During her keynote at Film London’s Production Finance Market, Alison Thompson remarks on the glut of films made today, but also sees some bright spots like the arrival of Netflix.
British sales veteran Alison Thompson said market conditions for sellers are as tough now as they have ever been.
“As we all know, the situation now is just about as bad as it can be,” Thompson said during her keynote speech at the Film London Production Finance Market.
“The television business, which was frankly driving the boom in film for 20 years, suddenly came a cropper so that independent distributors were losing their TV output deals, which were essentially underpinning the business they were doing.
“That, combined with the change to the DVD market - we’ve had a double hit. It has been really, really challenging. In fact, we are working in the most difficult time I have worked in in my entire career.”
Even so, Thompson pointed to causes for optimism.
“I am encouraged by what is happening in the US in that there does seem to be very renewed competition in distribution,” she said.
“There are now some premiere VOD windows that are really beginning to work.”
She also pointed to the revival in some of the markets that had been struggling, among them Italy, and the arrival of new buyers like Netflix.
In a frank and wide-ranging discussion, chaired by PFM project manager Angus Finney, Thompson also covered a range of subjects including her own history in the industry
“I did experience sexism,” she said, declining to give precise details of how this manifested itself.
However, at one point in her career, working with French partners, she said: “I did feel that I was the little woman that no-one wanted to listen to.”
Thompson came into the film business as a junior assistant at the Rank Organisation. She then moved to ITC/ATV and then to Channel 4, where she worked with Colin Leventhal.
She then joined industry legend Carole Myer when Myer launched The Sales Company in 1987. The original partners in the venture were British Screen, Zenith Productions and Palace. When Palace left, BBC Films came on board as a producing partner.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the business was (Thompson suggested) “easier” for sellers. “You probably had a similar number of distributors working but with far fewer films to go around.”
Carole Myer, Thompson revealed, was an executive who made even Harvey Weinstein “quake in his boots”.
She was famously brusque with distributors. “She would say ‘Are you buying a movie from me? If you’re not, fuck off.’”
Thompson also gave new details of her plans for Sunray Films Limited, the London-based sales and production company she now heads.
The MD said the company was currently in a “holding pattern” but revealed that Sunray is likely to be structured in a similar way to The Sales Company, with US and European producers coming on board as partners and giving Sunray guaranteed access to product.
Sunray may also look to strike output deals with distributors in some of the smaller territories. The company is aiming to launch formally next year.
The current slate includes Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, the Amy Winehouse documentary and Vincent Perez’s Alone In Berlin, adapted from the Hans Fallada novel due to shoot next year with Emma Thompson and Daniel Bruhl in the leading roles.
“I confess that when I left Focus, for a nano-second I thought about being a dogwalker but the truth is that I remain as passionate and energised about this business as when I started out.”
She acknowledged that it didn’t always make sense to sell films to the highest bidder.
“The journey of a film is a long one as we all know,” said Thompson. “The sale that you conduct in the middle of a film festival is only the beginning of a journey.
“That journey can last many, many years and you really want to make sure the distributors are the right distributors for your film, they know how to nurture it and they how ultimately to deliver the best possible returns.”
After The Sales Company, Thompson moved to Pathé Pictures and then became co-president of Focus Features International in 2005.
Thompson noted the culture at Focus was very different to that of The Sales Company.
“I felt hugely privileged to go there,” Thompson, who joined the company at the time of Brokeback Mountain’s runaway success, recalled.
She relished the chance “to work with some of the most talented film executives working then and now. I grew to like everyone enormously and I am really, really proud pif everything we achieved there over the years.”
Asked what qualities she looked for in a producer, Thomspon said she was “tired of working with cowboys.”
She also pointed to drop-off in co-financing skills in the UK as a result of the drop off in coproduction.
“All those wonderful relationships, somehow they’ve dissipated…I think British producers are having to re-learn that skill, which was kind of lost.”