THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: ROBERT JONES
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. You can watch these 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.
Robert Jones is the co-founder and owner of The Fyzz Facility, a mega-prolific British production and finance company. So far The Fyzz Facility has raised over $250m in film investment, producing and part-funding over 200 independent feature films over the last five years with aggregate budgets in excess of $2 billion.
Robert Jones’ extensive credits prior to The Fyzz Facility include THE USUAL SUSPECTS, GOSFORD PARK and THE CONSTANT GARDENER as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s HARD EIGHT, Stephen Frears’ DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, and Mike Leigh’s VERA DRAKE.
This Q & A was compered by producer Pete Smyth.
If any of you have taken a look at Robert Jones’s IMDb profile, it looks like you have about 25 films in the works this year.
My STARmeter keeps going down though, I don’t understand!
The amount of projects you’re doing with The Fyzz Facility is of interest to a lot of people here. Talk a little bit about how you set the company up and how you manage to make so many films in what’s known as a very tough industry.
MMy partner Wayne Marc Godfrey and I set it up in 2010, so we’ve been going on nearly 7 years. Wayne is a good deal younger than me.
I entered the film industry the year Wayne was born – a thought I don’t like to wake up to in the morning! But actually it makes us a good partnership – he is young, bullish and ambitious, and I’m old, cynical and crabby. He likes to say yes to everything and I pull him back now and again.
The company currently operates in three closely linked areas. Firstly, we have a financing side, which applies the knowledge and experience we have to help other people facilitate their movies.
We have a group of private and institutional investors behind us, who we’ve educated in the processes we apply. They back us on the basis that we make them a healthy return.
We primarily lend against quantifiable contracted or likely revenue streams, which can take the form of state tax credits, pre-sold domestic and foreign distribution contracts, GAP against unsold sales estimates and pre-production bridge financing.
Bridge-financing is less collateralised lending with a higher risk profile, but as we produce films as well as provide finance for other producers’ films, we understand how films get made and how they don’t get made. So we are well positioned to manage these risks and make them attractive for our backers.
A lot of those IMDb credits that you see will be EP [Executive Producer] credits as financier, which for The Fyzz Facility are important for our company profile.
We’ve financed or co-financed over 200 films, so the name has slowly but surely got around in a good way in the UK, US, and beyond.
Secondly, we have a company called The Fyzz Facility Pictures which produces features in-house. We’ve shot three films this year, we shot two last year, and we’ll shoot another one or two this year.
To help expand our in-house feature production, we’ve brought in Mark Lane and James Harris, producers with whom we had a pre-existing relationship with on films like I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER and 47 METERS DOWN.
We ended up fully financing and helping them produce 47 METERS DOWN, and it’s now become, in the last month, the biggest indie theatrical release in the US of this year (so far). It was made for under $5 million and has taken more than $44 million at the US box office.
Between us we look for projects, we develop projects, and projects come to us, either as producers or as producer-financiers. We share responsibilities. So if Mark is off producing one thing and James is off producing another, Wayne or I go off and physically produce something else.
And then we have a company called The Fyzz Facility TV. No need to explain what that does. I did a series three years ago called BABYLON with Danny Boyle for Channel 4 and SundanceTV.
Clearly TV is a very exciting area, both business-wise and creatively, and we have several high-end drama projects in development. We are concentrating on projects that have a brand value in terms of IP and/or the talent involved.
So the numerous credits are a mix of producing and financing roles and anything in between.
We don’t get too creatively involved in the third party projects on which we are financiers unless there’s a level of risk that warrants a creative call.
As a producer I wouldn’t want a financier sticking their fingers in my projects, so I understand how someone else would feel if a financier came along and said, “Can I just talk to you about a script?”
On the financing side, it’s largely a numbers game. Who are the other partners in the film, how confident are we in their ability to deliver what is envisaged and, within reason, can we negotiate a secure position for our investors? That sort of thing.
