The Critic

Source: True Brit Entertainment

‘The Critic’

Zygi Kamasa’s new UK distribution and production company True Brit Entertainment has announced its first acquisition, The Critic, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Kamasa was shown the period thriller, produced by Jolyon Symonds and the late Bill Kenwright and fully financed by Kenwright’s BK Studios, after True Brit’s launch was announced in November, and agreed to acquire the UK rights on the proviso that the film was re-edited and key cast were brought back to shoot new scenes written by original screenwriter Patrick Marber.

Adapted from Anthony Quinn’s novel Curtain Call, Anand Tucker’s film is a tale of blackmail, deception and ambition, starring Ian McKellen as a feared 1930s theatre critic and Gemma Arterton as the insecure actress he strikes a Faustian bargain with; Lesley Manville, Mark Strong, Romola Garai, Ben Barnes and Alfred Enoch also star.

The Critic received mixed reviews when it screened in its brisk 95-minute version at TIFF, including a rushed, sour ending that seemed to turn audiences off. But Kamasa agreed with the filmmaker’s pitch that “there’s a better movie in there”.

“Audiences loved Ian, they loved his witty, nasty character. And Patrick had an idea for a different ending that engaged me straight away,” says the True Brit CEO.

The reshoots combined with original footage left out of the Toronto cut will bring McKellen’s gay, acid-tongued writer more to the fore and create a more commercial and satisfying story for audiences, believes Kamasa. John Gilbert – an Oscar and Bafta winner for Hacksaw Ridge – has been working on the new cut since early January, and key cast including McKellen and potentially Barnes and Arterton will reassemble in late March/early April for reshoots.

Kamasa is planning to release the revamped version widely in UK cinemas in September or October on 300-400 screens, marking his new venture’s inaugural release. Previously, the veteran UK executive ran Lionsgate’s UK and Europe operation for 15 years, and was group CEO of Matthew Vaughn’s Marv from 2020 before leaving to launch True Brit.

The Critic is the company’s third project to be announced following Nick Love’s Marching Powder starring Danny Dyer, which is shooting now, and Gurinder Chadha’s Christmas Karma, which goes before cameras in April.

Kamasa’s intention with True Brit is to focus on co-producing and theatrically distributing five or six British movies a year. Music management and entertainment company Three Six Zero is backing the venture completely including the pledge to invest $150m into independent UK features over the first three years.

Two further projects are due to go into production before the end of the summer, a “high-end drama and a biopic”, and Kamasa plans to have a full-time theatrical team in place by late spring, housed in a central London office. UK cinema releases for Marching Powder and Christmas Karma will follow The Critic in Q1 and Q4 2025 respectively.

Kamasa believes there is a gap in the UK market for the type of mid-range, commercial UK films that he made a key part of Lionsgate’s UK strategy. During his time there, he helped finance and release over 50 British films, including The Father, Eddie The Eagle, Brooklyn and Salmon Fishing In The Yemen. “The five [British] movies I did every year at Lionsgate made us a lot of money,” he says. “It was a very profitable division.”

A successful box office result for two recent films aimed at older audiences also gives him confidence that these audiences will still come out in numbers for the right release: The Great Escaper, which made £5.4m in the UK, and Anthony Hopkins-starrer One Life, which currently stands at £9.5m after six weeks in UK cinemas.

True ambitions

Zygi Kamasa

Source: Dave Hogan

Zygi Kamasa

Kamasa’s True Brit ambitions were hatched during his time at Marv, with Vaughn’s blessing as well as his input.

“Matthew and I talked about maybe doing something [together], because he felt, like I did, ‘Where are the Billy Elliots? Where are the Four Weddings? Where are the Bend It Like Beckhams and Slumdog Millionaires?’ Those great British indie movies that were made for $5m, $10m, that broke out theatrically, created careers for the filmmakers and were successes.”

Coming out of the pandemic, Kamasa’s conversations with UK filmmakers gave him the impression that the majority – some of whom had detoured to the small screen during the series production boom – were itching to get back into making films for the big screen. Furthermore, they had scripts they’d had time to fully develop during Covid.

“They didn’t want to make these movies for the streamers – they wanted these movies to be seen in cinemas,” he says. “Filmmakers want that big fanfare of a movie that’s out there, which they’re not getting when they make movies for a platform.”

Kamasa cites his own experience working on Jon S. Baird’s Tetris, which Marv produced during Kamasa’s time there for Apple TV+.

“Apple were terrific partners on Tetris but Matthew and I had only ever done movies for cinema and when we released it, there was no premiere, no big hullabaloo. And then it came out and there were no numbers, no reaction. We said, ‘Well, how did we do?’ And then a few weeks later, it was just on the service.”

At the same time, with the UK distribution market losing key players like eOne and Pathe, while others such as Studiocanal and his old employers Lionsgate became less focused on UK films, the entrepreneurial-minded Kamasa spotted a gap that he was prepared to fill.

During a six-week period around Cannes 2023, Kamasa spoke to around two dozen potential investors, very quickly landing on Three Six Zero. Run by founder and CEO Mark Gillespie, the company had aspirations to expand into film and television and is backing a five-year business plan.

