Country Focus: UK
UK - Market situation (October 2002)
by Annika Pham
16/10/2002 - The market status quo
Just five ago, London was a buzzing hub for deal-makers of high-profile commercial films and smaller art-house specialists, and well able to rival Los Angeles as a vital centre for the international sales of independent films. But with the turmoil in the world economy following 11/9, the collapse of the German Neuer Markt and uncertainties over pay-TV in Europe, the UK sales force – just like independent sales companies the world over - has lost a good deal of its self-confidence.
2002 was particularly tough on the health and morale of the whole British film industry with the closure of Film Four, Granada Films and Signpost Films. Cineuropa looks at the UK sales scene, and how numerous companies have had to adapt to a constantly changing marketplace for independent filmmaking.
Remember just five years ago when London was a booming centre for independent filmmakers from both sides of the Atlantic? A place where you could knock on any number of sales company doors and get your project off the ground. Regardless of the budget. You could choose between the “big boys” like PolyGram, Capitol Film, MGM’s specialist arm United Artists, Icon Entertainment International, Intermedia
who also offered studio-level products, but also places like Film Four, The Sales Company and a dozen other entities selling more modest quality art-house films. Trainspotting, Secrets & Lies, The Full Monty and Mr Bean were seducing critics and audiences the world over, and reinforcing the perception of the UK as a dynamic creative centre where relatively cheap films could also become highly lucrative cross-over titles, right up there with commercial bigger-budgeted films.
New London players entered the international financing and sales arena: Jeremy Thomas’ Hanway Films; Renaissance Films, co-chaired by producer Stephen Evans and ex-journalist Angus Finney, with Bill Stephens as head of sales; and Alibi Films launched by former Handmade Films duo, Gareth Jones and Hilary Davis. Foreign companies like Spanish producer Andres Vicente Gomez’s Lola Films and French giant, Pathé, also set up London-based sales outfits to sell their English-language projects.
Just a couple of years later, in 1999-2000, the euphoria associated with the German Neuer Market equity craze, the production boom in the UK that took off on the back of tax breaks and Lottery cash, but also the international success of titles like Lock Stock And Two Barrels, Shakespeare In Love, Notting Hill, Billy Elliot and Chicken Run were still giving sales agents a false sense of security despite the reality of a fast-approaching economic downturn.
Back to reality
A cooling-down period rapidly ensued and many UK sales and producers had to accept that ‘the easy ride’ was over. Since then, key independent companies have disappeared from the marketplace (J&M, Alibi, United Artists, Lola Films UK) while others have moved to Hollywood (Intermedia). The launch of Signpost Films in 2001 was a courageous attempt by Stewart Till to defy the harsh reality of the marketplace, but his dream was to be short-lived and his company closed last month.
Today, UK sales agents are waiting for better times. They are being more cautious and they all evaluate the risk element most carefully, even financially healthy companies like Pathe International. “Pathe has never been big on taking huge risks,” says the company’s head of sales Alison Thompson. “What we do is that we’re taking our time, always trying to have a mix of films, combining high-calibre titles such as Jane Campion’s In The Cup – currently in post-production - with risk-taking on new filmmakers”.
Sales companies are now catering to today’s buyers after the market decided to focus on two distinct types of products. On the one hand they are looking for easily marketable films with specific genres or star directors. Two films, for example, that got an excellent reception at the last edition of MIFEd were Pathe’s animated feature, The Magic Roundabout, and Capitol Films’ The Company, by established US director, Robert Altman. On the other, international distributors want smaller, quality films that have had a seal of approval either from a festival or from critics such as Portman’s Bloody Sunday or The Work’s Bend It Like Beckham.
According to Renaissance Films’ Angus Finney, “the market has changed and films within the $10-12m (Euros 10-12 million) bracket are difficult to finance these days.” Finney concentrates on the $4 -$5m (Euros 4-5 million) projects and the $15-20m (Euros 15-20 milion) films with top UK or US filmmakers like Neil La Bute (Nurse Betty), Roger Michell (Notting Hill) or Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband), with whom Finney established relationships at the development stage of their respective new projects.
While Renaissance is using its healthy $1m (Euros 1million) development fund to lure top directors, many competitors have increased their production and financing activities: Hanway Films and Winchester, for example, just hired ex-Alibi sales expert Gareth Jones as the new head of production and financing.