We are investing our backers’ money, so we have a responsibility to them to make sure that we safeguard it, that we return money to them and that they reuse it, as they have.
We have what we call a number of “repeat offenders” who’ve invested millions through us, pretty much get it all back and then recycle it.
Drawing that distinction between films you’ve financed and the films you’ve actually produced – do you sometimes make a decision to produce something rather than just finance it?
Obviously if we find an idea, develop an idea ourselves, or someone in the company has an idea and we go for it, that’s something we’re going to produce. As the company grows, and we’re about 16 people now, you can’t expect that the principals of the company are going to love everything that gets proposed.
But what you have to insist is that there’s someone in a position of responsibility within the company who is going to fight tooth and nail for their project.
Running the business, you have to respect that you’re employing people for their taste, their nous and their tenacity. If every time they bring something to you, you go, “No I don’t like that,” they’re not going to stay with you for very long.
You want people who are going to bang the table and shout and scream and say, “You’re an idiot, why can’t you understand that this is going to work?”
You’re employing people for their taste.
If they can present a convincing argument, and have the passion to see it through, then you say, “OK, it’s your responsibility.” As a producer that’s what you have to do, whether you’re employing people and running a company or you’re a one-man band.
If something came to us as a potential production and none of us were keen on it creatively, we would still look at it as a financing proposition.
There might be other compelling elements that make it a good finance play even if it isn’t our creative cup of tea. If there’s a market endorsement to it already, maybe they’ve got a distributor or a sales company on board, then it falls into the bracket of, “Well, does this work for our investors? Can we put money into this and see it back?”
For the films you creatively back, is there a way that you would particularly define a Fyzz Facility film, or a Robert Jones film?
It would be easier to try to do the latter, because I’ve been doing it for 30-something years, but no is the answer!
Personally I love the experience of cinema – of submitting yourself to someone else’s vision; of seeing a story through different eyes. I want to be transported, exposed to characters, subjects, ideas and places I wouldn’t normally encounter, or to be shown the things I thought I knew but from an entirely different perspective. Maybe there’s something in that that links the choices I’ve made as a producer and as a viewer.
In terms of actual films, I suppose they tend to fall into two categories. We did a film called THE SURVIVALIST, one called A PATCH OF FOG, SUPERBOB, POSSUM… All of those films were sub- or just about £1 million British films, and all with first-time directors.
New talent is the lifeblood of what we do and finding and nurturing that talent is tremendously exciting. Low budget first-time features aren’t easy to produce and generally not great earners but there are other rewards, and sometimes that’s what gets you up in the morning.
I started in films in a company called Palace, and I ended up being, after a few years, the head of acquisitions. I spent much of my time there going to film festivals and reading scripts and trying to find the next big thing in independent film. So I’ve always been led by great writing and great directors, and you always hope that you’re going to stumble upon one.
I’ve had the luck to find some as a producer and as an acquisitions person before that, and I see no reason to not continue. I think every producer values the idea of establishing a good relationship with a director or directors that can lead to further collaboration.
Alongside the first-time features there are bigger budget films that are more market-driven. While a film like THE SURVIVALIST, at £1 million, relies heavily on soft money, on BFI, Northern Ireland Screen, tax credit, and twisting the arms of some of our investors, a film like STRANGERS was fully financed by pre-sales across the entire world.
The 2009 Bryan Bertino film from which it springs is a recognised and revered horror film and the distributors read the script for this one and liked Johannes Roberts, the director. We managed to finance it by pre-selling everything, even the US, prior to shooting.
Then of course, there’s the combination of the two. The goal is to make films with great scripts, with great directors, and great casts, that people actually go and see. How’s that for a revolutionary idea?
You mentioned Palace Pictures. I wanted to take you back to your time there. It strikes me that for your career as a producer, the foundation of working in acquisitions must have been hugely informative.
