Leading US independent distributors talk to Ben Roberts, director of the BFI Film Fund, about their film acquisitions strategies and what they look for in UK films.

Cannes Panel UK US

US acquisition heads Dori Begley (Magnolia Pictures), Arianna Bocco (IFC Films) and Ray Strache (Fox Searchlight) shed light on the buying of British films for US independent distributors in a panel at the UK Film Centre, held at the Cannes Film Festival.

Ben Roberts, director of the BFI Film Fund, led the lively discussion amongst the competitive peers - tackling questions including which types of films work in the US market and what types of finance models proved most successful.  

British films in the US market

Bocco, IFC’s senior VP Acquisitions and co-productions, ascertained smaller comedies like Submarine have a tougher time in the US market, whereas films with older casts such as Lady In The Van and 45 Years worked well.

“It’s the Downton Abbey audience. The older, period-driven films with strong reviews are performing strongly for us at the moment,” said Bocco, who estimated a yearly average of 50-60 films on the company’s release slate.

The executive also highlighted comedies like Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s The Trip series have worked “phenomenally well”.

New talent such as Tom Hiddleston and Ben Wheatley were key for Magnolia and their release for High-Rise, according to Begley, Senior VP Acquisitions at Magnolia Pictures.

“Everyone loved this film. And part of the reason is because the cast and crew came over, and generously supported the film through press and marketing,” said Begley.

Bocco agreed that strong talent support is key to bringing British films to wider audiences.

“Andrew Haigh is much loved here, and that is because of his press support for Weekend. Charlotte Rampling is another example – if she had not come to the US for a big press push, she would not have received a Best Actress nomination [for 45 Years].”

Strache added that universal stories were key to broadening out to wider audiences.

“If a story is too specified to a culture, it doesn’t translate. Historical, true stories or comedies generally work well across territories.”

The senior VP acquisitions and co-productions executive also pointed out countries often want to see something different to what they are used to seeing.

Belle over-performed in the US, rather than the UK. Maybe it feels like something you [UK] would see on a regular basis.”

Tracking British Talent

“I am always looking for new voices,” said Bocco. “Yes, we are a business and we have to make money, but we are always looking for new talent.”

Short films are one way Bocco has discovered new film-makers such as Andrea Arnold.

“I remember seeing Andrea Arnold’s Wasp, and being very impressed. That helped bring Fish Tank to our attention, which we then acquired.”

But Bocco also said it was easy to get lost in the shuffle at festivals, particularly short films, recommending an awards win as one way of standing out in the crowd.

She referenced In The Loop as another festival example, mentioning the bidding war that took place at Sundance [2009].

“We had heard of Armando Iannucci’s television series, but he wasn’t that well-known in the US. We [IFC] aggressively went after it [In The Loop] and it performed very well at box-office. That then helped him secure his HBO series. It’s all about building blocks.”

Finance Models

There is not one right finance model when selling and acquiring films in the international market, said the panelists. 

“It depends on the film,” said Strache. “Sometimes the value exceeds the film’s budget. If buyers are willing to pay a higher price than what you think the film is worth, then you have to weigh up the options and determine if that is right for you.”

Strache also recommended sales agents: “Do your research, and work out the sales agents that support the types of films you are making. They help field all the offers, and that can be greatly beneficial.”

Begley added that knowing which territories are available is an important point when pricing.

“For Magnolia, if certain key territories are no longer available, then that is a problem for us.”

Creative financing was also mentioned, with Bocco agreeing minimum guarantees and P&A spend were dependent on the film, reminding it’s important to remember films have long life cycles.

“When making deals, people have to remember films take time to recoup their money. It’s not just about box-office, there is also pay television and home-entertainment.”