These are turbulent times for independent distribution in the UK. The British market may be the third most valuable in the world after the US and Japan, but with 450 films released every year, there is a fear the territory is beginning to suffer from over-supply.
On top of that, takeover fever has been rife over the past year: in late 2005, Redbus was acquired by Lionsgate; in early May 2006, Optimum Releasing was acquired by French major StudioCanal; less than a fortnight later, Artificial Eye was acquired by Act Entertainment Group, owner of Curzon Cinemas, and Knatchbull Communications Group. Last autumn, meanwhile, broadcaster Sky joined forces with exhibitor Odeon to form distribution outfit Odeon and Sky Filmworks.
It remains to be seen how the upheaval will affect the growing band of independent distributors bringing specialised fare to the UK. Some indies argue that the changes at Optimum and Redbus have created opportunities for 'niche companies' that keep costs low and know how to generate publicity. 'It leaves room for one of the smaller distributors to come in and take their place. It's everybody going up the food chain,' suggests Julia Short of Verve Pictures.
The smaller independents are striking a robust note, although many acknowledge their sector of the market has become ferociously competitive. 'We're in a world now where we commonly hear people talk about the long tail. There is a market for niche properties,' says Justin Marciano of Revolver Entertainment.
So what are the reasons for optimism' Some now see potential (at least in the future) for digital distribution (assisted by the UK Film Council's Digital Screen Network) and in the download market. They point to the increasing number of small-screen outlets for pre-selling specialist titles. Sky acquires some foreign-language and specialist titles, as do (among others) BBC4, Film4 and Discovery. They can also turn to the EU's Media Programme for support for releasing foreign-language titles as well as to the UK Film Council's Prints & Advertising Fund.
Still, it is getting tougher to find screens for arthouse and foreign-language films. To complicate the independents' lives further, studios' specialist arms are acquiring increasingly more product that might once have gone to the indies. In early 2007, small independents have found themselves competing for screen space with the likes of The Last King Of Scotland and Babel.
The squeeze is at its tightest in London, where access to screens is at a premium. As Soda Pictures's Edward Fletcher puts it: 'You're in a moment now as a small distributor where you have to ask - where would I open this film in London''
'The people who own most of these cinemas now are not interested in cultural cinema,' says another distributor, who points out that most UK exhibitors are now owned by venture capitalists. The disappearance of UGC - taken over by Cineworld in 2004 - meant the loss of a major circuit especially supportive of specialised fare.
During the Christmas season, The Chelsea Cinema - one of London's bastions of arthouse exhibition - programmed such titles as The Holiday and Casino Royale. Clare Binns, director of City Screen and now responsible for booking The Chelsea, strongly defends her programming strategy. 'With The Chelsea, you can argue that it's gone more commercial, but it has got 700 seats to fill. We've had fantastic results with The Holiday and Casino Royale - with 700 seats, you have to have fantastic results.' Binns notes, too, that The Chelsea will be playing such arthouse titles as The Lives Of Others and Days Of Glory.
In a bid to stay afloat, many indies are diversifying. 'You can't just be a distributor,' says Fletcher. 'Whether as a producer or sales agent, your interests are spread. That's what a lot of the newer, younger companies have done. They've not set up saying we are film distributors.'
JUSTIN MARCIANO, REVOLVER ENTERTAINMENT
Celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2007, successful DVD company Revolver diversified into UK theatrical distribution in 2004. Whether documentaries (Grizzly Man), arthouse features (Jindabyne) or such edgy fare as Destricted and Kidulthood, its output is diverse, and the company is resourceful and inventive in reaching its target audience.
What is your perspective on the market'
Our view is that it has always been a congested market. If anything, in terms of competitive congestion, that is probably far more of a problem at the larger independent level. There, at the moment, you've got Entertainment, Momentum, Pathe, Lionsgate and Optimum, all really in very similar spaces. In the area below that we feel there is a little more room at the moment.
Your Kidulthood campaign was widely admired ...