I joined Palace completely by accident, which sounds odd. An old friend of mine, called JoAnne Sellar, who’s now Paul Thomas Anderson’s producer, was the programmer at the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross.
I was originally a working musician but when that didn’t work out as planned I took a strange job selling charity advertising over the phone for cash. I got JoAnne a job doing this as well. I was quite good at it. She hated it and didn’t last more than a week, and then she went off and worked with Stephen Woolley at the Scala cinema.
One day she called me. Stephen and Nik Powell had just started this company called Palace. Nik had come out of Virgin with what was, in those days, a relatively tidy sum.
For people who might not know, Nik Powell cofounded Virgin with Richard Branson.
Right. At a certain point Richard and Nik parted company. Nik came out with some money and started a video shop in Kensington called The Video Palace, which was one of the first higher-end video shops. This was about 1980. The Video Palace was slightly different from other fledgling video shops because they were catering for people who wanted to see subtitled films, arthouse films, independent films, of which only a few were on the market at the time.
Nik started Palace Video with Steve, who was also running the Scala Cinema, an amazing repertory cinema venue. Palace Video had its office above the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross and they had only been going a couple of months.
Their first four releases, before they were a theatrical distributor at all, was an eclectic mix of Werner Herzog’s AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD, David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD, John Waters’ PINK FLAMINGOS, and Gary Numan’s MICROMUSIC.
Anyhow, JoAnne called me. Steve was frustrated because they didn’t have anyone selling other than usherettes these videos in between film shows. To be fair, films like FITZCARRALDO or AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD were never going to be an easy sell to video shops much more interested in stocking what came to be known as “video nasties” like DRILLER KILLER and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE.
So the poor usherettes weren’t having a lot of success. Joanne piped up and said, “I know a bloke who can sell!” So I got a call. “Do you want to come and have a try out?” I took a week off the charity advertising job and never went back.
I did a week at Palace on a commission basis selling to wholesalers and retailers. They completely under-estimated the amount of videos I was going to sell. I stayed and they halved my commission next week! And I grew within the company from there.
It was a company of its time, everyone was 35 or less. I was about 23. It was never very well capitalised. Palace didn’t have the desire or resources to hire in outside expertise, so if you knew what you were doing, or if you at least looked like you did, there was a chance to advance yourself within the company.
It was a company doing something that no-one else was doing at the time.
It was a company doing something that no-one else was doing at the time. The mainstream distribution establishment was typified by Rank, who’d been around for decades doing the things they did in a well-established manner.
The distribution of arthouse and foreign language films was a different area altogether. In those days there was a cinema in Oxford Street where Marks & Spencer is now, The Academy. If you went on the tube around there you’d see their posters and they were all kind of dark and dingy; the films looked more like homework than entertainment.
Palace came along – all credit to Stephen and Nik – and saw the potential in foreign language films that could appeal to a younger audience. Films that were as cool for an audience in the ’80s as A BOUT DE SOUFFLE had been for its audience in the ’60s.
The company’s distribution choices were driven by filmmakers from wherever – the Coen Brothers, Luc Besson, Tornatore, Zhang Yimou, Beineix, Hector Babenco etc.
The company got on the theatrical road with DIVA. We acquired DIVA, the Jean-Jacques Beineix film, and Nik and Steve persuaded Serge Silberman, who was a veteran French film producer, that this bunch of upstarts would do something great with his film. And it went from there.
The video company became a video and theatrical releasing company. It still didn’t have very much money and relied heavily on the video side for the resources to acquire and release films. It was a dream job for me.
I never went to film school or finished my degree at university. I was paid to learn everything I know about the creative and business sides of movies. Every lunch time I could go and watch a great film, be it Pasolini, or whatever, and they had great all-nighters at the Scala.
