Filmonomics Small Talk: Case Study on Belle
BEV’s second Filmonomics session of 2015 took place at BFI Southbank on Monday February 2. It began with a Small Talk: Case Study with Hilary Davis, co-managing director of international sales and film finance company Bankside FIlms. Hilary talked our Filmonomics programme director Mia Bays through the process of guiding Amma Asante’s acclaimed second feature Belle (2013) from script stage to cinema screen. Here are the highlights of their conversation…
Mia Bays: How did you become involved with Belle?
Hilary Davis: Belle was submitted to us at script stage by the producer Damian Jones. He is a very reputable UK producer and I’d always wanted to work with him. The script had been around; other companies had considered it. I can remember reading it and saying to the office, Look guys you really should read this script. I think it’s very, very good. We had a meeting then with Damian and Amma Asante, the writer-director, and decided to go for it.
We worked all summer. We had to do some pre-sales in order to satisfy the demands of the other financiers. And it wasn’t obviously pre-sellable. I remember we introduced the project to buyers in Cannes that year. And the rest of the summer’s work was about nailing those pre-sales. Amma had won a Best Newcomer BAFTA Award for her first film A Way of Life (2004), but she hadn’t done anything for a number of years.
MB: Do you know why there was such a big gap? Amma had been attached to a lot of stuff.
HD: She had just found it hard. They had been trying to get the project going. I think they were actually a bit surprised when we really embraced it. That just shows it only takes one company. Sometimes I think projects just suit different companies. When they came to us they had very little in place. They had been talking to Pinewood, BFI and Isle of Man but nothing was locked down. We actually wanted to put up some money but they didn’t need ours in the end. [Bankside co-managing director Phil Hunt’s investment company] Head Gear ended up cash flowing the tax credit and the pre-sales that we did. The budget was £7 million. It ended up being fairly straightforward. Phil’s role on the finance side was to go out that summer and find partners. This was quite easy to do in the end.
MB: Were the BFI, Isle of Man and Pinewood definitely attached when the filmmakers came to you?
HD: They were circling but hadn’t committed numbers. Having a sales company attached is an endorsement of the market. Especially when you start doing pre-sales. They weren’t necessarily in obvious territories: we pre-sold Australia, New Zealand, Benelux, airlines, Greece, Portugal and maybe Switzerland. The pre-sales total was about £1 million. It helped to close the financing for the film. Which is all we were obsessed with that summer. We didn’t care about anything else but getting these pre-sales signed, so that the finance plan could close.
MB: So you were after £7 million for a second feature starring not a huge number of well-known names, and no known source. That’s quite a lot of money. Why were you so confident?
HD: We ended up being right, but we didn’t know we were going to be right! The script was very, very good. It ended up being a very topical subject. It captured the zeitgeist, came just at the right moment. It’s funny, there are certain scripts you read and think, I can just see this. I just know it’s going to be good. We had several meetings with Amma. And we were very impressed with Damian, the way he operated. All of that gives you confidence. It enables you to speak very confidently when you’re presenting the project to distributors, when you’re at market and so on. It was just a feeling that we had. We thought it could be a prestige project because it was new enough and different enough and original enough to appeal to the market. That’s all that buyers want, actually. Every market they expect us to have something new. It has to be new and different in some way. We felt that Belle did satisfy on all those levels.
MB: Okay, so you shoot the film and then Toronto [September 2013] is your premiere…
HD: Well we shot the film and we knew it wouldn’t be ready for Cannes [May 2013]. So we screened extended scenes for all the top US buyers in our office in Cannes. We ended up showing about 15-20 minutes of the film. We didn’t do any sales as a result of that. None at all. But shortly afterwards we submitted it to Toronto and asked for their response very quickly. We know [Toronto International Film Festival artistic director] Cameron Bailey very well and he got in touch with us immediately. He loved the film and wanted it for the festival. If we had waited for Toronto and sold the film there, we’d have had to wait a very long time for it to be released. The producers were very concerned about getting it released early enough for awards season. Now all these considerations ultimately came to nothing because the film didn’t in fact get released for a whole other year. But it did go to Toronto and Fox used the festival for press and publicity purposes. And really to launch Gugu [Mbatha-Raw, star of the film] onto the international scene. So Toronto played a part.
In June 2013, [Bankside head of sales] Stephen Kelliher and I went on a dedicated trip to New York and Los Angeles, with Amma and Damian. We screened the finished film individually for each company. Amma would make a personal introduction to Harvey Weinstein, James Schamus, all these people. We had to then just sit and wait for them to respond. It was a really tense and highly charged week. It was when we were in LA that we got the call from Fox and they said, “Come round at 7pm: we’re going to lock you in our office until we’ve agreed a deal!”
Although there were other offers, in the end the Fox deal was the best – the most amount of money for the most territories. They basically bought the whole world except the pre-sold territories.
MB: That’s a very confident strategy. Going in, how did you even get them all to see it?
HD: It really was the extended footage that we’d screened in Cannes. Where they could actually see how wonderful it was looking. And yes it was highly risky.It was also quite expensive, just the costs of getting around and hotels, all that. I have done it in the past where nobody bought the film that we took to screen. So I knew it was either going to work or not work. But we took the risk and it paid off handsomely.
MB: What if people had asked for cuts?
HD: Well, we were prepared for that. Because it does happen. But actually Fox’s opening gambit was, “We want the film as seen. We don’t want to cut it.” But everybody knows what Harvey Weinstein’s like. If he had wanted it then maybe he would’ve wanted to do something like that. But he specifically said that he liked it but couldn’t take on two films with similar themes: he was doing 12 Years A Slave. That also demonstrates how you have to think about the company you’re pitching to, the rest of their slate. You have to really consider things on both sides of the fence.