What I learned working for Revolver Entertainment
Revolver Entertainment was founded in 1997 and folded 16 years later on March 5th, 2013. Revolver won multiple marketing awards during their time on the U.K. distribution scene and also successfully produced their own films, through a sister company, Gunslinger Films.
I joined Revolver in the summer of 2010, just after the theatrical release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, ahead of the release of The Kid. I had come across Revolver in several different capacities previously, most notably when I worked for Momentum Pictures, and our sales team had represented their product for a period of time, but also when I worked agency-side, and my design team had pitched for the key-art work on the U.K. release of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.
I had, of course, seen the CEO, founder and owner, Justin Marciano, around the industry a fair amount, and witnessed him pick up marketing awards, always rocking a kind of pre-Tom Ford look, with Gucci sunglasses, crisp white shirt…permanently undone a couple of buttons too many and sporting a swish citrus cologne that he never revealed the name of.
Revolver were also synonymous for their stagey PR stunts and making films sell using grassroots techniques, not having to resort to any heavy reliance on paid-media. I joined them very much in the knowledge that I would be pushed far outside of my comfort zone. And push me they did…
Revolver were infamous for recreating the iconic poster for Kidulthood but replacing the key cast heads with the faces of the then Tony Blair cabinet, booking a major roadside 48 sheet and causing a genuine local media-frenzy in the process. The trouble was, there was always the expectation to replicate such activity, which is just not an easy thing to do.
On the Friday of my very first week, I sat down in the plush in-house screening room (yes, with real cinema seats – this was Revolver, after all – oh, if only those seats could talk!) to watch A Serbian Film, uncut. I have a fairly weak disposition for horror and extreme cinema, so this truly was a testing experience, and some of those scenes will stay with me until the day I die! Goodbye comfort zone, hello extreme art house horror!
Those who know me would not exactly describe me as ‘street’. In actual fact, most of the people who worked at Revolver at the time were not particularly that way inclined either. Some more so than others, perhaps, although the office playlist (and decibel levels) might have made you feel otherwise! (working at Revolver was like being in a Belgian techno club, with Sofie on reception keeping the decks spinning all day long (ok, I have to fess-up, it was actually a CD player), but if you were lucky you might catch a few mellow Sade tracks if you were in before 10am.
Revolver was definitely ahead of the curve when it came to social media marketing and even had a dedicated in-house social marketing manager. The results of this focus were winning accolades such as the Grand Prix trophy - for Anuvahood, at the inaugural Social Buzz Awards. Nobody was that fussed about attending at the time, as I recall, but the eternally dedicated Theatrical Marketing Manager, James Merchant, stepped up to the plate, only to become the main man of the night when the Anuvahood campaign also won the award for best overall social campaign. I doubt that any other distributors at the time had even thought about hiring a dedicated social media manager, and that kind of thing was clearly down to Justin and his instinct and vision.
I recall, with some trepidation, the day we decided to drop the Anuvahood trailer, on a then ‘fan-gated’ Facebook page. Shall we just say that tensions ran high. Our response to the film on Twitter was so intense that the Anuvahood hashtag was simply a waterfall of fresh notifications on the day of release. I sat agog watching them notch up during the Friday ‘Beer O’Clock’ session that evening. I have never seen that sort of level of engagement since. Nowhere near it. The organic social engagement was just unreal and was massively helped by the cast-members themselves, who were clearly early social media influencers, long before Zoella was even a thing!
The biggest thing I learned at Revolver was how you could take something arguably small and make something really big from it. Anuvahood is a great example of that but then again, so was Fire in Babylon…
I remember being called into a mid-week screening of a documentary on cricket. I had to take a strong coffee in with me to keep me from snoozing. (Did I mention that we also had a proper barista coffee machine?). I knew nothing about cricket and cared less about it than you could imagine – but the film soon had me hooked. Afterwards, we have a team huddle and Justin starts talking about hosting a West End premiere for it, and I’m just standing there thinking that he’s lost the plot! However, it all happened as he said it would, and the release was a huge success. I eventually walked down that red gold and green carpet, leading up to the Odeon Leicester Square, a changed man.
I had witnessed what could happen if you truly believed in a film, positively joined forces across multiple business functions and forged a truly long-lead planning campaign. We met with the producers every week for around 3 months in advance, strategising and all pulling together, with each and every one of us believing in something that we all knew was great. No idea was too outlandish, no detail too small.
