THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: ANDY BRUNSKILL
The Insider Interviews series started in 2010 as a set of recorded interviews, featuring the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Gareth Unwin, who produced THE KING’S SPEECH, Ben Wheatley and Hossein Amini, the Oscar-nominated writer of DRIVE and THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY. These can be listened to here.
The Insider Interviews now exist as live monthly events in central London, which is a combination of a compered interview and taking questions from audience members. If you would like to check out future speakers and join an Insider Interviews Live evening, you can see more details here.
Andy Brunskill is a 2015 Screen Star of Tomorrow and runs SUMS Film & Media, a production company focusing on narrative driven films for digital platforms, traditional features for theatrical release, and the integration of the two. The latest SUMS production, JET TRASH, stars Robert Sheehan and Sofia Boutella and was shot in Goa, India and London early in 2014. Andy was lead producer on JET TRASH, and is currently seeing it through post-production for a 2016 release.
Previous SUMS productions include micro-budget films LILTING and HOW TO BECOME A CRIMINAL MASTERMIND. LILTING was made through Film London’s Microwave scheme. It stars Ben Whishaw and opened World Dramatic Competition at Sundance 2014, where it also won Best Cinematography. It was released in the UK this summer by Artificial Eye to strong reviews and has been sold to multiple territories worldwide by Protagonist Pictures. HOW TO BECOME A CRIMINAL MASTERMIND was made on a shoestring in 2013 and recently won Best Low -Budget Feature at the London Independent Film Festival.
Prior to starting SUMS Andy worked at Ruby Films as Assistant to Producer Alison Owen and then Development Executive across films such as THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, TAMARA DREWE, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, SAVING MR BANKS and TV such as the Multi-Emmy Winning TEMPLE GRANDIN. In 2009 Andy produced VENUS & THE SUN, a film released as an app for iPhones and iPads which continues to sell worldwide.
This interview was hosted by producer, James Cotton.
So a question I always kick off with is about first experiences within the industry, it’s usually interning, sleeping on floors, etc. What was your first experience?
Seeing as most of you are screenwriters I’ll try and be as helpful as possible in that area, but being a producer I’ll try and angle it the right way. Getting into the industry, I can tell you my story and then talk about other ways; it’s obviously different for writers. I’d done a Literature degree at Sheffield University and, like many people, I only established that learning was a good thing in the last year and then that was a bit late so I decided to do a Masters in Contemporary Approaches to Literature Studies at Goldsmith’s.
It was at the start of the course that I realised I wanted to work in film even though I loved books and writing mostly. But I decided not to be a writer, because 1) I wasn’t very good and 2) I liked the collaborative element of being in film, rather than having to write in a room on my own – so hats off to people who do that. But I think it is still much more collaborative being a screenwriter than it is being a novelist.
So I was being medically tested on – this is how I got in to the film industry – at this place where you get paid money to have drugs tested on you. I saw a chap reading a screenplay called DAVE POWELL (Thanks Dave!!!) and so inquired whether he was working in the film industry. He worked for a company called Ruby Films and so I sort of chatted him up to get some work experience there, which I then managed to do.
I did a couple of weeks work experience at Ruby Films, added that to my CV and created a bit of a battle plan. I worked out where all the production companies in London were and marked them on a map and then when I’d go on a run for one company I’d drop in my CV at another company if I was going near and I’d get the person’s name on reception.
Eventually I’d get into another production company for work experience, and then keep doing the same updating the previous ones with my new CV and eventually I managed to get about eight different work experiences on it. That’s the key to a lot of what we’re going to talk about today. It’s all about a contact network and knowing as many people as possible so that when a job eventually does come up you can get that job.
I got a job at DNA Films as a receptionist/in-house runner and while I was there the first company, Ruby Films, interviewed me to be the assistant to Alison Owen, a big UK producer, and I became her assistant at Ruby Films for about six years. First I was her assistant, and then as a development executive, before leaving there to become a producer.
Skipping to the end, could you say a little more about your current role, how far you’ve come so far?
SUMS, my production company, has been around for about 3 years. I made a short film called VENUS AND THE SUN, which starred a famous glamour model at the time called Keeley Hazell. Keeley was playing a send-up version of herself as Venus in a modern retelling of the Venus and Adonis myth and I knew with her we had a marketable element, I just didn’t know how to make money off it.
To get your short film up on iTunes or something you had to do it through an aggregator and they charge you for that, and take all the money, so we created an app and, because of her following, to this day you can still open it up and get 10 downloads from Turkey or 20 in China. It was exciting that there was a whole new world of distribution.
