Alexei began his career in film and television over 10 years ago as a documentary researcher but soon felt the pull of cinema and got his first break in film working as assistant to Paul Trijbits at London based Hungry Eye. He then moved on to work for Judy Counihan at Jonathan Olsberg’s Dakota Films where he learnt his production ropes. Bar a brief sabbatical at the Council of Europe’s Co-production fund, Eurimages (where he worked as an Administrator assessing projects for funding), Alexei then worked for BBC Films for over 6 years.
As the Commercial Manager for BBC Films his responsibilities included raising co-production finance on feature films, licensing distribution rights to UK and international distributors and managing the BBC Worldwide theatrical archive. Films Alexei helped finance included THE CRY OF THE OWL, SHOOTING DOGS and MY SUMMER OF LOVE. Later, Alexei joined Paramount Pictures International as Director of Co-production and Acquisitions tasked with acquiring and co-producing local language films for distribution in Europe. Most recently he acquired the local language hit CELDA 211 which topped the Spanish box office at the beginning of November 2009.
This interview was conducted in August 2010 when Alexei was working for Paramount Pictures. He now works for The Ink Factory.
Going back to the beginning, when did the idea of working in the film industry first come onto your radar?
It didn’t really come to me. I wanted to work in documentaries and current affairs and I did some work for a friend of mine as a researcher on a couple of documentaries for ITV. I tried to find other work but it wasn’t very easy because I didn’t really know how to go about it. I then got in touch with the New Producers Alliance and I got un-paid work on several short films through their classifieds in order to get more production experience. Whilst doing that someone mentioned a producer who was looking for an assistant, I went to see them and it all worked out for me. But it was quite a long process and it would have been good to have some guidance at that stage, in many ways I just stumbled around in the dark!
So where did things head from there?
After I got the producer’s assistant job, I then found a job in another production company where I stayed for two and a half years. I then went and did a Master in Audio Visual Management at the Media Business School in Spain and from there I got an internship at BBC Films, as I had to do an internship as part of my course. It was a paid internship and out of that came a job with Jane Wright who is head of the commercial side of BBC Films. I stayed there for nearly 7 years before moving to Paramount.
In terms of your early days as an assistant what did you learn most from those experiences?
Always ask for more; in terms of responsibility, in terms of money, don’t be too precocious but show willing and ask questions, ask why you’re there and why you’re doing everything. There’s no way of knowing if you want to do the job without finding out what it involves. It’s easy to sit back and be passive and be responsible just for what people ask you to do, but it’s probably best to be as proactive as you can because firstly, you don’t know how long you’re going to be there and secondly, you don’t know when the next opportunity is going to come along. Show keenness – everyone always appreciates that.
You worked for BBC Films for a number of years, what was your role there?
I was raising co-production finance for all the feature films that BBC Films wanted to make. So I was talking to subsidy bodies, financiers, distribution companies, and effectively getting films financed and into production.
What’s it like working for a film company that is part of such a big broadcasting corporation. What’s the difference between that and working at Paramount?
In terms of the difference between the two institutions, from the BBC’s perspective film is not the core business of the broadcaster; the core business is producing thousands of hours of TV across several different channels and radio etcetera. So to an extent BBC Films operated at quite an arms length from the broadcaster which is quite a privileged place to be I think. We were off site, now they’re on site and I think there’s a tighter control over how the unit functions. It still has quite a lot of autonomy which is one of its strengths. They are different, but the two companies are both very prestigious, very large. With each job, the units I’m in are not the central focus of the parent companies, so there is quite a lot of similarity there for me, and there is also quite a lot of flexibility in what I do.
When you came to Paramount you stepped into a newly created position, so what did that mean in terms of settling into your role and was there a longer adjustment period than if you had just taken over the role from someone who had been doing it for years?
It was a newly created role and I had an idea what the position was about because I had always sat across the table from buyers. Effectively I had been trying to get them to be part of the films we were creating at the BBC so I had a good sense of what the job should entail. Obviously moving into a new company into a new role is fairly daunting, but I had a team in LA and a colleague in France and they showed me the ropes. I suppose what you do learn is how new companies work, and within Paramount, or within a studio particularly, you find that you need to learn exactly how the company works. It’s a very big company split between theatrical, home entertainment, and TV and you have to navigate the relationships between those different parts of the company and find your place within it. That doesn’t happen overnight. It would have been brilliant if I had had a colleague to hand over to me, although you never get that much out of a handover, there’s just always too much information, too much going on, but at least they are always someone you can call once they’ve left to ask questions and that is very helpful. But I knew lots of people in acquisitions so I could call them up and get their take on how things should work. It was a lot of work, but it was interesting to move from what had been quite a cosy and long standing job, to the new commercial reality of a company like Paramount.
