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Producing films with the market in mind

Many independent films are made by producers or auteur directors who are, first-and-foremost, driven to tell a particular story. The story may be of their own imaginative devising, or it may be someone else's tale that they have been drawn to and want to develop. It may be something they have adapted personally, or a script that they shoot pretty much verbatim.

Either way, very few producers are making films specifically for the current marketplace, and often they have little understanding of the theatrical or home entertainment landscape at present for independent films, and the obstacles that undoubtedly they will face.

There are, of course, many exceptions to this and there are also producers who have come from distribution, who are making films with a specific market in mind. An example of this would be Rod Smith, who set up Evolution Pictures after years acquiring for Anchor Bay in the UK, who is known for producing UK crime movies featuring well known genre actors.

Distribution for independent films in the UK is under somewhat of a radical upheaval right now, and has been changing steadily for many years. The vertically integrated exhibitor/distributors, Curzon and Picturehouse, have a distinct advantage in being able to program their own acquisitions, whilst other independent distributors are either struggling to regularly make films work theatrically or are leaving the space altogether - in favour of multi-platform or premium video on demand (PVoD) style releases - where the theatrical element makes up only a small part of the overall release, and can be a '4-wall' arrangement - where the distributor effectively rents the screens, either for one show or several. Traditionally these shows are very poorly attended, especially if left to their own devices and not heavily promoted at a local level, or have cast and crew Q&A's attached to them in order to draw a crowd.

Often this 'theatrical' release is only put in place to achieve the coveted national press reviews, which are required for wider awareness. This mass-awareness comes at a relatively low cost and it also means that Video on Demand (VoD) platforms can describe the content they are promoting as being 'also in cinemas' - lending the content a premium price tag and a certain cache.

The industry is, however, becoming wary of such practices, limiting access to these precious national press screenings for releases that are seen to be 'using' the system. There is then the issue of often (very) low box office receipts, which can end up being spun as a negative PR story in national media/newspapers, if a major star is attached to the project. This can then turn into an embarrassing, if not damaging, public relations nightmare. This has happened on numerous occasions previously, and stories have circulated widely between national media outlets, and no-doubt got back to the stars themselves, as well as their agents.

Distributors, still willing to pay decent MG's for films and release them traditionally in cinemas, are primarily interested in protecting their return on investment, as well as their (potentially precarious) cash-flow. They will be strictly pragmatic about the rights they have paid for and can easily decide to eschew more expensive routes to market (a theatrical release) in favour of a fast and lucrative Subscription Video on Demand) (SVoD - Netflix / Amazon Prime etc.) deal, if one is offered. What also happens is distributors buying the rights to a film and then showing it to cinema exhibitors, who then decline to book it, forcing the distributor to find faster ways to market, often leaving the producers bitterly disappointed.

That is fine of course if it's just about the money, but most producers I have encountered still want a traditional theatrical release and, understandably, want their vision seen on a big cinema screen and with a decent audience in attendance. A big ask in today's market.

The theatrical release dream is becoming less and less of a reality though for independent producers, and this summer has seen numerous casualties in regards to low cinema admissions and insufficient box office returns. The weather has certainly played a massive part in this, but that is always a risk-factor at this time of year. Films also have had to compete with the World Cup and Wimbledon.

More quality films are being left on the shelf at markets too, and in many cases minimum guarantees (MG's) are tumbling. I was completely incredulous that a few really stunning films at Cannes this year remained unsold beyond the first weekend. Really amazing films that would have been snapped up a year or so earlier, with bidding wars ensuing. So a disconnect is absolutely emerging between producers and distributors, and ultimately cinema-going customers in this space.

I intend to try and help producers understand the current marketplace and advise them about realities that must be confronted. What distributors will, and can, do with their creation, and what they should reasonably expect from particular platform audiences. Some cast choices won't bring people into cinemas, and some genres won't work sufficiently on DVD. It's a hugely complex space right now, a space lacking in solid independent advice and mentoring. There are still successes to be had, so long as films are well-cast, budgeted and ultimately positioned - but the market can be merciless if these elements are not fully aligned at the outset of a production.

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