Hi, Marcus. Your debut feature, Papadoulous and Sons, has seen great success and can currently be viewed on iPlayer. Why did you decide to self-distribute the film?
I didn’t get into any of the ‘game-changing’ festivals, like Sundance or Venice. Instead, I decided to self-distribute it, and it was eventually well-reviewed by critics and loved by audiences.
I was able to target the Greek and Cypriot diaspora in the UK, which has strong identity. The cinema release was conventional. I went into a dozen screens, marketed my release, got a brilliant screen average, expanded the release to other sites, got good critical response and was able to sell the film to Netflix, Arte, in-flight, DVD the BBC and territories across the world.
Whilst the cinema release for Papadopoulos and Sons was a successful commercial venture, making all the money back I spent on the release, and a profit, I realised that the bigger prize for the indie filmmakers was the commercial deals that could follow. A big budget studio movie needs to make a lot of money at the box office to start paying back. What I realised with Papadopoulos and Sons was that an indie film just needs to capture people’s attention – not necessarily make money – in order to potentially open other future commercial opportunities.
Which leads us to your Cinema for a Pound initiative. How did it come about?
Papadoulous and Sons outperformed many of the movies that did get into those ‘game-changing’ festivals — which raises the question: how else can indie filmmakers build an audience outside the existing system?
With the positive experience I had with my debut feature, I’m looking at self-distribution again with my own theatrical release for my new feature film, The Wife and Her House Husband — which is a micro-budget feature film shot for less than £280k.
Filmmakers have so little control at festivals and with distributors, even when the stars align. That is why I launched “Cinema for a Pound”. It will be a double bill with my successful short film, Two Strangers Who Meet Five Times
(approaching 3 million views on YouTube) and The Wife and Her House Husband
. And I am four-walling it. This means I am buying the screens out so I can charge just £1.
I’m looking at cinema as an audience-building marketing event for two heartfelt films. There are no guns; there is no violence; there are no gangsters or zombies. Because there is no genre I can hang my indie hat on, finding an audience is more difficult. So, I have to be bolder. Hence, a double bill for just £1. I am tempted to say that if you’re not moved, I’ll give you your pound back. But everyone looks at me with horror when I say that.
How were you able to get cinemas to participate in the initiative?
I met Greg, who runs the Prince Charles Cinema. He’s an indie king. And I had to convince him. I spoke form the heart and he responded. He’s a good guy — giving me a screen, for three weeks, even when four-walling is a risk for a cinema. He still has to bring in an audience, and we all know that the margin on popcorn is what makes a cinema profitable. But this meeting could not have taken place without Martin Myers, who is a cinema booker whom I worked with on Papadopoulos and Sons. Again, he’s one of the good guys in the business. He wants you to succeed. And he loves an indie challenge. Martin is opening the doors for me. But I still have to do the convincing.
My hope is to do between three and five screens for this release. I’m doing it like a tour: I start in London, move to Birmingham for a week at the Mockingbird, and then hopefully to Bristol. This allows for more opportunity to build audience. We can flyer outside the venue, and I’ll be introducing every single screening on the “Cinema For a Pound” tour. A double bill for just £1. How could you say no? Do we have big stars in these movies? No. Do we have big emotions? Yes, huge. And that’s what ultimately sells your film in the end. But you need to get the audiences in first. And that’s what this initiative is about.
Did anything surprise you about the distribution process?
The thing that surprised me? Truly? How easy it was to become a distributor. How easy it was to bring people to cinemas. How warm audiences were to this more authentic way of being marketed to – having suffered the lazy “mud at the wall” approach by studios who shove their stars on Graham Norton to talk about nonsense, who whack a few posters on buses and pay fortunes to run trailers on TV. Really, distributors should be ashamed of themselves.
Your latest short Two Strangers Who Meet Five Times has nearly 3 million online views. How did you achieve such a huge viewership?
Maybe some digital angelic influence? An angel or an Angelos, as we say in Greek. But it spiked during the pandemic and then found itself in the right algorithm and it now floats at the top of the right searches. However, it has had nearly 10,000 comments and has many fans that rewatch it. It’s being screened at schools all over the world and it gets shared. YouTube knows this, and so it carries on pushing it up the pile. If it didn’t do these things, then it would probably sink back to the bottom. In that sense, YouTube is a meritocracy and I am extremely touched and moved beyond words at the comments and shares and how this small 12-minute film touches so many hearts. This is the real dream coming true. And I never saw it coming.
Do you think the future of the film industry is self-distribution?
I think indie filmmakers need to consider all their options and that should include self-distribution.
What kinds of films would you like to see more of?
I’d love to see more of those ‘mid-range’ movies that studios used to make – the rom-coms and dramas – good stories with great actors on the big screen. Now, they go straight to the streamers and often get lost there. I miss going to the cinema to see those movies. I was lucky enough to see Marriage Story on a big screen when it played at LFF. There’s that scene towards the end, where a Sondheim song becomes a big statement in the movie. It played so beautifully on a big screen with a packed audience. It was a “hear the pin drop” moment. That’s all lost on a TV screen, sadly.
I remember having the discussion with friends who felt that scene didn’t work. They had seen it only on Netflix on their TVs, laptops or mobile phones. How could that scene work straight to a mobile phone? It was big and theatrical and it needed to be experienced in a cinema. Those mid-range budget movies would often come with bigger human emotions. I think studios have got it wrong with tentpoles and super-hero movies. Movies can deliver explosive emotional moments without explosions. I think we’ve forgotten that. We don’t trust it. I am hoping that my two small movies, which were made for less than a combined sum of £300k – which would probably get you a movie star for half a day – will prove that it’s not the budget that counts, or even the star names, but the emotions that can be generated.
Interested in hearing more from Marcus? Follow him on Twitter @marcusmarkou, and grab your ticket to our Big, Vision, Small Budget Panel — more details below!