by Gilliam to have Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp play different parts of Ledger’s role when filming eventually resumed would require more than just script changes. It could easily have thrown a spanner in the works over the financing of the movie.

“We had to go through quite an extensive process with the UK Film Council to make sure they would still bless the film as a UK and Canada co-production,” says Joberns.

“It was key because a lot of the film was financed by tax credits in the UK and Canada. If we hadn’t done that, then those tax credits would not have been available.”

Joberns and representatives of the financiers were tasked with devising a plan to ensure that these credits, which were the lifeblood of the production, continued to flow despite the inevitable delays and changes to the make-up of the film.

In particular the introduction of US actor Johnny Depp was causing significant concern on the Canadian side.

“Given the terrible circumstances it would have been difficult for the Film Council to turn around and not accept [our proposals], but there were also negotiations with the UK equivalent of our film council and they are often very reluctant to have American actors or crew on films that they are backing through their tax system.”

“As you can imagine it was quite a hairy time,” he says.

Shipleys is responsible for handling the finances of roughly 70% of UK independent films, with Joberns involved with a large chunk of these. Over the last four years he’s worked on over 300 films that qualify as UK productions or co-productions, many arthouse films that you have probably never hear of, but some that have become smash hits and even achieved Oscar glory, such as Slumdog Millionaire (see box), 28 Days Later or Moon.
But given the complex nature of some of these productions, Joberns admits “a lot of the work we do is not finance related, it is managing the film process”.

In this sense the advisory role that Joberns plays on films can be the difference between success and failure. Take the opening last weekend of Four Lions, a controversial ‘Jihad comedy’ by The Day Today and Brass Eye creator Chris Morris. Joberns’s role with the filmmakers was significant, though he was sketchy on the details.

“We got involved in that film through the production company we look after,” he says. “Chris Morris approached them, he had the idea for the film but didn’t know how to get it made. He also had a number of people he knew who would like to invest in it.”

He talks a little more before clamming up, aware that the provocative nature of the film may well have caused massive outrage following its release – and potential reprisals for those involved.

Joberns work with the production companies ensures the right tax credits keep the finances of the film flowing while he also advises on the interaction of the other elements of finance, including what he calls ‘soft money’, such as that from the UK Film Council and ‘expensive hard costs’ that come from more traditional methods of finance, such as banks.

While every film obviously has its own idiosyncrasies, “they all share a common theme”, meaning that the experience that Joberns has acquired over the years is invaluable. Most of his work comes from referrals, such is his reputation within the industry. His standing means he is often called in to advise bodies such as the UK Film Council, The Department for Culture, Media and Sport and HM Revenue & Customs on various policy matters relating to the film industry.

There is, of course, a more glamorous side to the work as well. Joberns often has the opportunity to visit film sets, sometimes in exotic locations, attend movie premiers and even has his name on film credits. Then there is the networking, and in the movie industry that means Cannes.

Joberns stresses that “it’s hard work when you’re down there” but will admit that there are “undoubtedly perks to the job”.

“There was a film we looked after about three years ago called Flyboys, which was financed by Larry Ellison, the chief exec of Oracle. We were instrumental in putting together a lot of the rest of the financing for the film. So, when we were down in Cannes, Larry invited a few key people onto his boat, which at the time was the biggest privately owned yacht in the world. It’s great, but you’re still networking, you’re just networking on a £300m boat. There are worse places to be than out at sea, just outside Cannes Harbour, drinking champagne.”

Perhaps then, it is unsurprising that when we talk about his own future he is happy to say that in many ways he is already in his dream role, despite the long and sometime unsociable hours he keeps. He does have plans to expand his remit further into television, but with all the trappings associated with the silver screen Joberns lead role will remain in film for some time to come.

Slumdog Millionaire

As well as being one of the most successful films Joberns has worked on, Slumdog Millionaire also turned out to be one of the most complicated, especially when it came to qualifying for that all-important tax credit.
“The film didn’t lend itself naturally to being a British qualifying film,” says Joberns.

“It was an Indian cast, largely local Indian crew, not shot in the UK. Therefore most people said, how on earth can that be a British film?
“But, if you scratch beneath the surface, there were certain areas where you could start scoring points on the British film application, and we managed to make enough arguments to the UK Film Council to enable the film to qualify as British.”

In order to qualify for a UK tax credit, at least 25% of the production costs need to be spent in the UK. Not an easy task for a film made in India.
“The film was shooting 100% outside the UK, so it was always going to be very close to the wire,” he says”.

“We had to sit down with the producers and the lawyers and say, if we do this work here, we’re not going to get our tax credit. We’ve got to do this element of the budget in the UK in order to stand a chance.”

Even with all these issues resolved and a plan in place to qualify for the tax credits, things can still go wrong unless there is a firm hand on the tiller.

“You’re monitoring the spend all the way through the production process, so that financiers are comfortable that costs aren’t flipping.

“Typically films will overspend in the shoot period, particularly when they are in very difficult locations, such as India. If you overspend too much you could find that when you get to UK post-production you haven’t got the opportunity to bring the spend back to the 25% level.”

Tight cost control eventually ensured that the film qualified for this ‘soft money’ and became a huge, Oscar-winning success.

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