Tuesday, October 10, 2017

WARP Ghost Stories a star + big 7 distribution

Haunted by its synonymous shadow: spookily TWO ghost stories out (URL)
October 29th and still no box office hits for Ghost Stories - I wonder if the release of A Ghost Story, with a couple of US stars (UK release August 11th: Deadline), but a miserable flop (under $2m worldwide: The-Numbers; BoM), is undermining release plans? The-Numbers; BoxofficeMojo. Its extraordinary how often similarly themed/named movies emerge at the same time, something that helped undermine The World's End (WT) too. Ghost Stories has been screened at the London Film Festival, but its looking doubtful for a theatrical release.

IFC Midnight is acquiring North American distribution rights to supernatural thriller Ghost Stories from Altitude Film Sales.
The film stars Andy Nyman, Alex Lawther, Martin Freeman and Paul Whitehouse. Its based on the Olivier-nominated stage production and is co-written and directed by Nyman and Jeremy Dyson.
The deal was negotiated by Altitude’s Mike Runagall on behalf of the filmmakers with Arianna Bocco of IFC Films.  
The film is produced for Warp Films by Claire Jones (Sightseers, Kill List), and Robin Gutch (’71, Kill List) and is backed by Ultimate Pictures and Screen Yorkshire.
Catalyst Global Media and Screen Yorkshire serve as executive producers. Altitude Film Sales is handling worldwide sales. Lionsgate will distribute the film in the UK/Ireland in Spring 2018. 
Ghost Stories has its World Premiere today (Thursday 5 October) at the BFI London Film Festival. [Screen Daily 5th October 2017 report, spotted by Richard]

Claire Jones (Sightseers [+]), and Robin Gutch ('71 [+]) are producing for the UK’s Warp Films with the backing of the UK’s Catalyst Global Media and Screen YorkshireAltitude Film Sales is handling international sales and is currently representing the film at the American Film MarketDyson and Nyman said of the project, “Over half a million people have seen the play and now we are beyond excited to be bringing the film version of Ghost Stories to life." [CinEuropa.org article Nov 2016]
  • Warp announced a new film in Feb 2016, already picked up by 'big 7' Lionsgate for UK distribution, with Altitude handling international sales
  • Pre-selling rights at the pre-production stage is common for Indies (legendary social realist auteurs Ken Loach + Mike Leigh have done this throughout their careers). German rights were also pre-sold to Tele München/Concorde after a pitch at the Berlin European Film Market in feb 2016
  • This is an adaptation of an internationally successful play, bringing some comparisons with Woman in Black (but note the IP is limited compared to Les Mis)
  • Warp's reputation for allowing creatives to retain control, not the accountants, saw Nyman reject interest from Hollywood studios (who immediately suggested star-based changes!)
  • Martin Freeman's casting led most reports; star of the $3bn Hobbit franchise this suggests a more ambitious/commercial approach from Warp ...
  • ...BUT he's no A-lister (the IP and CGI sold the Hobbit, not a UK TV star!), and its no coincidence that as of May 2017 the UK remains the only territory with a distributor
  • Warp's online efforts at building interest and an audience through the pre-/production/post- stages has been typically lax ...
  • ... BUT co-director/writer Andy Nyman has exemplified the ability of cast and crew to use social media to promote a production (eg the 5 crew badges Twitter draw)
  • ... AND Altitude have been very active
  • Lionsgate UK, however, have yet to properly launch; their website contains only a coming soon message!
(TBC: October updates)
Thanks to Richard for highlighting news on the movie.
Guardian review; Variety announce IFC as US distributor; Hollywood Reporter on star in cast; Screen Daily on world premiere;

Okay, so its not the 80,000 packed into the Dallas Cowboys football stadium just to see a teaser trailer (1 strand of the epic Avatar campaign, arranged through ComicCon, the world's leading fan forum for such announcements), but Ghost Stories is following a smart path of pre-/production promotion, launching a 'concept teaser trailer' at FrightFest:
Horror blog FlickeringMyth reports the announcement, complete with 'concept teaser trailer'

ScreenDaily (US) announce the production, Feb 2016
So much for the auteur theory! Empire (UK) also led on Freeman's involvement

Casting Martin Freeman seems a real coup for Warp - after all, he was the lead in the tentpole Hobbit franchise (combined budgets $675m, box office $2.9bn). However, IP was the key marketing factor there, and he cannot be considered an A-List star any more than Lord of the Rings star Andy Serkis can 'open a film' by himself. Freeman's presence does help with marketing though, and gaining distribution, but the lack of progress there is significant. Hollywood conglomerate Lionsgate picking the film up for distribution is a coup, as one of what many now argue should be called the big seven to reflect their considerable global success in recent years (expanding the traditional big six of Disney, Warner Bros, Fox, Universal, Sony, Paramount).

Is Hobbit Freeman really such a BIG star...?!

