By Jon Rushton

Head of Theatrical Distribution for Curzon Artificial Eye

This is the first in a series of blog posts aimed at giving an insight into the world of film distribution. As our readers already know, Curzon operates a number of cinemas around the country and the Curzon Home Cinema platform – but we also have our world-renowned distribution company Curzon Artificial Eye that releases over 20 films a year into UK cinemas nationwide, including recent indie hit films ‘Still Alice’, ‘Wild Tales’ and ‘Force Majeure’.

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As anyone who watched our recent portmanteau release Wild Tales will note, timing is everything.

Each miniature slice of dark comedy in this critically acclaimed film demonstrates this in its own way. In one memorable sequence we see a city driver in his expensive automobile succumb to frustration after being blocked by a frankly scary-looking local in his beat up car. He shouts at him through the window and flips him the bird. But timing is indeed everything, and it is the more expensive vehicle that breaks down shortly afterwards. The consequences of road rage can be severe in the Argentinean wilderness.

And there we are. Two paragraphs into my first blog post and I’ve already squeezed in a blatant plug for one of our recent releases. But this question of timing relates in a big way to the work we do at Curzon Artificial Eye.

There is no denying that, in the world of film distribution, some things are more important than others. Whilst cinemagoers will think of film campaigns in terms of posters, trailers and reviews (which are clearly very important!) – my first thought whenever we acquire a film for distribution is one thing: the release date.

That’s not to say that the release date is the most important consideration. Clearly, at Curzon at least, the most important consideration is how good the film is. We’re lucky to work in a world where quality overrides all other considerations, and it is only possible because of the good taste of our fantastic acquisitions team (led by our Managing Director, Louisa Dent) who have to brave the tough world of tracking talented filmmakers, negotiating with hardened sales agents and consistently making great decisions often whilst competing with other distribution companies.  

And, in case you think I am biased, I would point out that our films won three Oscars, three BAFTA Awards and were nominated for a further five BAFTAs in 2015. Not bad for a small independent distributor. But whilst those of us in the distribution team can largely sidestep the responsibility of choosing the films, we cannot dodge the next biggest consideration that any commercial film release faces. And that is choosing the right release date.

Getting the release date right is absolutely crucial. You can get every single other detail right - an incredible poster, a dazzling trailer and adoring critics – but, make no mistake, there will be no successful release without a smart approach to the release date.

This becomes more important every year, as an increasing number of films are thrown into the market. Last week, 18 films were released into UK cinemas. 18 films! The competition gets fiercer every month, let alone every year. But the principle remains the same. It is all about finding space in the market.

This was a big challenge that we faced with our March release, Still Alice. A film graced by an Oscar winning performance from Julianne Moore. Still Alice was a film that we pre-bought prior to production and it came away from its World Premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September in incredible shape. The reviews were positive and the film was already considered the front-runner in the Best Actress race.

However, the problem that we faced was that we were contractually not allowed to release the film before the distributor in the US (Sony Pictures Classics) and they had scheduled their release for 16th January. Conventional distribution wisdom would suggest that the final date that we could release the film in order to qualify for the BAFTA Film Awards, a hugely important endorsement for UK cinemagoers, was the 6th February.

This wasn’t just a very small window of opportunity – it was an incredibly difficult time for a distributor of our size to release a film. The vast majority of studios release their front-runners for the awards in this period. It is a problem when there are many films trying to take up the best cinema screens in the country, most of which have the benefit of large-scale advertising campaigns which we cannot afford to match and are appealing to the same target audience as Still Alice.

A crazy 5-week period around January saw the release of Birdman, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, American Sniper, Wild, Inherent Vice and Selma. There are causalities in every awards window as everyone fights over the same audience, and I had experience working on one example often cited by the industry at a previous company: Rabbit Hole was a well-realised film with an Oscar nominated performance by Nicole Kidman, but released in January 2011 the film was swamped by the success of the likes of Black Swan and The King’s Speech.

We needed to think outside of the box, or fewer people would see a sensitive and heartfelt film on the big screen. And so we took a close look at the rules that BAFTA distributes each year to all distributors and producers. Perhaps closer than we’d ever found time to do before, hoping to find a way outside of the situation that Still Alice found itself in. Many years ago, it was possible to “qualify” films by playing for a week inside the BAFTA eligibility window – but the common industry opinion was that this was no longer possible according to the rules. Distribution companies had been working on that particular assumption for years. No-one had used a "platform" to qualify a film for the awards in a long time.

However, when we actually looked, the rules were explicit: any film that had played for a week in any cinema nationwide was eligible. Now – I will admit that we were aware of exactly the intention of this rule, and it was to make sure that even the smallest release by the most impoverished independent distributor would be considered by BAFTA voters for the awards. In some ways, it was to protect companies like our own. I think it is fair for us to hold our hands up and admit that we might have been working outside the spirit of that particular rule when we booked in Still Alice for a covert one-week run in December at Curzon Ripon.

BAFTA accepted our interpretation of the rules and, in January, Julianne Moore was nominated in the Best Actress category. Julianne agreed to travel to London to attend the awards, and in the same moment was extremely gracious in giving us an inordinate amount of her time to complete a mountain of interviews, as well as a host of TV and radio appearances. Our campaign was boosted far beyond the amount of advertising that we could afford to purchase.

After returning home with a deserved BAFTA Award in her luggage, Julianne of course went on to win the Oscar – and we released 12 days later in 86 cinemas around the country to an opening weekend box office of £406,000. The next weekend we were up to 200 cinemas nationwide, our widest ever release, and Still Alice is currently on a lifetime box office of £2.56m - our best box office result ever. A true champagne moment for the company.

Had we released in January, I suspect we would have seen considerably fewer people coming through the door for a film that undoubtedly deserved to be seen as widely as possible – although we’ll never know for certain. We had access to the best screens in the country and, more importantly, we were the most prominent release in the country at that moment for our upmarket and awards-motivated target audience.

To give credit where it is due here – our release was supported by the BFI Distribution Fund, and I need to make mention of our CEO, Philip Knatchbull, who challenges us to approach every release in the spirit of innovation.

I hear that BAFTA are changing their rules so that films cannot be “qualified” in the future. Which is fair enough. The awards are intended to reward the best of the year that has just passed, and the large BAFTA TV audience should have had the opportunity to see the nominated films before the ceremony. BAFTA are always fantastic with us as a distributor and I have great admiration for their Awards team. We can understand their stance, although it does mean that we will need to consider very carefully how and when to release films on our slate that are competing in the major categories at the BAFTAs should we find ourselves in that fortunate position in the future.

As with all release date strategies, meeting this challenge will involve some creative and strategic thinking – and always with an eye on where there is space in the market. Timing is everything.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jon Rushton is the Head of Theatrical Distribution for Curzon Artificial Eye, and oversees an incredibly talented team who are responsible for the sales, marketing and publicity for all cinema releases by the company. Curzon Artificial Eye won the Best Independent Distributor award at the Screen Awards in 2014 and is on course in 2015 for its biggest year at the UK box office (Artificial Eye launched in 1976).