SCREEN FILM SUMMIT: ‘International ambitions’ panel says China is a candy apple that can’t be bitten quite yet.

The Screen Film Summit ‘International ambitions’ panel of experts spoke of the increasing importance of international sales companies in financing and packaging. Hammer Films CEO Simon Oakes said: “Sales companies are absolutely crucial. We really don’t move without the sales guys.”

Josh Varney, partner at management/agency/production company 42, agreed: “The most important people are the sales agencies.” And Blueprint Pictures’ Graham Broadbent added: “their numbers are essential” for planning the budget and shooting days.  

Broadbent, who has just finished The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in India (for a February 2015 launch), is also lining up another Indian shoot for spring 2015 with The Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra. “Within the UK, you’re either making films for the UK or asking what does an international audience want to see?” he said, with Blueprint obviously taking the latter path.

Oakes warned, “The UK independent model is a semi-broken model, it’s not making the most money in its home market, and you’re taking a smaller MG or P&A commitment just to make sure you get the film made.”

Fabien Westerhoff of sales company WestEnd Films, spoke of the different kinds of UK films that hit in different markets. There are films that can hit adult audiences (or older ‘grey dollar’ audiences) in North America or Australia/New Zealand and other historical Commonwealth territories, films like Amma Asante’s Belle that was snapped up by Fox Searchlight. Then there are auteur-driven films like Yann Demange’s ’71 or Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant that sell well to specialty distributors in Western Europe and North America, and then the more commercial genre fare that sells well to Southeast Asia and Latin America.

Working with China is another beast altogether. “China is like this candy apple we would all like to bite into. Right now we can like it but not bite it,” Westerhoff said.

Although Isabel Davis, head of international at the BFI, said “China is not something that will go away. It’s something we want to commit to for the long term.” She had hopes that the UK-China co-production agreement will be ratified soon, and that showing more diverse non-Hollywood fare in China will start to change audience behaviours there. “It will open up Chinese appetite for more diverse content, but it’s definitely going to take time.”

Oakes also spoke of having the right resources to take advantage of international success. For example, Exclusive’s Begin Again has made $20m in South Korea but collecting those monies is a challenge. “If you want to build a business you have to set up the infrastructure,” he added.

Varney noted that because “international has grown more so [US agents] play ball more than they used to. We’ve never been more relevant.”

He added, “British producers like to start with British agents to get things started. But I hear better material comes from the US – or just more volume of material.”

Westerhoff spoke about the Netflix effect, that the company’s deals with UK independent distributors helped rejuvenate that sector, but that “sometimes it can potentially destroy a theatrical window,” for example if a pay TV window deal has been done with Netflix for Latin America, that will reduce the chances of a theatrical distributor coming on board there.