So I moved on and I was raising money for one film for a guy that I met, called Bob Benton, who didn’t like that particular film but did like the digital side of what I was doing and suggested he and I start a company, which we did, which was SUMS. And then he said he’d pay a certain amount for a share of it and I suggested he pay more and that I’d work 2 days a week for him as a development producer, as he was buying some book options and needed someone to run with them.
So we did that, it grew, and more people joined Bob & Co so then they bought more of my company and since then we have made about five features, the biggest of which so far is a movie called LILTING, which I’m an Executive Producer on – don’t want to detract from the lead producer which is Dominic Buchanan – and that did amazingly well. That was through the Microwave scheme and we got Ben Whishaw in that and went to Sundance and won an award and got it released by Artificial Eye and sold by Protagonist.
As a producer, at what stage and how do you like to hear ideas, ranging from loglines to drafts plonked on your table – could you talk about what you prefer?
I prefer to hear about it early on, I’m tempted to say as early as possible but maybe not quite that early.. Spec scripts being sent is not a great idea in my opinion, unless you’re a very established screenwriter and have had quite a few things made and then everyone will be quite excited to read a spec script. For me, better to read it at treatment stage.
It’s then easier and a cheaper as a producer to get involved, because to option it you might not have to outlay quite as much money and also you can start having a vision early on about how that film would be made, how that film would get made with me, because making it with me would be very different from making it with any other producer, so it’s quite important to allow the producer to really believe in it as much as you do.
You really want to feel that they love it and own it with you and so, if it’s a 2/3 page treatment, you can sit down over many weeks and months and grow it up together into something bigger. It’s also much better in that sense because you can then, with the producer, go and find development money for yourselves and, again, development people like the BFI, Creative England, none of them can pay retrospectively for a script – they can only pay for your writing services.
So if you come to me with a script, I don’t necessarily have the money to pay you the amount you deserve for that script. Say it’s 5/10/15 grand, I don’t have that sort of money lying about. Whereas if you come to me with a treatment, I can give you a small amount of money and we will option it from you and own it together or a very small amount of money and you can maybe retain some of the IP, which is also a deal we can do, and then together we can go to the funders and we can try and find you money to write it.
And then that would be two drafts, two sets of revisions and a polish or something. And hopefully then you start taking in their notes and together you raise the project up and, at the same time, you’re giving those financiers ownership over it. You’re also making relationships with the executives and financiers which are key, because then when they start liking the work that you’re doing they will recommend you to other producers and on other projects and that I suppose is the key thing to the film industry, teaming up with people and getting a bit of a reputation, spreading yourself about a bit and covering more projects.
You’ve mentioned books that Bob had optioned, apps with Keeley and working with writers from an early stage, what does a typical Andy Brunskill day look like in the calendar?
Legals mainly. It’s hellish. That’s quite a difficult question to answer; I have about eight projects of my own, maybe ten. All at varying stages of development. Then I look after some for Bob & Co as well and of all of those combined three of them are at financing stage, so the scripts are ready, we’ve got the directors on, we’re packaged and going out to cast while pulling finance together.
We’ve got about three treatments with just writers (no directors), a novelist DBC Pierre who’s awesome and I’m obsessed with his books and he’s writing his first feature with me. I’m definitely interested in taking different approaches like that, it’s harder work but you can get some serious originality out of it, especially with someone like DBC Pierre.
One of the projects that I’m financing at the moment was an author called Steven Hall, who wrote a novel called THE RAW SHARK TEXTS – an amazing book. He turned his hand to screenwriting and just took to it immediately and has now delivered about five hours’ worth of this whole new part TV show/part film that’s released as an app for smartphones and it will be £4.5 million budget – so it’s a bit of a game changer that one. That could only come about through an unusual approach to things.
I have projects with first time directors, I have projects with screenwriters who haven’t done much, who haven’t had a feature made but have had brilliant ideas and so day-to-day it’s paying attention to the ones that are most progressed, but just making sure that you’re edging along all of the projects all of the time.
Regarding writers crossing mediums – are there writers putting together treatments for apps coming from a traditional, feature film, screenwriting background? And how are you working with those writers?
I’ve come from a very traditional feature film development background and transferring that into the digital world is to take all of those strict structures and development practices and then dropping them into other formats. In the digital sphere it has to start with the idea and the content and then you choose which platform it goes on I suppose.
