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Picturehouse Targets U.S. With Documentary ‘World’

Blighty’s largest arthouse exhibition chain, Picturehouse Cinemas, and its niche distribution label Picturehouse Entertainment, is the latest outfit to set its sights on the other side of the pond with its first U.S. theatrical release, documentary “How to Change the World,” skedded for September. The docu, directed by Jerry Rothwell, chronicles the early days of the modern eco-movement.

It’s a specialized film that requires a careful release, and Picturehouse intends to do just that by sticking to a tried and tested model that has already proven successful for some of the company’s previous releases: live-event cinema.

On Sept. 9, Picturehouse will screen the doc across 400 U.S. cinemas (presented with Fathom Events stateside) and 150 in the U.K., followed by a satellite Q&A with Rothwell, fashion designer and Greenpeace supporter Vivienne Westwood and other guests. The event will unspool in Blighty first but will be recorded and then broadcast in the U.S. five hours later due to the time difference. The company is still working out its U.S. release strategy after the event while the doc is set to screen across 20 to 30 cinemas in the U.K. on Sept. 11.

It’s an ambitious endeavor, admits Picturehouse Entertainment director of distribution Marc Allenby, but a fitting one for the distrib-exhib, which has long been a global leader in sourcing and promoting alternative content.

(Picturehouse was one of the first to dip its toe in the alt market back in 2004 when it broadcast a live Q&A with M. Night Shyamalan at the Ritzy Cinema in London via satellite to its cinemas in Cambridge, Liverpool and York.)

“Through event cinema we’ve released a small number of projects directly to U.S. exhibitors, and we’ve really got a taste for what can be achieved,” says Allenby, pointing to U.S. releases of “Monty Python Live (mostly)” and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Richard III” (Picturehouse is the worldwide distribution partner for RSC). “We’ve seen how we can run a strategy in the U.K., and the U.S. market has always been an interest to us so we’re keen to explore how we can rip up the rule book a little bit and apply knowledge from event releasing into the traditional film space.”

The U.S. distribution strategy for “How to Change the World” will mirror its U.K. model: minimal investment, a concerted marketing drive with the support of appropriate partners (in this case, Greenpeace) no commitment to above-the-line spend and a targeted online presence. “We recognized, for the right titles, it can be worth amplifying our U.K. release strategy,” says Allenby. “We feel we can bring efficiencies without necessarily falling into the traps of a traditional approach.”

The company has strong relationships with a network of independent and not-for-profit cinemas, all of which have close ties with their audiences, and it also works closely with U.S.-based Fathom Events; the two companies jointly acquired international and U.S. rights to “Roger Waters The Wall,” which world preemed in Toronto last year.

Picturehouse managing director and co-founder Lyn Goleby insists the company’s U.S. ambitions are not just a flash in the pan. The company has already secured U.S. theatrical rights to Italian horse race docu “Palio,” which unspools domestically and in Blighty on Sept. 25.

“We plan to distribute in the U.S. for the right content, where we can do a good job through relationships we have there,” she says, while also hinting at plans to enter the domestic exhibition sector. “We’ve always been very curious of the U.S. also in the cinema context and we are always looking to where year-on-year growth is going to be.”

Besides its U.S. ambitions, Picturehouse’s homegrown aspirations are far from complete. Goleby, who founded the Picturehouse chain with Tony Jones in 1989 with the opening of the Phoenix cinema in Oxford, says that exhibition remains the core of the business. The company was acquired by Blighty’s second largest exhib chain Cineworld Group in 2012 for £47.3 million ($67.8 million), which has given the company more financial muscle for expansion.

Its 2014 figures were up, seeing the chain add 100,000 visits to its 21 sites with 3.2 million admissions while revenues rose 8% to £39.7 million ($61.6 million).

In June, the company unveiled its 22nd U.K. site: a grand, seven-screen flagship cinema in the heart of London’s West End, dubbed Picturehouse Central. The site, a redevelopment of a former Cineworld multiplex in London’s Trocadero, marks the company’s first West End cinema, meaning the exhib can now compete for London premiere events and charge a top ticket price of £18 ($28).

The venue holds 1,000, and has a members bar with a roof terrace — set to open in September — and will also serve as the new venue for Sundance London in 2016.

Goleby says plans for expansion on the cinema front is still an organic process: “It’s gently ambitious without accelerating too hard so we trip over in any way.” The company aims to open three new cinemas a year in the U.K. and has already filled its pipeline for the next three years with sites in Crouch End, Kensington and Chiswick in London and one site in Durham all on the cards.

In distribution, the company is playing the long-game, focusing on releases of review-led titles. Given the U.K. distribution market is more polarized than ever, the company may jointly acquire titles with other smaller U.K. distribs with similar taste. For example, Picturehouse Entertainment is co-releasing Cannes Jury Prize winner “The Lobster” with Element Pictures in the U.K. and Ireland while it recently co-released Jean Dujardin starrer “The Connection” with Altitude Film Distribution.

Since its launch in 2010, its eclectic slate has included titles such as “The Imposter” (co-release with Revolver Entertainment, which took $1.8 million at the U.K. box office), Shane Meadows’ “The Stone Roses: Made of Stone” and Nick Cave docudrama “20,000 Days on Earth.”

“Distribution is a profitable part of our business and we have quite ambitious plans to grow it both through straight feature films and alternative content,” says Goleby.

She is keen to stress that alternative content remains a key strand to the company’s success. It currently represents more than 10% of its overall business.

A recent report from IHS Technology says event cinema is worth nearly $300 million worldwide and forecasts that the business could generate $1 billion by 2019.

“I do think there is a lot of opportunity in that sector,” says Goleby. “But for us now it’s about using the expertise that we have gained throughout the years to maximize revenues.”

Of the greater distribution ambitions, Allenby says, “We’re looking for growth in an area of global releasing. We’re in conversations with various partners around the world to ensure we get the maximum audience.”

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