When Palace acquired THE EVIL DEAD that was a transformative moment for the company. It was so successful, we had to move out of the Scala. I used to sell in one room and there was a packing room next door. If you sold 5,000 videocassettes you’d have to go in and pack the bloody boxes yourself and lug them up and down the stairs at the end of the day when FedEx came to pick up. It became physically impractical.
By the way, it could also have been the end of the company, because Nik was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act for distributing THE EVIL DEAD. If he’d been found guilty he’d have gone to jail, but fortunately sense prevailed and he got off.
So we moved premises. We did a deal with a record wholesaler in Leytonstone and teamed up with Virgin to form a distribution company called Palace Virgin Gold. I ran that when I was about 23.
As well as movies on video we distributed groundbreaking music longform video like Michael Jackson’s THRILLER and U2’s UNDER THE BLOOD RED SKY, two of the first really big ones that helped establish that market.
Eventually I was pulled back into Palace itself and became the head of acquisitions for both the theatrical and video company, with the not-undesirable job of going and watching films at film festivals.
Watching those films from a commercial position, looking to buy them, that’s something you’re still doing now.
I‘m very bad at buying or selling things that I don’t believe in. Some people are great at it. But if you’re looking for a theatrical distribution company, you’ve got to be so excited by what you see or what you read.
The more competitive the market becomes the earlier you have to buy films. You’re buying them on scripts, or on seeing dailies, or you’re buying them on the idea.
The more you do that, the more you realise how many potential slip-ups there are between the buying of the film, the development and production and the releasing and consuming of a film. It’s a bit like producing. With producing, if you find an idea and commit to do something, you’ve got to get up for the next two to five years still thinking that all that effort is worthwhile.
Wayne made a film last year called THE FOREIGNER that Martin Campbell directed. He eventually got it going with Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan for a budget of nearly $40 million. STX is releasing in America. Martin Campbell is a great director and he’s made a thriller that really delivers. Wayne optioned that nine years before it was made.
You just have to keep going with these things, you have to believe in them. I have a book that I optioned in 2009 and hopefully we’ll make it as a limited TV series next year. So that’s another nine years of hard labour.
Stephen Woolley was saying he was making SUFFRAGETTE for about 18 years.
Not sure I’d last that long! But I wouldn’t have thought I’d last nine, so maybe you do. It’s very hard when you’re an independent producer or someone who’s working primarily on your own. You’ve only got enough house room and resources for a certain number of projects, and each of those take on a massive importance in your life.
The more you do, and our company now has a lot of things going on, while you hope you’re as committed to each one as the next, if one hits a road bump or even a dead end, there are others to concentrate on.
How did you move from acquisitions to independent producing?
Palace went bust in 1991. It got to the point where the bottom fell out the video market, so the kind of genre titles you could buy that wouldn’t necessarily require huge theatrical commitment but were always going to do good business on video and keep cashing coming in to the company, started to get fewer and farther between.
As Palace became more successful on the theatrical side, our access to bigger films increased. But with bigger films come bigger commitments and costs of releasing. Plus of course we started producing.
Producing was Steve’s baby – Daniel Battsek and I concentrated on distribution and acquisitions. Palace had successes in production with films like SCANDAL and THE CRYING GAME.
But it also experienced difficulties due to the way some of the films were financed and that put an additional financial pressure on the company at a time when its video revenues were taking a dip.
Sometimes your hand is forced because of limited windows of opportunity with cast or other factors and you’re faced with a choice of keeping momentum, pushing forward into production before the financing is completed.
When you do that as a producer you’re committed, you’re naked and your leverage deal wise is seriously eroded. Palace ended up cash-flowing some of its productions until deals could be done to fill those gaps.
On the one half of the company, you had the video side that was contributing less money because of the video industry and the general economic climate at the end of the ’80s. At the same time, production was sucking out more money from the company.
At a certain point, Nik and Steve sought finance for the company, to shore it up, but it was too late. By then the company was in considerable amount of debt. Polygram almost bought Palace, it almost became what Working Title was to become for Polygram, their production pipeline.
