Tall Stories, Bottom Lines

By Ben Woolford

this-filthy-earth-andrew-kotting.jpgThis Filthy Earth, dir. by Andrew Kötting, 2001

The highs and lows of making experimental features in the current climate

There is a particular kind of thrill when the lights go down in the auditorium and you are one of three or four expectant souls settling in for the duration of an obscure, esoteric film. Somehow you feel as special as you hope the film will be. You are not part of consumer culture, you are expressing a choice – artistic, political or spiritual – that may well become a cause that you can champion for the week or two of the film’s run. It may be that your recommendation will get your friends into the film, their praise will spread rapidly to a widening circle, the cinema will start to fill, the film will be held over and put onto more screens and you will be in at the start of a phenomenon – a word of mouth hit.

But the scenario is unlikely to play out in this way. Usually the film quickly disappears, leaving you with a feeling of having had privileged access to something special and wishing that at least a few more people had shared it. This experience is quite satisfactory for you (and if repeated often enough could lead to you becoming an independent filmmaker) but less so for the chain of people involved in putting the film onto that screen, some of whom have considerable personal or financial interest in attracting a large audience.

Working at the production end of the chain, I have often felt rather powerless and ill-equipped to deal with the kind of questions that surround distribution and exhibition – the part of the process for which everything else is a preparation. My experience has been to put all effort into the development and production of the film and then pass it on to professionals who know how to handle the next stage. This has tended to lead to a feeling of disappointment and anticlimax just when audiences are getting excited about your production – a feeling that I suspect directors often share.

this-filthy-earth-andrew-kotting-2.jpgThis Filthy Earth, dir. by Andrew Kötting, 2001

When we completed Andrew Kötting’s Gallivant in 1996, which had been financed by the BFI, Channel 4 and the Arts Council Lottery Fund, it did not have a U.K. distributor. It premiered at Edinburgh Film festival receiving a good audience response and a prize for the director, but no business followed. We arranged the first major London screening (for “cast”, crew and invited guests) at the Prince Charles cinema. The screening was free and the cinema was full. Luckily for us, Liz Wren from Electric Pictures was there and liked the film enough to take the plunge and distribute the film in the U.K.

Three prints of Gallivant were made and Michael Wren at Electric came up with the idea of reflecting the round-the-coast journey of the film’s protagonists by booking it into a string of cinemas at seaside towns that had been locations in the shoot. This imaginative approach, combined with good audiences at one of its London venues (the Lux in Hoxton Square) meant that the film had respectable public exposure. But it did not take off, posters did not appear in underground stations and Electric Pictures must have struggled to recoup their modest investment. I felt we could have done better.

Our next feature was Jasmin Dizdar’s Beautiful People. The international success of this film after its prize-winning premiere at Cannes in 1998 led us to expect great things of its UK launch. With a range of financiers (Ben Gibson at BFI Production had again been instrumental in getting the film made) we already had a commitment from Liz Wren, whose Electric Pictures had now been bought by Alliance, to distribute.

An autumn release on eight to ten prints was planned and we were consulted on the style of the campaign and involved in creating the poster image. A press campaign was in place and the reviews were good. Sitting in the bar of London’s Curzon Soho on the opening night, I knew the cinema had not been quite full enough. Sure enough, while some venues performed reasonably well, the film did not break through. Somehow we had missed again.

gallivant-andrew-kotting-2.jpgGallivant, dir. by Andrew Kötting, 1997

Andrew Kötting and Sean Lock ‘s script for This Filthy Earth had been commissioned by Channel Four Films in 1997, and the film was eventually taken up by Robin Gutch at the Lab division of Film Four and shot in the summer of 2000. Having Film Four involved in the production opened the door to their sales and distribution divisions.

FFD (FilmFour Distributors) decided to make a specialised package of three low budget films (including My Brother Tom and Jump Tomorrow). They were really looking to follow up their tremendous UK success with East is East and our smaller more specialist films were not really relevant to this project. I supposed that packaging the films would allow FFD to commit less in terms of overall resources (especially time but also money) yet still allow them a decent stab at brand building in the press and poster campaign. Andrew Kötting and I were fully consulted about the images to be used, the content of the web site pages and about the general creative aspects of the campaign. We felt there was a tremendous enthusiasm for the film throughout Film Four but also that it was not FF’s stock-in-trade. Andrew had, early on, expressed the view that his natural exhibition space was more like Tate Modern than a West End Cinema. Cinema distributors understand, but cannot easily respond to, this kind of thinking. Duly, cinema audiences did not show up in numbers to make the film a word of mouth hit.

From a producer’s point of view then, these are three feature productions which have failed at the British box office, while not appearing to fail creatively. In each case we have had a good distributor. It is conventional for producers (and directors) to bemoan the supposed lack of financial commitment from their distributors and I still want to see large posters for my productions, to know that they have reached their full audience. But I also know that our distributors have committed themselves beyond what can be justified on their balance sheets and the probability is that a larger spend on a bigger release would have lost them money.

More generally, some of the best British films don’t even get a proper UK release ­– like Ben Hopkins’ inspiring The Nine Lives of Thomas Katz, which was actually distributed by the writer/director himself, presumably in any spare time left when not working on his next film.

gallivant-andrew-kotting.jpgGallivant, dir. by Andrew Kötting, 1997

Distributors, producers and directors are frequently left unsatisfied by UK film releases while, in contrast, the best ‘foreign’ specialist films consistently find a place here (through distributors like Artificial Eye, Optimum, Metrodome, Metro Tartan, and Momentum). This may be because there is a clear niche (and well-established venues) for foreign art house cinema.

If you want to finance future UK production you’d better have UK distribution partners on board but the historic difficulties of selling British films in the UK market has made our distributors wary of such early commitment (this from a recent conversation with a successful British distributor: “our public wants to see American rubbish or foreign Art”). Now we are assisted in film production by Film Council funding; it has placed an emphasis on British distribution and we must respond positively to this.

We need to identify, locate and home in on like-minded distribution partners (whether individuals, companies or individuals within companies). We require feedback from distributors about what works for them so that creative film-makers can see their work in some kind of perspective and we need a network that keeps such lines of communication open. New technology is offering enhanced possibilities for specialist distribution, fresh ways to reach imaginative audiences. If we grasp these and other opportunities, we can help our independent creative film sector flourish.

New technology is offering enhanced possibilities for specialist distribution, fresh ways to reach imaginative audiences. If we grasp these and other opportunities, we can help our independent creative film sector flourish.

Ben Woolford produces films through his company Tall Stories.