21 years after she founded sales company High Point, Carey Fitzgerald talks to Screen about adapting to change, moving into UK distribution and the secrets of survival.
Carey Fitzgerald worked for various production and sales companies before setting up international sales company High Point Films and TV Ltd from a friend’s back office in Great Titchfield Street, London, in 1990.
21 years later and the company is going from strength to strength, with offices in Dublin and Sydney and a staff of 15 stationed at its London headquarters.
As well as High Point’s thriving Film and Television divisions (which include specialty factual and horror labels) and its production arm (which mainly facilitates co-productions), the company has just branched out into UK distribution, with the launch of a new division, High Point Home Entertainment.
The first film to be released in the UK under the label will be Hanro Smitsman’s debut feature Skin starring Emmy nominated Robert de Hoog on June 13. Also on the slate is Kay Mellor’s TV adaptation A Passionate Woman starring Billy Piper.
The label will be headed up by High Point’s current sales and marketing director Elisar Cabrera who will also sit on the board of directors alongside Fitzgerald and Julie Delaney who joined in 1992, and was responsible for developing the company’s TV Division. The other key member of the High Point team is Ronald de Neef, with whom Fitzgerald joined foreces with in 1993. He holds the position of non executive chairman.
Current films on the High Point slate include David Pulbrook’s directorial debut Last Dance starring Gena Rowlands, Brian Welsh’s In Our Name starring Joanna Froggat who won the Most Promising Newcomer BIFA in 2010 and Michael Henry’s debut thriller Blame, which sold to a number of territories in Cannes this year.
Why have you decided to make the move into UK distribution?
We had been flirting with the idea for a long time, but we made the decision last year. It was a natural progression really. We are really international and we’ve always worked on films in any language, but the UK distribution side for world cinema is really very difficult so it was a natural progression. It’s the final link in the chain of everything else we do.
We are starting with DVD, but if it’s the right film and it needs a theatrical release, then we will be looking at that as well. Eventually, we should be in a position where we can offer everything. But it has to be the right time.
How has the business changed since you started out in 1990 and how have you adapted to those changes?
When I started High Point, 1990 was another recession year. It was a really had time, everything had collapsed. Being the eternal optimist I thought I was bound to get some films going! And luckily it just kind of happened.
The business has changed so much. I always say that we are not estate agents selling film, but when I first started in foreign sales, it used to be a bit like that, because we would take on a film that was finished and just represent the producer at an arm’s length basis.
Now we are more like executive producers. We help to raise the finance for the film and are involved from the concept stage in a lot of cases. You just have to evolve with it, and that’s what we have done over the last 21 years.
With the DVD market in decline, it’s an interesting time to be launching a home entertainment label..
There is still a good DVD market for the right films. Because we have always had our TV division, we have always been able to divide the rights up and find different markets and that diversification is really quite important. DVD is just another right.
I think the UK market is absolutely buoyant and fine for the right films. You just have to be selective about what you release and handle it properly and come up with different ways. We are releasing A Passionate Woman to tie in with the a theatre tour of the play on which it is based. It’s a different way of doing things and in a way that’s what High Point is about. We are a bit of a hybrid. Because we have remained independent for the last 20 years, we are able to move quickly and make these decisions. If we were a more corporate company with shareholders and had to do things in a certain way, we wouldn’t be able to be that flexible.
When you go to the markets, what kind of films are you looking to acquire?
We are always looking for something a bit different. Our main emphasis is our feature films and TV divisions. It sounds obvious, but we can only take on things we are confident we can sell because we are an independent company.
We have to be very commercial, but it’s really important to support new talent. We also have the occasional labour of love, like Kings, a Gaelic-language film based on a play about a bunch of friends from Ireland, who meet up again at one of their funerals. It became the Irish entry at the Oscars, it was the first time they had had a foreign language entry. We knew it wasn’t going to be The King’s Speech, but we thought it deserved a chance.
It is also important to develop relationships with producers and directors so we can continue the relationships and to work with them in the future.
You launched your factual division, High Point Horizons in 2009 and you also specialise in horror. Where do these two aims fit in with the rest of the company?
The feature documentary side is really interesting. Last year we picked up Cameraman: The Life And Work of Jack Cardiff which is still going strong in the US and we picked up [Jerry Rothwell’s Tribeca selected] Donor Unknown, and [Jason Massot’s]’s Road to Las Vegas this year, so it’s growing. In terms of horror we showed the first screenings of [Robin Hardy’s] The Wicker Tree at Cannes this year [a US deal is imminent]. We had the original Dawn Of The Dead and since then we’ve always had one or two horror films on the go at any given time. The reason they have got their own little labels, is that they have different buyers. So they can go to their own sections. It’s really important to be clear about those things.
You have a separate production arm…any plans to expand that?
We help to put productions together as a co-producer, that is how it has worked so far. We do have projects in development, options on books, But we haven’t actually developed anything on our own all the way through to the production yet. So that’s the next step.
High Point turns 21 this year. What is the secret to your longevity? And what are your biggest challenges?
It’s never been easy. A lot of it is timing and luck and about being tenacious and adaptable. And being independent. Perhaps we have not been the most high profile for that reason. But it’s been organic and we’ve just got on with it and made it work.
The biggest challenge is still getting the productions together, especially in the UK, which is one of the most difficult places to put the films together. There is more opportunity in Ireland than in the UK. And we don’t have any export support which means we can’t compete with other countries, with the French especially. That’s something we are campaigning on.
And the next 21 years?
More production, more distribution. I would aspire to see ourselves as a mini studio, doing everything and hopefully we will be on a bigger scale. One of the positive things about film financing at the moment is the increase in the EIS threshold so we are working on a lot of those schemes. We are an attractive company for investors because we have been doing this for a long time and we know our business inside out!