Polygram did actually pump a not-insubstantial sum in to keep us going, but then in the course of their due diligence they looked at the books and went, “Whoops! No thank you.”
We were in a ridiculous situation near the end. We’d bought great films like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET but couldn’t afford the money to actually put up the P&A [Prints and Advertising], or even pay the advance.
When Palace went down, we had a slate that included RESERVOIR DOGS, HOWARD’S END, three or four other great films including TOUS LES MATINS DU MONDE. We just couldn’t afford to pay for them.
I managed to transfer the acquisition of RESERVOIR DOGS to Polygram, and it was very successful here in the UK. But we lost pretty much everything else. It took about a year for the company to die.
It was very slow. The administrators kept me on as I’d bought all the films and knew the ins and outs of the deals.
However, all efforts to sell assets were fruitless, as insolvency clauses in distribution contracts meant that the rights reverted to the owners in each case. There was no residual value in the company.
I had been there the best part of 10 years. When you’re a part of a company, you never quite know if you exist as an individual to anybody outside of that. But it transpired that I did. I had a reputation out there as someone who could spot a good film and do a good deal. I thought I should go out on my own for one and see what happened.
I managed to get a contract with a German company to buy their films for Germany and Switzerland and Austria.
And then there was Stewart Till, who some of you may have heard of. He’s been quite an influential figure in the film industry, working for Fox running Polygram International. Oddly enough, when I was 19 and signed to WEA/Warner Bros as a musician, he was my label manager, so we had history.
At the time Stewart was at Polygram and they didn’t yet have a UK distribution operation. He hired me to write their business plan, and then to do their acquisitions, as a consultant rather than an employee.
I was initially buying films for them in UK, France, Benelux [Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg], and then they added North America and Spain at a certain point. I ended up buying for about seven territories, so even though it wasn’t my own money I had a decent amount of buying power.
It was a pretty manic time. I didn’t even have an assistant and I was working from home. This was the days before email, so every night the fax machine would be spewing out reams of paper.
I had to know every film that was being made, everything that was going on, and had to guess what a French man in Paris would want to buy, which was usually everything that no-one else in the other territories wanted.
The transition to producing happened in quite a fluid way and began with the people for whom I was acquiring. The principals of the Germans company I was working with had already produced with people like John Huston and Louis Malle.
Maybe I gravitated towards producing because I can combine an understanding of the business with taste or some kind of creative sensibility. And I am curious: how are these things made? What’s the process? How can we make them better?
Sundance was a one-horse Western town, with bars with bullet holes in the roof.
I went to Sundance in ’92, in the days when there were about five people from Europe who went to the festival. It was a one-horse Western town, with bars with bullet holes in the roof. It was a fantastic festival, easier to navigate than it is now.
I was in the process of transferring the RESERVOIR DOGS acquisition over to Polygram. We’d read the script at Palace, loved it and offered $300,000 for the UK. It had been turned down and we said, “If you show us the film and we like it, we’ll double it.” I got a private screening in LA just before Sundance, met Quentin Tarantino, we paid $600,000 and everyone was happy.
At Sundance and in the process of looking for films to acquire, I saw a short film called CIGARETTES AND COFFEE by Paul Thomas Anderson. I loved it, met him, and started a dialogue with him about producing his first feature.
I also wandered into the screening of a first-time feature called PUBLIC ACCESS by Bryan Singer. PUBLIC ACCESS was made for a quarter of a million dollars.
It was set partly in a small TV studio but Bryan’s direction kept the talking heads scenes varied and always interesting. And he delivered a chilling menace at certain points in the film.
I also had brought in to the Germans a production called SIRENS, which was a John Duigan film with Hugh Grant and Elle Macpherson, which shot in Australia. We co-financed and co-produced that one and then helped make THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL BUT CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN, also with Hugh Grant, which Miramax ended up fully financing.
