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netribution > features > interview with nic wistreich > page two
 

Summer 2000

Mr X, Mr Y and Mr Z have all gone quiet. Tom and I take work writing a business report to keep some money coming in. The end of Netribution looks imminent.

Then, bizarrely, I get a phone call from a man claiming to be my third cousin and speaking with a French accent. Georges Feniger, in Paris, is one of the directors of a French website that had just raised over $1m to do a pretty simple task - give information on film festivals. FilmFestivals.com want to open a UK office - and we seem to be the people to do it. A flurry of meetings, and finally it looks like we might be able to get an office, running costs and, hey, maybe even a salary. It's a big shift - and a logical one - instead of trying to raise money so we can earn revenues as a company, why not just try and earn revenues instead?

Tom breaks his ankle and is bed-bound, I get an expenses-paid trip to the Edinburgh Film Festival, courtesy of filmfestivals.com, and make the best effort possible to pass myself off as a journalist. It almost works - Stephen Daldry steals my cigarette lighter, I share a joint with Rachel Weisz, I manage to persuade a drunk (female) Glaswegian to chat up Stephen Gately, I talk about DV cams with Mike Figgis, I argue with Mark Kermode about the Ring Trilogy. And back then, all that sort of thing seemed really exciting.

Page hits for August - 44,144

Autumn 2000

The deal is signed with FilmFestivals.com in The Savoy. Our running costs are covered, and we get 1000 per month as a fee to share between ourselves. It sure ain't five million, but it’s a step forward. We move into a grey 'unit' in Sho-Ho - the beating heart of London's dotcomania. Press releases sent out all round - then a gruelling schedule - BBC Short Film Fest, Raindance, Cork, Sheffield, Belfast, London, London Screenings, Bristol and Manchester. It seems pretty pathetic to moan about having to travel the country watching films. But when you're living of 500 per month, working 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, it stops being so fun. Sophie Mount - an angel who was the first person I met in Edinburgh - starts a weekly visitation of our offices, helping with everything from transcribing to reviewing and rubber band ball building.

We begin - to a resounding failure that clearly shows Tom and me are not salesmen - to try and raise advertising for the site. Already the ad market has begun to contract, and the dotcom world is seen as a confusing, unpredictable place to advertise. Banner ads have fallen from 35 per thousand page impressions to less than a dollar.

One apparent success though - we begin chatting to Mr C from Stella's PR firm - Shine Communications - who run all the big promotional events like the Stella Screen tour. Shine they seem very impressed by our operation and we begin to discus ways of helping Stella 'establish key eyeballs at grass roots level'. Over the next six months we pitch and propose a variety of film training and networking events - all the way up to a full blown TV series.

Christmas comes and we discover the joys and dangers of the party season. Tom and I only just escape alive. Leslie Lowe's son - director/writer Andy Lowes (aka Dr Andrew Cousins) - who had written a How To Screenwrite series, writes a fictional biography for James MacGregor, resulting in a request for him to be given a weekly column. Carnal Cinema - which was always supposed to be called Cardinal Cinema - starts up to great success, and remains one of the most popular parts of the site. Michael Whiner is enticed to follow with a faux restaurant review column. Andy writes as Sir Michael, Tom uses his indefatigable restaurant knowledge to write the review. Meanwhile Stephen Salter - a volunteer who replied to one of our calls for help - starts work on the UK film funding guide - writing some 100+ pages of info about the UK funding system.

Page hits for December 2000 - 53,776

Winter 2001

A friend of a friend introduces us to Ms B - a PR woman who wants to expand her portfolio into web and film - and sees us as the best hope of achieving this. We meet over a number of lunches and are told that what she really needs to mount a free campaign for us is lost of photos. We encourage celebrity snapper Jamie Fry to shoot us - nude - on the top of our eight-story office block. Weeks of illness followed, not to mention depression, regret, and humiliation. Ms B took one look at the photos and never returned our calls - although 12 months later we found her advertising us as her clients on her website.

Anyway, in a bid to finally bring in a reasonable income I get work writing a report into the hot topic of Digital Asset Management. Tom is left to update both Netribution and the FilmFestivals.com UK website.

We meet Sandy Mandelberger who runs International Media Resources. As well as organising part of the London Screenings, he also runs FilmFestivals.com New York office, so we have something in common. A rare gentleman of the film business, Sandy suggests we look at ways our two organisations can work together.

We have our first meeting with the Film Council, and pitch the UK Film Funding Guide. Since the BFI stopped publishing the Lowdown, we think there's a big need for some other source of funding info. We want the FC - with their wadges of cash - to pay us to produce a funding guide to replace the Lowdown. We put together a detailed proposal, and get an enthusiastic - 'this is great. We must do this' response only to be followed by a tomb of silence. We've never got a formal refusal - people in this industry don't like to say 'no' - and in September 2001 decided to put the whole thing online for free, because there was no point it just going out of date on my hard disc. When the FC saw the guide online they simply emailed asking us to add info about their training funds.

