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netribution > features > interview with david nicholas wilkinson > page two
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When is the best time to come to you with a film? Do you work only with finished film or can we come to you with a roughcut? When do you prefer to get involved?
Most low budget British films do not even recoup their prints & advertising costs from the cinema AND video rental, sell-though and DVD, let alone pay back any of the film’s investment. I have over 40 films. I have only paid an advance for one of them. In many cases the producers have given me the P&A costs for the cinema release. A UK release greatly enhances the films value overseas. Therefore it helps for me to come on early on so that I can make the P&A part of the investment of the film. This is what happened with Small Time Obsession. The brutal truth is that if I had not released the film in the UK, it would not have had a top Sales Agent selling the film. Nothing to do with the film. It is very hard for a sales agent to sell a UK film if it has not been released in the UK cinema. Because I was releasing the film I had interest from 6 Sales Agents and Piotr finally went with J&M. They told me that because I had made that commitment then it proved to them it was a viable proposition.

What about an approach straight to TV?
Well you could, but if you were considering using a distributor, you might be tying his hands. Filmmakers may make wonderful films, but know nothing about distribution, so they can shoot themselves in the foot, quite unintentionally.You have to approach the market very carefully to get as much out of it as you can. For example, after I had taken Piotr on with Small Time Obsession I discovered he had once made an approach direct to Channel 4, this was some time before I met him.
They had turned his film down at that time and that means I have to work so much harder to get them interested at a second approach.

The problem is, when a broadcaster turns a film down, they have a record on their computer of that film being turned down. It acts just like a blacklisting. We are talking perception here. It was turned down, therefore it must be no good. It is hard to break through the resistance being on the rejects list creates. It is no use just sending the broadcaster a tape and hoping to sell your film to them. I like to get them excited about the film, so I get a nice piece in The Guardian and a couple of other nationals, to get the pot boiling. Then I can go to them with some publicity extracts that get them hooked. Get them interested, then we can talk business.

Going back to Piotr’s film, I had to accept a lower price for it from Channel 4 than I would normally have accepted for such a good film. Although they were interested in the film second time round, they were also influenced by their own earlier rejection. That helps bring the price down, when really, you as distributor are trying to get as much for the film as you can. And don’t forget, that was a film where I was trying to get back a return on my own investment that had taken the film from final edit to delivery.

It all boils down to this. The film market is complicated and not easy to work in. Crashing about in it, without a clear idea about what you are doing, may well cause you, and your project, harm. If you have not got a distributor try and get one, or take the best distribution advice you can find, but don’t just launch yourself into the market unprepared.

If British films have such a poor showing in the cinema, why not go straight to DVD or video as some filmmakers choose to do? What is it that is so crucial about a cinema distribution?

Financially, within the UK, it would make more sense to do this, but most filmmakers want to get a cinema profile and reviews to help their film and, hopefully, their on-going career. You have only made a feature film if it has been shown in the cinema to paying audiences – and I do not mean film festivals.

Why is promotion and advertising such a vital area? Can we not rely on a good product selling just by word of mouth?

For small films I do not believe that advertising is that important. Good PR is better.

Suppose I have managed to raise a budget to make my first low budget feature. What proportion of it should I set aside for promotion and advertising and the distribution side of things? What will that money buy?

As much as you can spare. If a producer comes to me with some P&A I am much more likely to take the film. I run a very small under-funded company and therefore I am greatly restricted in having to reject more films than I would like to.

What about self-distribution as an option? Is that a realistic possibility?

Yes this is an option. It’s what I did. It took me about 3-4 years to learn it properly and make all the contacts and set up the key accounts. The first 3 films I did suffered from my lack of experience. It is a new business and it is a long learning curve. It’s only worth it if you intend to distribute more films. Not just your own, but other people’s.

The big problem I had when I started distributing just my own films was that everyone- and I mean everyone, thought that I was having to do this because no one else would take the film, therefore it must be really bad.

It is perception again. The only people who publish their own books are those that nobody else will take. Its called Vanity Publishing. The same assumption is made of self- distribution.

