Diary of Distribution

By Kitty Fitzgerald

One thing that we had confirmed through the process of distributing Dream On is that in order to make money on a film, you have to have a lot to start with. So what’s new?

The distribution market in the UK is controlled by a relatively small number of organisations. Some of these are also production companies in their own right and – surprise, surprise – are interested primarily in promoting their own products. Deals are struck so that if one of the cinema chains wants a blockbuster, it also has to take less popular features, and so its screens get filled up, even if the cinemas remain half empty. A small fortune is spent on publicity – certainly enough to allow a company like us to make films for years to come. Making and distributing Dream On cost £400,000; publicising a blockbuster can take anything up to £1m.

In the first place, we tried to interest distributors in the film, knowing only too well the importance of a London release to a film’s future prospects. But once again we discovered that work rooted in the regions of other countries is fine, whereas anything coming from a British region is looked at askance. You can see it in distributors’ eyes when they’re talking to you. You get a momentary flicker as it they suddenly acknowledge that, yes, there’s an intelligent life form here, but then it passes. We’ve actually been told by distributors that if our films were French, they’d have no trouble with them at all!

Dream On was launched at the 1991 Edinburgh Film Festival. Our first mistake was to send two women past their mid-40s onto the Festival circuit, especially as they had dyed hair, wore bright lipstick and laughed rather loudly. Terribly un-chic, clearly. In Edinburgh we seemed to spend most of our time in exposed phone boxes with piles of coins trying to get someone, somewhere in the media, interested in the film. ‘Who’s in it?’ was usually the first response. No stars, no interest. Forget the fact that the performances in Dream On have been praised as second to none. And OK, she was overworked and probably didn’t like the film, but was there any need for the Festival press officer to treat us like something the cat dragged in? Our first practical discovery was that having large (quad) posters gate films a profile. We didn’t have one (money again) so we spent half the day in the colour copy centre making one. Unfortunately, A3 was their largest size and, when we eventually managed to get it on to a notice board at a Film House, it was immediately buried.

August. Montreal Film Festival. This was extremely well organised around a very plush hotel – if only we could have worked out how the lift system worked! The siting of the press room in the hotel, with free coffee and booze available, helped us to make media contacts – as long as you caught them between the end of the hangover and the start of the next day’s drinking. There was daily TV coverage of the festival, and we got a TV interview as well as several interviews with newspapers and magazines. The screenings of our film were very well attended and audience reaction very favourable. D.J. Turner of the National Film Archives of Canada said: ‘Of the 50 or so films I saw it is the one which most impressed me.’ Unlike Edinburgh, Montreal treated ‘home-produced’ material with great enthusiasm. Alas, however, the casting couch syndrome is still alive and well there...

September. San Sebastian Film Festival. Very friendly and helpful, though lacking in organisation. Mega-movies and stars received most hype and attention.

October. Le Baule. Press conferences for all the films immediately after screenings. Great response from audiences, including a large party of young people who wished that the French cinema dared to be as honest and open about human relationships and issues. Awarded Most Original Screenplay prize. Cork. At the Opera House, one of our best-ever screenings. The audience picked up every single nuance in the film. The only problem was that it should have been put in a later evening slot, not at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The organiser apologised afterwards – he said he’d no idea it would be so popular.

November. London Film Festival. Again, very well received. We could have done with an extra screening as the second one was sold out.

December. Merseyside. Tour of various community and writers’ groups, showing extracts from the film and talking about its making. Typical audience reaction, here as elsewhere, is: ‘Why aren’t more films like this made?’ A return tour, with the full film, is arranged for April.

Dream On wins the Northern Electric Arts Award for Authorship.

During the year we had realised that we were not going to be able to interest distributors in taking our film, and had begun to investigate ways of distributing it ourselves. We had also discussed the whole problem of distributing independent films with British Screen and others. We wondered if offering a guarantee against loss to large theatrical outlets might encourage them to show British films, our own included, and on this basis we approached the Cannon and Odeon chains. In the event, both agreed to look at an early edited version of Dream On, but both also stated that if they took it, it would be on their usual terms for a limited release. The less said about the Cannon experience the better. At our meeting there were three men women and one man from Amber, and one man from Cannon, who’d better remain nameless. Not only did he not address the women, he expressed sentiments about all sorts of issues which all four of us found deeply offensive. By the end of the meeting we’d decided that we didn’t want him anywhere near our film, and that evening we decided that if the Odeon representative turned out to be of the same ilk we would part company with him very quickly indeed. However, Stan Fishman couldn’t have been more different, and we breathed a collective sigh of relieve at meeting a human being. After viewing Dream On, Stan got up very quickly saying that he was late for a meeting; our spirits sank, until he added ‘but we’ll run with that’. This was a breakthrough but it was only the start of a path along which money, privilege, prejudice and cliquery were to hinder our progress.

January. Lots of local media publicity leading up to our February premiere at the Newcastle Odeon, where it broke box-office records in its first week and ran for five weeks in all.

February. The opening of the film at the Odeon Mezzanine, Leicester Square, is met with a deafening silence from the film critics in the national dailies and Sundays. The ‘lucky dip’ of excuses given for not turning up the press show included computer failure, invitations lost or not received and ‘but it clashed with Barton Fink! And, thanks to either human or computer error, we discovered that we weren’t on the preview list that is circulated to critics. The lesson seems to be that if you don’t fit into the system or don’t coincide with particular critics’ personal hobby horses, you’ll simply be ignored and left to find out your mistakes the hard way. We are particularly disappointed with the shabby treatment that we received from the Guardian and Independent. Given their influential film coverage, we believe that they silence did our distribution experiment immeasurable harm.

