Charlie Bloye, CEO of Film Export UK, one of the 12 organisations taking part in Nesta and the UKFC’s digital innovation programme, explains the challenges facing sales companies in the digital age


What does Film Export UK do?

Charlie Bloye: Film Export UK (FEUK) began in 2007 and is a trade association for sales companies who have active sales offices in the UK, not just those who are selling UK films, or UK companies. We have most of the major sales companies in the UK bar a couple, so we remain pretty representative of the industry.

We help members with training initiatives, business affairs, festivals and markets, umbrella stands, plus general lobbying. We try to take in an overview on behalf of our members.

Why did you decide to get involved in the Take 12 programme?

CB: We thought it was a good opportunity to get into a forum where sales agents on their own wouldn’t have the time or possibly the inclination to get involved. Most of the time sales agents are on the other side of the table from distributors and producers, so we thought it was useful to get into a room with them, in an area where you can kick ideas around, without the vested interest of your own company.

So I am there as a representative of my members and I will be getting them involved and reporting back our findings.

What have you gained from the programme so far?

CB: The opportunity to look at in a structured way at what steps we should be taking and what we might be able to gain from talking to other people.

A lot of it is to do with joining forces with other people. We can add our voice to the general debate. It is also an opportunity to remind people that sales companies do a lot more than deal making. They are also an integral part of promoting and marketing films.

What challenges do sales companies face in the current climate?

CB: The biggest challenges come from the levels of competition from two places:

The studios, who have always been there. Inevitably independents are always looking for the niches that studios neglect to exploit. But the way the studios distribute, in that everything is centralised, gives them a major advantage.

Our other major competitors are file sharers, people who aren’t paying for films. There have always been pirates, it has always been a component of the business but the possibility of a generation of people growing up without actually thinking a movie is something you need to pay for in any way, is more worrying to independents than the threat of the studios. Piracy is a very considerable concern.

But in some ways, sales companies have actually been dealing with what is happening today for over a decade because they have to predict rights that may be invented in the future and things that could come up down the line.

What are you doing to try and combat piracy?

CB: We did a pilot scheme with a company that watermarks material and tracks its activity on the internet. We sit on the anti film theft task force, which is mainly UK, but we bring an international focus to that.

And we are always asking the questions, how can the independents best prepare themselves to take advantage of digital technology to reach more audiences, but also take advantage to protect themselves?

Independents need to be talking to each other more, because a lot of the solutions to piracy come through collaboration.

Sales companies are used to collaborating with distributors and producers on marketing, but they need to get used to collaborating earlier and creating anti piracy programmes which covers the film all the way through.

Demand is a key word. Sales companies need to find where the public are demanding to see movies and make sure the movies can be there for them and create an opportunity for them pay.

What do you think of Revolver’s collapsed windows strategy with the release of Mum and Dad?

CB: Companies like Revolver are very pioneering and I think there are some very interesting findings from that experiment.

Sales agents and distributors would agree that what they most want to do is to have the freedom to pick the best release plan for any given movie.

How is the film industry in general adapting to the digital revolution?
CB: Where we are at the moment, certain reliable sources of income no longer look so reliable, and future sources to replace them have yet to manifest themselves. The audiences are there it is just way of connecting them with a way of paying for their filmed entertainment.

There is a danger that some companies are creating models which are too much to do with digital content which is consumed very quickly.

In reality a lot of these “models” are one offs, they may be very successful, but they can’t be reproduced – therefore it is not a model.

I am an old timer, but I have seen so many things that were going to “revolutionise” everything, for instance The Blair Witch Project. But that was not a model.

The independent sector needs to be reacting quickly and intelligently to changes in public taste and plugging in to the zeitgeist, so that independent films have a good long term future.

Do you think the good old fashioned cinema experience will stand the test of time?
CB: The feature film, particularly the fiction feature film, has been an extremely resilient art form, it has been going forever and whilst other things may have come along, like three minute youtube clips of a cat falling off a stakeboard, I don’t think they can be compared to the cinematic experience.

I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that consumers have short attention spans. People are still turning out for live gigs and other events that require giving yourself over to 90 minutes of collective experience.

All our members are aiming to make movies that can be made in the cinema.

Why would you bypass the medium? All the people who say they don’t need the cinema, would they actually turn down the opportunity of the cinema?

Are you optimistic about the future of sales companies?

CB: The future for sales companies is assured because our members are the connection between the filmmakers and the marketplace. They are adept and efficient at understanding the marketplace. Sales companies are crucial in the positioning of a movie, in the early conversations about casting, and experienced producers will always consult sales companies about these things. It is very hard to see how the internet could disintermediate that connection.

‘Film Export UK was a great option as a participant company on the Take 12 scheme because they were interested both in building their own understanding and that of their members about the impact of digitaltechnology upon their business.’ Haidee Bell, Nesta

Innovation Partners Vanessa Arden Wood, director of operations at Illumina Digital and Richard Ellis, co founder of MTM London, explain their role in guiding FEUK and its members through the digital revolution

Vanessa Arden Wood:

FEUK are in a unique position within the Take 12 program, as a trade body they are able to gather information for and provide strategic benefit to their members, many of whom are smaller sales agents who would not have had the opportunity to be involved in the program directly. Throughout our interviews with many of FEUK’s members it became clear that there is an genuine interest in the impact of Video On Demand to their industry, yet a hesitation about the exact role that sales agents can play within the new digital value chain.

FEUK have the opportunity to play a significant role in encouraging the wider UK film industry to explore what changes need to be made within the industry as digital business models develop, particularly around digital rights. For an industry and value chain which has been following a well worn path for a long time this is likely to be a challenging, though necessary challenge.

Richard Ellis:

The UK media market is experiencing a period of rapid change and development. Mass media is fragmenting, and Internet consumption is rising fast, creating a new and complex landscape where the consumer has far more choice than before. We have been working with FEUK and its members to develop a clear view of the implications these changes have for sales agents, and what steps they can take to refine or re-invent their business models.

Digital media presents enormous challenges for sales agents, including slowing DVD sales and piracy, but also new opportunities – the internet is a powerful marketing and distribution tool, for example. The key for sales agents is not to be intimidated by the changes, or frightened into over-reacting.

Cinema attendance remains relatively robust, and although there is a lot more competition for consumer attention these days, there will always be an audience for high quality long-form content like films – it’s just that that audience will be more fragmented than it was before, and film companies will have to work harder to attract and monetise them. Within this context, sales agents play as key a role in linking producers and distributors today as they did ten years ago.