Page hits for March 2001 - 108,451

Spring 2001

Life and work is hard. I've been channelling my income from the book writing into the company, so that coupled with the filmfestivals.com work, we have a liveable salary of a grand a month. It feels like we're both doing the work of fifteen. At times it's worth it - people email expressing thanks, or wonderment on discovery of us. At other times it sucks. People moaning, not returning our calls, emails from (so many) people asking us to fund their film. Taking a great deal of time to reply to someone's inane question (how do I become a director?) only never to receive a thank you. We must have had over 1,000 questions emailed us - some 70% of which I think we've tried to answer. And of those, probably only 4% or 5% ever said thanks (which is why by the end of 2001, we stopped).

We continue to talk to the Film Council - this time about a joint bid for cash with Shooting People - a sort of 'fund two worthy organisations for the price of one' pitch. No reply.

Aware that we just aren't cut out to be ad salesmen, Tom and I appoint two fellas in our office building to be our sales reps. This means a fair amount of mutual education - Don and Leo need to learn from us about film and the Internet (they specialise in sports sponsorship - but hey they're good people). We need to learn the fine art of bullshit. Nine months later, and still no sales, though I hear that Kodak are still 'very very interested'.

Sandy Mandelberger and us agree to work together on the forthcoming London Screenings. The money won't be great, but it'll be a good chance to learn a bit more about the serious side of the film industry - sales, and get our fingers dirty in events. I start by hunting down cinemas in London that haven't been booked up yet.

We book a villa for a week at Cannes and plan to do the festival for the first time in true Hunter S Thompson style.

Warner Bros begins its now famous marketing campaign for AI, and we get in on the story early. I ring Amy Vickers - New Media Editor of the Guardian - send her the info and she writes a piece congratulating us for being first in the UK to break the story. The article (Kubrick lays Golden Easter Egg from Grave) remains the single most popular page on Netribution and sees our traffic rise by over 500% in a matter of days (and fall again). The key to this success was that the 'AI game' is started by people searching for the name 'Jeanine Salla' in Google - which brings up dozens of bogus websites - as well as our news story.

Then one day in early June I arrive at work to see Tom down-faced. The night before the call we had been dreading had come through. One of the FilmFestivals.com heads had rang at 10pm to say they were closing their Italian and UK offices immediately. No term of notice, no settlement plan. Cannes was quickly cancelled. I spent the next three months getting from them the full monies owed - but in the short term Tom and I sat down for coffee realising we had about four weeks before we ran out of money totally. The question was - at which point do we just give up and go get work? And at which point might The Film Council, or Stella, or anyone else, give us some cash? After many furrowed brow chats we agree to make a loose deadline of the start of July for getting work if there are no signs of money, and a hard deadline of the start of August. If there is no cash in August, it's over.

Page hits for June 2001 - 271,863

Summer 2001

Mr C at Stella becomes quiet. I sit beside Jonathan Rawlinson from First Film on a panel for media graduates at the British Museum. We all take it in turns to talk about what our organisations are working on. Jonathan talks about a series of filmmaking events funded by Stella - he basically describes a project that I'd pitched to them 6 months earlier. I'd even written a proposal around the idea that we should collaborate with First Film on it - and told an ignorant Mr C who they were. I drastically try to keep a smile pinned on my face as I absorb the news - Stella took our idea to another organisation and ran with it. I chat to Jonathan afterwards and realise he knew nothing of this - he contacted Mr C on the off-chance and they ended up working together on a rehash of my proposal. It's not that First Film made the deal in the end that grinds - after all they're far more experienced than us at running events. It's that Mr C - who Tom and I had shared a number of drunken times with - had unashamedly shafted us, and not even have the decency to let us know. As I got the bus back to the office I was fuming. Getting of it, Fate takes an inexplicable turn and lands me right in front of Mr C himself. I briefly thank fate. 'Hi', I say, 'I've just been chatting to Jonathan Rawlinson'. 'Who's that?' says Mr C. (this is priceless, Rawlinson has been dealing with Mr C for months). 'You know,' I say. 'Oh, First, er First Film Foundation, is it?' 'Yes', I say. 'I don't know him', Mr C blurts out straight. His face is reddening - he's stuttering, eyes wondering all directions of the Clerkenwell Road, looking for the giant hole to swallow him up. 'Really?' I reply, 'I hear you're working together.' 'Er, well, I don't know, I didn't think that, really, is that definitely happening? Well, good God, I'm very angry about that, I'm really very angry about that, head office must have OK'd it.'

Suddenly I've lost my desire for vengeance - for Mr C has made such a wonderfully pathetic display of himself. Sucking the marrow from every moment, I rest a hand on his shoulder and say, just a little too slowly, 'don't worry about it. And take care of yourself'.

