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Launching Cinema For a Pound

There are a handful of film festival markets where buyers gather to make acquisitions: Toronto, Sundance, Venice, Berlin and Cannes. There is also the American Film Market – which isn’t a festival but a marketplace that screens 100s of movies for buyers. There are other festivals where acquisitions are made but I suspect the 80/20 rule applies to film festivals too. In other words, 80% of all acquisitions will probably be made at the top film festivals and 20% of acquisitions will be made at the rest.

The problem for indie films is that most of the slots at Venice or Cannes are already taken by movies with distribution in place – with big stars attached and a lot of money being invested. Please note. I am not complaining. This is our system. It is what it is.

At Sundance, which does have a focus on first time feature film makers and will also champion the movies without distribution, there might be 80 features selected from over 12,000 submissions.

However, traditionally, at Sundance, you may also be up against agency packaged movies - with the star talent that Studios pay huge sums of money for.

If your movie doesn't have "names" then it will be harder to get noticed. That's fine. When you became an indie filmmaker, one of the oaths you took was to uncover new talent OR get a star name in your movie for no money. It's either one or the other. Uncover new talent for no money or convince established talent for no money. And when I say "no money" it will still be a lot more than most people get paid to be a teacher or a nurse. Let me repeat that. When people talk about "no money" in the film business it's still money.

There will be, in that pile of films that never make it to one of the game changing festivals, 100s of movies, possibly 1000s of movies worthy of finding an audience that simply will never be considered and may completely disappear. We all know about this problem. We know there are audiences for many movies that will simply never meet each other.

Having had previous experience of beating the odds and knowing the power of a theatrical release, I am looking at self distribution again with my own theatrical release for my new feature film, The Wife and Her House Husband – (See trailer here) which is a mirco-budget feature shot for less than £280k.

I didn’t get into any of these game changing festivals with my debut feature film Papadopoulos and Sons. And yet, it was eventually well received by critics and loved by audiences. It can now be seen on BBC iPlayer, after the BBC renewed the licence for the UK TV broadcasting rights in the Summer of 2020 for a further ten years.

In the end, Papadopoulos and Sons outperformed many of the movies that made it into the big festivals – which raises the question, how else can indie filmmakers build an audience outside the existing system? It was the question I asked before with Papadopoulos and Sons and I am asking it again, nearly a decade later.

For Papadopoulos and Sons I was able to target the Greek and Cypriot diaspora in the UK – which has a strong identity. The cinema release was conventional. I went into a dozen screens, marketed my release (using guerrilla tactics) got a brilliant screen average, expanded the release to other sites, got good critical responses and was able to sell the film to Netflix, Arte, in-flight, DVD the BBC, territories across the world.

Whilst the cinema release for Papadopoulos and Sons was a successful commercial venture, making all the money back I spent on the release, and a profit, I realised that the bigger prize for the indie filmmakers was the commercial opportunities that could follow a theatrical release.

A big budget studio movie needs to make a lot of money at the box office to start paying back. What I realised with Papadopoulos and Sons was that an indie film just needs to capture people’s attention – not necessarily make money – in order to potentially open other commercial opportunities – in flight, streamers, broadcasters, VOD. It’s still a big world. There are billions of people. We're all watching a screen.

At just £280k, The Wife and Her House Husband doesn’t have to do too much to recoup. It could, in theory, be one streamer, paying (for them) a modest fee. But they need a reason to buy you. You need to be turning heads and sparking up critics. Cinema For a Pound is effectively a distribution initiative designed to turn heads and spark critics at a cinema on my own doorstep. You don't need Cannes. Your indie filmmaking mantra is "Don't compete in a furnace, when you can start your own fire at your local independent cinema!"

Also, let's look at "the dream" in a little more detail.

I’ve spoken to people who had their movie at Sundance. I spoke to one filmmaker who told me his entire dream fell apart at Sundance when Harvey Weinstein who was the big buyer there – something we don’t talk about anymore – walked out his screening, drunk, about 30 minutes into his movie. The atmosphere in the cinema room deflated. The "King" had passed judgement and room followed suit. I spoke to that filmmaker at length on a call and I’m not sure he has ever recovered from that experience. He deserved better. His film deserved better. You see, even when you're "living the dream" you're still often giving up your power to someone else: an agent, a distributor, a film festival. Truly, the only thing that matters is the story you tell and its audience. And you have control over both. That is spirit of self distribution. Your story. Your audience. That is the spirit of independent filmmaking. You had it in you when you made the film, why hand it over so quickly? It's your baby.

You can also get your movie into a great film festival, get picked up by the wrong distributor, who suddenly doesn’t want to invest in your baby, or just doesn't know how to release it, and end up with the wrong release and you quietly die another way. Again, I have heard countless stories of good films that were not distributed correctly – some with big names and big budgets too.

That is why I have launched “Cinema for a Pound” and I'm doing it with my tax credit from the BFI. For me, that's around £50k on a £280k budget. Well, in truth, we only spent £260k and I saved £20k of the budget for distribution. Your tax credit works out to around 20% of the overall budget of your movie. So, I have a war chest of around £70k which I am using to "four wall". This means I am going to hire the screens outright, which then gives me the opportunity to charge whatever I want. In this case, just £1.

Yes, I will make a loss on the theatrical release but it's a lot less money spent than the blockbusters spend to do exactly the same thing. The difference is, I am looking to open up commercial windows on a £280k budget picture. And they are trying to recoup the costs of a movie that cost 10s of millions at the box office. It's the film distribution equivalent of the tortoise and the hare. I'm really in no rush. In fact, I am touring "Cinema for a Pound" slowly across the country, drinking tea and engaging audiences. I am going from city to city. And I will introduce every screening.

And if I don't open up those commercial windows? If I don't get a streamer come in for me? I'd have had the time of my life introducing a double bill of my movies for just £1 up and down the country. Sign up! Come and say hello. And bring 9 friends. It will only cost you £10!

I still have to convince cinemas to "four wall". It's a tough sell. I have no festival screenings (yet), no critics, no audiences, no star names. And I am asking cinemas to sell me their spaces and for a discount. But I am loving this challenge.

It will be a double bill with my successful short film, Two Strangers Who Meet Five Times (Watch it here) which is approaching 3m views on Youtube and my new feature film The Wife and Her House Husband.

I am looking at cinema as an audience building event for two indie films that were written and made from my heart. Honest and real. There are no guns, there is no violence. There are no gangsters or zombies. And that makes finding an audience more difficult. Because there is no genre I can hang my indie hat on. There are no stars, no big budgets. So, I have to be bolder. Hence, a double bill for just £1. Hence, the challenge.

When I'm making a movie, I feel alive. I am in flow. When I am self distributing, I get the same feeling I get when I am on a movie set. It's the same sense of aliveness. I feel alive on a film set. It brings the best out of me. It's like being in love. The same energy. My wife says I'm a different person when I'm making a movie.

Truly, I get the same sense of aliveness when self distributing. I think this is because it's part of the same spirit.

And I'm excited at what these two films will do in front of an audience.

What I don't have in special effects and explosions is emotion. In the end, it's not the budget that counts, or even the star names, but the emotions that we can generate. That's the leveller. That's your shot at the title. That's your Non League team knocking out a Premiership team in the FA Cup. Put my Double Bill up against a $50m budget picture. I want to see that fight.

Come. If you’re not moved, I’ll give you your pound back.

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