I’m developing this one very big app, and I’ve got another one that’s sort of bubbling away, but no I don’t have lots of writers coming to me with app ideas. If you do want to do an app, and I think it’s totally undervalued and hasn’t been done enough, you need a really big marketing push though, something that’ll make a big splash in the press, otherwise it can’t work.
The thing with Keeley was that it worked much better than if we’d got a famous actress because it’s then just an actress being an actress, you can see them doing that every day in traditional formats, whereas she was a model doing acting and so that was a good spin on it. I think we should talk about that now: marketable elements and how to get stuff made. I suppose that good advice I can give to writers is that they need to think like producers, think about how stuff actually gets made and off the ground at all levels.
And that goes back to this idea of working with treatments, packaging and building your team, because if you have a treatment, even if it’s amazing, if you haven’t got any credits or an agent it’s quite hard to get noticed. But if somehow you’ve come up with an idea and managed to attach something that makes you stand out, like an actor, at an early stage, I think that’s a good secret weapon.
If you have an actor on early they can grow the project with you and grow the script and then you come out into the world of producers and executives and say ‘I’ve got this idea and I’ve got so-and-so attached’ everyone’s going to want to do it with you no matter what level writer you are. So you’ve built up that package and suddenly you’re the hot property. I think that’s not done enough (though it can be problematic!).
Let’s jump back to your experiences with the public funding bodies in the UK, because you’ve had a lot of experience in raising development finance and executively producing a theatrically distributed film through a public funding scheme…
I think the biggest mistake people make is spending too much time on their own developing things without collaborating. And you can collaborate at any level and on any scheme but just getting in a room with people who are higher level than you or the same level as you is always the most valuable thing. Going through schemes is the best way.
Trying to get meetings with those guys and going to labs and stuff, working out how it all works, thinking like a producer and thinking exactly what they’re looking for, and then angling treatments and ideas so you can get into those schemes. But also they want to work with talent, it’s far safer to bet on someone who’s got a track record and done something good and I think execs may often take the safe bet rather than another, if if the other may be a better idea. It’s less of a risk.
So when you’ve got an idea and you’re targeting a particular scheme you need to think about how to build your package so you can get on the scheme and then succeed on the scheme and so, if you’re a writer, come up with the idea that might get you a director who’s done a few decent things, pull in that director and then if you’ve upgraded via director you can maybe upgrade again to the producer.
Or go producer first, then director, but either way, you’ve then elevated yourself by association through the team and you’re going to have a better chance of getting through. I’d say trying to do those schemes, like Micro School, as frustrating as those things might be, you are going to just be closer to that system. Writers are really isolated from it unless you make an effort to get in and talk to people, which I think you should always do.
So then with LILTING, I think Hong (Khaou) developed it over quite a few years from a stage play and I think it was a heterosexual relationship to start with and I think that progressed and was developed into something else. And then it went through the micro-schooling and more notes from Film London and then it came out and got green-lit. At that point I knew Dominic and asked if I could read it and just thought it was amazing and convinced Bob & Co to invest at that point.
I’m always proud of that, as it was before Ben Whishaw came on. Proves if you read something that good and believe in the material then good things can happen.
And what was the tactic with Ben, was it a standard, through the agent offer or was there an inside way in?
I don’t know, that was the magic of Dominic Buchanan and the magic of Hong and the script, actually. And a great casting director Kharmel (Cochrane) but I didn’t see the ins and outs of that one.
OK so that’s the public funders ticked off the list. Doing this out of chronological order, you’ve worked with the Peter Morgans of this world, the big name writers, whilst at Ruby – how has that differed and, also, what development tips do you have working with Alison Owen and seeing her as a tour-de-force making those films?
That’s how I’ve learned everything – by working with a top producer. Another bit of advice I’d offer for any person who wants to be working as a creative in the film industry is to try and get jobs in development and in production companies so that you can be on the inside and see how it works. Or in sales companies or distributors so you can see how it works, then move on and write to requirement.
I was a producer’s assistant for many years so I was in the office developing all the different projects with them and seeing how that worked and then we’d go off to film it so it was the best of both worlds really.
From that time at Ruby, there’s no particular film’s journey – SAVING MR BANKS or THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL – that you’ve got anecdotes from that could help the writers in the room?
Yep, plenty, it’s always a wild time, but nothing that can go up online!
Beforehand we were chatting a bit about targeting, and you’ve spoken a lot about team building – what would your advice be to writers in terms of making that first step with producers and doing their research? And perhaps an anecdote of someone who didn’t do their research and came pitching something that was completely not what you ended up doing?
