Great Expectations: On first features and theatrical releases

What to expect when you're expecting. Ben Luxford discusses why certain debut films pop at the box office.

14 October 2016
By Ben Luxford
Ben Luxford is of Head of UK Audiences at the BFI, responsible for a range of funds designed to bring great films to audiences across the UK.

Ben Lux 3.jpg

Lady Macbeth (2016)

When I was a young(er) film fan and there actually used to be programmes shown on TV about film, I remember the Producer Andrew Macdonald – at least I think it was him - in a certain documentary talking about how getting a film made is the easiest part of the process, whereas getting it seen was always the difficult bit. That very slight bit of wisdom really stayed with me and probably unconsciously informed my early career choice to be a Distributor. I figured at least if I had a bad result one weekend as a Distributor I could just move onto the next film, whereas as a filmmaker I might not even get an opportunity to have a bad result and I wanted the opportunity to have a bad result! I got plenty of opportunities as it turned out. 

There is of course a great truth in what was said in that documentary, but none more so than when it comes to debut directors. The theatrical market has always been a risk averse place for distributors and exhibitors, because the market needs feeding and of course most distributors and exhibitors will continue to feed it with films that it knows it wants by filmmakers it knows. There’s always been fairly limited appetite for the bold, unique and visionary works of first time filmmakers because they, and their films are a complete unknown. That is until someone does take a risk that pays off and that filmmaker then turns from the unknown to the known with films the market didn’t even know it wanted. Am I making sense? Essentially, there are always exceptions, always surprises and we’re all always learning. For example, Reservoir Dogs, a film by an unknown smart-arse film geek starring a load of weird looking supporting character actors was released in 10 cinemas back in the day. Quite right. Pulp Fiction starring all those cool guys from Reservoir Dogs and directed by the greatest director ever then went out on 130 screens. Easy isn’t it? So any first time filmmaker needs to concentrate on being that exception, that surprise and teach us all a lesson. 
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Any first time filmmaker needs to appreciate that they’re going to get a limited theatrical release (if they get one at all). It’s of course an absolute rarity to see a debut filmmaker bring something to cinemas and it absolutely pop at a competitive level. If I think about the recent British debuts that have made £1m or more at the box office my mind only goes to 71’ and The Girl with All the Gifts and of course the directors for both of those came from established careers elsewhere. Moon and Monsters quickly catapulted their directors into the big leagues by showing a flare for genre storytelling with a heart and pathos that connected with audiences, but the size of both releases were limited initially. But there’s a lot to be said in making sure you use the opportunity for your first feature to showcase your skills as a genre director – you’re likely to stand a better chance of a career but you might book a Star Wars gig as well - although it looks like we all might get the chance to direct a Star Wars film, the way that franchise is going. 
One of the last films I released as a Distributor was Gillian Robespierre’s, Obvious Child which immediately announced her as a major new talent. The film showed she could do comedy but importantly comedy that said something, that connected and reinvented the genre (whilst remaining completely sincere to it) for a new audience. Obvious Child could still be marketed as a rom-com, but it allowed the cinemas who showed it a little bit of audience development as well, because of all those new young people were coming in to see the Abortion comedy… So maybe think of your film beyond it being a drama if you want to break out to the market – it doesn’t mean you have to compromise what you want to say. Even crazy Peter Strickland started with a thriller (Katalin Varga) before being funded to invent his own genres.
Obvious Child (2014)
The best friend a debut filmmaker can often have is a festival champion that can drive and build the hype, which is why the BFI work closely with the likes of Cannes, Berlin, Toronto and Sundance to make sure that our debut directors continue to have that launch to announce themselves. Festivals are always actively on the lookout for new talent. Lady Macbeth has just benefited massively from the Autumn festival rollout. Under the Shadow was sorted after Sundance. Raw was the debut everyone in the industry needed to see after Cannes. Debuts can thrive at festivals. Of course, the theatrical reality will certainly be limited for all of those films, but the career trajectory of those directors is sealed for now.
So if you want to try and make sure your film is seen, give it a fighting a chance by making it sellable and give cinemas a reason to show it. Genre sells, but nothing sells more than talent, so good luck with that. Citizen Kane here we come!
Under The Shadow (2016)