Despite crowded field, new firms use low costs to make mark

London– It’s crowded, competitive and expensive — but that’s not stopping small players from entering the U.K. film distribution market.

Established distribs such as Entertainment Film Distributors, Lionsgate U.K., StudioCanal’s Brit arm Optimum Releasing, Momentum Pictures, EOne and Icon, all vying for similar commercial product, have helped drive up acquisition prices, while P&A in Blighty remains high.

Yet a slew of new distribution outfits, such as Crabtree Films (launched in September 2010), G2 Pictures (September 2008) and Kaleidoscope Film Distribution (August 2010) have seen success with U.K. auds despite the continuing worldwide economic crisis, thanks to theatrical digital distribution, cheaper online marketing models (such as Facebook), Web-based services like Lovefilm and iTunes (and soon to be Netflix). And a down-but-not-out DVD market added to low overhead costs mean that small fry have a chance to compete, and snap up potential commercial titles for five figure sums.

According to Mark Batey, chief executive of Film Distributors’ Assn., the top 12 distribs in the U.K. account for 96% of the theatrical market. “That’s been pretty consistent over the last decade or so,” he says. “But that still leaves the other 4%, and these days it’s 4% of £1 billion ($1.6 billion) of theatrical gross.” So there’s $65 million still on the table, and dozens of companies competing for it.

There are nearly 100 distributors in the U.K. market, a number that has grown by one-third since 2007, and the number of films released has also risen, to about 600 per year.

“The U.K. is a very expensive market,” Batey says. “But it’s a very open market. Distribution has become more sophisticated and even more competitive, but digital has had a transformative impact into the way films are marketed and publicized. Four or five years ago, social media didn’t exist, and now social media is a must for every film campaign.”

Crabtree released Jesse Eisenberg starrer “Holy Rollers” theatrically in Blighty in July, grossing just $117,000 — but that covered its minimum guarantee.

G2 nabbed rights to one of last year’s Toronto buzz titles “Super,” toplining Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page, which took $28,400, while Kaleidoscope distributed BBC Earth’s “One Life,” narrated by Daniel Craig, which minted a very modest $22,500 theatrically.

Spencer Pollard, CEO at Kaleidoscope, which focuses on commercial genre films, says there’s enough product out there for everyone.

“I think the U.K. is a very competitive market, but there has been a lot of product that is marketable and salable for the U.K.,” he says.

Kaleidoscope is owned and financed by Pollard. So far it has released more than 30 pics in the U.K. to various levels of success. The outfit has acquired films such as “Little Ashes,” toplining pre-”Twilight” Robert Pattinson, “Michael Flatley: Lord of the Dance 3D” and is set to release Melissa George starrer “A Lonely Place to Die” in September on 250 prints, its biggest theatrical release to date.

Pollard acknowledges that it was tough coming into markets as a new buyer. “You’re restricted by the amount of staff you’ve got and your budget,” he says, adding that with each AFM or Cannes he goes to, his success at picking up films has improved because he is now a known quantity with a positive track record.

Crabtree topper Nick McCaffrey, whose Nottingham-based outfit has a staff of two, says the competitive U.K. distribution market wasn’t a concern when he was starting out.

A former employee at film website BritFilms TV, McCaffrey says he entered the distribution arena out of passion and a recognition of a what he saw as a gap in the marketplace.

“I knew a lot of people who were coming to me with pictures that couldn’t get released,” he says. “And some of them had commercial viability.”

The first pic Crabtree distributed was low-budget thriller “Crying With Laughter,” which had a limited theatrical release on 40 screens. This was followed by another genre pic, “Ten Dead Men,” which sold 20,000 units on DVD.

“There’s only two of us who work here, so if we can put a few units out there, we don’t need the films to be as big a hit,” he says. “We just need to connect with the right type of audience.”

For “Holy Rollers,” McCaffrey pitched the producers on his vision of a focused marketing campaign, which sealed the distribution deal. “Our pitch was that we weren’t working on anything else theatrically for that entire quarter so we were able to give it the attention we felt it deserved.”

Crabtree recently picked up London-set, low-budget comedy “How to Stop Being a Loser,” toplining Simon Philips, Gemma Atkinson and Richard E. Grant, which it is planning to release later this year.

And it signed a deal with one of the bigger guys — EOne is taking over the company’s digital business, which involves getting the company’s pics onto iTunes and other digital platforms.

“A few years from now, I’d like us to get involved in the actual creation of films and work with people right from the start,” says McCaffrey, echoing an idea that many indie distributors in the U.K. are tapping into. “But for now our goals are more short term — can we get through this year and can we get to the point where we’re breaking even and our catalog is covering us?”

Notes Blair: “Even in a time of austerity you can’t stop the entrepreneurial flair.”

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