Screen talks to representatives of Film Export UK as the export budget of the UK Film Council is lost
Amid all the soul-searching, self-analysis, expensive reports and government consultation that have become a staple of the British independent film industry over the last decade, the international sales sector has rarely been at the top of anybody’s priority list. Export of UK films has always been left with the scraps off the table from the public funding purse, ultimately securing $815,000 (£500,000) in the last year of the UK Film Council’s (UKFC) existence. Now in the wake of the UKFC’s abolition, export is one of the activities to which no funding has been allocated.
In November, culture minister Ed Vaizey said that creative exports “make up an important and vibrant part of our economy” and announced a vague plan for BAFTA, the British Film Institute (BFI), Film London and BBC Worldwide to explore a showcase for UK films in the US market. But nothing has come of that so far and, besides, whatever happens in the US market fails to take into account any territories in the rest of the world.
Trade association Film Export UK, which counts 29 UK sales companies as its membership, is lobbying hard to keep export on the agenda.
“Along with diversity and research and statistics, export funding has been axed,” says Charlie Bloye, the chief executive of the association and a longtime sales veteran at companies including Rank Film Distributors and Signpost Films. “It’s ironic, because the Lottery production funding handed out by the Film Fund is subject to having an acceptable sales company.”
Despite many attempts, representatives of Film Export UK have failed to win an audience with Vaizey and only recently managed to secure a meeting with the BFI which has assumed many of the UKFC’s responsibilities including oversight of development, production and distribution funding from the National Lottery.
‘We now have to re-educate a new group of people at the BFI about our importance in the chain’
Charlie Bloye, Film Export UK
“It took a few years to educate the UKFC to recognise what we were doing,” says Ralph Kamp, head of Timeless Films and the current chair of UK Film Export. “They didn’t know what we did and now it looks like we need to start again.”
The failure of UK industry and government to recognise the international market highlights some of the confusion in an industry where heated arguments break out over whether Harry Potter and James Bond are UK productions. Sales companies aren’t an easy fit in any of these discussions. Many of the UK sales outfits represent US, continental European, Australasian, Asian or Latin American titles as well as UK, and most of them are engaged in development, financing and production as well as sales. Volume and diversity is their business. What’s more, some of the tastiest British films around weren’t sold by UK companies: The King’s Speech was handled by the US’s FilmNation, for example.
But Film Export UK insists that support for export of films which are certified by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) as British, is essential.
Sales companies’ key financing role
“Investors want to recoup their investment and most of that revenue will come from outside the UK,” says Kamp. “Sales is integral to production and the relationship between a producer and the sales company is essential.”
Pre-sales aren’t dead, insists Film Export UK board member Nicole Mackey of Fortissimo Films and the production budgets of many films she sells are predicated on key territorial pre-sales.
In addition, argues Mackey, sales companies usually conceive the global marketing plan for a film at an early stage, creating awareness and demand among buyers and audiences for a film before it has been sold in many or sometimes any territories.
“We are directly responsible for how a film is positioned,” she says.
The UKFC allocated about $114,000 (£70,000) of its export budget to help pay for umbrella stands for UK sales outfits at certain markets like AFM, Berlin, Toronto and Filmart in Hong Kong. Financing for these stands also comes from the companies themselves and tradeshow access programme (TAP) grants from UK Trade & Investment (UKTI).
“Umbrella stands are critical because they are a resource for the whole British community at these events, as well as the sales companies,” explains Bloye. He adds the Berlin/EFM umbrella is perhaps the most effective of these. Board member Elisar Cabrera, who is director of sales and marketing at High Point Media Group, says that “without an umbrella stand at Berlin, quite a few UK companies wouldn’t go at all”.
About $277,000 (£170,000) of the UKFC funding went to the International Festivals Fund: Sales Support scheme whereby individual films were given small grants to attend various festivals. Starting with just eight to nine A-list festivals, that grew to 17 festivals with Film Export UK input, including strategic events such as Sitges, SXSW and Rome.
Funding was between $8,000 (£5,000) and $16,000 (£10,000) per title; for example An Education received a $9,800 (£6,000) grant to help with costs surrounding its selection for the world drama competition at Sundance 2009. The Sundance screening resulted in a high-profile US sale to Sony Pictures Classics.
Some $98,000 (£60,000) of the UKFC funds was used to back the London UK Film Focus (LUFF), the four-day export event which Film London will run with the BFI this year at the beginning of June.
Of the remaining $326,000 (£200,000) of the UKFC export budget, $228,000 (£140,000) went to internal overhead and $98,000 (£60,000) to various knowledge-sharing and R&D schemes on export.
“There’s an incredible range of British films which sell overseas from StreetDance to The King’s Speech,” says Kamp. “Not all British films sell well or should be sold outside the UK but there are many from different periods and different cultural backgrounds which will.”
Bloye has calculated that over 100 DCMS-certified UK productions are out in the global market in any one calendar year. “Talent of course is our greatest export but that is developed in independent film,” he adds.
Education about sales companies
The greatest frustration for Bloye, Kamp, Mackey et al is the apparent misunderstanding of what the role of the sales company is in the value chain. While Lottery funding has been directed towards film production and distribution in the UK, the role of sales experts in getting a film made and positioning it for audiences in the UK and beyond has consistently been neglected. Education is apparently necessary. Film Export works with Skillset and Film London on a long-running programme called Market Place educating new producers and others on the sales and marketing business. The association is also hatching plans for an event in the summer for professionals across the industry value chain.
Inevitably, there is always a focus on festival launches. And, when a UK film plays in an A-list festival, it is the sales company which has to cashflow the costs of flying talent to the event, putting them up and paying for receptions and expenses. But most of all, the sales company is usually the first player in the production identifying and sourcing immediate or future revenue streams.
“Because we sell country by country, you will see your overages if a film does well somewhere,” says Mackey.
“People need to know how opportunities are changing,” says Kamp, who stresses that digital developments are adding new revenue opportunities rather than replacing old ones. “Often these days I am selling directly to a DVD distributor or broadcaster in a territory. In Korea, which has the highest speed broadband in the world, I might sell to a VoD company.”
The challenge for UK sales companies is now to lobby the BFI and others for continued support. “Once you’ve lost an umbrella stand, it won’t come back,” says Bloye. “We now have to re-educate a new group of people at the BFI about our importance in the chain. Well-targeted financial help at the right moment tips the balance in favour of attending a festival or making a sale.”
Mackey is more philosophical, saying without government help the sales sector will survive as it always has. But whereas organisations from KOFIC in Korea to Unifrance in France incentivise sales agents and foreign buyers to take their films, UK sellers will be led by the market. And if that means opting for a US genre movie over a UK one, UK productions will surely suffer as a result.
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