No star billing!
However, that is for the UK only (reflecting Freeman's greater profile in his home market, where TV show The Office made him a star, popular with men and women as his role centered on a romance narrative), Lionsgate are not, for example, picking it up for the US or any other territories. Many of Warp's films (especially on their digital subsidiary Warp X, or the also low budget Warp Australia) have failed to attain UK distribution, with fewer still getting theatrical release in the US or other markets.

Even when they have, the case of Tyrannosaur is typical of their struggles to make impact with films lacking stars, and typically centred on working class protagonists, often outside of the London setting that is familiar to an international audience. Tyrannosaur's US distributor sent 2 prints on a 4-month arthouse circuit, taking a mere $22k as part of a $450K global take (about 80% from the UK) on a £750K budget. Even more successful US releases have been relative successes only: both Four Lions and This is England took 3 months there to reach a $300K total, peaking at just 14 screens. This would represent a small % of a WT flop, with 8/9 figure takes their usual expectation, way beyond the 5/6 figure Warp takes!

Rights were also pre-sold for Germany, following a successful pitch at the Berlin European Film Market in Feb 2016, to Tele München/Concorde.

Pre-selling rights, the power of IP
Indeed, they have actually pre-sold the UK and German rights, with shooting not commencing until 6 months after Lionsgate picked it up, based on Freeman being attached and the marketing potential of the IP (intellectual property) of a hit West End play that also gained multiple international markets, from Russia to Peru! This is a financing model more typical of the very low budget social realist movies by British auteurs Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, whose lack of scripting routinely denies them access to UK grants through the BFI/UKFC, but who typically pre-sell rights to several European territories to fund their productions. Without the additional element of a hit book, however, it is questionable how far the theatre link will guarantee box office success. Working Title have had success adapting multiple hit books, not least the Bridget Jones franchise (and About a Boy, which WTTV have also adapted into an NBC TV series), and of course had huge success with Les Miserables - though its $61m budget and global distribution through parent company Universal, plus the multiple A-list cast, helped!

A significant genre change? Abandoning social realism?
However, this is actually a notable step away from Warp's typical genre base - most movies have blended in/hybridised a social realist approach to more saleable genres, from their debut feature Dead Man's Shoes (horror) to teen rom-com Submarine (although the Warp X fantasy with animation Bunny and the Bull was a clear exception). The Screen feature announcing the movie noted the Woman in Black comparison: a low budget horror fantasy that hit big, and this (alongside the IP factor with the promise of pre-built recognition), given Freeman's modest international profile, was probably key to the pitch, given the film industry's aversion to original ideas, which are hard to market. Warp's high concept, high budget TV co-production with Sky Atlantic, Lost Panthers, is another signal of a company preparing to give commercial returns a higher priority - but until we see the same routine level of narrow stereotypes in characters and setting, and US stars among their cast (the Working Title model), it would be premature to think this clearly signals a change.

The importance of creative relationships and the Warp brand
It must be noted that Warp are the production company while the company that will get the main co-production credit, Altitude, are exclusively handling sales. The importance of personal relationships in this large-scale, even at Warp's level, industry is clear to see: Altitude's founder, Will Clarke, was formerly a key figure in Optimum Releasing, UK distributor of many Warp releases (now StudioCanalUK, just another NBCUniversal subsidiary!).

Warp's typical funding (centred on grants plus pre-selling UK TV rights to either BBC or C4/Film 4) model, and low budgets, enables them to take more creative risks than Working Title (though their selection of an Indian director for historical epic Elizabeth, who confessed to know nothing of the monarch, shows they too can take risks). This reputation for allowing the creatives, not the accountants, to retain control, was behind Nyman's choosing to go with them. In reading the quotes below, from ScreenDaily, consider the experience of Coz Greenop, whose £30K Wandering Rose became Demon Baby at the hands of its US distributors, a title (and trailer) that rather misrepresented the film.
Speaking on a panel about the future of UK horror filmmaking, chaired by Screen, Nyman said there had been interest from US studios back in 2010, when the show was playing in the West End. But they decided to team with Warp in order to retain creative control.“There was a lot of interest early on from a couple of big American studios that wanted to do it, but they hadn’t even seen it,” said Nyman.... Nyman recalled changes suggested by US execs that ultimately convinced them to team with UK producers.“The first meeting we had with an American producer, they said we should take one particular character, turn it into a girl and it make it a breakout role for someone from the Disney channel,” said Nyman.“We thought, ‘Oh god, that’s not what we want to make’. We’d rather make the film for no money and have the freedom to express ourselves.”... “Ghost Stories is deeply British in all of its oddness and quirks, and Warp get that and support our artistic vision.”
If this had been a WT production, with a much bigger budget, surely there would have been similar pressure to add a significant US star?

Lionsgate link yet to pay dividends
The Lionsgate link created further media interest.

The Lionsgate announcement came in Feb 2016, but there is still no release date or even evidence of press packages. Indeed, as of 28.5.17, the Lionsgate UK website remains a placeholder only, with nothing more than a coming soon message, suggesting it still hasn't completed setting up its UK distribution office!