To someone outside the film industry, what is film acquisitions?
It’s acquiring independent feature films from producers and/or sales agents for distribution in all rights (cinema, DVD, TV) in a single territory or in multiple territories. This can happen at script stage, at pre-production stage, production, post-production or once the film is completed. Picking up a film at any point along that line depends upon the risks that one associates with that film or assesses that film to have at a particular stage. Also how competitive it is for that particular film so that depends on the cast, director, the quality of the script and the genre. So effectively what you’re doing is you are assessing film projects for potential distribution by a distribution company.
What does a typical working day entail for you?
A typical working day for me? Smoking cigars, that’s about it really! No, it involves meetings, calling producers, calling sales agents, finding out what stage their project is at, how much progress has been made on a project. Tracking projects takes a huge amount of time. I have to be aware of all the new projects coming up. It also entails reading projects and assessing them creatively and from a commercial perspective, putting together internal proposals for projects. I suppose the thing we do least is watch films, because we field so many projects, so many of which don’t get made, or are inappropriate for a distribution company like ours. We do watch a lot of films, but not at work. We also go to festivals where we do get to watch some films. But a typical working day is basically calling a lot of people, meeting a few people, hopefully getting to read a script during work but that generally doesn’t happen, and thinking about projects that we might put forward for potential acquisitions.
And what’s the most exciting part of your job? Or which bit do you enjoy the most?
There are two things that are really exciting and enjoyable and those are putting in offers on films, and then seeing your films released. But generally it’s a great job, all of it is great, my colleagues, my organisation, seeing as this is going into print! But seriously it is a fantastic job and I feel very privileged to have it.
You’ve been at Paramount for over two years now, which films in that time have been your favourites to be involved in?
I suppose the easiest and best example is CELL 211 which I acquired for Spain. I saw it about two years ago (at script stage) and it was released in November of 2009, and has been a huge hit for us there. So that as a process was interesting because it was our first pick-up in Spain, and as a success story is fantastic because it was so well received and has done so well at the box office. It won 8 Goyas and was a really fantastic experience.
How much interaction is there between the London and the US offices of Paramount?
Effectively Paramount acquisitions is run out of LA, so quite a lot. We have daily interaction with our colleagues in LA and two scheduled calls with them every week. We also talk to them pretty much every day about what we’re doing, what we’ve been reading and what we’re tracking.
Moving onto your current position in Paramount, how much input into development do you have on a project that you’re co-producing?
It really depends how advanced it is when we come on board. We can be involved at script stage; we give notes on drafts as they progress, gives notes on a cut, suggest ideas for casting or potential directors. It depends how packaged the project is when it comes to us, or when we think it’s worth us coming on board. So it’s very flexible and we’re very open.
And what kind of material does Paramount look to acquire?
I would say largely commercial, mainstream is what we’re trying to find, targeted both at an international audience as well as a local language audience. We have a distribution operation which is geared towards backing the release of films with a significant marketing and publicity campaign. We’re very skilled at that and that’s certainly the direction in which we are concentrating our acquisition activity. So it’s commercial genre, cast driven drama and comedies for a multiplex audience.
And your own personal ambitions within the industry, where do you see yourself in 5/ 10 years?
Can I take the fifth on that! Obviously running a massively successful independent production company with a deal with a studio would be really interesting. But we’ll see if it happens.
How do you see the so called ‘digital revolution’ unfolding in the film industry, particularly in the UK?
In the UK I would say we’ve still got some way to go. There are a lot of different initiatives. I think it could go either way, it depends whether we come up with a way of delivering content to people at a price point that makes them want to buy it legally, and also not giving everything up to certain aggregators or portals. There are ways of sharing revenues that are more successful than those the music industry has come up with, and ones that will keep on supporting the industry and the production costs that are entailed on larger or more ambitious projects. Right now I’m not sure that the traditional model is as under threat as some people make out but it would be great if the drop off in DVD and traditional home entertainment revenues was being compensated by the take up of digital sell through and download, although I’m not sure it is yet. I welcome it from an independent perspective because hopefully it will make access to less mainstream films greater. And I think it should probably work for studios as well because distribution costs will be reduced. I still think we have lots of marketing costs associated with the types of movies that we make so I don’t see the model changing that radically for us. But I think it’s something we have to embrace as an industry, I don’t think it’s going to go away, I think if we bury our heads in the sand it’s not going to work for us. So bring it on and we’ll see what happens.
