JON WILLIAMS: Driving a Bad Lad to Market
Jon Williams and his creative team spent in excess of two years crafting their underground comedy Diary of a Bad Lad and a further year taking it through post, producing a film that many film luminaries have acknowledged to be fresh, original and different.
After getting endorsement for their product from people like Chris Bernard, Alex Cox and Nik Powell, you would think that getting it "out there" might not be too difficult. Think again. Jon Williams certainly did and when Netribution asked him, wrote this account of driving his film to market.
Jon's article makes it clear how just a few people hold a pernicious grip on UK film distribution and what an impenetrable cartel it has become. Diary of A Bad Lad is being distributed by WYSIWYG Films and is finally being released this autumn on the Digital Screen Network.
Diary of a Bad Lad (92mins) has been acquired for distribution and sales by WYSIWYG Films and will launch in the Autumn of 2006. The story of the film from idea through to rough cut has already been extensively covered in a ‘Wideshot' interview that James MacGregor did with me a couple of years ago, so what follows is predominately an account of taking the film through post-production and then on to, what for us, were the uncharted waters of taking the film to market. But first it's maybe an idea to go back briefly to the beginning.
I've always been one for maverick filmmaking. In the 1970's - I am fifty seven by the way - I was one of the founders of the short-lived left-wing documentary making group, NEWSREEL, and I was particularly inspired by a lot of openly political Latin American films that had not only been made on tiny budgets but also, had involved taking grave personal risks on the part of their makers.
But the world changed. Liberal social democracy seemed to have triumphed. History, we were told, had come to an end; the serious ideals of political economic philosophy segued into a post-modern cynical relativism, journalism increasingly came to be entertainment, and I withdrew into teaching as a means of paying the bills.
"I was still inspired by people who were managing to make movies on virtually no money, by operating outside of the system" - Jon Williams
However, I was still inspired by people who were managing to make movies on virtually no money, by operating outside of the system. Films like Peter Jackson's ‘Bad Taste', the feminist revenge movie, ‘I Spit on Your Grave', the films that Wim Wenders made by more underground methods, such as ‘Kings of the Road' and ‘Wings of Desire', and in particular the Belgian 16mm B&W mock-documentary, ‘Man Bites Dog' - a biting satire on what, at that time, had been a spate of serial killer movies and their producers' dubiously complicit fascination with their subject. One thing which virtually all of these films had in common was that they had taken several years to make. In fact, it had come to be the received wisdom that it would take at least four years to make a film following this route.
After my collaborator, director Michael Booth and I had spent maybe a couple of years failing to get a low- to medium-budget feature into production through conventional pathways, I thought, "Sod it, DV is coming in and we could make something in a documentary, or video-diary style, in our spare time. Something which would do for the ‘Lock, Stock' type British Gangster movie what ‘Man Bites Dog' had done for the serial killer flick." And that was the genesis of Bad Lad.
First of all, it took an enormously long period of time to write. In fact it took writing an 80,000 word novel just to work it out. After that, I adapted it into a deliberately very long script which would allow the cast to truly immerse themselves in each scene, and then allow us to cut the film in a different way, much more like cutting a documentary.
Bad Lad tells the story of how one-time documentary-maker and film production lecturer, Barry Lick, sets out to make a deliberately sensationalist documentary about a local businessman who Barry knows was, and probably still is, involved in property rackets, prostitution, pornography and drugs. What's more, Barry reckons that he can make it on no money, if he can get some of his still unemployed ex-students to crew for him.
Through various short films, Michael and I already had a network of people around us in East Lancashire, so there were no problems in casting Barry and his crew - most of whom would be in the dual role of playing fictional characters whilst producing, directing and shooting the actual film. It also meant that we could shoot a few ‘Barry's Diary' scenes in which he pitches the idea to the ex-students, so we could use these as well as the script in casting the other parts.
A key point here was how we approached people. We were completely straight and upfront about the fact that we were aiming to show just what could be done on DV with no money. And you can only do that if you sell the finished product and get it as widely seen as possible. All else is vanity. So, all the time we pitched it as something that we'd designed to be done in people's spare time, something that would always take second place to anyone's paid work. We were taking a punt on the project and we invited others to take a punt as well, on the basis that, once it was finished, everyone would own a stake in the film that would directly reflected their own contribution. And it would only be then that we'd want people to sign contracts. I have to say, I get very annoyed when I read postings on various web-sties from people endeavouring to recruit cast and crew for ‘no-budget' features on the basis of food and a DVD copy, rather than some form of profit-share based business plan!