No longer able to rely on pre-sales alone or on equity investors such as Film Four who withdrew from the market, UK sales agents and producers have to work much harder on putting budgets together, and many of them now turn to alternative sources of financing: tax funds, subsidies and co-productions. Fortunately, the UK is seen as ‘the place to be’ in terms of soft money after tax breaks ( which can mean producers can raise as much as 50 per cent of their budgets locally) were extended to 2005, and the UK Film Council has an annual budget of around US Dollars77.5m (GBP50m – Euros 77.5 million).
On another positive note, this year a variety of titles sold by UK-based sales companies were critically and commercially successful abroad, the titles include Bend It Like Beckham, All Or Nothing, Gosford Park and Bloody Sunday.
2003 should be another exciting year with the release of several eagerly awaited films including Roger Michell’s The Mother with Daniel Craig, Mike Barker’s To Kill a King with Tim Roth, and Jane Campion’s In The Cut starring Meg Ryan. Attracted both by the UK boom in tax breaks and presence of talented filmmakers, producers and writers, some US companies have decided to bet or reinvest in the London film community: which is another good sign for the UK. Lakeshore has asked Peter Rogers to supervise their European co-production activities in London, and producers Edward Pressman and John Schmidt hired Jamie Carmichael (ex-Icon) to head their sales arm, Content International, in London.
For Alison Thompson, all UK sales agents can do these days is “ride the storm”. According to her, “UK’s sales scene is on the verge of a new age; an inevitable change is happening which will lead to new beginnings”.
London Screenings: a casualty of market forces
This year's London Screenings, scheduled to run from 28-31 October, are, together with MIFED which takes place one week later in Milan, part of the autumn film market season. The fact that these two markets are held in two different European cities over a two-week period has often been a problem for buyers and sellers, not so much the bigger players who can afford the costs of attending both events, but rather for the vast majority of smaller film companies. However since last year, in an increasingly difficult economic and political climate, most film suppliers and distributors decided that they could no longer afford duplicating their market costs and would have to choose between one or the other event. Last year's MIFED was bypassed by many high profile US companies such as Miramax and Good Machine, who only sent a few representatives to London: fears for their employees' safety following the September 11 attack was also key factor in their decision.
But this year's casualty is undeniably the London Screenings: British and French export associations, followed by a dozen leading US companies, decided to boycott the London event undermining its financial health, not to mention its credibility.
Cineuropa is focusing on the history of the London Screenings, the reasons for this year's boycott by key sales companies and the need, expressed by many of those sales agents, to rationalise film markets in general.
A fight for control
The London Screenings were set up in the late eighties by a few London-based sales agents willing to show their new "A-line products" in privileged conditions to some key buyers - mainly Hollywood residents on their way to MIFED. Top international distributors trying to get ahead on the hectic Milan market began to enjoy previewing top quality films in a dozen private and public screening rooms, and deals were often signed around a relaxed drink or dinner in the West End. As long as they remained informal and 'unofficial', the London Screenings were an ideal stopover even for non-London based sellers who could choose to go to London if they felt they had strong titles to premiere. But the Screenings gradually became the victim of their own popularity and started to spiral out of control. Many sellers also bemoaned the practice of block-booking screens by some London PR companies who took advantage of their free reign in the absence of an official central organisation.
In the late autumn of 1996, concerned by the shift of the London event from an elitist platform to a more conventional market with hundreds of old and new products on offer, Mike Ryan, then co-chairman of J&M Entertainment, started to lobby the UK film industry for a more formal event in order to have better control both of products and services. He also explored possible links to the London Film Festival (LFF) that is held every year in November.
In February 1997, Sheila Whitaker, who had just lost her position as Head of the LFF, hijacked the initiative and launched her plan to co-ordinate the pre-MIFED London Screenings concurrently with a new London film festival called the London International Film Festival And Market (LIFFAM). The plan also meant that the whole event could take place on the same dates in October.
Following her surprise announcement, the British Film Institute - the official organiser of the LFF - said it would keep the November dates for the existing London Film Festival, but proposed to help formalise the London Screenings. Pressured by the industry to arbitrate and try to find a solution, British Government officials from the Department of Culture Media and Sport and the producers' association PACT commissioned a feasibility study into the creation of a fully-fledged London International film festival and market on an equal footing with Cannes or Berlin. But the report was never officially published and the project eventually abandoned.
