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netribution > features > who shot british film? > page two

Indie film past & present
Cox - Nic, you started off on a great point the lack of high concept movies in development. I appreciate that you can't mimic America but when you look at independent filmmaking, it didn't really begin until the 60's with people like Roger Corman and Sam Arkoff were making those little movies. From that tradition came people like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola who had the opportunities to go and make movies but to make sure they had a monster and an explosion in it and see if they come up with something. Basically, I'm surprised we don't see more of that type of filmmaking because knocking off horror movies is cheap and they have an instant audience on video, they always have.

Wistreich - The interesting thing when we talk about America succeeding in most genres is that we know mainstream cinema can cover them all but independent American cinema seems so much healthier. Films like Being John Malkovich, The Cube, Pi and a whole host of quite inventive films that, whether they'd even get made here, I'm not sure we have the writers coming up with that sort of material in the first place.

Audience - But how many bad films do they make over there that we don't hear about?

Thomas - Exactly. We trawled around the US last year and believe me, storytelling is alive and well here. There are thousands of people selling their Grannies to make 'how I went to college and broke up with my girl' movies, you know, the Brothers McMullen stuff. It's so bizarre because at the top of the tree there's a system for telling really tight and concrete stories with beginnings, middles and ends where, at the bottom, you have people spending all their money on these stories that just drift along.

Cox - About people talking in coffee shops.

Thomas - Absolutely. The learning from that is not that they do or do not make better stories but that they are at least getting out and making them.

Audience - I agree with what you are saying. Scripts in this country are far more substantial and have much more depth than they do in the States, they're scripts are just not good enough…

Castro - Good enough for who? What you are talking about is McDonalds.

Audience (same) - Should we treat the masses as dumb. Those films aren't as meaningful as they could be, why does the British public want to disconnect from great stories and why…

Castro - They want to eat McDonalds because it's easy.

Industry reactions to independent film
<<Audience comment on saturation of independent films in US & difficulties in screening an indie film>>

Thomas - I'm not saying it's harder here because most of the films getting made in the States for USD1m or less don't get shown either, they are lucky if they get a festival screening. They are all just disappearing. It's no easier to get your film screened in cinemas there than here but there are a lot more films getting made over there. I do think that there is such a constriction in the amount that gets made here that you are limiting your chances. The system is the system and you have to make money off it. I don't think anyone in this room is in this just to make art, first and foremost they are in it to make a living.

Audience - How many screens did Fever Pitch open on?

Posey - It opened on about 220 screens which is a big release but the very big American movies will open on 350 - 400 screens. 220 is a good opening though, It recouped its money and then did very well on video. They tested it and that's what gave them the conviction to put a certain amount of money behind it, but they do have to strike the right balance. They spent near on UKP1m promoting it and it cost UKP1.8m to make. You'll never recoup that theatrically but where they made that back was on video because they'd raised the profile so high theatrically. Meanwhile, they were effectively buying themselves a high profile TV broadcast, this was in the days before FilmFour channel, so it's just a business, they have to make the pieces of the puzzle fit. That was all without international sales which they did well with too.

Wistreich - Out of interest can you say how much it took after all international and ancillary sales were taken into account?

Posey - (laughs) Well FilmFour are one of the few that are any good at accounting but the problem comes with the big percentages that get taken off from commission. It has taken something like UKP3m in actual income but, once you take off the commission that FilmFour International took from selling it abroad, and the advertising and promotional budget then it comes down and it's not officially in profit. In terms of the channel they've paid almost nothing for a television broadcast in comparative terms, so for them it's very successful.

Development - Shortfalls
Wistreich - Coming back to the point about scripts and leading on to development. David, from talking to so many independent producers, do they appreciate the importance of developing scripts? Are they taking to markets scripts that are just not ready?

Castro - I think the problem is how they actually make money. You are rarely going to get money for development and it takes a long time so it's a question of, if somebody says, 'I like it, are you going to run with it?' Are you going to because the money is there or because you honestly believe the script is ready. The temptation must be to run with the money. There was a debate last year in Leeds about the problem of script development and there isn't a strong development structure in place, it is a real problem.

Fogg - Is there a definite gap in knowledge?

Castro - A lot of things have been set up by the Film Council and other people to fill the skills and training gaps.

Cox - Does anybody know who these people are? Who is actually working with filmmakers to help develop scripts and can we trust them anymore than the people that need help?

Wistreich - And obviously these peoples' jobs aren't on the line. In commercial cinema if you aren't developing good scripts then you're out but in a public body it has to be different. Jenny Borgars is the Head of Development at the Film Council, she has an annual budget of UKP5m which, if you include the first year and a half she's had about UKP7m. She's spent how much of it? A few million but she's been very cautious.

