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A Week In Film Purchasing

July 9, 2009

One of the reasons for this blog’s existence is to provide a place for me to work through the ideas that are cluttering up my head.  I do not write for any particular audience, I write for my own sake because otherwise I would not be able to get anything done.  One of the topics I frequently wrestle with is the ‘job’ of the critic.  Its ethics, its philosophical posture and its practicalities.  However, a good film critic is not only an analyst, he is also someone who has to have a feel for the film business.  An understanding of the realities of film-making.  Last week, I experienced something that addressed this much neglected practical side of ‘knowing about film’.

My brother runs a film distribution business in France and he was over in the UK in order to attend the London UK Film Focus event at the NFT on the Southbank.  London UK Film Focus is essentially a series of screenings over a few days with some hospitality and drinks receptions thrown in.  The idea being that while a buyer might not travel to London to see any of the particular films of offer, they might well travel to see a dozen or so films screened back to back.  LUFF, as some call it (presumably those who don’t know about the always amusing Lausanne Underground Film Festival) has a rather Spartan website that gives few clues about what is being shown because the event is aimed not at journalists, cinephiles and critics but at buyers.  A lot of the films at LUFF were receiving their first proper screenings anywhere, before they even appear on the festival circuit.

I was there in order to give my brother my ‘expert opinion’ on which films were worth checking out.  However, I think it’s fair to say that I got more out of it from my presence there than he did.

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The Delegates.


LUFF took place during the hottest week of the year in London and as a result people were dressed casually.  However, they were not dressed casually for the heat… they were dressed casually because I suspect that this is how they usually dress.  The representatives of production companies, sales agencies and international distribution companies are a casual bunch slowly approaching middle age.  Presumably this odd demographic is determined by the fact that once you are comfortably ensconced in middle age, you generally have people to attend these kinds of events for you.  Unless there’s champagne on offer or a deal to close, the underlings can handle it.

Aside from the dress and the age, you can recognise a LUFF delegate by their blackberry, their shoulder bag (usually containing armfuls of DVD screeners) and the thousand yard stare of someone who watched half a dozen films yesterday and knows for certain that they’ll watch at least as many films today.  To the LUFF delegate, the phrase “I actually watched all of it” is something of a compliment.

The LUFF delegates belong to an international economic niche.  They know each other on sight and people are either worthy of being greeted in one of the many languages at a delegate’s disposal or they warrant a nervous hunching of the shoulders and a whispered “Christ… I didn’t know he was going to be here”.  There is also a feel of people always negotiating.  This is a world in which an conversation about one film can lead to early-stage investment in another via a simple “what are you working on now?  Oh yes?  Well keep me in the loop as soon as you can talk about it”.  The world of film purchasing is one built upon rumour and networking and instinct.  It is one that seems to invite people to gamble.

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The Screenings.


One of the people I attended London UK Film Focus with admitted that she had not paid to go to the cinema in an age.  It is easy to see why.  You do not pay to attend screenings.  You get to see films months ahead of everyone else.  You have complimentary food and drink.  The auditoriums are seldom full.  You do not have to sit through adverts.  You do not have to sit twiddling your thumbs because the film doesn’t start on time.  Oh… and the audience know how to behave.

While the rest of the day sees the delegates spastically twitching to check their blackberries, the second the film starts, they turn their phones off.  People do not text or talk during the film.  During one screening I was absent-mindedly jiggling my leg, I was hushed twice by someone who has clearly never sat through a film in a South London multiplex on a weekend evening.

But for all of their good behaviour, the delegates are not a forgiving bunch.  Any film you have an interest in can be re-watched via a requested DVD screener and so delegates happily walk in and out of the films on offer.  “It was quite good, I saw 20 minutes of it” is frequently overheard between screenings.  This is why “I actually watched all of it” is something of a compliment.  In a job where you are constantly surrounded by new films, it takes something special for you to bother to sit through an entire film.  Especially if you are not the person who ultimately makes the purchasing decision.

Of course, given that some of these were world premiers, there were some non-pros in attendance.  The sales agent for the reasonably Cherrybomb made sure to invite a number of Harry Potter fans (it stars Rupert Grint AKA Ron Weasley AKA the one that can act), who came with T-shirts they had printed themselves.  Weirdly, the sales agent brought the presence of fans to my attention.  Call me a cynic but I couldn’t help but wonder whether these fans were not included in order to make potential purchasers believe that the film would appeal to the Potter legions.  The IMDb page suggests that the film might very well find an audience but I thought it could have done with a couple of re-writes.

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The Films.

The films were at least partially British.  There were some co-productions and there were a few films made with non-British actors but most of the films were recognisably British.  The films were varied but one obvious comment to make about them is that 2009-2010 is clearly going to be a bumper year for British Horror.  Nick Cohen’s The Reeds and Christopher Smith’s Triangle are both very well directed and have enough about them to secure theatrical releases (Triangle is getting quite a large release in the autumn).  Unfortunately though, these were the only really stand-out titles.  Many of the others had Danny Dyer in them.  Oh Dear.

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The Market

We often hear about tax loopholes and the importance of financial incentives to get certain kinds of films made.  These days, to finance a film you do not simply have to know how to raise money, you also need to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of international tax law.  Not only do film professionals pay attention to every possible loop hole (including fudges like selling the negatives to a second company and then renting them back in order to save money) but they also need to understand the politics of investment.  For example, there are a number of film investment funds capitalised with private equity.  These financial entities work a lot like the hedge funds that buy up stock but instead they invest their money in various productions.  Regardless of how much these funds invest, they have to make their money back first.  It is not enough to get one’s money back, it is also the speed with which you get said money back that determines whether or not one invests and so producers need to know who to pay off first and that doesn’t necessarily mean the largest investors.