Many self-appointed organisations, sponsored by various film companies seeking to capitalize on the potentially highly-lucrative event, set up shop and tried to tame the uncontrolled London Screenings. Today, the main organizers and service providers during the London Screenings are 'London Screenings Ltd', run by Fusion Event's Jo Jo Dye, and 'Soho Screenings', headed by Sandy Mandelberger. Another separate organisation founded by Alexis Bicat provides an online market registration service at London Screenings and the US PR company Dennis Davidson & Associates (DDA) continues to block-book screening slots while servicing its clients, something it also does for them in Cannes and at the American Film Market (AFM).
Unfortunately, the presence once again of too many co-ordinators has only added to the confusion surrounding the London Screenings, and ended up benefiting the rival MIFED market with its centrally co-ordinated organisation.
Need to rationalise Markets
This year's London Screenings is a casualty of the current difficult economic climate affecting the whole film industry, and the independent film sales and financing sector in particular. The last to arrive is often the first to leave, and in spite of its popularity among top US buyers, the London fair will be a shadow of its former self this year, due to the boycott by the majority of film providers from both sides of the Atlantic. Nicole Mackey, chairman of Film Export UK and until recently, head of sales at Signpost Films, was one of the initiators of the London boycott, with Capitol Films' Jane Barclay. Mackay explained the reasons behind the boycott to Cineuropa.
"Most of the UK sales companies felt from the beginning that the London Screenings were unfair to the rest of the world, but they've become almost as impractical for us who are based in London. Duplicating costs between London and MIFED just doesn't make sense anymore", she said. "So at the end of last year, I got together with representatives of sales organisations from France, Italy and Germany, and we met with the MIFED organizers to see whether they would be willing to improve their screening conditions and services and extend MIFED by a few days. They said they would and along with a group of key UK and US sales companies, we decided to boycott the upcoming London Screenings".
The group of high profile boycotters includes Capitol Films, Focus Films, IAC Films, Lakeshore, Intermedia, MDP, Miramax International, Myriad Pictures, New Line, Signpost Films and Summit Entertainment.
Since last summer's announcement of the boycott, all of the UK's have joined the protest, as have their French counterparts. Alison Thompson who heads France's Pathé's International Sales arm in London expressed the view shared by many protesters: "I will screen absolutely nothing in London and I've heard that nobody else will", she said. "Personally, I've never supported the London Screenings even in the early days. I've always felt that MIFED functioned pretty well as a set up and infrastructure for a proper and efficient film market, in spite of administrative problems. Over the last three-four years, I have forced myself to fully participate in the London Screenings, but now that nobody will attend this year's event, it's a big relief. Having two markets was like a two double-headed monster with two separate, diluted and back-to-back markets. As things are a bit tough nowadays, it just didn't make sense anymore. But I think that this year, it will be the first time in many years that there will be a buzz about MIFED as it is the first market since Cannes where people will unveil their new titles. And this is positive for the whole international film community" she concludes.
Joy Wong, Head of Sales at The Works also believes that "MIFED is more efficient than London". "The London Screenings got out of control and people started screening not only premiere movies but other films already shown before. It has become ridiculously expensive for people without offices".
In spite of the confirmation from a dozen key UK sales agents to Cineuropa of their London boycott and the certain 'no shows' from all their key buyers, London's various organizers and service providers try not to let their disappointment transpire. "We have less than 50% of the usual bookings and screenings this year", acknowledges London Screening Ltd's coordinator Jo Jo Dye. "But 90 international buyers have stated they would attend among which Paramount, Aurum Films, BSkyB, Buena Vista, Columbia, Constantin Films, Gaga, Helkon Media, ZDF, Media Trade, and UGC," she said.
According to Dye, this year's drastic reduction in film screenings and office rentals in London was not caused by the boycott by a dozen sales companies but by market forces and the general lack of new products.
Whatever the reasons for this year's 'non-event', the 2002 London Screenings will be remembered by some UK sales representatives, such as IAC Films' Claudette Alderson as "an experiment to force MIFED to improve its facilities", and for others such as Renaissance Films' Angus Finney as a "positive thing to rationalise the marketplace for distributors and sales companies".
Next year's London event -if there is one- will need to take into consideration criticism from all sides and will probably only have two options if it wants to survive: go back to basics, i.e. to screening premiere movies only, without even renting offices - the way the London Screenings were originally run, or set up a coherent infrastructure under one single roof, capable of offering the whole film community the same professional services at competitive prices.