EXCLUSIVE: Home entertainment specialist Signature Entertainment releases 90-120 movies every year, making it the UK’s most prolific independent distributor. Recent releases have included Mr. Jones and The Peanut Butter Falcon. Upcoming on the slate are Liam Neeson actioner Honest Thief, Jamie Dornan-Anthony Mackie starrer Synchronic, Berlin drama Persian Lessons, Shailene Woodley drama Endings, Beginnings and Sundance horror Relic.
We spoke to company COO Jon Bourdillon about taking the plunge on Woody Allen rom-com A Rainy Day In New York – which has generated as many column inches about the director’s past as the movie itself – growth areas, and how the firm is well-positioned to withstand the financial ravages of coronavirus.
Signature is increasing its global footprint and Allen’s movie marks the company’s most significant North American acquisition to date. Timothee Chalamet, Elle Fanning, Selena Gomez, Liev Schreiber, Jude Law, Rebecca Hall and Diego Luna star in the film about a young couple who arrive in New York for a weekend where they are met with bad weather and a series of adventures.
The project has had a bumpy ride after being dropped by Amazon at the height of the MeToo and Time’s Up movements – a move which sparked a legal challenge from Allen – and with multiple actors donating their salaries to social justice and anti-sexual violence causes. The filmmaker remains a subject of controversy due to allegations made against him three decades ago by his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow. Despite its challenged journey, the film has been released in dozens of countries, has played at multiple festivals and has taken more than $20M global. Meanwhile, Allen’s latest movie Rifkin’s Festival has just been selected to open Spain’s prestigious San Sebastian Film Festival.
Here’s our interview with home ent vet Bourdillon who runs the day-to-day operations for Signature’s UK-based distribution business while founder and CEO Marc Goldberg (Final Score) oversees the growth of the U.S. production office in Los Angeles. Bourdillon previously spent 18 years at Entertainment One UK, latterly as Director Of Home Entertainment.
DEADLINE: How is business?
Jon Bourdillon: We’re doing well in these strange times, not that I’d want it to be this way. Our business is responding well to people being at home watching movies. We’re not dependent on theatrical and we have pivoted away from being a DVD specialist to being a broader company through TV, VOD and streaming deals. Our acquisitions team has been very busy. Our fall release schedule is bigger than ever before.
DEADLINE: So you’re benefitting from films that aren’t going theatrical?
JB: Yes, most films start with theatrical aspirations but that middle ground of theatrical has been such a tough space in the last five years. What we’re going through now has taken it away totally. Films that weren’t coming our way a few years ago now are doing so. It’s better for sellers and producers to take the deal on the table now than wait six months for a potential, small theatrical deal. Our business and mantra is about being straightforward, paying people on time, doing our royalty reports, and honoring our contractual obligations.
DEADLINE: Your most high-profile current release is Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day In New York. How did you come to the film?
JB: We picked it up quite a few months ago. We initially envisaged a small theatrical release, which was key to the deal, but that changed due to the pandemic. The film has good cast, a good narrative, and it’s Woody Allen. We took the film down the premium route, which is very important at this time. We launched premium on June 5 and it went through more traditional home ent channels from last weekend. We’ve had exceptional support from media. Fewer theatrical releases means that there is a bigger focus on streaming releases. Woody was very keen to support the film and our partners -whether it be Sky, Amazon, Virgin Media, or the 9-10 VOD platforms it launched on – were happy with it. The numbers have been good and Woody has been happy with the coverage and success of the launch.
DEADLINE: You got a lot of coverage in the UK national papers…
JB: Yes, that PR coverage is worth thousands of pounds. We have in-house PR, which is hard to beat. The media took a broad approach, clearly, so not all the interviews were about the movie…
DEADLINE: Yes, there were some that even made a point of saying ‘we didn’t even discuss the movie, only his past’. Do you think Woody minded that?
JB: Not at all. Normally ‘talent’ say they’re ‘not going to go there’ but he was very open. It made for some very interesting and revelatory interviews. He came across as relaxed rather than uptight and caught in a whirlwind of controversy.
DEADLINE: Was there trepidation about picking the film up? A number of people and companies have distanced themselves from the filmmaker…
JB: No. The man has not been charged with anything. We discussed it in the office. We didn’t speak to any of our clients about how they’d feel about it, because our view was that this man hasn’t been charged with anything and he has always contested any claims made against him. We took a view that it would have been inappropriate to refuse to deal with him. There are other people in the business who have been charged with various things in the past and their films are in distribution. We are a film distributor. When a piece of entertainment comes to us that we think will be of interest to the UK public we plug that gap from moviemaking to home entertainment.
