Money talks

Film - Philip Kerr on why greedy distributors mean the movie business doesn't add up

Distribution, and not production, is the engine room of a viable film industry. But the distribution business is little understood, least of all by the people who make films.

Double Whammy, starring Denis Leary and Elizabeth Hurley, and directed by Tom DiCillo, was made in 2000 for $5m. It's not a good film, but then it's not a bad one either; there are some reasonable performances and a few funny lines. In 2001 the film was acquired by Lions Gate, which sat on the movie instead of distributing it. So DiCillo was understandably bitter about Lions Gate when the film was sold straight to cable and video in the US, as this generally implies that a film wasn't good enough. It is hardly true of Double Whammy, especially when you see some of the rubbish that does get distributed; but then distribution has nothing to do with merit and everything to do with money.

Distributors all want the same thing - to make the maximum profit from a film's release. This means committing money to publicity and the cost of distributing prints of the movie to the cinemas. Digital distribution of mainstream film is yet to become standard practice, and at roughly $3,000 per copy, it's plain to see how distributing a film to as many as 3,000 US cinemas can be expensive. A small release in US theatres was probably contemplated for Double Whammy - say 200 cinemas - which would have resulted in a print cost of approximately $600,000. And it doesn't end there. The distributor is expected to provide an electronic press kit, trailers, press packs, posters and advertising, which could add another $1m. All of this on top of what the distributor paid the producer for the US distribution rights - any producer getting 20 per cent of the budget would count themselves lucky. Let's say Lions Gate paid $800,000 for the US rights.

So now the distributor has a movie with some big names. There is even talk of an off-screen romance between Leary and Hurley - all good publicity. In normal circumstances, the distributor could expect that a theatrical release would make enough to cover its costs and generate some good reviews to help sell the film to cable and video. Except that business is about cash flow and maybe, with other films to distribute, Lions Gate had to make a choice about which film to support. What's more, by now other people would have seen it and commented that it was not as good as had first been thought. Elizabeth Hurley looks a mess. And while he is a good character actor, Leary isn't a big enough star to carry a film. Doubtless Lions Gate was now faced with a difficult choice. It could risk $1.6m on top of the $800,000 we assume it had already paid for the movie; or it could cover its costs, maybe even make a small profit, by selling the film straight to cable and video. Which is what happened.

Winchester Films, which acquired UK distribution rights - for say 10 per cent of budget, around $400,000 - decided to wait before distributing the film in the UK; the firm needs a theatrical release if it is to make any kind of money back on video. Put the case that Winchester decides to distribute Double Whammy to 60 cinemas in the UK - which requires spending as much as £400,000 on front-of-house costs. After all, this is a film with Elizabeth Hurley and by now some schmuck who works on a magazine with a long lead time will have given it a glowing review . . . enough of a puff for a poster, anyway. Also, this is where the electronic press kit kicks in, with Hurley giving an interview on tape and, as she's better known here than in the US, before you know it there are bums on seats. Over five weeks the film might generate about £750,000 in income. Less the £400,000 spent on front of house, and the $400,000 (roughly £250,000) paid to the producer, that means the distributor has already made a profit of more than £100,000. And he hasn't even sold the video and satellite rights yet.

All of which leads me to my point, which is to wonder that so many films get made without any of this in place. In Europe there is a vast supply of film for which there is no noticeable demand. And while producers commonly ignore what audiences seem to want, distributors, who are in it with their wallets and not their egos, cannot. Studio movies are preferred not because they are American, but in spite of it. No one spends more time researching what an audience wants than the studios, and the greatest problem afflicting all independent film-makers is ignorance of (and often indifference to) the very audiences to which they are trying to appeal. That's a double whammy every aspiring auteur should learn on his first day at film school.

Double Whammy (15) is at selected cinemas