That’s a massive bit of advice – target the people that you want to work with, and do the groundwork. It’s occasionally taken me years to finally work with someone I’m a fan of. Like Penny Skinner, a brilliant writer. Someone called her my unicorn once. I read her play THE VILLAGE BIKE and just loved it. I tried all sorts of ways to work with her, and it took going to Los Angeles and meeting her American agent who suggested she wanted to direct a film. So then I approached her UK agent – ‘Has Penny ever wanted to direct?’ and he said: ‘Funnily enough, yes,’ and I said: ‘Right then, let’s do it.’ And we’re now working on a treatment together for her to write and direct. So I did the groundwork to figure out what she wanted, what would appeal to her…
So for example, it’s painfully obvious from my website what I’m about, what I’m into (and my need to be cool!) and so targeting something of that ilk would get my attention – don’t come to me with horror and heavy genre ideas!
It doesn’t take much to look someone up and get an idea and then angle something towards them.
Is there a range of budgets you like to work with, what’s the lower or upper end?
I think LILTING was an amazing achievement at £130,000 but I wasn’t a producer on that. JET TRASH was considerably more but still not overly big. And from now on I can really only afford to produce films substantially north of a million, so I can take decent producer and prodco fees, it can’t go on without that. So the next 4 projects I’m trying to push through are between £2.2m and £6m. And I have another project in development that’s £14m.
Where do you source the finances?
As much as possible through the public funders and then through sales. This is a really important factor I think – when I have an idea, or we build something up, or there’s a book that we want to option, we get it and we do the rounds and we try and set it up with a partner. So maybe you pay to get it to a treatment stage but then you go round and set it up with BBC, Film 4, BFI, the sales agents, the distributors, an investor, because you need partners. But if you’ve got this thing and you tried all those avenues at treatment stage and everybody’s said no, maybe you have to suck it up and ditch that idea. If you don’t you may well end up continually flogging this dead horse that no one wants and you’re just throwing more and more money after it (which makes it even harder to drop).
But in terms of the finance I get, I try to develop stuff with third party funders as much as possible. My parent company has finance and a third party fund so I’m in a quite privileged position where we can pay for some bits of development but we rarely do it without co-financing with another development partner or production company.
So there’s that, there’s pre-sales, regional finance and then there’s private equity from high-net-worth individuals and doing SEIS and EIS schemes. We’ve just done a deal actually with Film London to do manage their first ever Microwave International, which is actually perfectly harmonious with my track record because it’s micro-budget and going to be shot in India – LILTING and JET TRASH.
What works for you in terms of establishing a contact, first email, face-to-face, etc.? Do you want to see the work or a treatment or should a meeting be arranged first?
Going in cold is tough, I would suggest trying to call and speak to someone and get an email address, I would make use of assistants who answer the phones. An agent’s assistant or a producer’s assistant – empower them maybe? Ask if they’d look at your project and whether we could get it under their bosses’ nose and how to go about doing that? I think just sending it in blank; they’re not going to read it.
So personalise it and show that you’ve done some work and that you like a film they’ve done and you’re into it, so angle the email in that respect.
Recommendations? If you know someone who knows someone already, that’s always helpful. Attaching a treatment is a good idea, you might want to do it on the first email because you never know when someone might just open a treatment and look at it. But it’s tough unless there’s some sort of connection.
It’s networks and the team building that are key because if it’s just one person reaching out and asking: ‘Will you read this?’ it doesn’t sound very appealing but if you’re able to talk about someone else, and this is why agents and producers are useful – we’re more likely to read something from another producer or an agent because then the agent can big that person up.
Has anyone done anything crazy or tenacious or weird to try and get you on board with something and to get your attention?
It’s generally come from meetings rather than emails, where they have got a sense of me and pushed my buttons in the meeting and I’m probably so blind to it. I think I’m really canny but actually…
I’m working on a children’s film and I’ve got a very young producer I’m interested in working with, do I go with him or hold back and see who else I can get? He’s made a documentary and he’s well trained.
Don’t commit in the next meeting and see what his plan is. If you’ve got any other friends in the film industry relay his plan and if it sounds good then go with him. But also if he’s laid out a plan that you like and none of it comes off, then it’s easy to say he didn’t do his end of the deal and part ways. What you don’t want to do is hand over your IP for nothing, and suddenly he’s involved and making a mess of it. He should offer to pay something for an option, he might not but he should be up front with that.
If he knows what he’s doing he should be able to go and find £500 from an investor to get involved at that point, make that part of the initial test? You’re always going to need someone involved that’s willing to put some money in. And he needs to be building that package, that team, from early on and showing that entrepreneurial spirit.