It was a seamless transition from acquisitions into production. As producer of THE USUAL SUSPECTS, I managed to buy my own production for Polygram.
I sent the script to Stewart Till, and I called him one day and asked if he’d read it yet. He said, “I’m on page 70, I really like it.” I said, “Call me back when you’ve finished it. There’s a little twist at the end.” And he absolutely loved it. I managed to get them to buy it for their territories, and that’s how it got made.
I’m missing out some rather major mishaps and traumas, because the German money fell out just before we were going to shoot, so we had to go back to everyone that had said no. And everyone had said no.
Because if you read that script, and it’s on the heels of RESERVOIR DOGS, and you’re lazy and only get to a certain point as some acquisitions people did, you say it’s a copy-cat.
I’m missing out some massive traumas, because the German money fell out just before we were going to shoot, so we had to go back to everyone that had said no. And everyone had said no. Because if you read that script, and it’s on the heels of RESERVOIR DOGS, and you’re lazy and only get to a certain point as some acquisitions people did, you say it’s a copy-cat.
Fortunately I read the whole thing. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
It’s one of the few recent films that can be legitimately described as iconic.
Bryan sent me the script – he’d only sent to a couple of other companies. It came through the post. I read it straight away and genuinely the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I’d read lots of scripts for acquisitions, but I’d never read anything like that.
I love American independent movies of the late ’60s and early ’70s, THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1, 2, 3, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, all those gritty crime films. And I love that smart machine gun dialogue of a decade or two before. I really connected with it in every way.
It put those together so beautifully, plus it had this intricate structure and the most amazing, you’ll never see it coming reveal. No-one knew at that point that it’s going to be successful, and in fact no-one knew all the way through that it was going to be successful.
When we first showed the film to the American distributor, the lights went up and they said, “Well that was a hoot!” They got very enthusiastic later on, but it takes a while for something like that to gain momentum. We even played in Sundance and the film didn’t get much more than a lukewarm reaction.
Bryan did some recutting on the big boat scene and then we got invited into Cannes. We were offered the choice of two screening slots, the midnight one or the afternoon slot. On good advice, we chose the less cool afternoon time because that was where the critics were going to see the film. And it paid off. They responded to it and that’s what started the ball rolling.
And the critical reaction to that film was huge, it really became part of the psyche of ’90s cinema. How big was that for your career moving forward?
It’s amazing, because I went out fairly quickly afterwards to try to finance Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film, which was originally called SYDNEY and ended up being called HARD EIGHT, and everyone still passed on it, even Polygram.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS has been fantastic for my career, in the long run. It’s an amazing calling card. I may one day have a film that’s more financially successful, who knows, but I’d be very lucky to have another film that lasts as long and becomes as iconic.
You were in charge of the Premiere Film Fund at the UK Film Council. How did your appointment come about? Was that off the back of the work you’d done with emerging directors?
When the UK Film Council was formed, I think Alan Parker was chairman at the time, and Stewart Till and Tim Bevan were involved. This was on the back of a whole bunch of negative headlines about lottery money being flushed away on films that no-one ever saw.
Prior to the UKFC, a committee at the Arts Council decided what did and didn’t get Lottery funding. That committee generally was not comprised of industry practitioners. The UKFC undertook to change the way decisions were made, and to bring people into the organisation who’d done it for real.
It’s the public’s money. There should be some kind of accountability for what it gets put into.
The more I heard about the job, the more it sounded like a never-to-be-repeated opportunity. So, I had an interview, we started discussions, and it was exciting.
Coming from distribution and producing, I did have sympathy with the argument that it’s the public’s money and there should be some kind of accountability for what it gets put into.
Helping producers to connect their films to the global market was met with resistance from some corners. But to me making a film always puts you in a position of financial responsibility as well as giving you a responsibility to your potential audience. Film making is of course a creative endeavour first and foremost. But the scale of it all, the cost of it all means other pressures are brought to bear.
