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First of all David, can you tell us a little of your background as a filmmaker and how you moved into the area of film distribution?
I started in the business as an actor in 1970. Throughout the 70s I did a whole range of acting theatre, TV, films. I played leads for people who are now leading filmmakers, such as Mike Newell and John Irvin. I played Stuart Sutcliffe, the fifth Beatle, in Richard Marquands film Birth of the Beatles. I used the money I earned from that to try to make a film. I lost all the money, as the film was never made.
When I finally made a film, a TV film, To The Lighthouse with an unknown Kenneth Branagh (it was the first time the BBC had made a drama with an independent production company in the driving seat) my salary was £6,000. My debts though, were far greater. The only way I could earn extra money was by selling the film to the USA. I did not want to distribute it, but the USA sale made up all my losses.
A number of years later I did a Christmas special called Le Cirque Imaginarre with Charlie Chaplins daughter Victoria. This time I did not get paid anything and it was all I did during a 3 year period. I sold the UK TV rights to Channel 4 just to try to cover my losses. Some French filmmakers including Eric Rohmer and Barbet Schroeder then asked me if I would look at selling a difficult film they had been involved with. Several companies had tried to get a sale in the UK and failed. Over a period of time I persuaded a UK broadcaster to take the 18 million French Franc film. They paid just £10,000. The French were delighted.
They asked me to take the UK rights to 30 of their back catalogue films. Reluctantly I did this. I never thought about this being a business opportunity at the time. Then, over the years I started my own video label and then moved into theatrical distribution. It was only in 1996 that I made distribution my main priority.
And can you clarify for us, what is the difference between the job a distributor does and the job a sales agent does?
A sales agent sells to distributors around the world. A distributor sells to the public in their own country, whether that is in the cinema, video, DVD or TV.
What are some of the titles you have handled as a distributor?
Look at my web site (http://www.guerilla-films.com) for full details, but among them are Serpents Kiss, The Brylcreem Boys, Bodywork, Small Time Obsession, Monty Pythons Fliegender Zirkus, Another Time Another Place and Dylan Thomas' Return Journey, but there are lots more.
I suppose in a way David, the biggest problem UK filmmakers are up against, is America. The grip America exerts on film exhibition is almost total. With British films, are we looking at a niche market? Is there a place for us?
There would be much more of a place if the UK broadcasters either made fewer films themselves, or decided to support the REAL UK independent film industry and start paying decent prices for films. TV is vital to the success of a healthy British film industry. The British public nearly always choose American films over British ones.
What happens frankly, is that UK broadcasters invest heavily in the production of their own films, but then pay very, very little to acquire truly independent British films after they have been made. Its as if the improvised true independent is subsidising those filmmakers who are paid large fees for making the films in conjunction with the broadcaster. In many cases, the independent film is often better than the in-house film, but this is never rewarded in the price.
So how do we get in there? Suppose I came to you wanting to write and direct a film, but I want it to get a fighting chance in that market. What advice can you give me that will increase the odds in my favour?
Its the old one SCRIPT, SCRIPT, SCRIPT
the big problem is that new filmmakers think they know it all. They will not listen. So many films could be so much better if only more time was given to the script. Small Time Obsession could have been a really great film as opposed to a good one, if Piotr had worked with another writer, preferably a working professional one.
Also names. There are very few real stars in the business but people with some profile will help. My next release stars Craig Fairbrass who is back in Eastenders. This means I can get free press coverage.
When you attend a film market, like at Edinburgh International Film Festival and you go browsing in their catalogue or running tapes in their videotheque, what are the things that make you take an interest in a particular title. What catches your attention and makes you want to learn more?
To be honest, I dont go for trends or genres. I like to view all British films. First and foremost is, if its good for me. I then take it from there.
You say that filmmakers often fail to understand the business of film distribution, but are some distributors equally as blind to the problems of low budget filmmakers? How do we strike the right balance to create a good working partnership between film producers and film distributors?
I have one strength, and only one, over every other UK distributor, though my fellow distributors see this as a weakness. I am the only distributor in the UK who has been a creative producer and I do not mean a failed producer who has gone into distribution. I have made over a dozen films and won many awards. I know first hand, how much goes into every film.
Now looking at that question as a filmmaker myself, what I did not like, with the regard to the distributors of my own films, is that to many its just product. If one film does not work out they move on quickly to the next. Small Time Obsession is a good example (I am the Executive Producer as well). This did not work brilliantly in the cinema, nor on video rental. It is doing well on DVD and non-theatrically but if I were thinking of my business and the bottom line I should move on as I have not earned any money yet and have nothing but losses. However, I cannot. Piotr spent 5 years on that film. I owe it to him to do absolutely everything I can to turn it around. I have been in his position many, many times.
I think all distributors should do a stint trying to make films. I do hate the way films are dumped if they do not work out financially right at the beginning of the selling process, no matter how good they are. These films have been someones life for a great number of years. They deserve care and attention.
You have been quite critical of the attitude of some low budget filmmakers. Of course theyve just been through the hell of planning shooting and post producing their film and they want a good deal and no rip-offs. What should their attitude be?
The problem is, with new filmmakers -quite naturally - they all think that their film is the best thing since sliced bread. Unfortunately, this gives them a false sense of security. They think that they are going to get more than it cost them to make the film from their first sale alone. This rarely happens. They need to talk to other producers to find out what the likely sales are. By the time they realise that not everyone is chasing their film, one, two or three years have gone by. I know of at least 10 British films where the producers turned down offers, believing that something better will come along. I made offers on a number of these myself. Then, after not hearing from these people for a few years, they have come back to me. Much as I would like to take them on, I often no longer have the time or money. They seem to think I have been doing nothing in the meantime just waiting for their film to return.
My next film is Weak @ Denise. I love this film. It is made by the very talented Julian Nott in 1998. I saw it in 1999 at the Raindance Festival and I made an offer. Julian said that he was looking for someone bigger and better which I fully understood. He said he would keep in touch with me regularly to let me know how things were going (a good move on his part). I was very surprised to find that everyone else rejected the film. I then said I was still interested. I release it on May 25.
Its all about sending out the right message. This film has been around for 3 years. It has been written about in trade publications as a film that is "on the shelf". This does not help things here and makes it very difficult internationally. Because it is good film and different film, I still think the positives outweigh the negatives. As far as I was concerned, when I first made the offer in 1999 there were only positives.
Once a film is launched you have just 12 months before a whole raft of new films come along and your film becomes a back catalogue item in your Sales Agents portfolio. If you have announced completion to everyone and you do not have a sales agent after 12 months, then you are in trouble.