Think, Shoot, Distribute

By Peter Fraser

Think, Shoot, Distribute (TSD) is into its fourth year at the London Film Festival, aspiring to offer training to the brightest and the best of new filmmaking talent. Tuition comes from seasoned industry professionals at the 'top of their game' in the words of Alan Harris, film producer and MD of Atlantic Film Group – the production company behind the week-long workshop. It’s clearly important to Alan that TSD features first-rate speakers to give the filmmakers taking part 'real world insight that is not sugar-coated.' He proudly notes that to represent low-budget filmmaking they have Caroline Cooper-Charles, Head of Creative Development at Warp X, who is currently leading the fray with a brief precisely to revitalise low-budget filmmaking through a UKFC funded slate of films.

Of course this is pertinent to the 12 filmmakers taking part in the workshop, who will all, if they're lucky, begin their feature film careers with low-budget films. Speaking to the filmmakers it's clear that they come from an eclectic range of professional backgrounds, and whilst the majority are male, it should be noted that the male to female ratio seems more favourable than is generally the case in this industry. Among them is Garry Moore from the North East, who has a track record in issues-based short films for organisations such as Barnardos, as well as his own self-funded shorts. As with the others, his route is partly due to his own disposition, but also partly pragmatic: "there is money in the North East for community-based projects". Nonetheless, given his record it's unsurprising that Garry is developing features in the vein of gritty dramas like London to Brighton.

Then there's Abner Pastoll, from South Africa, whose parents owned a cinema and who actually released a feature in 2004 named Shooting Shona (tagline: 'Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a Mystery'): 'an intimate thriller about the disappearance of Shona's flatmate and her subsequent struggle to find her...' Shot in and around Belsize Park, North London, it’s been released on DVD in the US. Jane Marlow, one of the more established in the bunch, has been a TV writer for several years on fare such as Hollyoaks, and is now weary of writing to order and looking to realize her own voice in short films and features. As with many of the others, she cites the concrete information on financing, legalities and recoupment as particularly eye opening given that this differs from her TV experience.

Finally Louis Neethling runs Mutt and Jeff Pictures, which specializes in 'high-quality Deaf and mainstream drama', and is deaf himself, while Tamsin Lyons is already very familiar with the industry and currently producing a slate of feature films. While for Tamsin the workshop will give her the impetus to go back and re-examine each project on her slate of films, for Louis the business training and networking has been a particular highlight. Inevitably the question arises as to how a deaf director can make it in a medium that is, after all, sound as well as vision. Louis nods indulgently and acknowledges through his signer, provided by the workshop, that of course 'it’s more difficult for a deaf person but I have so many stories, and I direct with trusted support from the Sound Department.'

One might say that it in the current climate it's just difficult for first-time feature filmmakers, full stop. With private film financiers apparently increasingly conservative and public funding inevitably squeezed, who will take a risk on a new filmmaker particularly if they have an unorthodox or iconoclastic vision? Think, Shoot, Distribute is clearly intended to address this issue by focusing on how to negotiate the leap from short films or TV, to feature films, through first of all providing a bracing gust of chilly realism amply provided, among other things, by the first speaker of the Thursday session: Paul Welsh, formerly of Scottish Screen and now Executive Producer at Digicult. Paul reels through some of the filmmakers he has worked with at Scottish Screen who have managed, more or less, to make the transition from shorts to features. Among them Joern Utkilen who has taken 9 years to move from an acclaimed short at the Edinburgh Film Festival to the Cinema Extreme funded 50-60 K short film Little Red Hoodie.

Of course, to an extent, all this must depend upon individuals, as someone from the audience points out, as well as upon how good their projects are. Or indeed, how market-friendly. Welsh admits that filmmakers with a very idiosyncratic styles may take longer to progress simply because 'a consensus' needs to build around their talent. An example of a quicker turnaround would be Nick Whitfield, who has made his first feature Skeletons (2009) from his short film of the same name for 10 times the amount (£500 and £500 K respectively)… within only three years. Unsurprisingly this is the shortest timeframe mentioned. The speedy transition is explained through the potential of his short film to be turned into a feature as well as the good relationships built with commissioners.

In general the short films mentioned vary from budgets of £0-60K while the publicized budgets of the first feature films themselves vary from £25K – £2 million. The latter range in the still remarkable cases of Lynne Ramsey's Ratcatcher (1999), and more recently Duane Hopkins and his film Better Things (2008), both of which Welsh views as exceptions that merely prove the rule. Nonetheless through an entrepreneurial attitude that recalls Scorsese's oft-quoted remark that 'talent is so far from being enough', first-timers such as Paul Andrew Williams, Chris Waitt, and most recently Peter Stricklind have managed to get their films made. Although in Strickland’s case that was reportedly through spending £25,000 of inheritance money on production and working eight months to fund post-production on Katalin Varga (2009). Let it be noted that no one on TSD mentioned wealthy grandparents close to death’s door.

While it is attracting positive notices now, Katalin Varga is surely a film that would otherwise never have been made. It's fair to say that the filmmakers attending TSD are generally more interested in more mainstream dramas such as London to Brighton (2006), privately financed, or genre films with artistic credibility of the kind in which Warp X specializes. Chris Waitt's A Complete History of My Sexual Failures is among the completed slate of films at Warp X is and both Paul Welsh and Caroline Cooper-Charles later in the day remark upon the film as an example of a director who will go so far as explicitly using his own, self-lacerating experiences in order to find the material for a first film. Sexual Failures sits beside All Tomorrow's Parties by Jonathan Caouette, Bunny and the Bull, Hush, Donkey Punch, and the most art house: She, A Chinese.

All of those films have been made as part of Warp X’s production deal with the UKFC, Film Four, Screen Yorkshire and EM Media. As part of the deal, Optimum Releasing provides UK distribution for the films. All, apart from Guo Xiaolu's She, A Chinese (a semi-autobiographical account of a Chinese girl who moves to London and encounters a series of men), are genre films with a twist. Guo Xiaolu, the director according to Caroline of their most art house project, has a strong background in other media including novels and the visual arts. Is genre therefore the way forward for first-time filmmakers? For Warp X it seems to be so because as Caroline tells the audience at TSD, Warp X tracks short films from filmmakers who can approach genre material with an auteur sensibility. She cites Dead Man's Shoes by Shane Meadows as the paradigmatic example and in response to a provocative question from the floor drily notes that 'having strong distinctive voices and reaching audiences are not mutually exclusive.'

Through demystifying the process, providing eclectic perspectives from those in the know – celebrated production designer Andrew McAlpine and Line Producer Dean O’ Toole are other speakers on the day – and facilitating connections, TSD is clearly providing valuable support to budding feature filmmakers. Ultimately however one comes away with the overwhelming feeling that the 'overnight success' remains a myth, only more so perhaps for extremely occasional exceptions, and that these filmmakers as with others will have to find their own way. Indeed to look at the case studies mentioned one is struck most forcibly by the lack of any standard path to a first feature film as filmmakers of all stripes struggle to get by fair means or foul through guile, chutzpah, a little luck, no doubt a lot of work and, to return to Scorsese – hopefully a little talent too.

Think, Shoot, Distribute is held in association with Skillset and Film London.

Peter Fraser is MD of in Sight Education.