It’s not like painting a picture and sticking it up in an art gallery and hoping someone comes and looks at it. Comparatively it doesn’t cost a huge amount of money to paint a picture. It may sell for a lot of money, but it doesn’t cost a lot.
It costs a hell of a lot more to make a film, and it’s someone’s money, whether it’s the government’s or a private investor or a commercial company or your own.
We’re supposed to be standing on our own two feet.
I know that sounds a bit industrial, but we are in a business. We’re not in the 16th Century where we can only rely on patronage. We’re supposed to be standing on our own two feet and not just doing this as a hobby.
So, the UK Film Council’s aim was to put that message across and, particularly with the Premiere Fund, to reflect it in making funding decisions. It inherited an environment in which it was difficult for British films to find distribution in their own backyard.
There was a feeling that producers were only in it for the fee earned by getting a film into production, without adequate regard for what happened further down the line, i.e. whether their movie would be distributed and seen. There was a disconnect between producers and distributors.
Things are healthier now people understand the value chain better and understand not only their respective place in it, but how others fit into it as well. And I think films are judged more these days on quality rather than nationality.
I was happy to live or die by my own decisions.
The Premiere Fund’s remit was to find things that had artistic merit but could also be justified financially based on certain recoupment targets. I must say I relished that challenge and it enabled me to employ the things I had learned both as distributor and producer.
I said I would only do it if I could make those decisions, I didn’t want to have to go to a committee. I was happy to live or die by my own decisions, as long as I could convince the finance team that we weren’t going to take a complete bath.
The UKFC wasn’t just about trying to help supposedly commercial films. The New Cinema Fund, run by Paul Trijbits, had a lower recoupment bar than the Premiere Fund to allow it to take bigger risks on material and help support new directors.
But I think between the two, and the development fund, there’s a body of films we backed that speaks for itself. And we probably did enough to help people start to think about more than just getting the film made.
I loved THE SURVIVALIST. Could you talk about at what point you became involved in that project?
I was introduced to Stephen [Fingleton, writer-director] through Wayne, my business partner. Stephen had made some short films and script edited for Wayne. I read THE SURVIVALIST and saw his shorts SHIRIN and DRIVER. The script was exceptional, not just because there were only 40 lines of dialogue in the whole thing.
I met Stephen in Cannes. He’s a one-off. I said to Wayne afterwards that I’d not met anyone with his film that worked out and focused since Paul Thomas Anderson. He just had everything in his head. He was very determined and impressive and on that basis, we decided to back him.
The first strategy was to make the film more than just a calling card, to go for an actor who would make the film commercially viable. Even though Stephen had an agent in the US by then, we got turned down by anyone of any note at that time, from Christian Bale onwards.
So ultimately we reached a juncture where we said to Stephen, “we still believe in you and the film, we’re going to raise enough money to make it and we’re going to get you the best possible cast of actors we can. Even if they may not mean much commercially right now, they’ll hopefully help you make a great film.”
And I think he did. He made a powerful, raw film. Of course the lesson that you learn is that, even though a film gets four and five star reviews, BAFTA nominations, wins IFTA, gets into competition at Tribeca, sells in a small number of territories, in this day and age the theatrical market for a film like that without recognised names is very, very tough. But, hey, it’s a one off and a great calling card.
I’m proud to be a part of THE SURVIVALIST. And we have made a relationship with Stephen. He’s spent 2 years writing a huge film that I hope gets made, but we keep saying to him, “You haven’t made a film since THE SURVIVALIST!” Come back and make a bigger film with us. You’ve got the reputation to attract cast now. I’m sure that we’ll work together again.
It’s one of the biggest challenges for a producer, because that is a very good way to build the business.
It is. The problem is, the more talented the director or writer-director that you are in partnership with is, the more they’re going to be tempted away. The worry is that when someone wants to stay with you, you can’t get rid of them!
