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SPADA: what do independent distributors want?

Tait Brady, former CEO of Palace Films (Australia) and now script assessor and consultant talked with Danny Perkins, CEO of the UK’s Optimum Releasing, founded in 1999 and bought five years ago by the French company Studio Canal, a division of Canal+.

The session began with Brady commenting on the lack of nightlife in Wellington, to which Perkins responded with the observation that “There’s not a lot of night life in Auckland either, it seems.” The jokey banter continued with the idea that the answer to the question posed by the topic could be summarised as “Good films, not dogs”, or “Films with helicopters in them”, and “Anything with Steven Seagal in it”. The latter turned out to have a measure of truth in it, however – apparently any DVD with Seagal in it will sell a minimum of 15,000 DVDs in its first week of release in the UK.

A number of Australasian films Optimum have acquired over the years were mentioned, including In My Father’s Den, Eagle vs Shark (“We should have held it till after Flight of the Conchords, they really cut through”) and Animal Kingdom (“The director is one of the nicest guys in the world – a surprise given the content of the film”). Perkins expressed surprise they’d not bought more Australasian films, given the level of talent down under. He’s all in favour of co-production between NZ and the UK – our advantage lies in the common language – but with our films being different from those from the UK and the USA.

Perkins’ overall tone was one of optimism. Times may be tough, but they’ve always been tough – although the new British government’s abolishing of the UK Film Council seemed to be a concern.

The impact of digital took up a good proportion of the session – discussing the expansion of platforms and how, ultimately, digital will only improve things – not least by making the audience more screen-literate, which in turn pushes up expectations and thus quality. Digital has meant more access to films, especially for those not close to cinemas, and to a greater variety of content. Cinema attendance has increased.

Compression of release stages through the various platforms, partly as a result of piracy, has meant that the need for repeated publicity expenditure has lessened. “Don’t be afraid – embrace developments; they can invigorate business rather than killing it.”

After all this, the discussion moved closer to the topic of the session. Distributors are getting closer to production – rather than simply buying completed product, they’re getting more and more involved in production, though as financiers rather than producers. After all, they wouldn’t want producers telling them how to distribute… although these distributors’ involvement is increasingly reaching into script development, casting and suchlike. It’s easier to fix something on the page than in shooting or post! And getting closer to production was Canal’s rationale for their purchase of Optimum.

So what do they as distributors want? A script in the best possible shape, and a director capable of delivering. For Optimum, it’s not just about material that will work in the marketplace, but also nurturing talent. Similarly, being commercial needn’t be vulgar and only about money and the bottom line all the time – it should be about getting the film out to as wide an audience as possible. Amores Perros was described as a film that did not tick of the conventional boxes on the checklist for success, but was a work of genius…

The session concluded with a discussion of their new film, a remake of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock – a project initiated by Perkins’ business partner, with a new writer/director brought in to provide a new vision.

What do indie distributors look for in a film? What any producer looks for, I guess.

Perkins’ hint for the day: “The King’s Speech (due to be released in NZ soon) is going to sweep the board at the BAFTA. And the Oscars.”

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