Warp failing again to build interest in their own productions?
With the notable exception of Le Donk..., which provided customisable Christmas cards and a downloadable comic, Warp's use of web 2.0 tools has been surprisingly weak. In theory, the radically reduced costs of online distribution (with digitally equipped cinemas, something the UK leads the world on, able to stream films or play through hard drives/DVD/Blu-Ray) and marketing somewhat level the playing field with studio subsidiaries like their UK rival Working Title.

Remarkably, this is the extent of Warp's own promotion of their upcoming film!
Marketing is of course the principle domain of distributors, not producers, but Working Title have shown how a producer can successfully boost the marketing of a film independently from their distributor. The Cornetto Trilogy was boosted by clever, but cheap, arcade game adaptations (Shaun of the Dead Pacman, Hot Fuzz Space Invaders: fun for a youth audience used to mobile gaming, and nostalgic for an older audience who are also represented by the films' characters). They commissioned web designers RedBridge to boost their website with such marketing materials, accompanied by a wide range of stills and videos posted during pre-production, the shoot, post-production and all the way through the release phase, including Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's video diary. Films such as Paul, also starring Frost and Pegg (with the usual Working Title addition of an American A-lister, Seth Rogen, and also set in the US; the Brits were the true aliens of this sci-fi comedy hybrid) also benefit from Facebook pages run by both Universal and Working Title in multiple languages to directly target multiple territories (France, Spain and more in the case of Paul).

Click on the YouTube and this is what you get!
The YouTube link has been clumsily mis-entered - and never corrected

As of May 2017, over a year since the Lionsgate pick-up announcement, with shooting wrapped in Nov 2016, the Warp website presents a single image with a broken YouTube link, and a non-functioning hyperlink on the sole image itself. Click on the Twitter link and instead to taking you to the film hashtag, you get a tweet template. Click on a dropdown arrow and you get greeted with an illustration-free ream (3 scrolled PC screens worth) of grey text on a black background - which hasn't been updated for nearly a year ("shooting started yesterday...")!

They even seem to have messed up the Twitter element
This highly unappealing text, horribly outdated, is all thats below the dropdown arrow. 

No BFI - but a grant through Screen Yorkshire
What is also notable is the lack of any mention of BFI (formerly UK Film Council), BBC or C4 involvement, some combination of all 3 being central to the financing of the entire Warp catalogue up to now. The film is listed on the British Council site as in post-production, but there is no mention of any link with the BFI.

However, they have once again received a grant through Screen Yorkshire (set up as a regional wing of the national UK Film Council, whose role of distributing government/National Lottery funding to boost the film industry and film culture in the UK has been taken up by the BFI), so perhaps this isn't such a huge shift in production strategy after all. Warp shot the film over 5 weeks (compare with Le Donk's 5 days!) in in Yorkshire during Oct/Nov 2016.

Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the county of Yorkshire all offer funding for production, which is further stimulating growth. Screen Yorkshire’s £15 million ($19 million) Yorkshire Content Fund has invested in films like “Ghost Stories,” starring Martin Freeman, and TV series like “Peaky Blinders.” [US trade mag Variety]

Director Andy Nyman's tweets shows Warp how its done
Before looking at what Nyman has done, its worth reiterating that marketing is the domain of the distributor, NOT the producer. However, building interest from the earliest pre-production surely makes sense when these same production companies will eventually seek to persuade distributors to take a financial gamble on their title? WT are exceptionally pro-active in this field; Warp are fairly lax to date.

Social media, and the web 2.0 convergence it represents, is one means by which marketing can be carried out with low overheads, thus in theory enabling underfunded Indies to compete. It also enables creatives, such as Nyman, to take this on themselves - their careers are linked to the success of their work after all!

Nyman was tweeting throughout the shoot, providing snippets and images which could be shared by fans (of stars as much as the play), but also used by the media. This was a convincingly organic process, a seemingly unfiltered, 'genuine' insight into and access to the shoot, with star Paul Whitehouse pictured eating hummus on set for example. Nyman also offered up a random draw for 5 crew badges for anyone who tweeted badge to him - simple but smart marketing.

Nyman consistently uses the hashtag ghoststoriesfilm, which Altitude are also using in their 'official' marketing to potential distributors. As you'll see below, the badge competition required entrants to tweet ghoststoriesfilm, NOT andynyman!

Its interesting to note that Warp's retweet picked up fewer hits than Nyman's original - the company actually has a smaller online footprint than the creative (though neither are getting 1000s of hits, never mind the millions that Universal often achieve). Altitude have also been busy tweeting behind the scenes content to build interest and momentum, as they seek to pick up sales in more territories:

Simple, smart, effective - and extremely low cost!!!

You can see how this activity sparks media interest - Nyman is providing FREE content for media producers, no investigation or travel required, just monitoring a twitter feed; here's an example that Empire magazine (UK's leading film mag) featured at the top of their article:

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