There are few better able to understand the link between film, commerce and marketing than Alan Parker, who began his career directing ads.
The man responsible for screen hits like Evita, Fame and The Commitments will head the Film Council, the new organisation charged with developing a coherent strategy for the UK film industry.
Parker, who is resigning as chairman of the British Film Institute (BPI) to take up the new post, says: “For the first time there is an opportunity to review the entire government-backed funding programme. Where necessary, the Film Council will make changes to create a coherent strategy for production, distribution, inward investment and education.”
The chairman of the Film Council’s post may be unpaid and part-time, but it carries power. The council becomes the central organisation for funding film in the UK, replacing the Arts Council and a host of smaller bodies. Over the next three years it will have £27m of National Lottery money and a further £145m of government funding to distribute to film makers.
Parker is a life-long advocate of populist, as opposed to art-house, films. However, it remains to be seen whether marketing will be given greater emphasis under his chairmanship, which begins in April 2000.
There is scepticism in certain quarters about the appointment. One industry observer says: “At first glance this looks like a very large quango taking over from a number of different quangos.”
The observer continues: “It seems that Parker’s main task will be to rationalise and co-ordinate the explosion of money available in the UK for film funding, and establish a better qualified set of people to allocate these funds. He will also be responsible for selling British film overseas.”
In the past four years, the Arts Council has distributed £67m to 79 feature films, and a further £95m to three film production houses – The Film Consortium, PathÃ© Pictures and DNA Films – to produce films from scratch.
Lottery-funded films include Hideous Kinky starring Kate Winslet, Wilde starring Stephen Fry, Hilary & Jackie, and An Ideal Husband featuring Rupert Everett and Minnie Driver. About 32 Arts Council films have been released so far. Six have failed to secure any sort of theatrical release, while the rest are in production.
The films have been criticised for their lack of success. Prior to the recent release of An Ideal Husband, which performed well at the box office, the body was forced to own up to its record. Arts Council lottery film panel chairman Charles Denton said at the Cannes film festival in May: “No lottery-funded film that I know of has so far recouped more than 100 per cent of its costs.”
The industry is split over whether Parker should continue to focus on production, ensuring more films get made; or distribution, making sure that the increased number of films already being produced are better distributed and marketed.
A spokesman for industry body the Producer’s Alliance for Cinema & Television (PACT) says: “The Government is concerned that too much money is channelled into production, and that these films are not reaching a wider audience through distribution.”
However, Buena Vista managing director Daniel Battsek thinks the balance is about right. He says: “Throwing money at a film does create success. As a whole, the business works well. If your marketing is well thought out, you have decent distribution, and you release your film on the right dates, you can make money in the UK industry.”
Mia Bays, distribution and marketing manager for small UK production house The Film Consortium, adds: “We obviously lean heavily on PR, and have to be cleverer in our marketing. But we also need to take more of a maverick’s attitude. If you have a concept, then you can tap into a specialised audience. For example, the British film Human Traffic, which tapped into the club culture.”
A current release, produced on only £62,500, which made it big at the American box office is the spoof documentary The Blair Witch Project. The film took £1m in its first weekend when released on only 26 of the 37,000-plus cinema screens in the US. Observers, who can accurately gauge how well a film will do from its opening weekend, say it stands to make £30m.
The success of the film is owed in part to its marketing. The film’s distributor Artisan Entertainment created a teaser Website, which appealed to the film’s key under-25 audience, and set up strong word-of-mouth anticipation for the movie.
Another way to generate money through a film is from merchandising – a method underused in the UK.
The Stars Wars’ prequel, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, is expected to generate £1.6bn through licensing deals for creator George Lucas – more than twice the amount the film is likely to make in box office sales around the world. He plans to use these funds to finance the remaining two prequels.
But the role for Parker will be to decide whether to tip the weight of the Film Council’s considerable resources towards financing more British films or making sure that those which are made secure decent audiences.