Kidulthood was quite a tough film to book, but I think it earned some respect within the industry in terms of being able to deliver what we said we would. It was a British film, which is bad news straightaway for exhibitors - no stars, even more bad news - not being released by a major, even more bad news. But that film proves you can take something out and get it up to $978,300 (£500,000).
EDWARD FLETCHER, SODA PICTURES
Co-founded in 2002 by cinephiles Eve Gabereau and Edward Fletcher, Soda has since released more than 30 titles. Among its biggest successes have been Laurent Cantet's Heading South and Fatih Akin's Head On. Upcoming releases include Raul Ruiz's Klimt and Susanne Bier's After The Wedding.
How do you see the market for independent distributors'
I don't think the standard of films or the audience have necessarily changed, but the market has changed. With Head On, in London I only released it on three screens, but not out of choice. I would happily have released it on 10 or 15. I don't think anybody can quite achieve the growth rate Optimum did. Just coming in the market and staying in is an achievement. There are a lot of people who have come into the market theatrically recently and I wonder what they see.
ANDY WHITAKER, DOGWOOF PICTURES
Founded by Andy Whitaker and Anna Godas, Dogwoof is an independent attuned to the digital age. It has its own digital arm, Dogwoof Digital, and was among the first to release a film theatrically through the UK's new Digital Screen Network. Previous releases include Fateless and Esma's Secret (Grbavica). Upcoming projects include Tough Enough and Black Gold.
How optimistic are you about the market'
In today's market, the weak will disappear and there will be casualties, as distribution is notoriously hard. But there should always be new entrants like Dogwoof, which have better offers than the incumbent players, else the market will stagnate. I admire what Artificial Eye does but if every independent copies that auteur arthouse model then it makes for a stagnant industry. Film-makers are doing some exciting things right now, and distributors need to follow suit. Differentiate or die.
What opportunities does the Digital Screen Network offer you'
We kicked off with the first film, King's Game. The costs, for the first releases, were out of scale with the benefits. As the circuit gets bigger, it is starting to make sense.
FRANK MANNION, SWIPE FILMS
Swipe, run by the ebullient Frank Mannion, first sprang into prominence with its acquisition of the subsequent Golden Globe winner, Osama, a film which it also sold internationally. Its releases range from irreverent US indie fare to arthouse titles. Mannion is currently producing Reverb, starring Leo Gregory, and Jackboots On Whitehall.
How optimistic are you about prospects for independent UK distributors'
If you are passionate, it's probably the best time ever to be involved in the British film industry. There is a better calibre of executive. There is a stronger infrastructure. Some strong young writers now see film as a career option. At the level I am at, it takes bold marketing campaigns.
You are also involved in production and sales ...
Swipe is a vertically integrated company. The business I am in is working with film-makers. I was a sales agent on Mike Figgis's film Co/Ma. As a producer, I don't think I'd be first choice for him to work with, but being a sales agent allowed me to work with him on that film. The same with Siddiq Barmak on Osama. Being in three lines of business gives me more avenues to explore with film-makers. The more you know about production and sales, the stronger your chances as a distributor.
JULIA SHORT, VERVE PICTURES
Verve Pictures has always placed a particular emphasis on British product, often from up-and-coming talent. Past releases include Red Road, Bullet Boy, Love + Hate and A Way Of Life. The company was founded by Julia Short (ex-Signpost) and Colin Burch (ex-Film4) in early 2003. Among its upcoming titles are Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, which screens in Berlin, and Nic Roeg's eagerly awaited Puffball.
How do you see the present landscape'
The exhibition landscape has changed so much in the sense that all the exhibition chains are now owned effectively by venture capitalists. They're all running businesses and they want to make money. If you've got an art film and it's playing, they'll keep it on. If it's not taking money, they'll pull your film off.
How did Red Road work for you'
We're up to $665,300 (£340,000). We bought that film very early on, at script stage. It was always an art film. Even winning (the jury prize at) Cannes doesn't make it a commercial prospect. It just raises the awareness of it. It has exceeded our expectations.
What differentiates Verve from its competitors'
We're one of the few distributors that will pre-buy projects from first-time film-makers. We tend to go for the more challenging type of movie, like a Pavee Lackeen or a Red Road or A Way Of Life.