I can understand how larger companies with more employees and more complex structures might arrive at a different decision, but our management team didn’t feel that it was inappropriate and Woody’s people were delighted to find us as a partner. We’re not one of the first countries to release the film. Woody’s main ambition was for the film to be seen, above whether it made huge amounts of money or won awards.
DEADLINE: The film has performed well in some markets, taking more than $4M in France and close to $4M in Italy before the pandemic hit. How is it performing for you?
JB: It’s performing well. We have a long history of premium releases. We have tended to release action films and thrillers in that space so this was a slightly new genre. But the cast and director validated that. Universal’s strong numbers on multiple premium releases have helped bolster the home ent experience. There will be a number of films that were earmarked for theatrical that will go down that route. It’s a model that’s definitely here to stay.
Our platform partners such as Sky and iTunes have been happy with it. We have around 9-10 VOD platforms we supply our movies to and we do one premium release per quarter. We badge those up as ‘in cinemas now’ to differentiate them and highlight that it would have had a theatrical release. With us, it has traditionally been 8-10 weeks at the higher rental price point and then it drops down to the regular price.
DEADLINE: You mention Amazon as one of your platform partners on the film. The streamer backed out of distributing the movie in the U.S. but it sounds like it is available on their platforms…
JB: Yes, Amazon have supported the movie.
DEADLINE: Did you reach out to the actors to take part in press?
JB: Some of the talent have distanced themselves from the movie, so it might have looked odd. We had such great support from Woody, so that was largely enough.
DEADLINE: Are you now in a good position to distribute Allen’s next film, Rifkin’s Festival?
JB: We’ve seen it. Inevitably, you look to build relationships. The feedback has been positive from Woody’s people about the collaboration on this movie, so let’s see.
DEADLINE: Who’s selling it?
JB: The producers are selling it. Rainy Day came through an associate of Woody’s, not a sales agent….We have North American (and Aus/NZ) rights on Rainy Day too and we’re thinking about that rollout. I brought on Andrew Nerger last year to oversee Signature’s international growth. We have been prolific in picking up movies for Australia/NZ, less for North America, but this is our biggest acquisition for the territory. The plan is to release it in fall later this year and we’re close to choosing a partner to help us with the release. As things stand, theatrical won’t be a key component but it’s a fluid situation.
DEADLINE: What do you think buy-in will be like?
JB: Good question. North America has a stronger view of the man than the UK. We will be able to confirm our plans soon and we’ve engaged with commercial partners there. Until we go to specific platforms or channels, we won’t know. The conversations we’ve had so far with a few platforms and distributors have been positive. At the moment, there is little new content being made available so there is a demand for starry, romantic-comedies, in particular.
DEADLINE: What have been your biggest successes this year?
JB: One of our biggest hits of the year was Mr. Jones, which the Guardian selected as one of its films of 2020. That was released day-and-date theatrical where it got to £125k box office. That model will only grow. The film worked theatrically, PR-wise, and it had broad buy-in from our partners. Another one that has done very well is Escape From Pretoria. We had good talent support from Daniel Radcliffe. We release a lot of films but each one has its own strategy.
DEADLINE: How big is physical distribution for the company now? Supermarket Tesco was once a key partner, for example.
JB: DVD has declined again this year. It remains an important part but probably only one in five of our releases will have a DVD life nowadays. The economics don’t merit a release. On top of that, the sector has been really hit hard by the pandemic. We need to be thinking ahead about different models such as AVOD.
DEADLINE: Do you work with Netflix?
JB: Yes, we have a very good relationship with them. They have picked up a number of our movies. We’re a growing company, so we hope to do more with them going forward.
DEADLINE: How many are you now in London?
JB: We’re 17 in London and Marc is out in LA producing films.
DEADLINE: Is the company growing?
JB: Yes. We added Andrew last year. We tried mainstream theatrical a few years ago but that didn’t work. We’re growing in terms of the quality and international nature of our slate. 17 staff is bigger than we’ve ever been and we’re about to confirm a new addition to the team. Our business does well when people are looking for a cost-effective night in. We view ourselves as the Liverpool of the independent distributor table. There’s always room for a well-run, friendly indie.
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