Interview: John Letham from classic film distributor Park Circus

Founded in 2003 by co-Managing Directors John Letham and Nick Varley, Glasgow's Park Circus has grown to become one of Europe's most exciting film distribution companies. Jonathan Melville met up with John Letham to discuss his company's business model, how they decide which films to release and their plans for the future.

Jonathan Melville: What was the inspiration behind the founding of Park Circus?

John Letham: My background is in electronics. I worked for Motorola in East Kilbride for 12 years in technical marketing roles and product development, but when the electronics industry in Scotland declined and they sold off my division, I started working on things I was more interested in.

I began to look at what my passions were, and film was always the big one. I was working with the Glasgow Film Theatre and Nick (Varley, joint Managing Director) was also there, launching the Glasgow Film Festival among other things. We got chatting about film in general and and through those discussions realised that to screen a classic film you need two things, prints and the rights.

We were finding that the number of potential film screenings being compromised because one or both of those things weren't there was incredible. It was confusing, with rights constantly changing hands, being lost or given back to producers without prints being available.

As you'd expect, the focus of the movie business is very much on promoting new films. So, let's say someone wanted to book The Lady Vanishes, but because they can't find a print they end up with The 39 Steps. Now, that might work out OK, but there was perhaps a reason The Lady Vanishes was originally needed, so the organisers are compromising their plans. We found that was happening left, right and centre.

Nick's background is cinema through and through. He used to work for Caledonian Cinemas, the Glasgow Grosvenor, the Playhouse in Perth, he managed Hyde Park in Leeds and the Silent Film Festival which was held there. I was still looking where to go and we wanted to fix the problem.

What was your first step in forming the company?

The first thing we did was buy the rights to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, because Nick wanted to show it. We tried to find out how to solve the problem and discovered that one way was to licence a title then make your own prints and hire it out. We knew a few other people who were also interested in showing it if we were able to get it. So really, we saw this gap and tried to fill it.

One thing led to another and we tried the same thing with a few other films, but the real breakthrough came when we started looking after entire libraries rather than just one film at a time. If you look at our slate you'll see a mixture.

The UK distribution side is actually quite a small part of our business. If you look at what else we do, more than half our business is now done overseas through international sales. We'll sub-distribute through a distributor in another territory: for example, Carlotta Films has picked up The Red Shoes for screening in France. But we might do a screening in Australia as an international distributor.

So you don't actually own the rights to films such as The Red Shoes?

The Red Shoes is owned by ITV Studios, so we represent the film but we don't own it. Some films we own more than others, as much as you can. For films such as The Godfather, we've licenced that from Paramount for a fixed period and have exclusive rights to that film in cinemas. Paramount can't exploit the theatrical rights in the areas we have the licence for so we own it as much as you can, as much as, for example, Artificial Eye own their films or any film company that's not a studio can own them because studios are different.

The Godfather poster

Studios such as Disney own the whole process. Companies such as Artificial Eye, Metrodome, Momentum and other independent distributors acquire films. They acquire the films for a certain amount of time in that territory, but those rights will run out.

We give the Filmhouse in Edinburgh and GFT in Glasgow a non-exclusive licence to screen a film but we are still the exclusive licence holder of that film, though ultimately the film is still owned by Paramount.

What's also interesting is that new producers don't understand this process and that they almost have to give up ownership of their film when it goes into distribution. That can cause problems when it comes to producers not liking things such as the poster: if they haven't signed a contract which says the producer can decide what goes on the poster, there's nothing they can do about it.

Can you explain a bit more about distribution contracts?

The way a distribution contract works is that you should have the freedom to market that film in any way you can so you can do the most with it without compromising it. When we licence libraries it's a slightly looser deal, but in some ways more precise. We represent the ITV Studios titles worldwide but we haven't licenced the individual titles, so we have the whole library without picking and choosing from the library.

So with libraries such as ITV Studios, is it a case that they just don't have the time to spend promoting older films and are happy to let someone else spend the time doing it?

If you look at Disney, where we represent their back catalogue while they focus on newer films, they are a bit different as the films come to us quite quickly. So, for example, Up is with us and Alice in Wonderland is about to move over to us, so it's a few weeks after release rather than five years.

