An Open Letter to North West Vision & Media about exhibition and distribution (sent 16th February 2009)

Doubtless North West Vision received much good feedback from Elizabeth Draper’s talk on distribution, 2nd February 2009. And this would be hardly surprising given Elizabeth’s more than 25 years experience working at the highest level with the distribution arms of both major American and French studios, together with Icon which substantially acts on behalf of the American (and French) majors in the UK and certain other English-speaking markets.

However your publicised claim that “This is a fantastic opportunity for the region’s many talented filmmakers … to realise the possibilities available after their film has been created” was and is nothing short of irresponsible.

The plain facts are that it is US/UK, together with French/UK, co-productions – what the Film Council calls “British Studio Films” that get both distribution and general theatrical release. Independent British films with around £1.5 million budgets and some stars, whether Film Council sponsored or not, average £60,000 at the box office, so it is little wonder that UK distributors such as Icon would rather acquire the UK rights to American films. And then the fifty or so remaining British distributors only stay in business by an almost exclusive policy of handling heavily subsidised non-UK European productions. Hence, under this system, regional independent British filmmakers are firmly at the bottom of the pile.

As your own excellent report, “Defying Gravity” pointed out, most of the region’s new producers don’t “seem to really appreciate how restricted the distribution
opportunities for independent productions in the mainstream are.” Unfortunately Elizabeth Draper did nothing to dispel these delusions, in fact quite possibly the reverse.

But would a representative from one of the small distributors have been more appropriate or useful? I have spoken to many in private; some have also gone on public record, and they all say that, as far as no-to-micro-budget British films are concerned, pretty much all they can do is to try to distribute and sell them on the internet – that other than four-walling a London independent for a week at considerable cost in order to get some reviews in the nationals they can’t get exhibition.

Because of this many filmmakers are turning to DIY distribution, with now even some Sundance successes turning down lucrative offers; and to new exhibition strategies. Let’s face it, the multiplexes are the home for big budget effects-laden and soon to be 3D movies; they are the equivalent of the West End Theatre. Features made by North West filmmakers on no/micro-budgets are the equivalent of fringe theatre. They belong in arts centres, little independent cinemas, in film clubs, colleges and universities. But these screenings need to be promoted – we need it for our films to go out on tour! And organised tours would also give purpose to DSN screenings too.

North West Vision and Media could make a huge contribution to such an initiative for comparatively little money. It’d be a “win-win” situation all round. It would be good to talk!

Best wishes, Jon Williams, producer and columnist for MovieScope Magazine

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