Your career has been through a lot of technological change – starting out in the world of VHS –
And Betamax! Not to mention Laserdisc.
If you were starting out now, looking to produce films and get them distributed, what would platforms would you be looking to get into?
Personally, whenever I go to the NFTS, I always try to dissuade anyone from becoming a producer. Not because I don’t want the competition, but because it’s so hard and it’s only getting harder. The first thing I always say to people is don’t try it on your own. If you’re starting to produce, try to get into an established production company and learn.
The odds are massively stacked against anyone who tries to start from scratch on their own with an unknown filmmaker, without cast. If you manage to make your film, your commercial chances rest on the execution – on just making something that’s really good. And that means you’re more often going to fail than succeed . Those are the odds.
The odds are massively stacked against anyone who tries to start from scratch.
The distribution landscape has changed considerably since I entered the industry. When Palace released MONA LISA, it was possible to play a film at the Odeon Haymarket for as long as it was taking sufficient money. A successful film could theoretically hold on to a screen for six months, as MONA LISA did.
Now it’s a first weekend business. The destiny of your film is decided in those first few days and if it doesn’t perform to expectation there are others queuing up to take its place. Forget six months – you’re lucky if your film runs for six days in this day and age.
The lines between arthouse and mainstream, between what a multiplex and an independent cinema will book, have become so blurred. I think overall though for a lover of films there are so many ways to consume, so many destinations to find what you want, whether those destinations are cinemas or at home.
I still cling to the idea that the best place to see a film is the cinema. The competition for screens may be ferocious, there may not be as many venues that are dedicated to championing non-mainstream films as there used to be, but despite the many bends in the road along the way the power of film in its many forms remains undiminished.
For lower budget films, there are both more dedicated festivals and dedicated outlets.
And in terms of the distribution outlets, the good news that yes, it is easier now to distribute in certain media for less money because the theatrical first route is not the only one. It’s not only about, “I can’t get this film out unless I get a theatrical distribution and raise the money for P&A.”
For lower budget films, there are both more dedicated festivals and dedicated outlets through which one can reach an audience.
Now I don’t know the economics precisely, because I’ve not tried to do it that way. I don’t know the economics of trying to distribute through direct digital distribution as a primary goal, and how much that allows you to raise to make your film.
Platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple have stepped into the breach to ensure a broader range of films than the cinemas can show are available to an audience.
And alongside their acquisition of broadcast rights for completed movies, the likes of Netflix and Amazon are now more active than ever in financing their own films and they aren’t shy of spending.
They are building their brands and want to align themselves with talent brands, be they directors or writers or actors or IP. And they want their films to play theatrically as much for the kudos, the reviews and the awards as the revenue.
For most producers, making low to mid budget independent films is as difficult as ever.
In terms of getting the film to an audience, there are more potential outlets. But for most producers, making low to mid budget independent films is as difficult as ever. Raising film finance privately is very tough, and financing through presales generally requires an unattainable level of cast.
These films become “wait and see” movies for distributors and without the support of the BFI, the tax credit, the UK broadcasters, without regional incentives, in this country many wouldn’t get made at all.
Without that kind of funding, we couldn’t have made UK films like THE SURVIVALIST, PATCH OF FOG or POSSUM – although we did manage to make SUPERBOB without any government or subsidy funding.
The business is cyclical and now indie producers face several challenges. The presale market has all but collapsed and that means the role of bodies like the BFI takes on an even greater importance in helping a broad range of films come into being.
And if you’re in America, public funding is harder to find. You have a tax credit, depending on which state you shoot in, but then you’re looking for equity angels for finance.
So it’s mixed news as ever. The bad news is it’s still very, very hard for a producer looking to do their first, second film, if the budget can’t stretch to a “name” cast or if the idea itself isn’t financeable on the basis of genre alone.
The good news is that if they can find a way to make it, then the outlets are more numerous than they used to be. Happy hunting!