Venture gives more control over foreign sales

Film4 is getting back into foreign sales, in partnership with producer-distrib Vertigo Films and financier Ingenious Media.

Their new joint sales company, Protagonist Pictures, is headed by Ben Roberts, formerly VP of worldwide acquisitions for Universal.

All three partners hope the venture will give them more control over the international destiny of the movies they produce or finance. But Protagonist will fulfill a slightly different role for each, as well as act as an independent business in its own right.

Film4 pulled out of sales and distribution in 2002 to focus exclusively on production. It no longer takes foreign rights to its pics and isn’t about to start again now. But wherever possible, it will encourage the producers it works with to pick Protagonist as its sales agent.

“Historically, FilmFour Intl. was a very successful part of the old operation, both from a commercial and a branding point of view,” says F4’s head of commercial development, Sue Bruce-Smith.

“Since then, it’s been a real battle, particularly on our bigger films, to create a space for ourselves and a recognition of our role internationally. We’ll have a better and more direct relationship with Protagonist, which will give us more clarity and transparency in our dealings and more of a say in marketing.”

Protagonist will also handle Film4’s existing library, with Nadia Cirjanic joining from Channel 4 to head library sales.

For Vertigo, the addition of foreign sales to its flourishing production and U.K. distribution business is the next logical step in its evolution into a more ambitious international player.

It typically controls its own foreign rights, so Protagonist will have first refusal on its projects.

Vertigo has established itself as an effective producer of low-budget genre pics for the U.K. market, with a skew to young male audiences. Yet its pics, such as Nick Love’s “The Football Factory,” “The Business” and “Outlaw”; Tom Shankland’s “Waz”; and Mike Dowse’s “It’s All Gone Pete Tong,” have also sold surprisingly well to foreign distribs. The company also wants to start making bigger projects with international talent, such as Dowse’s upcoming “Blue Movie.”

“Other sales companies have been making a lot of money from our films, and we thought perhaps we should be getting that,” says Vertigo’s James Richardson.

Protagonist’s launch slate will include two offbeat comedies from Vertigo, “Dogging: A Love Story,” directed by Simon Ellis, and Vito Rocco’s “Faintheart,” both in post. It will also handle foreign sales on Vertigo’s upcoming prison drama “Bronson,” directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, and “The Day,” a thriller directed by Shankland.

Ingenious, which backs everything from low-budget Brit pics such as “Outlaw” to Hollywood blockbusters such as “The Golden Compass,” will hope to steer any suitable indie projects that don’t already have a sales agent toward Protagonist.

Roberts himself is crossing over to sales after six years on the other side of the negotiating table. As a former buyer of multiple territories for Universal, he knows that he will have to offer a varied menu of bigger international projects.

“It’s really difficult to position lower-budget British films internationally,” he admits. “The ambition for Protagonist is certainly not to be a U.K. microbudget seller.”

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