About two-and-a half years (and thirty-five shooting days) later it was all in the can for a cost of £3,500, most of which had been spent on effects. Getting from there to a fine cut took the best part of another year, which involved several test screenings with other members of North West Producers and Directors, including one whole inspirational day when Chris Bernard, director of ‘Letter to Brezhnev' as well as countless hours of high-end TV drama, tore the rough cut to pieces. Once we had been through all that, we could start thinking about original music and making a start on taking the film to market.
We were very fortunate to have locally a sound engineer, composer and arranger, Simon Auster. Simon had been involved since the rough cut, and performed miracles in cleaning up all the location sound, as well as remixing it from mono to surround sound. He also set about creating the music from a mixture of a number of his unreleased tracks, together with some original main themes that were linked to the central characters. Meanwhile I set about submitting the film to festivals and began contacting sales agents.
It was at this point that our, up until then, seemingly charmed progress evaporated. Festival rejection followed festival rejection. UK sales agents, who I had all approached first by phone followed by letters and screeners, rarely even bothered to even acknowledge their receipt. The copies were sat on for months and my calls and emails were rarely returned. "What is it with these people?" I thought. "There aren't very many indie films made each year, and they don't seem to be bothered to even take a look. Book publishers by way of comparison receive hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts and they typically get back to the authors, albeit with a rejection and some comments, within six to eight weeks. Aren't these people interested?"
But then, at the end of January 2005, the ball started to roll. Out of the blue my phone rang. It was John Wojowski, director of Manchester's Kino Film Festival, who had somehow got hold of a copy. "Listen," he says, "I've just seen a copy of your film. It's the best thing I've seen in years and I want to screen it."
"I've just seen a copy of your film. It's the best thing I've seen in years and I want to screen it." John Wojowski of Kino
"But it's a feature," I say. "I thought you only screened shorts. And doesn't the festival open in about three weeks?"
"Yes, but I think this is so important I'm prepared to pull one of my short film programmes to make space for it. I'm going to need an answer right now, otherwise the printers won't have time to change the programme."
"OK," I say, "as long as it's billed as a preview and not a premiere."
John gives us a slot at 12 noon on Saturday 26th February at the AMC, a huge multiplex in Manchester city centre. Paul Gordon, our DOP and general technical wizard makes up a lead that will allow the DVD player to interface with the screen's surround sound system; and then John Wojowski phones me again saying that he'd shown the screener to Bruno Coppola who's ‘totally blown away by it' and wants to know if he can introduce the film - and that North West Producers and Directors head, Mat Archer, would like to say a few words as well. This is getting better and better, but Michael and I both begin to worry if the film will live up to the hype. At the same time this is an opportunity that's too good to miss. Who knows, we may manage to get some completion funding so that we can give Simon at least an advance for all the weeks of work he's put in on the audio? Maybe even something towards a 35mm transfer, which will make the film more attractive to festival selectors? We contact the press, send both emails and letters of invitation to the key personnel at our local RSA, North West Vision, and sound out the UK Film Council.
"we've had an email reply from the Film Council which is pretty unpleasant, both in content and tone"
The big day arrives. About 120 people have turned up, but there's not a single person from North West Vision, nor the media. What's more, we've had an email reply from the Film Council which is pretty unpleasant, both in content and tone. But the screening goes incredibly well. Much of the comedy is laugh-out-loud funny and ripples of applause start breaking out spontaneously. And as the film becomes progressively darker in tone it's obvious that the audience is totally gripped. And once the end credits stop rolling they break out into what can only be described as an ovation! So, I set about milking the situation for all its worth, dragging Michael, lead actor Joe O'Byrne, and various other principal members of the cast down to the front to take a bow.
Finally the audience is ushered out into the foyer, but nobody leaves. Everyone wants to talk about the film. Two hours later most of them are still there and my voice has just about completely packed up. And a week later, at the end of festival party, it's what everyone is still talking about. It's just a shame that the media and the ‘industry' weren't there...
Bruno Coppola is ‘totally blown away by it' and wants to know if he can introduce the film
But we soon have more good news. The British Council contact us saying that ‘Bad Lad' is one of the ten UK films that they are submitting to the Cannes selectors in the middle of March. This was all news to me, but for some time I had suspected that a lot of festivals involved cosy relationships with sales agents, distributors and, as it turns out, the British Council. Without this sort of support, and if you haven't a 35mm print, your submission is likely to end up on the bottom of the pile.
