Lionsgate UK has had a banner year led by The Hunger Games - but the distributor is also committed to backing British film. Wendy Mitchell talks to CEO Zygi Kamasa [pictured]

On one hand, there is Dickens and Shakespeare. On the other, Keith Lemon and Kelly Brook. Such is the diversity of Lionsgate UK’s releases.

“I like the mix of having all of them within our slate because it means you can take a different strategy with each one and hopefully you can tap into a slightly different audience every time,” says Lionsgate UK CEO Zygi Kamasa.

The distributor has had a huge year at the UK box office - hitting $106.1m (£66.2m) as of November 25, putting it sixth in the UK market, ahead of Paramount - led by The Hunger Games doing $38.1m (£23.8m). Yet some of its smaller UK films have become a top priority for the company.

“Two years ago, we really started getting heavily into British films. And we’ve released five major British films this year,” Kamasa says. Those were Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, Lasse Hallstrom’s Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, Paul Angunawela’s Keith Lemon: The Film and Mike Newell’s Great Expectations, which opens Nov 30.

“Five is probably the most any one UK distributor has. That’s a mixture of co-productions and our productions,” he says.

Lionsgate has previously had one-off hits with UK films such as Harry Brown and The Bank Job. The company benefits from the financial might (and product pipeline) of the US-based Lionsgate but also the autonomy to run UK operations as a separate business. Lionsgate bought Redbus Film Distribution in an estimated $35m deal in 2005, rebranding it as Lionsgate UK in 2006. Redbus, founded by CEO Simon Franks and managing director Kamasa, had been around since 1998 with hits including Bend It Like Beckham.

Kamasa now says, boldly: “We want to be one of the strongest distributors to invest in production and investment acquisitions in the UK.” The company is off to a strong start with that plan, with all five of those 2012 UK films set to be profitable.

“We continue that investment this year and we have six British films for 2013, again making us arguably the biggest investor in British film outside of someone like BBC Films,” says Kamasa. “That is across acquisition and production.” He plans to invest in another six films for 2014.

The six titles for 2013 are: Jon S Baird’s Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth, starring James McAvoy; Hummingbird, a thriller directed by Eastern Promises writer Steven Knight and starring Jason Statham; Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman; Fiennes’ Dickens story The Invisible Woman; Pascal Chaumeil’s Nick Hornby adaptation A Long Way Down starring Toni Collette; and Richard Shepard’s crime story Dom Hemingway starring Jude Law.

Lionsgate’s role in each project varies: for The Railway Man, Lionsgate put up about 40% of the budget; Hummingbird was a straight acquisition.

Keith Lemon: The Film was financed solely by Lionsgate UK on a $5m budget. But usually the company will not fully finance projects. “The economics wouldn’t work for us. We can take the selective approach,” Kamasa says.

“We are not talking about Working Title Films… For us, by being strategic in what we invest and how much we invest, it reduces and mitigates a risk against what we feel we can make our money on.” Some productions, such as The Railway Man, will be handled by Patrick Wachsberger’s team at Lionsgate International (which recently completed its merger with Summit).

One bigger project in the pipeline is a $50m adaptation of UK TV crime action series The Professionals (which aired on ITV from 1977-83). “We hope to make that in the next 18 months or so, so that could potentially be an action franchise. That’s very much down to the package and the calibre of the director and cast we pull together.”

Cast was also crucial for Mike Newell’s Great Expectations. The Dickens adaptation has already played at festivals including Toronto and the BFI London Film Festival and is expected to be a big contender at the Baftas this year. It was a project that Lionsgate was involved with from an early stage, working on casting suggestions with producers Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen.

“We know from a marketing perspective and a publicity perspective, if you put Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter in a film, it makes a difference.” The cast also features hot rising talents Jeremy Irvine and Holliday Grainger.

The box-office boom

Lionsgate UK’s 2012 box-office takings are likely to hit $120.2m (£75m) by the end of the year, and The Hunger Games is not Lionsgate’s only success story. “At $82m (£51.2m), if you take out The Hunger Games, that’s still double what we did last year,” Kamasa notes.

The Expendables 2 was not a huge success in the UK, but the company is lined up for The Expendables 3 in 2014. “The Expendables 2 underperformed compared to the first one. I think there was a sort-of post-Olympics crush. We actually were one of the weaker-performing territories on that film, we were down about 30% on the first one. Although saying that, we were the strongest performing territory on the first one… I think with the third one we can re-energise it and outperform the second one”.

One success was acquisition title Magic Mike directed by Steven Soderbergh, which made a strong $13.3m at the UK box office; as well as Salmon Fishing In The Yemen hitting with adult audiences (at $9.9m in the UK).

“[Older audiences] want to go out to see a good movie once in a while because they’re bored of watching rubbish TV. And in research we did with them, we said, ‘Would you rather stay in and sit watching a TV show or a good movie?’ They all said the movie. And would you rather see a US or a British movie? It was 70% for a British movie… I think we tapped into that with Salmon Fishing; I think with Great Expectations we’ll do a similar thing.”

Looking ahead

For the past year Lionsgate UK has been working on Icon’s release pipeline of about 15 films, after Icon stopped doing its own distribution. Those titles include recent flop On The Road as well as forthcoming releases Only God Forgives and Postman Pat: The Movie.

With Icon out of distribution and an eOne-Momentum merger on the table, Kamasa says: “From six distributors two years ago now down to four in theory, it’s a big change in the industry. We’re always up against eOne and Momentum when acquiring movies, so it’s less competition for us.”

Having rights to a major franchise such as The Hunger Games is crucial to box office, not only in 2012 but beyond. The first film’s result was especially impressive because the book series was not as well known in the UK as it was in the US. “I think that’s only going to go up more and more,” says Kamasa.

The second film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is due out in November 2013, with Mockingjay parts one and two coming out Nov 2014 and Nov 2015. “So there’s no doubt, both from the group perspective and from the UK’s perspective, that gives us a major blockbuster every year right down for the three years,” Kamasa says.

Other films on the 2013 release slate are Gerard Butler and Jessica Biel rom-com Playing For Keeps; Texas Chainsaw 3D, Arnold Schwarzenegger projects The Last Stand and Ten, White House-set action film Olympus Has Fallen starring Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman; animated family film Postman Pat; The Big Wedding with an ensemble cast including Robert De Niro; Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives with Ryan Gosling; Out Of The Furnace starring Christian Bale and Casey Affleck; The Iceman starring Michael Shannon; Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy; and Lovelace starring Amanda Seyfried.

In all, the 60-employee company has been handling about 12-15 theatrical releases per year, which will rise to about 18-20.

Keeping that UK pipeline busy will continue to be a priority. “We really want to see British film grow. Audiences actually are more supportive of British film than perhaps we distributors have let ourselves believe,” Kamasa says.