Film Pre-Sales Business Is “Not What It Used To Be”, Ex Focus Exec Alison Thompson Says

Former Focus Features International President Alison Thompson painted a sobering portrait of the global sales market during the opening keynote of Film London’s Production Finance Market today. She also gave some fresh details of her new company, Sunray Films.

Held annually as part of the BFI London Film Festival, the PFM has become a key date on the UK film industry calendar bringing together dozens of producers and financiers. Thompson’s keynote was as notable for its candor as it was for its piercing insight into the state of the business.

Speaking of candor, Thompson had plenty of anecdotes to share, most memorably about her former Sales Company sales chief Carole Myer. When approached by one buyer at a market, Myer asked, “are you buying a movie of mine? If not, fuck off.”

On a more serious note, Thompson argued that to combat a landscape where there are more films being produced — 2,150 features in Europe alone last year compared to 750 a decade ago — DVD sales are down and TV channels are cutting back significantly on film acquisitions, she is looking to create scale with Sunray moving forward.

“Budgets of films have halved in the last seven to eight years,” she said. “In those days, you could have made $17M-18M in sales on a film with a $20M budget. Now, those films are being made for $10M. The pre-sales business is not what is used to be.”

Thompson began her career under Myer at The Sales Company, the now-defunct partnership between British Screen, Palace Pictures and Zenith Productions. Palace was eventually replaced as a partner by BBC Films. Thompson worked there for 14 years before it was shuttered following the launch of the UK Film Council, which replaced British Screen as the central UK film funding body. After The Sales Company, Thompson moved to Pathé Pictures and then became co-president of Focus Features International in 2005.

Citing the example of The Sales Company, Thompson is aiming to bring other partners on board Sunray. That would be from both the U.S. and Europe, with a view to officially launching the new entity sometime in 2015. It’s been in the ether that Thompson, who left Focus with Oscar contender Mr Turner firmly in hand, has been planning a new operation.

“I also will close output deals in smaller territories so we can offset some of our risk,” promised the well-respected Thompson. “Independent distribution is evolving. In 20 years’ time, distributors as we know them are not going to be buying films. It will be the platforms, who will then go to the distributors to get windows for the films.”

Thompson also stressed the importance of sales companies now being able to offer in-house financing to attract the best projects, a major change from when she first began working in the business three decades ago. Sales companies across the board as evidenced in recent industry markets, are taking on more risk.

Otherwise, she was critical of the “stupid auction before markets scrambling for product. Straightaway, it puts you on the backfoot,” as well as highlighting the precarious nature of the marketplace. “The bandwidth of what is sellable is tightening. Either you’re in that zone or your not.”

Thompson highlighted three categories of films that Sunray would be involved with. Features with budgets under $6M with exciting new filmmakers; $12M with established auteurs and cast of note. And, finally, those around the $30M budget mark, which could realistically gross upwards of $40M domestically. Endgame’s Looper was mentioned as the perfect example of this.

“If anyone has the next Looper, please let me know,” joked Thompson.

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