Industry focus – Sealing the deal: how to work with distributors

by cpocock

Whilst most of the country was under the weather it seemed that a trip to Berlin for the Berlinale was most appropriate. Adjacent to the main festival activities and film screenings, keen members of the audience also had the opportunity to pick from a series of talks and debates turning around the film industry organized by the Talent Campus: how to market uneasy films (offering a focus on films like Shame and the now released Nymphomaniac), translating emotions in script writing, protecting rights (review to come), etc. On Sunday 9th, February, the session entitled ‘Sealing the Deal – how to work with distributors’ was most informative.

Destined primarily to engage with people who are in the process of producing cinematographic works, this session was chaired by Ben Gibson, the Head of the London Film School and brought Cristina Garza (Mundial, Mexico), Anna Higgs (Film4, UK) and Philip Knatchbull (Artificial Eye/Curzon, UK) together to talk about the acquisition of films by sales agents and the delicate choice they will be faced with when considering their marketing.

After a short introduction into the role and duties of a sales agent, the panel offered a most insightful perspective on the diversity of approaches as to the marketing of films.

The panel mainly focussed on emphasizing the need to select a distributor carefully so as to get the best possible marketing for a film. As each cinematographic work requires special care, a good agent will provide an individual adaptation of the distribution strategy to the specific film, taking into account for instance its content and target audience. Cristina Garza illustrated this point clearly by giving some compelling examples. Having to market two Brazilian-Portuguese art house films, she explained how although this generic description of the two works makes them sound quite similar, the marketing strategy of each work had to cater for the needs of a different audience.

The conversation also touched on an industry ‘hot potato’: the modernizing of film distribution. Philip Knatchbull spoke first of this and explained the quite innovative philosophy that Curzon Cinemas live by. He detailed their daring business model which offers a fantastic opportunity to experience distribution through the new media and adapt to the ways in which consumer habits have changed. This is most topical following the release on Saturday 22nd, February of Lars Von Tries’ new film ‘Nymphomaniac’ that might prove to be a cornerstone in film distribution. This ‘marathon’ of Lars Von Tries, looking to promote the benefits of ‘day and date’ releases, was a real Event where his new film – originally produced as one six-hour long piece, later (albeit reluctantly) cut into two volumes – was shown in Curzon cinemas in a single sitting of both volumes, whilst also being made available across all Curzon cinemas and online via the home cinema option. The idea of such a model is that, following the music industry’s partial failure to adapt to the new media age, the film industry can still save itself by answering the demand by consumers for immediate availability.

A major difficulty with this business model however, as highlighted by Knatchbull, lies in the need to circumvent the 13 week period whereby a film cannot be released for sale or online viewing before 13 weeks have lapsed since the first cinema release of the work. Unsurprisingly, the larger film distributors resist any innovation here and are still holding on to this sinking ship, maintaining that this window is essential to the film business as box office sales (mostly reliant on the first weekend’s box office) is bound to remain the/their largest source of income.

This only shows how refreshing and avant-garde Curzon’s approach is and, as the conversation moved to Anna Higgs’ work, how popular this model is becoming as it has also been adopted by Film 4 who first experienced with it with their release of ‘A Field in England’. This release was a joint project with the British Film Institute and was subjected to a case study (which can be found here). Again, elements of marketing came into play as it was necessary to build the media attention around the release and further gather information to reflect on the efficacy of this strategy.

It was nevertheless highlighted that these day-and-date releases will not always be appropriate and that creating such ‘event releases’ as for ‘A Field in England’ and ‘Nymphomaniac’ do necessitate a pre-existing public interest in the cinematographic work. However, this thought-provoking report might suggest that art house films would benefit from this alternative method. And as Ken Loach said later that week when he addressed a very attentive audience (Wednesday 12th, February): ‘[w]e need to make room for national and art house films in our cinemas’.

By way of conclusion then, if there were only to be a single point to take away from this discussion I would say that, on top of the above-mentioned insight into the possible future of the film distribution, it is important to ensure a case by case handling of every deal, the choice of distributor being essential in guaranteeing the film will get the right publicity, viewings and returns.

Catherine Pocock is Assistant Editor for QMJIP and an LLM Candidate at the Centre for Commercial Law Studies, Queen Mary University of London