Word about the screening has also got back to North West Vision. Chris Moll, Head of Funds and an ex-Aardman exec, phones me saying that he's finally watched the copy of the fine cut - which is nothing like as good as the final cut shown at Kino, which we gave him about three months previously. Chris thinks the film is great, and he tells me that he's also tested it out on some 18-25 year olds, and they think it's great too. "You must go to Cannes with a case full of screeners and press kits and start getting this known," he says. "But whatever you do you must not undersell it." And they offer us £250 towards the costs.
Cannes is only two months off, and it looks as if we are in with a shout; after all they did screen ‘Man Bites Dog'. And if it is selected we're going to need to have some of the principal cast there to meet the media. It will be our first trip, so we set about getting accreditation and try to find out what's going on. Cannes refuses to tell us anything and, to make matters worse, after we've booked flights and accommodation, they refuse accreditation to members of the cast. At the same time, I contact a slew of sales agents, telling them about the British Council's official backing and trying to organise meetings. This time one or two actually reply.
For the benefit of anyone who hasn't been to Cannes, the festival takes place behind security barriers patrolled by security guys in Mediterranean blue blazers and black mohair trousers. You can't get past them without a pass. Behind the barriers is the ‘Palais des Festivals' where the films are shown. Accredited people can reserve seats for screenings, and Joe-public is left to scrabble over the crumbs that are left. Behind the ‘Palais' is an enormous market hall, which also contains several small theatres for ‘market screenings'. These can be hired, but most of them are already booked by the producers and distributors of films in the main festival, for the purposes of doing business. It seems to work like this: hardly any of the people with passes bother going to see the screenings in the Palais (unless there's some big party laid on afterwards on someone's ‘yacht'.) Instead, they wait to read the reviews in the dailies like Screen or Variety, and then, if they have a commercial interest, they might go to a screening in the market.
Many of the companies represented in the market hall are small fry, such as American niche market horror producers, but some pretty big fish, such as Lions Gate are there too. British companies are conspicuous by their near total absence. In fact it takes a little detective work through the likes of the British Council, located in one of the national ‘pavilions' which fringe the beach alongside the festival's permanent complex, to find out where they are. All of them are located in one or other of the five star hotels along the Croisette which specialise in leasing suites and apartments. So, for two weeks of the year these companies are not just paying for a luxury apartment, they are also paying to have it refurnished as a suite of offices. Did I just say, ‘they're paying'? Silly me, these are part of their legitimate expenses, so it's the filmmakers they represent who are, in the long run, picking up the tab. And the number of films may be as few as six, or even less - and from reading the details about them in the Market Guide I think I'd give most of the titles a miss, even if they were to make it onto terrestrial TV. Still, at least these companies haven't lashed out on hiring one of the 90ft power cruisers which line the harbour.
A couple of days after we arrive, I attend a meeting with one of the UK heads of a European sales company that also has offices in LA. This company has not been squandering money, as all of their meetings take place at one of the tables in the European Pavilion. But the meeting is really good. He kicks off by telling me that the film does not fit with their European Arthouse portfolio, but he thinks that the film is ‘brilliant' and that his partners watched it the previous night in their hotel and that they're going to be discussing it that evening. Then he confides in me that ‘no-one in this business watches more than fifteen minutes of anything," and that the immediate response to anything shot on DV is that it's bound to be some ex-film school students f-ing about with a camera, so you're lucky if they watch five minutes and then send you an encouraging rejection by email. "But," he says, "I put your film on and I couldn't turn it off. It had me totally gripped from beginning to end, and I can't remember the last time that a film did that for me." But he goes on to say that, if it was his film, there are one or two other sales agents that he'd be looking to place it with, and he not only gives me a shortlist, but also tells me who I should try to get to talk to in each company. However he does caution me that UK sales companies are notoriously risk-averse, so if the film hasn't a Richard Curtis script and doesn't star Hugh Grant you have an uphill struggle on your hands.
So I set off, door-stepping my way down the Croisette and manage to arrange a few meetings for the following week. I'm feeling pretty buoyed up. I'm there with one of the few features that was a British Council supported festival entry, which I know has the potential to become a cult film with potentially many years of shelf-life. So I go in and make my pitch, but no one seems to be listening. "Leave a screener with us and we'll get back to you," they all say, trying to get me out of the door as quickly as possible. Most of them don't.
We discuss the situation. Obviously an indie film has to have a critical mass of heat behind it before the two or three dozen people who really run the British film industry are prepared to sit up and take notice, so we've got to start generating some press coverage. I go off to the local internet café and write a press release, up-dating our press pack and providing both our phone and email contact details in Cannes. I also buy a large pack of brown A4 envelopes. We find the festival media centre and manage to borrow a copy of the list of all the journalists who are there. We draw up a shortlist of twenty-five to whom we personally address each package, and arrange for them to be delivered to each journalist's personal mail-box. This generates no response whatsoever.