Development - Slate Funding
Posey - Can I talk about the slate funding, not to beat the Film Council's drum, but simply because I think it's a good example of what we need. We need to encourage stability within individual production companies and for individual producers to spend the time and to give the time. If need be, to bring in a story editor to help develop a script if they don't feel they can work with that writer for as much as the script needs. That's very hard to do if you haven't got an income and if you haven't enough films in the pipeline. The Film Council have come up with slate funding so that individual companies can apply across a number of films, not just for development but for a contribution to overhead. They each have to have a business plan and an idea of where they want to go with that but, whatever films come out of the Film Council, they'll have helped 15 or so companies have a firmer basis. I was talking to someone at Working Title the other day. They can afford to bring in someone on UKP300/day to do individual development on a single project, there's no way a smaller company can afford that.

Thomas -They can afford to do that today but in another five years they’ll be bust (laughter).

Wistreich - You are developing at the moment aren't you?

Thomas - Yes but not with anybody. In fact we were approached to do development with an established company. They wanted the rights from us and we refused because we were afraid that, if it fell apart we wouldn't own the script - subsequent events proved that to be the best decision. They tried to get hold of our script so that they could apply for their own slate funding. They had no intention of moving our script on and if we had signed for what would have been a paltry sum they would have held that script for three to five years. They had no intention of taking it, they just wanted what, at the time, was a hot talent on their books so they could go to the public funders. In fact the company went to the public funders event though they had not signed over the rights. They have a very good reputation and produce films quite out of the ordinary for Britain, people speak very well of them and yet at every stage we got shafted.

Your script is all that you own and it's one thing that you can get away with doing without any money Nothing else can be done without money so never, ever give it away because it will always be given to someone with more power than you. On the part about development, I agree with David. There are an awful lot of scripts hitting production that are not ready but I think that rather than increasing the amount of money for development we should be reducing it. I think they are stripping the guts out of a lot of fresh and lively ideas in pursuit of what they perceive to be a US model of formulaic scripts.

Posey - What are you examples of that?

Thomas - I admit I have a problem citing examples because, like everybody else, I don't go to British films. It's just a hunch. It's not about sitting through a movie where you feel you are being moved forward according to a plot outline, it's that there is something more in telling a story than just proceeding from the beginning to the end coherently. There's something called vitality. We are all looking for something that will make British films appeal more to our audience and which will make us all some more money and I believe it is chasing an established, transatlantic model.

We need to capture the vitality, freshness and degree of wit in the execution, much of which is not amenable to established production methods. Let it live a little, take a script that most see as not ready and let the director work on it. Our movie was written, photographed, directed and edited by the same person. It was written in four weeks and it has received praise for every element. Now that may never happen again but it showed us how we could tell the same story three times: write it, shoot it and cut it. And you make it better at each stage. Having all that experience and despite a track record, I walk into meetings with financiers and they will only read the words on the paper, if they don't like the words it goes nowhere.

Posey - It's crucial that she's a writer/director and it's wrong for people not to appreciate that. The other thing is that it might only take one week to produce a brilliant script but the point about development is recognising when a script needs more work. Then having the money to go away and put in that work.

Cox - It's the same that was mentioned about not having a definite film language and I'm not sure if we even know how to imagine film beyond what's on the page. I don't think we have something set up to enable people to instantly know what a film is going to feel like.

Castro - I spoken to development people and asked them what the last film they saw, it's usually some arty farty thing and when I'm coming to them with a commercial project. It strikes me that they don't have a broad enough knowledge of film.

Posey - When Palace were acquiring movies they'd receive scripts and we all got the chance to look at them so we'd get to see how those films turned out. Even if you had no involvement in the film, they maybe just bought and distributed them, you got the sense of how a script leads to a movie and what changes are needed. On the web now you can order any script from any film that you admire, either the shooting script or the one that was published.

Audience - But there is a problem of knowing whether the original script was trash and they did their best with it or the other way around.

Posey - You don't need to know that but you can get an idea of how a script can be turned into a really good movie, you don't need to know about all the horrible things that happened in between, you just need to find some landmark of quality.

Audience - Whose job is that?

Posey - It's everyone's job.

Thomas - It's the producer's job (laughter).

Under developed / Over developed?
Thomas - To compound my error, my suspicion is that they are coming out underwritten after development, they've been made that way. I think that there is an absence of substance, not in an arty sense but in the way that grips you in cinema.

Audience - As aspiring filmmakers should we not be trying to change the minds of the people with the money.

Posey - You can only change their minds with the work you put in front of them. You can't start telling Miramax what films they should be acquiring (laughter), you can only make the film you are proud of or take to them a film you think you can be proud of.

Thomas - It's a good point you are making regarding this panel. We can all sit here and talk about what our views are strategically and how we'd like the world to be different or we can talk about what the best thing would be to do in present circumstances.

Wistreich - Amanda, you were head of development for Little Voice and that was quite a long process. How did it change from start to finish?