Disney are focussing on selling the newer films. ITV might be selling Poirot internationally, titles which are top line. When you're doing classic films the difference is that they're very bespoke. If you're releasing a new film such as Narnia, you do it in waves, sending out 550 “ 600 prints across the country before release.

We're different in that we send out lots of prints, but those prints might all be different, e.g. Taxi Driver, Brief Encounter or The Godfather. We also get places like the GFT or film societies getting in touch asking for an image for a brochure or a website or various other requests. For a bigger studio it just wouldn't be worth the effort and they might just say no, which is a fair business decision, but for us it's our main business.

If you go onto our website and the Now Showing tab you'll see a list of all of our screenings over the next four weeks. It's quite impressive and it shows both international and local screenings, but those are only the public ones, with about another 30% shown privately.

Charlie Chaplin

We're attractive to the companies because at the end of the quarter we just send the rights holders a cheque. We look after the library and the prints are stored in our name. We get the prints and marketing material out to exhibitors, who in turn send the returns in. We then process the invoice and collect the money from the exhibitor before the rights holder their share.

We take a percentage obviously, but a lower percentage of a lot is better than 100% of not a lot, certainly if a lot of effort is involved. We're fully exploiting the library, selling it and pushing it and giving people ideas.

Otherwise they'd just be sitting in the vaults?

Absolutely, an example of that is that when a film has finished doing the rounds of cinemas, the prints have to be stored and licence holders might just take the number of prints down to five. That's fine, except sometimes a circuit such as Cineworld want to show A Christmas Carol to the Kid's Club at around 75 or 80 sites around the UK. Unless they have those prints they can't do it.

So, while there are still prints out there, it is in effect out of circulation because the mulitplexes can't show it around the country and say At Cinemas Nationwide.

What about digital as a medium?

We've been doing digital for five or six years and probably have more digital titles than anyone else in the country.

Brief Encounter in 2006 was our first cinema release. It's all got to do with source material and it's a business decision. When you look at bringing a film back, you have to scan the 35mm negative, and you can choose from 2k and 4k scans: scanning is automated but it's a big process.

Firstly you'd do a chemical restoration and if the print is at all damaged, perhaps fading or mouldy, chemical will help that to clean them. Then you have to scan, again either 2k or 4k, literally scanning frame by frame, and often they'll be digitally restored which is done by hand and that costs a lot of money. You might have to throw money at that, book time of 100 hours against that at a dollar per hour, go back quickly through the film and take the worst bits and if there's time take another pass, focussing on key scenes. End of reels can be badly damaged.

You've then got a digital master which is when you see terms like Digitally Restored or Remastered on DVDs. A lot has been done for Blu-ray and DVD. What we'll often do is take it and put it to D-cinema which is a higher quality. We'll often pay for that. For classic films, more time and money is being spent to improve the quality with an eye on a Blu-ray release, which is good for us.

Can you ever over-restore a classic film?

Probably, I recently saw a restoration at Cannes and I thought it didn't look as good as it could. Sometimes you can over-restore. Before digital filmmaking, directors used filters so there are certain ways they were meant to look so we have to be careful we don't lose what was meant to be there.

Who has the final say on whether a new print is a good restoration?

Ulitmately you rely on the film studios. With The African Queen for example, John Huston's daughter, Angelica, was involved and saw the final restoration and signed it off. Now, of course she wasn't involved in the original filmmaking and wouldn't know what was going on inside her dad's brain, but she's an actor who loves films and she felt it looked appropriate.

Don't get me wrong, you're not going to change the film per se, but you could start to make it look more false than it is. Film itself has a natural feel to it, a grain, and you will get this in digital because you're scanning the grain, though you might not always get that. The more you do a scan the more grain will be recorded. You're relying on good people, common sense, comparisons to the original and, in most cases, they look better to what went before.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

What happens to the restored print when the licence reverts to the owners?

It goes back. The majority of the restoration is actually being done by the studio, so we're just doing the D-cinema part. The Bicycle Thieves, which is with Arrow Films in the UK, has been an amazing success and it's booked out for at least the next year. Arrow Films wanted to release the Blu-ray and they asked if they could use the poster we'd developed so we just gave it to them and didn't charge, because it's a partnership.