A number of producers have done their own theatric distribution over the last few years but they have not done the full run – video rental, DVD, sell-through, Pay Per View, Cable, satellite and terrestrial. You need to work on every aspect of distribution.

What about territories abroad? Are any of them specially favourable to British films?

Because most countries do not make most of their own films or TV programming unlike here then they acquire more. The Brylcreem Boys, which I distribute in the UK, had sold to 58 countries before I took it here.

Within the EU British films are the most popular of all the member states. Ironically it frequently happens that a British film can sell in every EU member state except the UK.

Are there any particular themes or film genres that help to sell films across territories. Any particular trends we should be aware of?

Gangster films are real no-no at present in this country.

I find it hard to give advice in this area. It smacks of a formula. Formulaic films never work for me. It’s like painting by numbers with the result looking like a cold, and poor, imitation of something that was original.

Try to make the film as real as possible. Writing it based on your own history, experiences etc will show and give the film an edge. Piotr Szkopiak is a British born Pole. His film was set against this background. To me this was its unique selling point.

With all the various rights across territories world-wide and across downstream markets like terrestrial tv, satellite, digital, cable, video and DVD, some of them time expiring, it must be very difficult to keep track of renewal dates or reversion dates when rights come back. How do you cope with all that?

I only deal in the UK and it’s not a problem.

The Film Council are looking for ways of building Britain’s film industry, some would say, creating one, since what we have is fragmented. If they came to you as a distributor as well as producer, what would you advise them to do? What should their priorities be?

The Lottery has made some excellent films, which sadly have failed at the box office because the distributor could not risk further money pushing them.

I have a film called "The Serpent’s Kiss" starring Ewan McGregor, Greta Scacchi, Pete Postlethwaite and Richard E Grant. Although it did not have lottery money in it, the producer was Robert Jones, who now runs one of The Film Council funds. I had to release this straight to video. I could not afford to release it in the cinema. If I could have had some kind of grant, I am sure it would have done well.

In the US they have no Film Council, no public funders like our regional arts bodies, just a market. Are we too pampered over here do you think? Do we need to struggle even more than we do already to make good films?

If you think we have it bad, think about the Turks, or South Africans. The basic problem is that there are far too many films made every year; more than the world market can absorb. Because the American film producing industry has built up a global distribution system, they have become effective at persuading other nations to view their films.

Ours is an industry where normal rules do not apply. If you make a good suit, people will buy it. Go into any video store and see what people rent. Some really bad films do far, far better than some brilliant ones. I hated "Hollow Man" yet my video store will do better with that than "In The Mood For Love".

When you find a good project you have to find money to invest in it. Where do you get that kind of risk funding from?

Private investors.

How involved do your private investors like to be in film? Are they hands-off or hands-on people?

It’s their money.
Sometimes not at all and sometimes all the time. I rarely have a problem with interference any more. I have been in the business for 31 years, my films have won many awards and some have done very well. I make it clear from the start that someone who has made coat hangers all their life is unlikely to know as much about filmmaking as I do. This is one of the advantages of getting older!

It must give you a lot of satisfaction knowing that you have brought together a filmmaker with a product with potential and the means of making that a success in the film market. Have you ever got it quite wrong? You know, "Oh boy did I get that one wrong" and loads of self-doubt and anguish, or do distributors never suffer for their art?

Again I do not see myself solely as a distributor. I am still a filmmaker although I do not do it that much anymore, other than as an Executive Producer on other people’s films. In the not too distant past, I did take on a film that I got it wrong, but at least it was released. It was made worse, because the filmmakers were so unpleasant to my team- publicists, designers etc. The reason it failed was the film; it’s cowardly to blame everyone else. They seemed to blame the publicity team for it getting bad reviews as if they should have persuaded the critics to be kinder.

It would have been better for everyone concerned if I had left it on the shelf.

What festivals does David Nicholas Wilkinson pencil into his diary each year?
-The ones you hate to miss in other words.

Because at present I only specialise in UK films I do not need to go anywhere. These films find their way to me. The more commercial ones are snapped up by the larger companies. The more difficult ones come to me.

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