There’s never a good time to sack your staff and file for administration. But Renaissance Films topper Angus Finney would probably have preferred not to pull the plug in the week when 200 foreign distribs were gathered for the London UK Film Focus, an event designed to promote the best that British sales companies have to offer.
He didn’t have much choice, however. With insufficient sales to cover its costs and without a deep-pocketed backer to absorb its overheads, Renaissance became the latest London sales outfit to close its doors, following Element X (defunct), Portman (concentrating on TV) and HBO (relocating sales to the U.S.).
At this rate of attrition, London is in danger of losing its long-cherished status as the twin capital (along with Los Angeles) of the film sales biz. The fact that Renaissance, once one of the biggest names in British cinema, was finally undone by routine snags on a single low-budget film, Peter Cattaneo‘s “Pobby and Dingan,” simply highlights the current frailty of the Blighty’s indie sales sector.
Renaissance had high hopes for Cattaneo’s pic, but buyers at Cannes didn’t show the same enthusiasm. There was talk of re-cutting to secure a North American deal with Focus, but that held up delivery to distribs who had pre-bought the movie, which in turn stalled their payments. After its management buy-out from the pension fund Hermes a year ago, Renaissance simply didn’t have enough working capital to tide it through.
The disappearance of so many London sales boutiques poses a particular problem for the financiers and producers of niche Brit pics — the likes of BBC Films, FilmFour and the U.K. Film Council. They rely on bespoke outfits such as Renaissance, Portman and Element X to find foreign distribs for their more specialized movies. The bigger Brit sales houses like Capitol and HanWay have only a limited appetite for such fare.
“One of the things that kept London ticking over was its sales activity,” says Paul Trijbits, head of the UKFC’s New Cinema Fund. “The ecology worked, with the larger sales companies, the mid-range ones like Renaissance and Portman, and the baby ones. But you kind of need them all. If a couple disappear, and we see aggressive work by the French or Danish companies looking for British films, who are able to put a little bit of money in and get a higher commission, then the whole ecology is at risk.”
Trijbits argues that public orgs such as the UKFC and BBC Films should take a hard look at their own role in undermining the mid-range sellers. “Even us pushing their commission down from 15% to 10% could make the difference to their profitability,” he admits.
Then there’s the questionable quality of the films themselves. It’s all very well for such financiers to rely on these sales boutiques to handle their marginal projects, but when BBC Films recently found itself with a hot commercial prospect — Debbie Isitt’s “Confetti” — it rushed straight into a worldwide deal with Fox Searchlight, bypassing the indie sellers who could potentially have earned more upside for everyone.
Alison Thompson, head of Pathe Pictures Intl. and a strong voice in the trade org UK Film Export, says the UKFC urgently needs to explore new ways to support the ailing Brit sales sector, beyond simply funding the annual LUFF showcase. Not giving UKFC-backed movies to foreign sales outfits might be a start, she suggests.
Trijbits agrees: “We have put money into production, distribution and exhibition, but the sales agents have been slow to come to us, and they need to be shouting louder and clearer about what they need.” But he cautions, “If a foreign seller such as Wild Bunch, Celluloid Dreams or Trust pursues a project aggressively and has that extra bit of money to close the financing, and U.K. sellers don’t, then it’s hard for us to insist on using a British company.”