We might decide to make a new print of a film which costs £2000 - £5000 which ultimately we won't get paid for.

So you're in a position where you invest money in a film but you could lose the rights?

Yes, but hopefully, if we do a good enough job, we'll be offered them again. With Whatever Happened to Baby Jane we had first option to renew that but we decided not to so it's back with Warner Bros.

We also do print loans and if we don't have rights for a certain territory, we'll try to give a loan to countries such as Poland, but that has to be with permission from the local rights holder and that won't be on our Now Showing section. The film industry is a lot more cooperative than many industries, people want things to work.

How do you choose which films to release?

We're constantly talking to studios about what's being restored at that time and we can often feed into that. We speak to a lot of people. One thing you'll find is that when we put a film in the calendar it won't move. Rod White, the Head of Programming at the Filmhouse, Alison Gardner at the GFT, the BFI, Cineworld and other distributors all input into the decisions.

We also listen to the press. If I'm at Cannes I might ask critics what they think about a film. One important thing for us is will it work back on the big screen? We look at things like cinematography and script. All about Eve, Casablanca and The Apartment all have great scripts which work on the big screen and you pay attention to them. I think The Apartment has such a wordy script that you might not really appreciate it at home, with so many other distractions.

You've then got to get an audience there. Female skew works well because groups of women will go the cinema together to watch older films. Casablanca works well with male and female audiences, while The Godfather is oddly more female skewed.

Male only is much harder. James Bond works because it has a fan base, but a lot of guys say they'd love to see a film at the cinema but ulitmately won't go and see it, guys don't go to the cinema with their mates.

That's where the exhibitors are key. A lot of documentaries don't work well back on the big screen though Clouzot's Inferno did well for us. Nick is very Hollywood and I'm very art-house “ if you see our slate you can almost put our names to it. He likes happy stuff, I like sad stuff, so having two people coming from different angles is a good thing.

How did your move into the DVD market come about?

We started that recently. Many people don't understand us. That's partly because we're based in Glasgow and they don't get the accents, but in addition we're not based in Soho like most of these guys. We also deal with classic films, while everyone else is dealing with new movies. Our films are in cinemas and you don't make money in cinemas, we should be on home entertainment: everything is upside down with us.

For years DVD has been the cash cow and paid for cinema release, films make their money on DVD.

We decided we wanted to understand the home market better and video on demand intrigues me. Also, for us it's very hard to buy theatrical rights only, and we often have to buy all rights. If a studio sold us theatrical right and other people DVD or TV rights, it becomes disjointed. So having the ability to release on DVD makes sense.

We're focussing on the same audience and it's wrong to say our audience is cinema-only. We're trying to do stuff that's of interest to our audience. The people that went to see Pandora probably saw The Red Shoes, the people who went to The Godfather saw Taxi Driver and if you went to Casablanca there's a good chance you went along to Brief Encounter. Our titles might not have been on DVD before, though some of the Chaplins were, though we're doing Blu-rays of them for the first time.

We wanted to do Chaplin theatrically and we wanted Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd because we understand silent. To get Chaplin was important and the DVDs help promote the theatrical. We did a screening of The Great Dictator at the British Library before it came out, so we can do more with the promotional. There's a whole batch coming, Chaplins and some silents and other lost, hidden gems including lost Scottish titles. Pandora will be on DVD.

How large is your cinema audience?

Our audience varies, for which we're indebted to our exhibition partners, but our audience is increasing which is key.

To go and see one of our films in the cinema is a conscious decision, it goes against the grain at every level. For a start, you're going against all the adverts which are telling you to go and see something new. You might, for example, go to the Filmhouse, which is not a multiplex, and when you get there it might be on the smallest screen. So it's a bit of fight to get there with all these other messages.

The Kid

We do know that when they get there, our audience will more than likely go again.

If the The UK Film Council help us with a wider release, there has to be a customer survey at the screenings which ask two questions requiring a percentage response: 'What were your expectations?' and 'Did it exceed expections?'

Most of the time when these type of surveys are done you'll hope for a 50% and be lucky to get 30%, but for our films we regularly get a 90% expectation figure and find that we actually exceeded expectations.