Life takes funny turns. Mid July and things don't look great. I make a call to a company who sent in an ad saying they were looking for documentary directors. I think the ad might make a good news story and so want further information. Midway through getting more info from Graham Herkes at DKTV I say - 'well we could do that'. 'Come in and have a chat', he says, and we do. Tom's on holiday, so I go with Jane McGee one of the better graduates from our year at Westminster (she the Uni's first and only 35mm short director) and chat to the channel - a small start-up community/public service interactive TV project. Within two weeks we have a TV commission to make three films - one about queues outside clubs (no, really), one about men who are paid to kill pigeons with birds of prey, and one about the fishing industry - from sea to restaurant plate. Suddenly everything looks up. Netribution.co.uk can remain because we'll fund it by making documentaries. Which is obviously far more fun than being stuck in an office updating web pages. Suddenly everything's back on track, and I throw myself into production as well as starting an endless round of phonecalls and emails over the London Screenings.

Tom takes his turn in Edinburgh, I fall further and further into love with my girlfriend, the sun shines and life tastes good.

Autumn 2001

September is one long hard drive. We're running a panel at the Leeds Film Festival - and have long been toiling to build a great line-up of speakers under the rather neat title 'Who shot British Film?'. The Film Council ums and ahs then refuses to give us a fund head, Pawel Pawlikowski ums and ahs, then says he'll be in Warsaw, Ben Hopkins is busy, Jane Balfour, Robin Gutch, Sarah Radcliffe also says no, May Miles Thomas eventually replaces herself with husband Owen. Nick Jones agrees but pulls out at the last minute - but the man is wonderfully decent about it, and gives us David Cox instead. Cox sits alongside David Castro (NPA) Amanda Posey (Wildgaze films) and Owen Thomas. Despite lots of plugging in the press, an utterly disheartening number of 18 people turn up, and it looks like it will be a disaster. But in the end some fantastic things came out - much of which I've had to promise not to pass on.

Documentaries for DKTV continue (UK Hip Hop, an update on Grierson's Housing Problems, a profile of the film Injustice, the life and times of activist Stanley Forman, Road Rage, Antipodeans in London). Shooting takes a break for London Screenings - work on which has hit melting point. The quantity of paperwork and admin is flabbergasting.

Then came the week in which I would say Netribution was both made and broken. In a three day period we had both our highest and lowest moment. The week of London Screenings. A lot of nerves in advance (over 30 film prints to be shipped to west end cinemas for over 60 screenings) - a lot of important people who we could upset - not least Peter Aalbaek Jenson, one half of Lars Von Trier's Zentropa, who was one of our clients. On the Tuesday night we'd long had planned a big party with the NPA and Bafta. Bafta regularly hosts networking nights - and all their film nights are co-hosted with the NPA. As this was London Screenings week we were the third co-hosts, and got to manage the guest list. The party was a storming success with - we guess - around 500 people passing through the doors on the night. Bafta called it their best ever. What was great was how the room was still full at 9.30 (it started 6.30), and there was a good 100 people left at 11pm. What's more, it lacked the pretentious crap surfeit at most of these sort of things. Just a very broad mix of people engaged with each other. Big finance suits mixing with crusty first-timers. An executive director of Variety arm-wrestling anyone who would take him with a full page of free advertising as the wager.

Two days later, though, and the Screenings - and its accompanied drink bingeing - is taking its toll. Thursday afternoon, two hours from the end of the event, the unthinkable happens and our laptop is stolen. I say ours - it was bought on my credit card - neither myself nor Netribution have got round to paying for it yet. We've long lamented the loss of it, and were largely saved by the kind donation a PC laptop by Simon Clifton. Still we lost a lot of data, not to mention morale from the affair.

November continues - back to work on documentaries. We get a bit of money for London Screenings but hardly enough to see us through the months ahead. It's clear that things aren't right. We're spending half our time running a website that doesn't make a penny - and the other half-making films so we can keep that website going. It was always supposed to be the other way around.

Page hits October 2001 - 250,854

January 2002

Debts catch up on themselves after a while. Putting together the accounts for 2001 I see that we paid ourselves 6,500 each for the year. At the end of last year we soon realised that the site would have to start taking more of a back seat so we could focus on raising money by making films. Then as DKTV stopped paying their invoices we realised that that wasn't even an option. Now we're just looking for jobs.

We fought on with this website without money for two reasons - we thought that one day it would pay for itself, and we believe this is information people should have access to. The first belief has proven itself wrong, but of the second - it's indisputable. I maintain that good, reliable and impartial information about the UK film industry is an essential public service. The 35,000 a year it would take to fund Netribution is regularly spent on schemes and initiatives that rarely reach more than a small handful of people.

Clearly Netribution has failed as a business. Granted it never had start-up funds, or a solid business model, or founders who had the faintest bit of experience in the Internet, film industry or running small businesses. But 24,000 people each month visit the site, and somehow, that's success enough for me.

Do I feel bitter? Nah - Britfilm is over-brimming with 'almosts' and 'also-rans', with gross inequalities and injustices. One of the best things about the past two years is having a chance to stand on the parapet and get a full smell of this industry from the rank to the sublime. It's been the roller-coaster ride of a heroin addict, driven with the mad fury of a ship captain who knows his vessel won't weather the storm. Yet to tread this crazed path in the company of Tom - one of the few great people I know - well it's all been quite marvellous, really.

 
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