March. Screenings all over the place, but we’re still reeling after being virtually ignored by the nationals. Many cinema managers tell us that they just don’t book films until they’ve read the Guardian, Independent and The Times reviews. Say no more...

April. International Festival of Women’s Films, Creteil. Dream On opens the festival and goes on to win the Prix du Publique. Hooray! We are subsequently offered a distribution deal by a French company, which will see the film opening at four cinemas in Paris, then nationally and also in Belgium.

August. TV debut on Channel 4. Dream On is seen by an audience of 2.1m.

September. Dream On wins the Royal Television Society (North East) prize for Best Network Programme of 1992.

November. Dream On achieves Special Commendation for the Prix Européen, Berlin.

December. A Swedish distribution deal has been agreed, which will come into force after a retrospective of Amber’s work at the 1993 Gothenburg Film Festival. Dream On has also been sold to Finnish TV and deals are imminent with Spain and the Netherlands.

‘Fan’ letters

Dear Everyone Involved,

It is now 2.15-ish in the morning and I’ve just finished watching Dream On.

You probably had much higher motives for making this film than appealing to the likes of me, but I’ll tell you anyway, it’s possibly the best film I’ve seen, and if not the best then the one I can most identify with. It was excellent.

As well as enjoying the comedy, sadness and escapism of the film (great performances and writing too) I also recognised all the characters in people from my life – my mother, me, neighbours, various aunties, Nans, fathers and stepfathers.

I suffer from depression and do not leave my house, but I’m slowly working through all the things that have bothered me and your film helped me tonight and maybe, I hope, for my future. Anyway, thanks, and good luck in your future ventures.

I watched your program intently this evening called Dream On which was of great help to me. I myself have been through that, so I was mentaley very much aware what was going on. I have never spoke to any one how I realy felt inside all these years. I was 7 yrs when I started been unhappy. I am now 52 yrs and have still got that pain noring at me every now and then.

Please can you help me. I am a very un happy person still inside. Been devorced, can’t hold down any relationships. Got one daughter, now she has left and does not want to know. At this moment, am coming to the end of my tedor, but have carried on all these years, very bitter inside because of what my father done to my mother, brother and my self. Would be great full of some sort of help, I so much want to be happy. I am on the outside, I always put a front on, but inside feel dead. I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you for putting an address at the end for someone like me to write to. I thank God that I watched it.

A Great Escape
Sometimes we need to dream,
To escape from reality it would seem,
To run away, to hide, to pretend
We don’t intend
To lock the door,
To lose the key
That opens up our memory.
To forget, to erase
Memories of those painful days
Of violence,
It feels like being in prison,
Then someone comes and unlocks the door.
Release at last, some more
Anger. Then realisation
Life holds more than pain,
It is for living once again.

‘And as for the so-called public, what range of choice do they have in, say, Barnsley with two cinemas? They get what they are given and what the exhibitor decides to give them. And by what criterion does he judge, this exhibitor? By the same uneasy criterion as the distributor. Is it profitable? Will it bring in the money? Sometimes they do, and we are not involved here in value judgements about the respective worth of individual pictures, both Carry Ons and Jean-Luc Godard should be available – but this is impossible when the overriding consideration must be “will it pay”. According to the financiers, that’s why films are made. That is their sole criterion. That’s why they are in business. And also, why they are in crisis. What we do believe most passionately is that the cultural life of a society is too important an issue, too primary a concern, to be left to the whims of bankers who are engaged in a desperate kind of gamble. Have you ever met a banker who’d made a film? Why then do they decide what is made? Why then do they control it all?

‘What is more, they aren’t even any good at it. Left to them the film industry can die, technicians can find other jobs, people can be starved of their cultural rights. They are not film makers. They are undertakers. They stand already condemned.’ – ACTT, Report On Nationalisation

‘With the exception of two London cinemas there is not in England, as far as we know, a single cinema which has a record for showing consistently the films which are not primarily made with an eye on the box-office. If, by chance, a cinema happens to show Kameradschaft or Mädchen In Inform one week, it shows Blonde Venus or Rockabye the next. The film public is treated as one, as if two book lovers who read Ethel M. Dell and James Joyce, respectively, were of the same mental capacity. To attempt to force intelligent films on a sensation seeking public would be ridiculous. There will always be a public for crime novels; similarly there will be one for Glamorous All-Star movies.

‘Rather than attempt to destroy a sensation seeking public, we wish to create a new one. This second public has, in the past, remained silent; now it is hoped it will speak.

‘Only now the narrow commercialised minds of the big entrepreneurs of cinema entertainment, confine good cinema going to such organisations as film societies.

‘The commercialisation of any art is its downfall, for commercialism disregards any aesthetic significance, and judges a product by its popularity in the field it caters for. The present day universally shown film is a totally unimaginative performance. A film is not to be despised because it makes money. The film to despise (and it forms the bulk of present day cinema) is that in which characters and incidents are given a vulgar glamour which is unlike life, and which is an insult to any standard of intelligence.

‘The public is potentially interested in good films and which, furthermore, does not want to see inferior films at all, requires a certain amount of organisation and a guide. This we feel, is part of our job. Film is not going to devote a certain amount of incidental space to good cinema, but is going to be entirely devoted to the film as an art. We shall seek a film-form, and attempt to solve problems which prevent a realisation of that film-form.’ – B. Braun, ‘Scrutiny’, Film, No 1 (Spring 1933)