Brit distribs focus on production

Companies favor creative control over acquisitions

When indie Brit distrib Revolver announced it was launching a standalone production arm earlier this September, it became the latest U.K. distrib to move into the world of film production.

Optimum Releasing, Lionsgate U.K. and Pathe — which actually shuttered its own U.K. distribution activities in March to concentrate on production — are all ramping up their filmmaking activities.

An overinflated marketplace for third-party acquisitions, a desire for greater creative control over their final product as well as an innate understanding of what should work at the U.K. box office are all significant motivations behind these companies’ strategic shifts.

While indie distribs such as Vertigo Films and Slingshot have long been involved in production, what differentiates the likes of Optimum, Lionsgate and Pathe is the international muscle they’re able to bring to the table.

Optimum Releasing is owned by France’s StudioCanal, which also owns German distrib Kinowelt.

Lionsgate U.K., formerly known as Redbus, is owned by its namesake in the U.S., while Pathe U.K. is part of a conglom that is a major French distributor, exhibitor and producer and also has an international sales arm.

That means execs at these companies can make pics safe in the knowledge that they have a multiterritory supply chain to feed.

“A major plus for us with distribution-led production is that we’re very close to the market and we can apply those lessons,” says Optimum Releasing chief operating officer Danny Perkins. “We’re looking to feed our operations in the U.K., France, Germany, Benelux as well as our sales arm, so that influences the kind of projects we’re going to make.”

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Optimum Releasing is the distrib-turned-producer on which the highest hopes are resting. The company is currently in production on its first project, helmer Rowan Joffe’s $10 million-$12 million adaptation of Graham Greene’s classic novel “Brighton Rock,” starring Sam Riley and Helen Mirren.

Optimum is also in pre-production on gritty youth drama “Here Comes the Summer” and is developing a remake of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” with producer Stephen Woolley. It also hopes to move forward with Ayub Khan Din’s “Rafta Rafta,” a comedy set amongst an immigrant Indian community in the U.K., and a remake of French thriller “Le choc” in the coming months.

Led by Will Clarke, widely respected as one of the smartest execs in the U.K. film biz, Optimum is ramping up its production slate. While it may take the company some time to rival Brit production powerhouses Working Title, Heyday Films or Film and Music Entertainment, it’s already well on the way to establishing itself as a major player.

The same is true of Lionsgate U.K., which is producing “Blitz,” a London-set thriller about a serial killer targeting police officers, starring Jason Statham. Pic is Lionsgate U.K.’s first British project since it announced its plans to beef up its local production activities last year and marks the first collaboration between Statham and Lionsgate U.K. since last year’s “The Bank Job,” which was a hit at the U.K. box office.

The company is also developing the $15 million contemporary sci-fi thriller “83,” which current Brit film flavor-of-the-month Noel Clarke will write, direct and star in; laffer “Stiff,” from “Borat” writer Dan Mazer and producer Andrea Calderwood (“The Last King of Scotland”), about a 1980s rock star who falls into a coma onstage and wakes up 20 years later; as well as romantic comedy “Emily-Jane Secret Mum,” a co-production with Elton John and David Furnish’s Rocket Pictures about a single mother who pretends she doesn’t have kids to get her dream job.

Pathe is another company from which great things are expected, even if progress on new projects has been slow.

Pathe execs announced in March that they were shuttering their distribution operations in the U.K. to focus fully on production, with Warner Bros. taking over the nuts and bolts of releasing its pics in the U.K. A key plank in the company’s English-language ambitions is its five-year pact, also inked in March, with “Slumdog Millionaire” producer Christian Colson’s shingle Cloud Nine Films for development, production, sales and distribution.

It’s a measure of the tough conditions facing indie producers that Pathe, coming off its biggest English-language success ever with “Slumdog” and the most public about its production ambitions, has yet to greenlight any new projects.

“There was a pure commercial necessity to evolve more into controlling our product,” says Pathe U.K. managing director Cameron McCracken. “There is limited material out there to meet the criteria that distributors need, and that only results in pushing the prices up even more. We’re getting quite close with three or four projects, and we’re in those delicate final stages now.”

Not all the U.K distribs-turned-producers are setting their sights on making films that travel. Revolver, for example, intends to make one to three $1 million projects aimed primarily at the U.K. market. The company’s first production, “Shanks,” is filled with up-and-coming Brit talent and takes place in a futuristic London where food has replaced guns and drugs as a priceless commodity.

“It is a risky, expensive endeavor to move into production, but for us, the attraction is being able to reverse-engineer films for the market,” says Revolver topper Justin Marciano. “Every day we’re marketing entertainment to consumers. It makes more sense to produce what we think will work rather than wait for the market to deliver something to us.”