LONDON– Back for the 11th time with “The Angels’ Share,” Ken Loach has competed in Cannes more often than any other British director.
The high artistic regard in which Loach is held in Europe, particularly in France, has enabled him and his producer Rebecca O’Brien to construct a uniquely durable business model, which has sustained his remarkable productivity over the past quarter century.
Through smart dealmaking by O’Brien, the vocally progressive 75-year-old auteur who won the Palme d’Or in 2006 with “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” has kept financial and creative control over his own destiny, thanks to a core group of loyal distributors and co-producers who have returned time and again to support his work.
“In France, Germany, Spain, even Switzerland, the same people have stuck with us. It’s the backbone of our financing,” says O’Brien. “The one place we haven’t managed to find a consistent partner is the U.K.”
Loach’s films never cost more than $8 million, and they often cost much less. “Ken is very particular about this, and very clued in to the economics,” O’Brien notes. “If we continue to make films at this level, it makes economic sense. Nobody is getting huge fees, and we all share equally in the costs of making the films.”
As befits a filmmaker more interested in exploring social injustice than expressing his own interior vision, Loach and O’Brien also work hard to engage directly with audiences, building the Loach brand on DVD, online and with social media.
“We need to nurture our audience, if we want them to come back for the next film,” says O’Brien.
In his early career, Loach’s work was typically financed by the BBC or Channel 4. That changed with “Land and Freedom” in 1994, whose Spanish Civil War setting required a larger budget. O’Brien devised a Spanish and German co-production structure, with presales to France and Italy, which became their template for the next 15 years.
O’Brien credits German co-producer Uli Felsberg with teaching her about Euro funding. After she and Loach left their original company Parallax Films in 2001 to make “Sweet Sixteen” under their new banner, Sixteen Films, Felsberg pointed out that they were entitled to a fee for arranging the key presales which underpinned every project.
“So we formed a sales company and used our deferred fees to part-finance the films, which gave us a far better recoupment position,” O’Brien explains.
As co-producer, Sixteen also shares in the copyright of all its films. “The value of owning your own stuff is significant, even if the rights take a long time to come back to you,” O’Brien says.
The company was also able to fund its own development, thanks to the lucky timing of “My Name Is Joe” in 1997, which started shooting just before sale-and-leaseback deals were invented to take advantage of the U.K.’s new Section 48 tax break. The retroactive S&L deal for “My Name Is Joe” delivered an unexpected windfall which put the pic into profit.
“It gave us money that we could use to pay for our next screenplays,” O’Brien explains. “Just by rolling that money on, we have been able to avoid selling our soul to get development funding, which puts you in a much stronger position.”
After 15 years using the same basic Euro structure , with variants for each film , Sixteen switched to a new model in 2009 (with Gallic co-producers Wild Bunch and Why Not) to make “Looking for Eric,” featuring French soccer star Eric Cantona.
“They made us a very simple proposition, to use our usual distribution partners, cashflow the project and bring French co-production money,” O’Brien says. “France was always our best territory, so it made sense. We were properly in profit even before we started shooting.”
The new Gallic partnership continued with “Route Irish,” about private security contractors in Iraq, and Scotch whisky caper “The Angels’ Share.” Why Not and Wild Bunch will also distribute Loach’s upcoming docu about Britain at the end of WW2 titled “The Spirit of ’45,” which is funded by the BFI and Film4.
Meanwhile, O’Brien is bringing Loach’s old work to new audiences. She created two DVD box sets by simply buying and repackaging 2,500 copies of each title, started a Ken Loach YouTube channel, and launched Sixteen Films on Twitter.
“We just want to keep up with whatever is happening and be part of the action,” O’Brien explains. “It’s a triumph of ours that we’ve manage to make so much of Ken’s work available, on DVD and online. When a new film wins new supporters, it makes sense to service them with our back catalogue.”
In the same innovative spirit, “Route Irish” was released simultaneously in U.K. cinemas and on satellite pay-per-view. Loach was delighted, because the TV launch reached his desired audience of young soldiers who were the subject of the film but would never have seen it in an arthouse.
That’s the key to Loach’s longevity — using his long-term relationships to fund a restless exploration of new subjects and new audiences.
“The next film has to be different from the one before,” O’Brien explains. ” Some are lighter, some are heavier. The lighter ones like ‘The Angels’ Share’ are easier to raise the money for, but when we do more difficult films like ‘Route Irish,’ our partners have stuck with us. That’s what has kept us going.”
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