Sink or Swim – The Muddy Waters of Independent Distribution

By Caroline Freeman and Kate Gerova

rain-christine-jeffs-1.jpgRain, Christine Jeffs, 2001

Putting imaginative work out in the UK is never easy but Circuit Films believe the time is right to set up their new indie outfit

With Alan Parker’s recent keynote speech (on the ‘little England’ syndrome of the British film industry) calling for tax-break schemes to fund distribution, and the emergence of a number of high profile new companies, it might seem like there has never been a better opportunity to enter the fray. That’s pretty much like saying the time is right to go swimming with sharks. Distribution is, and will remain, a highly risky business. On the other hand you can sink without trace and on the other you just might get hold of that rare film that is both a cultural and commercial success. So why do it? And why now?

For Circuit Films, it was the combination of a number of factors: our passionate personal commitment to independent film; technological developments and changes in the market. Both of us had been working to develop new writing and directing talent through short films, whether in production, marketing or distribution. Short film allowed us to take creative risks and watch distinctive new directors emerge. We then watched them move into features and find that the horrendously difficult route to financing and producing a first feature merely led to the even harder search for a distributor. This isn’t just true of small British films, but also prize-winning independent work from around the world. There are many strong and original films, that are only ever seen at festivals.

We not only believe that there are wider audiences for such films but also that there is room for growth in their numbers, particularly with the new forms of distribution and exhibition that digital technology offers. It will ultimately allow for more flexible screening spaces and programming, increasing the potential for ‘smaller’ films to be commercially viable. The Internet, viral marketing and email-lists can also be harnessed to help inform those audiences about the films, without accruing the crippling expenses of traditional marketing spend. This is a view supported by the recent Screen Digest report on the impact of digital technology within the industry, which observed that "in cyberspace, smaller independent distributors and exhibitors compete on much more equal terms with their larger cousins than ever before. Ingenuity and innovation can sometimes succeed where ‘big bucks’ alone will not" (indeed, Nick Moran and Wendy Strike recently won a BIFA award for most effective distribution after Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry was ignored by UK distributors and Moran did it himself, to generally great reviews).

rain-christine-jeffs-2.jpgRain, Christine Jeffs, 2001

Meanwhile, other changes have signalled a re-evaluation of the role of distribution and exhibition within British film. The Film Council recently announced significant new funds to support specialised approaches and appointed former Film Four Head, Pete Buckingham, to lead the new department. The new board members of the Film Council, Nigel Green and Stephen Knibbs, come with backgrounds in distribution/exhibition and will undoubtedly influence priorities within the organisation. Amongst the commercial distributors themselves, the picture is also changing. Despite the demise of Film Four (which many blamed on the neglect of their cutting edge roots), new players have entered the market with at least two production houses, Spice Factory and Winchester Films, creating distribution wings.

But what about the films themselves? You can be as climate-aware as you like, but are the movies any good? If the film in question is called Rain, then the answer is an unequivocal yes. A beautifully evocative, gorgeously sensual New Zealand rites-of-passage picture about generational relations and sexuality, it’s infused with shimmering textures, wonderful music and striking performances. It’s adapted (from a novel by Kirsty Gunn) and directed by Christine Jeffs, who is currently shooting a biographical drama about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (starring Gwyneth Paltrow) and is on Variety’s list of ten directors to watch. We first saw Rain at the Edinburgh Film Festival and fell in love with it. Instead of fighting to pick up the film however, distributors appeared to shy away from its ‘darker’ undertones, at which point Circuit stepped in and signed the deal for UK rights.

What we saw was a film that would appeal to an informed, specialist audience we recognised existed. For the first time in a while the UK sector seems to be acknowledging that this audience needs nurturing and, if the money is yet to come, at least the public discussions are beginning, and the problems highlighted. Swimming with sharks it may be, but, for the time being, pass us the diving suits…

Caroline Freeman and Kate Gerova run Circuit Films.

Rain will be released in 2003.