Minefield drama Kajaki: The True Story has adopted a unique distribution model for its release. Producer Gareth Ellis-Unwin talks to Michael Rosser about the mission

Kajaki: The True Story

“Organised like a military operation” is a term often bandied about in the film industry, but it isn’t far from the truth in the case of Kajaki: The True Story.

The battlefield drama is based on the first-hand accounts of a group of British soldiers who became trapped in a minefield while stationed at the Kajaki Dam in Afghanistan in 2006.

Directed by Paul Katis, the feature was produced at lightning speed by Pukka Films to coincide with the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan.

A unique distribution plan has been created with the aim of benefiting armed forces charities including the Royal British Legion, Help For Heroes, Walking With The Wounded and The Hashemite Commission for Disabled Soldiers.

Bedlam Productions’ Gareth Ellis-Unwin, one of the producers of Oscar winner The King’s Speech, boarded the project early in the process and has spearheaded the distribution strategy.

“Almost from the beginning it became apparent we were going to entertain a direct-distribution approach,” he recalls. “The most important reason was to maximise support to the charities we’re backing, so we retained the UK rights and I started a conversation with Stuart Boreman [film buying director at exhibitor Vue Entertainment]. Since Stuart has now moved on from Vue, I have been working with a wonderful ambassador for the exhibition of British film, Rob Moreton.”

Ellis-Unwin reveals he approached Boreman with three major proposals.

“The first was a West End premiere for the veterans and the cast — I wanted that big night for them,” he says.

“The second was to take it on the road, honouring veterans who are still with us as well as those we lost, visiting each of their home towns.

“Finally, I wanted to do an exclusive deal with Vue as partners. To his credit, before Stuart had seen the script or a frame of film, he said it was something he would entertain.”

Leicester Square premiere

The result was a glitzy premiere at the Vue Leicester Square on November 12, which saw a standing ovation for the real-life soldiers portrayed in the film.

Advance preview screenings followed at Vue cinemas in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds and Bristol, attended by the filmmakers, actors and their real-life counterparts from the cities. A two-week exclusive window will begin on November 28 across all 82 Vue sites, and will total 1,437 showings within the first week.

Importantly to the producers, all profits from the events and a portion of profits from the film’s subsequent release will go to the armed forces charities supported by the film.

“Instead of the charities sitting in fourth position within the [profit] waterfall, they have gone up into second position,” says Ellis-Unwin.

“After the exclusive two-week window, we’re hoping to take it out wider and I’m talking to the other chains about picking up the film from December 12 onwards.”

Exclusivity can be a risky game as the assumption is that other chains may feel slighted. But Ellis-Unwin says: “I’ve been really impressed with the maturity that everyone has shown. People get that it’s new thinking and we’re doing it for the right reasons.

“We’ll see how it does in the first couple of weeks and if it does good numbers, I have high hopes we’ll be sharing it across the other chains.”

The roll-out has also received support in terms of VPF (Virtual Print Fees) and the DCP (Digital Cinema Package).

“After speaking to John Bullent at Sony Digital Cinema, they supported the release of the film with a sensible approach to the VPFs,” said Ellis-Unwin.

“The next major challenge was the physical delivery to the Vue chain, where we worked with Ymagis to affect a digital delivery of the DCP.”

Asked if more films could be distributed this way, he says: “Each film should be considered on a case-by-case basis. One of the prime motivators for adopting this model is cost-driven. If your costs of production are modest enough to look at something like this and raise your P&A fund, then great.

“But as the numbers go north, if you’re making higher-budget films, then the weight of a distributor is a crucial part of your finance plan. If your budget is more modest, maybe it will become more common. But I don’t think my next two will go this way.”

Back on Kajaki: The True Story, Ellis-Unwin adds: “We hope the British cinema audience is going to take this story to their hearts and will go see it knowing that a significant chunk of profits will go to supporting four very important charities.

“I genuinely have not seen an audience react to a film like that since The King’s Speech,” he recalls of the premiere screening. “Seeing everyone up on their feet, giving thanks to the guys that served, was incredibly moving.”

Speaking about spreading the word, Ellis-Unwin said: “Working alongside We Are The Tonic and Target Media has been a real insight into the dark arts of marketing. Any success (however its measured) should be shared this opening weekend.”