Distribs make most of getting into production

The world premiere of “Brighton Rock” in Toronto marked the arrival of Optimum Releasing as a significant new force in indie production.

Optimum, owned by StudioCanal, is the most ambitious and prolific of several Brit distributors that have started making their own films, along with Lionsgate U.K. and Revolver. On the flipside, producer Vertigo Films runs its own distribution arm, and reaped the benefit with the release of its hit “StreetDance 3D” this year.

Getting distributors closer to production was one of the early goals laid out by the U.K. Film Council when it launched a decade ago. Policymakers saw “distribution pull, not production push” as the key to generating more commercially viable films, and building a more stable and sustainable foundation for British indie filmmaking.

Optimum’s drive into production was initiated by founder and former CEO Will Clarke after he sold to StudioCanal in 2006. The company announced its plans at Cannes 2008, and little more than two years later, it already has four films in the can that it co-developed and majority-financed: “Brighton Rock,” Joe Cornish’s “Attack the Block,” Nick Murphy’s “The Awakening” and Nigel Cole’s “Rafta Rafta.”

Separately, StudioCanal has fully financed Working Title’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” which will be released via Optimum.

That breakneck pace has taken even Optimum’s head of production Jenny Borgars by surprise. Clarke’s decision to exit this summer hasn’t slowed things down. In fact, encouraged by the first results, StudioCanal is now pushing to expand the slate.

“StudioCanal have always had an appetite for production in the U.K.,” Borgars says. “They were very keen to back what we were doing from the start, and they are very keen to increase it now. We’ve made films in the £3 million-£7.6 million ($4.8 million-$12.1 million) budget range, now we’re very interested to up the ambition on budget levels, and potentially on the volume.”

“We made our first three films with first-time directors, but at no point was that the plan. They were just the ones with the vision for the material,” she says. “We want to encourage established filmmakers to come and make a home here.”

Lionsgate U.K. also started exploring production following the sale of the company, formerly Redbus, to Lionsgate in 2005. “We are making one to two films a year,” says CEO Zygi Kamasa.

It fully financed the $17 million Jason Statham vehicle “Blitz,” and is putting up about two-thirds of the budget for Lasse Hallstrom’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” which came as a developed package.

“We don’t develop much,” Kamasa says. “We’re a financing producer, more than a developer. Producers are arguably more focused and better at the development process than we are. They bring projects to us, we come on board, do six to 12 months more development, and then make it.”

Both Optimum and Lionsgate U.K. have the benefit of being part of larger international groups to underpin their investments. Optimum’s production decisions are driven primarily by the U.K. market, but reinforced by StudioCanal’s distribution operations in France and Germany, and its international sales arm.

Lionsgate U.K. is also plugged into an international sales division, but its projects are typically too specialized to go through Lionsgate in the U.S. “We’re the domestic territory in the U.K., we try to have an international skew, and in the U.S. the aim is to sell the film once it’s screened,” says Kamasa. “Lionsgate don’t have first option in the U.S.; I have to protect our partners and producers and do the best deal.”

Revolver is a stand-alone distrib that has carved itself a niche targeting the urban youth market with pics such as “Kidulthood” and “Adulthood.” It has now set up an inhouse production arm, Gunslinger, and is continuing to mine that urban seam. Its first low-budget project, teen action thriller “Shank,” was a cult hit earlier this year. The company is now producing “Anuvahood,” a spoof of its own “Adulthood/Kidulthood” franchise, and “Sket,” a girl-gang thriller.

Gunslinger produces at budget levels that give it a chance of recouping from its U.K. youth audience, with international sales as upside. The division’s topper Nick Taussig prides himself on finding out what his target market wants to see, and then trying to supply it.

Borgars, who previously worked at the U.K. Film Council, says moving from a public subsidy body to a distributor has changed her perspective on development.

“Along with thinking about the integrity of the story, you have to find those elements that are going to pull someone into the cinema. Those aren’t mutually exclusive, but it has taught me to think in a different way.

“The distribution and marketing side get involved from a really early stage. The international sales team even come to the read-throughs, and they bring a real passion and insight to the process.”

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