“It was just perfect timing and one of the simplest fundraisers I’ve ever done,” he says, revealing that True Brit is a 50/50 partnership between him and Three Six Zero, with Vaughn also owning a small share.

Kamasa’s question ahead of True Brit’s launch in November was being able to find enough good-quality British projects to greenlight five or six a year. And even if he could find the projects to become the cornerstone financier on, would producers be able to raise the rest of the money?

“True Brit won’t fully finance,” says Kamasa. “We’ll put up an advance for UK rights, we’ll put up a little bit of equity, and we’ll sometimes put up the sales advance. The producer has to go and raise the rest of the money – and that’s the biggest hurdle today.”

Producers need to come to True Brit with fully developed screenplays that have a director and some cast already attached. Kamasa says he’s already had 75 feature projects submitted “from all the usual culprits, everyone you can think of in the UK has sent me projects – from the top producers to lesser-known producers to a lot of TV producers who’ve made great TV and want to make feature films. And with some great directors attached, Nick and Gurinder being just the two we’ve announced.” 

Greenlights and approach

Marching Powder brings Love back into the feature film fold after several years working in TV, mainly on Ashley Walters series Bulletproof, reuniting him with Dyer, his star on The Football Factory, Outlaw and The Business. True Brit is covering around 75% of the $5m budget through the UK MG, equity and a sales advance against international.

Rock Star Media is co-financing, while Altitude is co-producing and handling international sales on the UK-shot project. The wheels are in motion for a first promo to be shown at Cannes.

Chadha’s Christmas Karma is also fully financed through True Brit, other equity partners, a yet-to-be-announced sales agent and the UK tax credit, with Kamasa estimating the budget will come in “around $15m give or take”.

“I’ve been trying to find a film to do with Gurinder for 20 years, we had such great success with Bend It Like Beckham and I think this is the closest in energy and feel to that film,” says Kamasa.

Loosely based on A Christmas Carol, with a Scrooge character Chadha has described as “an Indian Tory who hates refugees”, the film will “celebrate London’s multi-cultural society” and feature big song-and-dance numbers including an ambitious, climactic set-piece on Regent Street involving 300 people.

Gary Barlow is doing the music for Christmas Karma, which will shoot for 10 weeks until late June, with the main casting in place and deals being finalised.

The other two projects he hopes to shoot this year have directors attached and are currently casting; both are in the $10m budget range. “The idea was to do around $50m of British production annually, and I do think I’ll hit that in my first year,” says Kamasa.

He says the ambition is to do all kinds of movies including “some smaller films that I think can grow”.

He adds: “Whereas I loved Aftersun last year, I don’t think I would have done it. It’s not my style or my taste. I’m looking for things that can be, hopefully, The King’s Speech, or Eddie The Eagle, or Salmon Fishing. Films that can become super commercial and wide releases.”

Kamasa intends to be a very active partner particularly at late-stage development, as he was at Lionsgate and Redbus before that.

“Of the 50 films I did at Lionsgate, at least 40 we didn’t put any money into the script and the ten where we did it was very late stage, three to six months out from shooting where we think another pass can make the project more commercial. It will be the same model at True Brit. I will be giving filmmakers – hopefully – a consumer-led, commercial view on what will make the most successful movie in consumers’ eyes.

“If the movie works, I’m not going to change a thing but at the end of the day I’m the guy that has to release them, I have to get the bums on seats. I’ve done distribution for such a long time; I absolutely know how to make money out of decent movies.”

Team building

To support True Brit’s plans for six theatrical releases per year with full P&A, Kamasa is also in the process of recruiting a full-time team across marketing, publicity and sales. He hopes to have five or six key hires in place by late spring to be housed in a central London office, with a further two or three joining on the sales side later in the year.

Home entertainment is still a discussion, in terms of taking on additional overhead to manage in-house or going with a studio partner: “I’ve had a couple of proposals about handling that side for me.”

On the acquisitions side, Kamasa has recruited his former Lionsgate colleague Nick Manzi, who will join True Brit full-time from April 1 as head of acquisitions and is currently attending EFM. “We have been bombarded by projects, so I needed someone,” smiles Kamasa, who will come to Berlin early next week to meet with US agents.

A handful of movies will allow the team to focus more intently on each release. “The problem that I found myself at Lionsgate was having too many movies to release. Sometimes I had three movies in a month and it becomes a conveyor belt.”

Asked about the pressure on performance for such a small slate, Kamasa replies: “Fortunately we have deep pockets and strong investors. Something like The Critic, it’s an acquisition with a bit of money for the movie and bit of money to do some reshoots. But if it does half what The Great Escaper made in the UK, we’ll all make a lot of money. Everything is relative, it’s what you pay for it and what you spend.”

“The bull’s-eye has got smaller,” he admits. “Twenty five years ago, you could miss the bull’s-eye 50% of the time and still do okay thanks to VHS, and then the DVD market, and TV was still buying. Now you have to hit the bull’s-eye more often. That’s why I think it’s very, very difficult for a business to try to do 12-15 movies – it’s incredibly hard finding that many movies, very hard selling them to TV stations and streamers, very hard getting cinema space.

“I do believe five movies is a sweet spot – that’s enough to create a portfolio to offset your risk, and there’s plenty of business there to be more than sustainable for a strong British business.”