London’s sales shingles shuffle

Volume of new entrants seems to match the number of exits

LONDON — London’s film sales agents are suffering from the old Chinese curse of living in interesting times.

Even by the unstable standards of the foreign sales biz, the past year has seen an unusual degree of upheaval in Blighty. The biz has adjusted, sometimes painfully, to changes in the global financing climate.

Several companies have come and gone from the London scene since the last American Film Market, and some well-known individuals have found themselves new homes.

But for all the talk of a long-overdue consolidation of the U.K. sales sector, the volume of new entrants seems at least to match the number of exits. It bears out the adage that old sales agents never die, they just print up new business cards.

Over the summer, the focus was all on the departures, with Renaissance Films, Element X, Portman Film, HBO Films London and longtime agent Bill Gavin all closing their doors.

Come the fall, however, the pendulum swung back. Focus Intl. opened a London office for the first time, poaching Pathe’s Alison Thompson to become its president. (Her deputy Mike Runagall was promoted to fill her shoes at Pathe.)

“Focus Intl. wants to expand its business in Europe and be known as an entity in its own right, picking up third-party films and broadening the slate,” Thompson says. “I would see us bidding for the kind of movies that Summit sells.”

Avi Lerner’s bullish Nu Image/Millennium Films has opened an international sales office in London, with veteran Brit exec David Lamping heading back to Blighty to run it.

And it’s less than a year since another seasoned sales maven, Nicole Mackey, switched from Capitol Films to Fortissimo Films, giving one of the leading players in the arthouse/crossover biz a direct presence in London for the first time.

Meanwhile, the future ownership of Capitol has been the focus of intense speculation since Cannes. It’s an open secret that the sales powerhouse has been in negotiations with a potential American buyer to become part of a larger media group. Capitol posted its highest-ever profits in the past couple of years, so whether or not that marriage is consummated, the company is in robust shape to maintain its leading role in the London scene.

After losing her job at HBO Films when the U.S. paybox decided to relocate its sales activities Stateside, Penny Wolf (another former Capitol exec) has joined Canadian-owned Peace Arch to beef up its London presence.

While HanWay Films is aggressively expanding its slate under chief exec Tim Haslam, former HanWay topper Thierry Wase-Bailey has quietly established his own sales and consultancy shingle, Celsius Entertainment, under a housekeeping deal with Civilian Content.

Publicly quoted Civilian recently rebranded itself the Works Media Group, taking the name from its own long-established foreign arm. This division, retitled the Works Intl. Sales, has retrenched under longtime staffer Joy Wong after shedding a couple of key execs last year, including topper Aline Perry. The Works also launched its own U.K. distrib arm, boosting the ability of the foreign sales team to pick up movies.

Guy Collins and Michael Ryan’s IAC Films, which seemed like it might be on its way out a couple of years ago after filing for voluntary administration, is staging something of a comeback with new installments of the “Highlander” franchise, aided by an increasingly productive relationship with tax financier Grosvenor Park.

Also on the comeback trail are former Winchester topper Gary Smith and his sales duo, Andrew Brown and Billy Hurman. Smith floated his new shingle, Intandem Films, on the stock market in April to raise some working capital, and is using the coin to ramp up his sales slate.

Winchester initially merged with Cobalt Media in 2003; then they were swallowed up by ContentFilm last year. Content has continued its evolution this year by acquiring Fireworks Intl., primarily a TV seller, and pulling out of film production with the departure of founder Ed Pressman. Jamie Carmichael continues to run Content’s film sales.

There are some islands of stability amid the London turmoil. Lakeshore Intl. prexy Peter Rogers and Summit Entertainment managing director David Garrett continue to plow a steady furrow, while Ralph Kamp and Louise Goodsill’s Odyssey Entertainment is strengthening its slate after successes with “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Valiant.”

At the other end of the market, niche players such as Carey Fitzgerald at High Point Films; Gary Phillips and Mark Vennis at Moviehouse Entertainment; Luc Roeg’s Artists Independent Film and Independent Film Sales; and Samantha Horley at Lumina Films continue to defy the doom-mongers looking for the next domino to fall.

“I think the key is just to get on with it,” Fitzgerald says. “A lot of these companies that have gone totally overstretched themselves. Everyone says it’s difficult, but I can’t remember a time when it’s been easy.” High Point relies on a strong TV side to anchor its film sales slate. “If we launch an independent film and it gets a lukewarm response, we can repackage it and relaunch it at the next TV market,” she says.

Over at Moviehouse, Phillips says, “We set out four years ago saying that it’s a tough time, and it’s going to get tougher before it gets better. But there’s a positive to being what we are — very small — because we can be responsive. It doesn’t take us weeks or months to get back to producers.”

Meanwhile, the U.K. Film Council has responded to the negative publicity about the summer’s sales company closures by commissioning a report from consultant Jonathan Olsberg into possible measures to support the Brit sales sector. This could include transforming its informal advisory group Film Export U.K. into a formal trade organization to lobby for sales interests.

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