Another interesting fact about the market is that prices do not only vary according to a film’s budget.  Larger sales companies demand larger profit margins or they might have bought out another smaller company and so distributors are frequently keen to deal with smaller companies.  Similarly, in order to get into markets such as Cannes or Sundance, films have to jump through more hoops than at smaller regional festivals and so many distributors find themselves going to places like Africa and Asia in order to get a chance to buy films before they come to the attention of larger sales agencies operating in Europe or America.  Indeed, the key to getting a good deal is to buy early and so many companies try to buy not only at smaller festivals but also at earlier stages of a film’s development.  So films are bought based on footage, based on scripts and based upon the names attached to them.  It is not uncommon for films to be purchased sight-unseen, but buy into a film too early and you stop being a mere distributor or sales agent, you become a producer.  Indeed, if you put several hundred thousand euros into a film that is currently being made, the temptation to ask for rushes and to tell the line producers to make changes must be almost uncontrollable.

If a lot of the nomenclature of this piece is unclear it is because the actual positions on the food chain are also unclear.  Between a film being made and a film making it to general release there are producers, sales agents and distributors, all of whom come on board at different times and the point at which these people fit into these job descriptions seems to also vary from film to film.

The nuts and bolts of the film purchasing business are partly financial, partly aesthetic and partly a matter of personality.  On a financial level, one must be able to know not only the market now but what the market might be like a few months down the road.  Which stars will the punters come out for?  Which types of films do people want to see?  These can change over time and so, the earlier you buy into a project the more you must be able to predict the future character of the audience.  This is, of course, assuming that you have a finished film to make your judgements upon.  People who buy into films prior to the film festival circuit must be able to work out, depending upon which stage they enter the arena,  a) whether a better cut of the existing film might improve it, b) whether the footage you have seen indicate a good final film, c) whether a script you have read will result in a good film and d) whether the people attached to the project will be able to work together and make something of the script.  the earlier you buy into a film, the more of a gamble it is and the more you have to make aesthetic projections.

Given the challenges of purchasing it is little surprise that some good films don’t get the distribution they deserve and that some genuinely terrible films get pumped into every cinema on the face of the Earth.

4 Comments
  1. July 13, 2009 9:21 am

    Ah yes. The Industry part of the Film Industry. I have seen it close up and it has always left me reeling. Attending Cannes a a few years back I starred into the abyss of the Marche Du Film, basically an enourmous market in which completed films desperately seek out distributors. It underlined that getting a film made is a fraction of the battle. Getting it seen is where the blood is really shed.

    This is compunded by the fact most people at Cannes haven’t actually been to see a film, and spend more time at parties envying VIP areas.
    Certainly, the screening culture leaves people jaded and uncertain. I am currently privvy to the process re television, and it functions just like the City, with Keynes’s ‘animal spirits’ dictating all. A show that has received a bid froma network will automatically receive further bids almost be default, where as nobody will bid on something nobody else is bidding on. Inevitable chick and egg circumstances ensue.

    Elsewhere – BAFTA itself is about as demoralising a place as you could ever envisage. No energy, little passion, and only busy when there’s a corprate function.

    It’s a miracle anything good ever comes from the industry yet somehow, it does.

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  2. July 13, 2009 10:59 am

    I was actually pleasantly surprised.

    I imagined that the film industry would be full of the kind of ‘business people’ that feature in The Apprentice – People who ‘project manage’ and ‘sell’ but could be doing it with fridges or cars or films interchangeably. While there are people like that they are outnumbered by people who do actually care about films and do have some kind of aesthetic sensibility. Though admittedly this might be due to the fact that a lot of the films were low budget and more or less arty niche works. Had they been screening Transformers 2 I suspect there would have been far more amorphous ‘suits’ in attendance.

    One thing I did notice is that thinking about films in terms of what is likely to sell is actually quite a depressing way of thinking. You tend to focus upon films’ failings far more than you do their positive elements and a lot of screenings are attended with an attitude of “you have thirty minutes to impress me or I’m leaving”, but then this attitude is countered by people taking gambles on films they haven’t seen on the grounds that they’ve heard ‘good things’.

    I suspect that this is a reflection of the money involved. It pushes people to be less forgiving and more conservative and almost irrational and superstitious in their beliefs about what people want to see. For example, I heard someone declare that nobody wanted to see films with drug addicts in them… but surely everyone would want to see a really good film about junkies?

    I can imagine BAFTA would be quite a depressing place :-)

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  3. July 13, 2009 2:49 pm

    I imagine much of what goes at such occasions (not least, the bigger battle being getting the film seen, after it’s been made) goes for the culture-buying and selling industry in general-publishing for instance-to go with what I’ve seen of it.

    The connection of the financial stakes with the irrationality described here is interesting, and all too true-ironically, given that the market’s justification has traditionally been the “rational actor.”

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  4. July 13, 2009 9:59 pm

    Hi Nader :-)

    Well… once you get further up the ladder the irrationality might well give way to more traditional business-type thinking but we are dealing with smaller films and I do think that on that side of the continuum it is something of a lottery whether or not your film gets a theatrical release in any particular territory.

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