Sunday, 12 March 2017

Sometimes getting the money for your film can be the worst outcome.

I am not sure if there is a lesson to be learnt here or whether it is just a cautionary tale for filmmakers everywhere. ( Once again I apologise for the strange formatting problems in the text and layout. I have no idea how to change this). 

Stephen Whittaker became good friends with my wife when he was actor on THE LEGEND OF ROBIN HOOD a six-part TV series for the BBC back in the 1970's. 

By the time, I met him he was training to be a director on, I recall, the old excellent BBC directors course, but my memory might be letting me down.  If only they still had that as once completed you were used on BBC productions. 

Stephen would become a director all actors loved to work with. Not always the case with many actors who have crossed over. He built up an impressive CV and although he worked on many TV movies - KILLING ME SOFTLY, TANGIER COP, STONE COLD, CLOSING NUMBERS, A LIFE FOR A LIFE, SONS & LOVERS, STONE SCISSORS PAPER etc. as well as so many outstanding TV series he never made a film for the cinema until he was offered THE ROCKET POST

I can't remember if this was a project he found or if it came to him however this is a synopsis I have lifted - 

Drama based on the true story of a remote Scottish community on the Hebridean island of Scarp that became enchanted by a dashing German rocket scientist, Gerhard Zucher (Ulrich Thomsen), and his plans to link them to the outside world during the late 1930s. Their mission is to build a mail rocket to help revolutionise the postal service between the island and its neighbouring communities. The building of the rocket, even after an initial failed attempt, soon becomes a community effort and eventually creates a unique bond between Zucher and the island's inhabitants.

It was filmed in 2001 in Scotland with a cast of top notch actors, rather than stars, every one of them perfect for the role, and a reasonably sizeable budget. 

Some would of you would think this was a dream that came true. 

The editing took longer than normal because during the process Stephen became ill and was having treatment. He finally finished the film in September/ October/ November 2002. I don't recall exactly when. 

Stephen Whittaker died on 7th February 2003 aged just 55.

Knowing he was dying he battled to finish his film. His legacy. The cinema film he had always wanted to direct.

Someone I met at the funeral arranged a screening for many of us which I recall was packed. I thought it so good I contacted one of the producers whom I had worked with to say I would like to make an offer for the UK distribution rights. 

The film was funded by private equity fund investors. The producer put me in touch with someone from the finance company who I was told looked after the rights. The man who met with me knew nothing about films or the film industry but I put a tentative offer to him. 

I heard nothing. This was not unusual. I was at the time, and almost certainly still am, the UK's smallest cinema/ TV/ DVD/ online distributor. My offer was not great at all as I just don't have the resources and I just assumed that this truly excellent film had been picked up one of my far richer rivals and thought no more about. 

A year or two had gone by and the film had not been released so I made enquiries with Stephen's family, the producer I knew and others. 

What I heard, and this was all very much third hand so may not be very reliable is that, allegedly,  that a " committee of bankers" re-edited the film. 

I do find it very odd that a successful banker(s) would have both the time and inclination to spend weeks if not months in an edit suite rock and rolling take after take after take.....

The fact remains that somebody did re-edited it.

That said the people who put up the money up to make a film do have the final say. It is their money and they own the asset. What they do with that asset whether it be a film or pork bellies or an office block is ultimately down to them. A producer can protect the filmmakers with a strong contract to ensure that everyone on both sides is happy with the final result. Had Stephen lived then maybe his version would have been the one released. 

All you filmmakers need to keep this in mind when negotiating your contracts. 

After all Stephen's work, and the hard work and long 14-15 hour days by the cast and crew, not one person championed the film. It seemed to me that no one cared about the film so it just drifted. IMDB has an official finish date of the film of 2004 but I seem to recall I was told by one of the producers it was still being "edited" in 2005. 

My view is that because the film did not secure sizeable upfront minimum guarantees or advances the financiers, not understanding how the industry worked or having an understanding the market, mistook the lack of good offers for a flaw in the film, and thought that by re-editing they could secure better deals. 

I am of course guessing. 

The trouble is that many people, filmmakers and financiers seem to think that films are like wine, and that they will mature with age. Sadly, they are more like fish. The longer a film is to come out the more others sense a bad smell. 

I am the expert at releasing British films that have been rejected and ignored by other distributors. I have released films three and sometimes four years after completion and they have always failed in the market place because of their age. You really need to release a film in the year of its copyright or the year following. If it’s any later then I am afraid that everyone from exhibitor, to broadcasters to critic assumes that the long delay is because it is a troubled film. So many times, when I have released older films, most people I am dealing with to place it on cinema screens have just refused to watch it based solely on this one factor. With so very many films out there all of us are selective. 

Sometimes this is assumption that the film is not good is correct but often it is not. So many films have a long post production gestation period simply because the makers do not have the money to finish the film and go off in search of these, and as any of you who have tried to raise money for a film, it takes such a very long time. 

THE ROCKET POST was finally released in November 2006 - four years after Stephen Whittaker had delivered it. Amber Wilkinson in her review for Eye For Film mentions a short cinema release in Scotland but Noel Megahey for DVD Review states it was a straight to DVD release. I suspect it was not shown in the cinema in the rest of the UK as there is no record of a London screening. 

I have not seen the version that limped out, and to my knowledge it has never screened on UK television, but those who have watched it say it’s not anywhere near as good as Stephen's version. I can't comment, and it’s now fourteen years since I saw the original directors cut and I have seen thousands of films since, so I have no way of gauging the two versions should I watch it. However, one thing I know, is that Stephen own vision for the film, one he was determined to complete whilst in great pain, and knowing that the life he had left to live was short, rather than spend it all with his family and loved ones, he battled away to fulfil his obligations as a true professional, and not let his actors down, and he delivered the very best film he could.

I would have released that version in at least 10 UK cinemas, released it on DVD and definitely would have sold it to a UK broadcasters, as at the time worked very closely with two of them who supported true British Indy films and thus supported me. 

Instead, allegedly a lot of rich men, who only backed the film because of an attractive tax scheme, then played with the film in the way boys might play with a train set, finally throwing it away when they got bored because they could not understand it, and found another toy. 

Maybe that is wholly incorrect and they did care about the film as much as Stephen.  I would dearly love to know the true story of why that very special film I saw all those years ago was not allowed a proper outing. 

This type of example is I am afraid the price all artists must pay at one time or another in order to live the dream. Sometimes that price is much much too high. 

© David Nicholas Wilkinson. March 2017. All Rights Reserved. 

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