Comment: Behind the screens – what the UK Cannes and can’t do

By Vicky Jewson

As an independent film producer and director I have been to the Cannes film festival on three occasions. My most recent visit, last week, was with my new film, Born Of War. The layman might assume we were in the festival, on the red carpet and schmoozing with the stars.

However, this is far from the rather grittier reality that most film-makers are exposed to. Alongside the festival are a much wider and more competitive series of cinemas which make up the marketplace. Most major worldwide festivals will have a market running concurrently, where sales agents pitch a slate of films at the international buyers and distributors. Cannes is the biggest of them all, with 700 new films screening every year.

This does not mean it is easy to get one’s film screened within the market. The cost of having a screening there is prohibitive, and a sales company will outlay up to £15,000 to have a booth within the market and pay on top of this cost for each film they screen. 12 films show simultaneously on the hour, and the buyers must rush between any film which is of interest to them and make split second decisions on what to place offers on based on poster, trailer and the five minutes of the film they watch. It is common place for buyers to come in and out of screenings to watch ten minutes worth of the film whilst texting on their mobiles arranging their next set of meetings.

To a film producer this level of competition is alarming. You have spent up to five years of your life on this one project, have convinced high net worth individuals to invest in you and the film, and have worked yourself into a state of exhaustion and near physical collapse in bringing this film onto the screen. To even attach a high level sales company is a challenge in itself: they have to be convinced that your film has the commercial pulling power to sell in its five minute window, up against 700 other films.

Arriving at the festival as a filmmaker you quickly realise you hold no priority. Standing at the market gates, with a screening ticket with my name on it was not enough to grant us access. In order to enter you have to get accredited: Costing €250 (£213) per person, or €40 (£34) if you have a ticket and only require a temporary accreditation for a day. There is certainly a significant gap between the maker and the seller, yet without the product the sales people and the buyers would have no industry to trade off.

It is this disparity that makes it difficult for UK filmmakers to gain traction and recognition within the British film industry. Mick Southworth, ex-head of Film Four Distribution and president of The Works International has identified this issue. "It needs to be distribution pulling a film's production, not production pushing," he says. By this he means the filmmakers need to collaborate with the distributors at the concept stage of a film's creation, so they are creating only what the market has a need for. This approach could be seen as clinical and not promoting artistry, but it is exactly the approach we took on Born Of War, which is why it is now successfully selling across the world. Ironically though, Britain is the hardest market to sell to. There is a lack of support in the UK market for home-grown products which have a highly commercial intent, their route to market is viewed as "risky."

This was demonstrated at Cannes in the UK Film Centre's pavilion. Each country has its own centre at the festival and lists in its brochures or signage the films that are from that country which are in the festival competition or the market. The UK Film Centre only lists those films that are in the festival. It is extremely difficult to find recognition in this country if your film is not one that will find critical acclaim or win at festivals. We have an innate artistic snobbery about film, and don't wish to acknowledge its commercial nature – unless of course it's a major production such as The King's Speech or Slumdog Millionaire – which are in themselves seen as small miracles to have performed so well at the box office.

But beneath these breakout films which have either big names actors or directors, there lies a whole industry of smaller genre films which have a specific audience and can return extremely good money using platforms such as pay-per-view and video on demand. It is still widely viewed as an embarrassment to have your film go straight to DVD – but this is in fact the most effective way to reap financial returns for a smaller budget genre film. A cinema release costs a lot of money in marketing and advertising, and even then you cannot spend what the next big Hollywood blockbuster will outlay to even stand a chance of competing. If you can reach your audience directly and hold onto as much of the profits as possible without too many middlemen, you have an exciting commercial model for encouraging young up and coming talented filmmakers to come to the fore.

But this model is still overlooked by the high elite of the UK film industry and not given enough weight. We were told in a voicemail from the BFI, when applying for completion funding, that our film lacked creative strength and they could not see us securing UK distribution. That was the litmus test for them. We have gone on to sell to 11 countries in the first four months of being on the market and have secured one of the best independent sale companies in the world to represent us.

However, they did have a point: UK distribution is the trickier nut to crack. But why limit a film’s commercial success to Britain alone when the film market is global by definition? Perhaps the issue is with the UK distribution market? Standing within the four plastic white walls of the UK Film Centre pavilion I saw the next talk to be given that day was on micro-budget filmmaking – and yet there I was, having made a film for financial peanuts which was selling across the way in the market, and I might as well have not existed.

Britain is doing a huge amount for UK film with its tax incentives for investors, and tax credits, without which I could not have made Born Of War. But its attitude from within the industry itself needs to undergo radical modernisation if we are going to emerge as a nation that can compete on a commercial level with the bigger budget star-led films, most of which are American financed. 

Vicky Jewson is a UK-based independent producer and director. She launched her production company Jewson Film Productions aged 18, and in the last nine years has produced and directed two feature films partnered by fellow producer Rupert Whitaker. The first, Lady Godiva, was released in cinemas nationwide in 2008 for which Vicky was awarded the Shell Arts Media and Culture Women Of The Future Award. Her latest film, Born Of War, is an action thriller shot in the UK and Jordan. Born Of War is being sold by ArcLight Films internationally. It opened at the Berlin Film Market and has more recently screened at Cannes. The UK release date will be announced shortly.

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