The UK Film Council exit polls for films such as Casablanca, The Sound of Music and It's a Wonderful Life all make for fascinating reading.

I liken it to the music industry: can you imagine going to a concert and the band only plays their new album? You'd hate it. People want the old songs as well. In cinema the old films almost become spent or unclean, you can see it on TV all the time, though seeing it there is nothing the same. Of course there are some people who will never go to the cinema and some who would never go and see an old film.

We're trying to listen to audiences more through exhibitors and places such as Cineworld. The GFT is a good example, where It's a Wonderful Life goes up 10% every year, with the same people coming back again and again and bringing new people with them. We also look a lot a event screening such as Valentines Day, Mothers Day, Halloween, stuff that has a reason for being, almost like a theatre thing.

You mentioned that Park Circus is unique, partly due to being based in Scotland. Is it difficult being away from the London hub?

Being based in Scotland has pros and cons. In London, everything is based in Soho. If we were a UK-only distributor, being in Glasgow would be more of a disadvantage, but because we're international it doesn't matter. In fact, some folk quite like that we're not based in London because it gives you a bit of personality. If you're in Australia or France and you're phoning Scotland it can be a bit quirky.

We go up and down to London a lot and we miss things, but equally there are industry events that you almost have an excuse not to participate in. Stepping back a bit allows you to be a bit more creative and work more long term without having to obey all the rules because you're down there.

We did look at moving to London but we decided not to. Being different is good. There are a lot of advantages to being here. The exhibitors here are excellent, as are the press. If you look at the regional press landscape around the UK it's been decimated, and while in Scotland it's weaker, compared to many regions in England at least it's still there.

We don't shy away from being Scottish, we're keen to support local exhibitors and local films where we can, though we won't pick up new films. If someone came and said they'd made a new documentary on Buster Keaton I'd be very interested, if it's our niche, but we are looking at ways of supporting the journalists, festivals and filmmakers.

On our website we do have a Scottish collection and we do ask for Scottish related work. We're looking at bringing some out on DVD, some of which the rights have recently expired for and some contemporary classics which have never been released before. I see that growing and I want to make the most of our location.

Could Scotland do more with it's cinema heritage?

One good thing about programmers in Scottish cinemas is that they almost go against the grain because sometimes it's hard for them to see things in advance of screening them. I think part of the problem is that London is a bigger place so can support the BFI Southbank.

If you look at the model on which the Filmhouse or GFT are run, they are partly funded but they also need to cover their costs so they have to find something which is art-house and that the majority of the audience will watch, or they have to programme the same as the multiplex.

The Filmhouse is one of the lucky ones because it has three screens, though I think one thing that would help is increasing the number of screens. It would be nice to do more in repertory cinema in Scotland. Film festivals do it but there are probably other ways to build the audiences. I will say that Scotland is way ahead of other regions outside London.

In what way?

The old model saw regional cinemas wait for a London opening and see how well it did before deciding on an opening elsewhere around the country, but those days are gone now. With Pandora, that opened at the Filmhouse on the same day as at the BFI in London. Local cinemas should know their audiences, because what works or doesn't work in London might not be the same as in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness.

As a film lover, I do look at the monthly BFI programme and it would be great to have more of their films and events accessible in Scotland.

Do you think that's possible?

I think it would be possible if we can build the audiences up, and I think that's where Park Circus can play a part. Take our DVDs for example, where inside the box there's a leaflet which explains Park Circus are specialists in bringing classic films back to cinemas - we're pointing people back to cinemas through the DVDs, and that's deliberate.

Part of the reason for the DVD releases is to market this love of classic films and try to get people back to cinemas. We could perhaps do stuff that would help.

The BFI is our biggest UK customer, the audience is loyal and will take chances and experiment, and it's the perfect cinema in London. It would be nice to get more of that up here. Things like the London Gay and Lesbian Festival goes on tour and is sometimes watered down a little bit.

We're doing a full Frank Capra season in December at the Southbank, a full retrospective and we've taken five or six of those and we're saying to local cinemas to book the season and we'll provide season material of posters and fliers, which does work.

One thing we covered recently on ReelScotland is the rise of community cinemas in Scotland. Do you see those growing?

Absolutely, community cinemas are vital for Scotland and the UK. We supply a lot of them and try to make it simple for them to screen our films.