Previously I had worked mostly in home entertainment – at Universal Pictures, and then at Momentum Pictures, but my theatrical releasing experience was somewhat limited until that point. We didn’t tend to meet up much with the filmmakers when pushing DVD releases, especially at a time when the format was absolutely flying – we didn’t really need to. Seeing how long-lead planning across all functions of the supply-chain could turn a cricket doc into a box office hit, and then to go on and sell a decent chunk of DVD’s was truly inspiring. Many a time since I have been caught up in the releasing films without anywhere near this kind of approach to success being in place.
On my last theatrical release, Edie, I used what I learned at Revolver, bringing together the director, producer and joint agencies to regularly meet and plan the release, and it certainly paid-off as well. But so often there’s not enough time to build enough momentum and no real joint functional impetus, either…
Another area that Revolver excelled in around that time was acquiring, and flipping, direct to DVD films and turning them into mass-selling hits. Just as I joined, Revolver were enjoying huge sales on a direct to DVD movie called Nazi Dawn, which was actually a film called Deadwater (it’s rated 4/10 on iMDB) – but a nifty title-change and an impactful sleeve – somewhat reminiscent of Ghost Ship, certainly had the tills ringing at ASDA and Tesco. Previously, the distributors I had worked for would not have considered going rogue and changing the name of the film, let alone repositioning (or ‘miss-selling’) it. These were renegades at work, but it was clearly working!
The success of Anuvahood (£2.1M box office - and no, that is not a typo!) was also down to a combination of extreme ambition and meticulous cross-departmental planning. The company had wisely also turned to self-production, setting up Gunslinger Films, who had a really decent run of success with low budget urban dramas at that time, with Nick Taussig taking over the running of the sister-company (he’s now running the hugely successful Salon Pictures with fellow Gunslinger producer and writer, Paul Van Carter).
The marketing campaign for the Anuvahood release started before the film even started shooting – with a dedicated YouTube channel put in place, a highly sophisticated flash website (Justin loved his websites) and an original music video with which to push out through the ultra-long-lead social media pages, which then saw phenomenal rates of organic likes and follows. Ambition certainly paid off on that release and I was equally determined to make a success of the DVD release - so much so, that I hired a bus and fully liveried it from head to toe in Anuvahood yellow branding, before setting out on a nationwide promotional road-trip with the cast (including multiple motorway stops at Kentucky Fried Chicken).
However, not one day passed during my eighteen months where I felt completely relaxed, and not even on a weekend. I would regularly get e-mails on a Saturday pointing out a dead link from a website, or suchlike, and there was genuine pressure to meet weekly sales and social media targets. I even had my trip to the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 cancelled at the last minute, so that I could, instead, focus on releasing a couple of direct to video releases that were out the following week, but had already used up their meagre marketing budgets. In truth there wasn’t a lot I could have done for them anyway, at that stage…
It was a high-pressured environment where you felt that you simply had to succeed and, just as things got harder financially, there was the added pressure of suppliers getting understandably agitated about late payments etc. I don’t intent to get into all of that here, but no doubt any mention of Revolver will stir a mixture of emotions in the wider trade.
I also only worked at Revolver for 18 months, so this is not my story to tell. I just wanted to share some of my personal learnings from working at what was an extraordinary and unique distributor. Justin once told me that marketing was an ‘attitude’. I didn’t know what to say at first, but I eventually understood what he meant by it, even if it’s not strictly true. I guess that it made sense through his own personal view of Revolver – which was all about making the product work, regardless of what it was, and how good it was, although the company had shown flashes of Midas in the past, it was my belief that you simply couldn’t work that magic on literally everything. My take-away from it was that entertainment marketing is a function that you should certainly apply attitude to, along with passion and a heap of ambition.
Some other memories to cherish: the remote-control helicopter crashing into, and shattering, a neon sign above the PR department's desk, the fact that we literally worked in the set of Antonioni’s Blow Up. The posh lady who lived behind us who’d send us notes through a gap in the window on the back of 8x10 glossy photos of Faye Dunaway, the Tuesday morning meetings of either glory or shame, where you had to talk about your achievements (or lack of) that week, the legendary Christmas party films where Howard from web-development revealed he was actually a heavyweight Robert De Niro impersonator, being gifted high dosage Valium in my Secret Santa, hanging out with the fictional William And Kate - and countless other anecdotes revolving around stuff like the mock-mugging of reality TV stars at film premiere’s and outrageously fake PR stories which were set up in women’s weeklies…
The Revolver staff were wonderful, talented people and I will forever be grateful to have worked alongside them. Hopefully this blog will encourage others to share some of their own anecdotes…
A special mention to our colleague and friend Anil Taurah, who will be hugely missed by all who knew him, and worked alongside him.