"God these RSA's are just dangerous wankers with no idea how the industry works. Don't let them queer your pitch!" - UK Sales Agent
But it's not all bad. Michael gets an offer to develop and direct a feature for a major producer based in Canada which they will be following up with a meeting the next time he's in London; we meet up with Ben Blaine and some of the other prime movers behind Shooting People - they're enormous fans of Bad Lad and Ben proposes that they organise a preview screening of the film in a London cinema; and North West Vision's Chris Moll tells me that they want to officially sponsor the film at the London Film Focus which will take place in about a month's time. Chris says that this will get us a screening at the NFT as well as an opportunity to promote the film to a large number of sales agents and distributors from many different countries. But a bit later on the same day I run into a UK distributor/sales agent with a strong independent film profile. I tell him about our London Film Focus plans. "Whatever you do, don't do that," he says with considerable vehemence. "The people you need will want ‘all rights', so if you manage to sell to a few territories, no one in the UK will want to touch your film with a barge pole. In fact no one will want to touch it if they even catch you trying to sell it yourselves. God, these RSA's are just dangerous wankers with no idea how the industry works. Don't let them queer your pitch!" I take this opinion on trust and turn Chris Moll's offer down; but with hindsight I consider this was a mistake. From following the fates of a number of UK micro-budget features it's pretty obvious that, if you make a strong genre piece - horror for example, you have a pretty good chance of selling it in North America (whilst we were in Cannes we showed a trailer to ‘Troma' who were knocked out by it, took us very seriously, stressed that they had a history of handling some serious drama, especially by first time filmmakers, as well as horror, but said that they'd understand if we turned them down!). If the film then does pretty well on the North American DVD market there is a good chance that UK agents and distributors will develop and interest - as was the case with, for example, ‘The Last Horror Movie'.
Now's maybe a good time to draw some lessons and conclusions from all this. First of all, as any struggling UK independent filmmaker knows, there is nothing unique about our experiences. One thing which they do demonstrate is the theoretical model that is peddled by certain organisations, who have cashed in on the desperation of aspiring filmmakers by offering motivational seminars, at sometimes frankly enormous cost, which claim to offer the secret of success: "Set your film in one location with a tiny cast, write the script by following the ‘painting-by-number' formula, shoot it in two weeks, screen it in festivals - but make sure you take your lawyer with you to do the deals with the companies who will be virtually fighting each other to acquire your film," is little more than snake oil.
On Sales Agents & Distributors: "What they want is to be involved from the start in projects which involve minimum risk. " - Jon Williams
But what if you are not a bunch of just-left-film school wannabe's? What if you have made a film which has received high praise from the likes of Alex Cox and Nik Powell? A film which has much in common with other indie films that have enjoyed considerable success with niche audiences in the DVD and TV markets and have demonstrated that such films have very long shelf lives - and all on the basis of tiny marketing budgets? What's more, you are aware that the rise and rise of digital screen networks make limited theatrical releases both possible and affordable. Why then is it the case, that your film does not seem to be attractive to UK sales agents and distributors? Because that's not the way in which most of them work.
What they want is to be involved from the start in projects which involve minimum risk. To be the executive producers of films at budgets which qualify for tax breaks, planned films with known writers and stars already attached, for which they can acquire the rights, finance through investment and pre-sales in the markets which they already know, whilst deducting anything as much as 35% commission for their services and collecting the tax breaks based on the figures presented by their accountants - which may well be considerably more than the actual production costs. And you went out and did it yourselves? Just look at all the money you've already diddled them out of already! And then they'd actually have to go out and sell your film in markets that they have little or no knowledge of.
If you want to know why the UK film industry does not enjoy the same success as the TV and record businesses (which did suffer a major dip in international sales when a small bunch of ageing execs temporarily managed to get hold of it by proclaiming that they knew best and set about manufacturing and marketing bland acts aimed at a largely pre-teen market) look no further.
But do you really want to deal with these people anyway? American distribution guru, Peter Broderick points out that, for indie filmmakers, deals with major companies mean you lose all control over your film for as much as fifteen years, that your film is soon likely to end up being ‘left on the shelf' as they pursue the more instant returns (and kudos) offered by the large budget films in their portfolio, that they probably won't do a good job of selling your film in the important DVD and TV markets, and that you'll end up receiving little or no money. These rather unpleasant facts are born out by virtually all of the case studies detailed in The Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook.
