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U.K. distributors battle for niches

Region has too many films, not enough screens

LONDON — U.K. film distribs are discovering that if life is tough at the top, it’s even tougher in the niche trenches.

While some of Blighty’s more established indies face uncertainty over their future ownership and declining market share, a number of ambitious, newer players are striving to make it to the next tier of distrib success.

One need only look at the differing fortunes of specialist arthouse stalwarts Tartan Films and Curzon Artificial Eye to see the challenges posed by what many smaller U.K. distribs are calling a “sellers’ market,” namely too many films and not enough screens.

Speculation over the ownership of Tartan and fellow niche distrib Metrodome has been ongoing for months.

The long-mooted sale of Tartan to David Bergstein’s Capco Group, the firm that owns ThinkFilm, Image Entertainment and the U.K.’s Capitol Films, reportedly fell through late in October. Tartan execs took the opportunity to announce a restructuring of its Brit operation that included well-liked managing director Laura De Casto ankling the company to pursue a career in independent production.

Tartan also announced a cash injection of $6 million in the form of a convertible loan from a private investor. Tartan topper Hamish McAlpine declined to comment.

Similarly, Metrodome execs are remaining tight-lipped over rumors they are in the latter stages of agreeing on a sale of the company. Teuton majority shareholder TV-Loonland announced Aug. 23 its intention to sell its 61.7% stake in the company, which boasts a library including the Oscar-nominated “Water” and “Days of Glory.”

Since then the company has been out for bids. “We now have a shortlist of two or three parties and we are holding detailed talks with them,” says Metrodome CEO Peter Urie.

Artificial Eye, on the other hand, is mining in an expansive new direction following its acquisition last year by Roger Wingate’s Act Entertainment Group and Philip Knatchbull’s media investment fund Knatchbull Communications Group from founders Pan and Andi Engel.

The arthouse distrib is inching toward the mainstream with a series of moves in hopes of reaching wider auds.

In addition to the acquisition of Helen Hunt’s “Then She Found Me,” distrib has inked a deal with paybox Sky Movies to co-release Teuton-Turkish helmer Fatih Akin’s Oscar hopeful “Edge of Heaven.”

Pic will be released simultaneously in cinemas and on pay-per-view, with a VOD deal with BT Vision also in the pipeline.

“We are keen to explore ways in which to bring our films to the attention of new audiences and to cater for the changing habits of cinemagoers brought on by the developing technologies,” says CEO Philip Knatchbull.

Elsewhere, smaller U.K. distribs such as Soda Pictures, Axion Films and Park Circus Films are finding profit margins increasingly difficult to sustain given the theatrical congestion and declining DVD sales.

The total theatrical revenue this year to date for the 10 distribs ranked 21-30 was less than $10 million according to box office tracker Nielson EDI. That’s also less than the yearly cume so far of medium-sized distrib Optimum Releasing alone, which finds itself out of the top 10 list in 13th place.

“The market has become so polarized. If you’re not a blockbuster or an arthouse blockbuster there’s almost no chance for small films,” says Soda Pictures managing director Edward Fletcher.

The search for that elusive breakout pic is becoming ever more elusive. Soda execs are gambling on French helmer Michel Ocelot’s toon “The Princes’ Quest” to deliver them a hit by paying $60,000 to have the film, originally called “Azur et Asmar,” dubbed into English and retitled to make it more palatable for U.K. auds.

One company that has struck gold this year is Revolver Entertainment. Distrib, which originally concentrated as a homevid label on titles such as “Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle,” scored its first £1 million grosser with French thriller “Tell No One.”

The company has outperformed the likes of Tartan, Artificial Eye and Metrodome with a savvy combination of a good eye for product and innovative marketing campaigns.

“It was a massive deal for everyone here to break that glass ceiling of making over a million pounds,” says Revolver managing director Justin Marciano. “People are getting bashed every weekend. It’s going to come down to who’s in it for the longest haul.”

Away from Revolver, the success story of the year must be the performance of distribs of Indian films.

The likes of Bollywood distribs Eros, Yash Raj, Tip Top Entertainment, Adlabs Films as well as Tamil company Ayngaran Intl. have grossed an astounding $25 million at the U.K. box office this year thanks to pix such as “Namastey London,” which brought in almost $2 million.

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