What do you feel our key strengths and weaknesses are as an industry in the UK?
In the UK I still think there’s a robust exhibition sector. There are lots of distributors; there is a lot of competition there. In terms of production I still think it’s a bit of a cottage industry and I suppose we’re hampered by language, we don’t have the subsidy systems of some of our European neighbours and we’re generating less and less films every year which I would say has the knock on effect of producing less and less commercial movies for mainstream British audiences. I think there is still an appetite in the UK from the public for UK movies, but I don’t see it being served by the industry.
Do you feel that’s partly down to taste of the key decision makers?
The thing is there aren’t very many key decision makers. There’s a subsidy body in the UK Film Council which has various different remits one of which was commercial British films, which it has done. That will obviously change somewhat as the UKFC is going through a period of restructuring. And the other key decision makers are Film 4 and BBC Films and they have very wide ranging remits as well, so you can’t really blame those companies. I think the larger distribution companies are understandably wary of production but some have become a little bolder. Look at Optimum now: they’re gearing up their production side. The other big player is Working Title, they do a huge amount of development and they obviously are looking for commercial projects in the UK to develop. There are a lot of smaller producers with ambition to make commercial movies but it’s very difficult for them to get them off the ground and to get them financed, particularly if they’re local, and particularly if they’re comedies because it’s hard to finance as they are hard to sell to other territories. The things that have worked have been period dramas that have had some kind of presales value internationally. But I’m not sure that they are always that mainstream. There’s an audience for that in the UK and when you get them really right like ATONEMENT then they can cross over internationally.
Looking at the UK’s relationship to film in simple terms: we have a population to drive a box office, we have talent both in front and behind the camera proven by our consistent presence during awards season, we have the financial infrastructure as a nation and a great history of film making. So why do so few British films financed exclusively in Britain and created by British talent rarely clear £10m at the UK Box office?
I think this goes back to the previous question a little bit. I still think the appetite is there if you can get nearly £10m for RUN FAT BOY, RUN, or ST TRINIAN’S or THE DUCHESS; there just aren’t enough of them every year. And all of those films are a leap of faith to make and they’re not being financed by the studios necessarily, they are being financed by larger independents. But I think it just takes time and I think it takes volume. If you look at the countries in Europe where you have a high percentage of local movies in the top ten or top 20 every year, they have a huge depth of production i.e. there are a huge amount of films made every year. Production in the UK has dropped off 70 percent in the last 2 years. We’re making 40 films a year, they’re making 120 in France, and maybe they have the market for it. But if you make a funny film in the UK people will go and see it, they still understand the language, its not as big a leap for them as it would be to go and see a French or German film because obviously we’re not a dubbing territory, but I think its something that has taxed brighter minds than mine and there still is no solution and it comes down to the individual ambition of the film makers and producers at the moment.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get into the film industry through acquisitions?
That’s hard for me because I came quite a random route and I had already been working in the business for ten years. But I would suggest approaching all of the UK distribution companies and trying to get some sort of work experience in their acquisitions teams.
Finally what advice would you give to someone looking to enter the film industry…
I suppose pester people as much as you can and in the nicest possible way. Offer your services up. I think everyone appreciates people who will work for free – it’s a horrible truth but then if you do work experience or an internship that’s fine. So just be persistent but also show that you have some kind of take on the industry, know what you like and why you want to work in a particular organisation and learn what they do. Do your homework on the individuals in that organisation and also on the successes and the failures they have had. But don’t be arrogant, it’s unlikely that as a new entrant you will have that much of a better sense or take on the business but show that you’re at least interested and clued in on what’s going on.
Favourite film? DUCK SOUP
Best script you’ve ever read? That’s impossible, how can you ask me that?!
Favourite screenwriter? William Goldman
Favourite director? Neill Blomkamp, Michael Haneke (of last year).
Favourite performance by an actor? Sharlto Copley in DISTRICT 9.
Favourite TV Show? BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF, THE SIMPSONS, THE DAY TODAY, TWIN PEAKS, THE WIRE, CHORLTON AND THE WHEELIES.
Favourite movie star? Cary Grant.
Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese? Martin Scorsese
Shane Meadows of Ken Loach? Ken Loach
Pacino or DeNiro? DeNiro
Carey Mulligan or Emma Watson? Carey Mulligan
Chuck Norris or Stephen Segal? I love them both equally.
Last film you saw? ALEXANDER
Last film you loathed? ALEXANDER!
Last film you loved? DISTRICT 9
Who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with? Chuck Norris and Stephen Segal.
Teenage movie crush? Molly Ringwald in PRETTY IN PINK.