What UK indie filmmakers need is an alternative. Broderick makes powerful arguments in favour of looking towards the growing number world-wide of digital screens, DVD distribution, the internet, of working with new and hungry companies committed to working with filmmakers in order to reach the core audiences for their films, as against some nebulous ‘mass market', under more equitable terms and conditions, and who are looking towards those futures rather than the past. If you'd like to know more about what Peter Broderick has to say you can read his article
Back in England, we begin organising for the London preview set for early September. Ben Blaine decides to put the film on as part of a double bill with ‘The Plague', together with a Q&A session, and does much to promote the event on Shooting People. Once again we set about inviting the media, along with a more selective list of distributors etc. A couple of weeks before the screening I'm contacted by Tom Swanston of WYSIWYG Films. He's heard about it but says he probably won't be able to make it. I send him a screener. Tom is completely blown away by it and we end up spending ages talking about it on the phone, agreeing a deal which respects our artistic integrity and allows us to work together when it comes to such as how the film is marketed.
As you'd expect by now, no-one turns up from the media, the Film Council, or Wardour St., which is maybe a good thing as, just a few days before the screening the cinema was burgled and the thieves ran off with all their shiny new digital video projection kit. At the last minute they've managed to cobble together an underpowered data projector which is not colour balanced for video and won't output true 16:9, so the image is a murky mess. What's more the player won't interface properly with the theatre's audio system, so not only is there no surround sound, but most of the music and fx are missing as well!
Still, a lot of people tell us how much they like the film (although one young man posts outraged comments on Shooting People about how it's full of ugly characters and there's nothing up-lifting about it, which I suppose means that he doesn't like Macbeth either) and a couple of them are prompted to post comments on our IMDB page.
Soul Searcher writer/director, Neil Oseman wrote (ok, yes he is a kindred soul and a bit of a mate)
"He'll make you laugh, he'll make you think," sang Professor Fink in an episode of The Simpsons, and he could well have been talking about one of the folks behind Diary of a Bad Lad. The genius of this staggeringly-realistic faux documentary is that its black humour makes you laugh even as another part of you is thinking, "Oh my god - what these people are doing is horrific." It entertains hugely for an hour and a half, but leaves you with many unsettling thoughts on both the horrors of the crimes committed by the "Bad Lad" Tommy and the exploitative nature of the media and the ethics of journalists. These themes have never been more relevant than in these days of 24-hour news coverage when no-one thinks twice about broadcasting images of bleeding victims of terrorist attacks staggering into ambulances.
I'm generally a fan of Hollywood-style movies with happy endings, slick camera-work, fun characters and traditional "good guys", so for a film that deliberately eschews all of these things to appeal to me is no mean feat - that it did is a testament to the quality of the writing, direction and performances. The illusion of the whole thing being a real documentary is damn-near perfect, with every scene written and performed in an utterly naturalistic fashion. This film desperately deserves a release.
Kothai Kanthan, of Red Earth Films also posted an edited version of some of the comments that she posted about the event in general on Shooting People. When I read them I was moved to contact her and ask her permission to quote from them, which she agreed. They are worth quoting in full, so this is what she had to say about her experience of watching ‘Bad Lad'
...it was a bonus for me that Bad Lad was so good. I came to the cinema early, to find out the start was going to be late, so I went out for a walk and missed the first five minutes! But what happened then was that I thought I was watching a trailer or short before the feature, then as the film kept going I was convinced that I had been misled that the film I thought was going to be a fiction feature was in fact a documentary. I was totally taken in that this was a real documentary. I was moved to horror, anger, outrage as I watched it, ready to protest to Shooting People about how they could condone such journalism, right up till the very end... when it becomes obvious that it's a piece of fiction-
JW ...so well done to the actors and director for such convincing performances, and well done to the writer for such naturalistic scripting.
Having been a broadcast journalist in my early days I have always been appalled about the miserable integrity of documentary makers and news reporters. It was the main reason why I moved out of documentary making. Bad Lad is not about the underworld of drugs, pornography and rape, it is about documentary makers who are opportunistic and morally depraved. You think you are watching a documentary about drugs, pornography and rape, but the presenter's lack of ethics creeps up on you, catches you unawares, without you realising it you begin judging the crew, in particular the presenter, and your disgust for them builds up as they show themselves to be worse and worse human beings. As a woman the rape scene was the awful climax for me, as we saw the crew's incalculably inhumane and opportunistic behaviour towards the victim all the way through the planning of the rape to the morning after.
Bad Lad worked for me, even without its proper sound, it left me lots of room to reflect back over it, and I was very satisfied with it.