Posey - It changed a lot because the original director, Sam Mendes, developed it for three years with Scala and Miramax but at the very last moment realised that he had a script that he was not happy with. He eventually pulled out, which was lucky for him, aside from the fact that he had a personal relationship with Jane Horrocks and didn't think he could bring her to screen. That's another story but it is relevant. Then Mark Herman, a writer/director, came on board and it moved very quickly because he had a completely fresh view. He turned it around and although some people didn't like the movie it did do very well here.

That was an example where you'd got to a stalemate. The producer was pulling here hair out, Sam Mendes didn't know what to do with it and everybody walked away from the table. Within two months they'd brought on someone who, having done Brassed Off, wasn't huge but, having a fresh input people, decided they could go with it. The overall process was four or five years from the play being put on in the first place.

Wistreich - How about 24-7 which was from a breakthrough writer/director?

Posey - (to Thomas) That's much more on your model…

Thomas - Yes, but I didn't like 24-7 (laughter)

Posey…in the sense that Shane came up with a script and did a certain amount of development on it but it was far less developed than anything Scala had ever done. Because he was making it for a very small amount of money, from one source, and that he had proved himself able at turning a script into something really engrossing on screen, everyone felt that he could go with it. It was on the same model in that there was a filmmaker with enough vision, talent and dynamism working with a script that had enough going for it to attract the right cast. That was very quick, probably about a year.

Audience - What's your experience of having a completed product, like so many independent filmmakers, that people want to see but that you have huge trouble selling?

Thomas - We finished the film last January and it went out on the festival circuit straight away - it premiered in Rotterdam.

Posey - Did you send it to all the festivals yourself?

Thomas - For the first four months we went everywhere, we paid and we worked it, after that it just got invited and as it got bigger we began to be paid to go with the film. My conclusion was, whatever the reasons were that it didn't sell; Scottish, video, black & white, none of those were the case. The reason it didn't sell was that they hadn't bought it before we made it. They had no investment in it and therefore they had nothing to recover.

As an example we screened at the Hamptons in the US and screening alongside it was a film by one of the most successful commercials directors in the US, guy called Bob Giraldi. His vanity project was a film called Dinner Rush and he'd put three or four million of his own money into it. Very nice piece of work, very skilful and entertaining, all shot in one restaurant that he owns, perfectly enjoyable, very competent and I think it took him 18 months to get rid of it. He'd done it with his own money and no-one needs to know because they've got all these films sitting on shelves that they've invested in and don't know what to do with.

Wistreich - Would you say then that pre-sale is the only way to go and that you wouldn't do that again except for a wad of cash?

Thomas - Six months ago I would have said that but it is so difficult to get the next one off the ground that if someone was foolish enough to give us a small amount of money then I would do it without any sales. It's fine having one unreleased movie but having two you begin to become a bit of a pariah. We've tried to pitch our next picture at some level that requires people to buy into it.

Wistreich - David, how many NPA members are successful in finding finance ahead of their shoot?

Passion for success
Castro - With shorts, I would say it really depends on how passionate they are about what they are doing. One person went to the city and, starting at the top of a building and working his way down, he knocked on every door and walked out with UKP3,500, with absolutely nothing asked for in return. It's the US model. The investor was totally taken aback by this person. He'd done all his research, he had the script there, he was passionate about it, he was the writer/director and he was going to act in the film. That kind of thing happens all the time, whether it's blagging a late camera or a hover-cam, or a pot of money, all of these things are available to be had depending on how you ask. With producing, something I've been doing for three and a half years now, there's got to be a passion. From something said earlier, we are talking about models and that bothers me a little bit because it actually has to come from you. This is just a personal thing but you have to have a love for it. You have to read something to someone and for them to go, 'Wow, that's brilliant, I love it.' It has to affect them physically instead of them seeing it purely as a commercial thing. Another thing, you walk into somebody's office with passion and it tells, you walk in trying to fake it and it smells.

You have to have a voice. When I was in Dinard recently I saw The Warrior. It's a vision from a first time filmmaker who said, 'I'm doing this.' (To Owen) To say you haven't sold your film surprises me but it's one hell of a calling card.

Posey - I'm amazed it didn't sell but the fact that everyone knows about it and about you is fine.

Thomas - Yeah, and that's why it's glorious because I can now get those meetings.

Audience - Does that passion feed you?

Thomas - No, you are broke.

Posey - It also never stops. I remember Steve Woolley having huge trouble with Crying Game. No-one wanted to finance that film and he ended up stealing cash from the Scala cinema and the connected video shop just to live day to day. There is no point where your passion is not going to be required and if it ever isn't required you should probably just walk away.

Thomas - On the subject of passion and, very specifically, getting your film made, whatever you call yourself put on your card 'producer.' From that you are potentially someone who has money. As soon as put 'writer' you are skint and you are not that interested in making it. Everyone must come to believe that they are producers and go and do what that fella that David mentioned did in the city. Never believe that because you are in a public, democratic system that it will be your turn eventually.


Part 2 next week...
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