Again, their viewers struggle against all the messages to go to the mainstream cinemas and we try to make it as easy as possible to do what they want to do, trying to help them grow. That can take a lot of time, as we might get a phonecall saying 'We just showed Brief Encounter, what should come next?'

We've created a Film Society Favourites section on the site where we list the films that we know normally get an audience in. Cinema Paradiso gets a lot of people in. It might be someone's first example of foreign language film but it could be good to start with and we'll help with marketing and film stills.

You're almost educating audiences in classic cinema. Do you feel any sort of responsibility?

I remember meeting a journalist in Edinburgh with Nick, and she said 'I expected you to be two old men, I expected old people!' There's a snobbery in the film industry which assumes everyone should know everything about everything. You'll mention Kitano and you should know eveything he's done, what he's been in and the full implications of his name, but people don't.

Not everyone was around in 1937 and you're not expected to know the history of this or what happened in that and you shouldn't be snobbish about it, unlike some of those surveys where people lie about what they've seen.

Our area is more about knowledge sharing and we'll be honest with people and say it's not going to work because of this, this and this. We try to just give the facts and perhaps point out that it's been disappointing at other sites.

I don't feel responsible for educating people but I do think it's more of a sharing of knowledge. With Pandora, we did a lot of research, spoke to the archives in the States. The stills for the film are in black and white, so it's a nightmare when it comes to marketing: how do you market a colour film with black and white stills? They're beautiful, but all in black and white.

We spent a lot of time doing screen grabs because if you put the original images in a brochure you might have lost a section of the audience who don't want to see a black and white film.

Do you have a dream project you'd like to see come to fruition?

I think we should celebrate Scottish film more and try to get access to more Scottish films. There's a tendency to say a lot of it is depressing, but that's not true. Something like Ken Loach's Ae Fond Kiss, which was made in Glasgow, looked nice, was about an interracial relationship and was a very accessible film. We don't push mainstream films such as On a Clear Day enough, we almost apologise for it. It's different on TV, people love Taggart and Scottish comedies, but put it on the big screen and people want bigger budget.

My pet project would be to do with audience engagement, building up fans of the cinema experience, the idea of it becoming a way of life. The way of things are going, society seems to be moving away from owning things, people are moving towards video on demand.

I also think people want the social aspect of cinema. The Guardian recently did an article on 3D cinema. Technically 3D films are impressive, but they found that when people were sitting with their glasses on they couldn't turn to the person next to them and catch their eye to share the film, so they said they may as well watch it on their own.

When you go and see Casablanca and someone laughs, you wonder why they did that when you didn't notice it, and then you get it. It's taking advantage of that movement and people are saying don't accumulate posessions, experience things. TVs are great, but if you want to experience things the way they were meant to be seen, or love a particular director, then go to the cinema.

All this about cinema tickets costing such and such, I might as well buy the DVDs to watch again. There's research which states 50% of DVDs sit on the shelf unwatched.

What's been Park Circus' biggest success or surprise?

Nothing has been disastrous. Maybe our expectations aren't unrealistic. What I get the biggest buzz from is when it's something less well known and audiences go and see it, such as Pandora.

I enjoyed doing Clouzot's Inferno, mainly because I saw it at Cannes last year and was one of the five people who saw it before the public screening and put a bid in for it. There's something interesting about sitting watching a film and thinking I really like this, so much so I'm going to put a bid in. I spoke to the director who said he was anxious on the day of the public screening, but just before he went on stage he was told that Park Circus had put a bid in for it and that gave him confidence, just the knowledge that a company had put a bid in for it.

If I was going to Cannes having to bid for new films to keep us going for the next 18 months, I'd find that very difficult, especially if there's nothing you really like or it's a bad year. What do you do? Inferno was my experience of going to see a film for the first time, and wondering deep down if it was a big decision. The fact that it went on to get four and five star reviews gave me some faith in what we do and I liked the buzz of that.

One of the great things about being in the industry is forming your opinion and then reading the reviews, wheras the public will read the reviews before deciding whether to see the film. It's interesting to see which reviewers you align yourself with. I used to read Hannah McGill's reviews in the Herald, I agreed with everything she said in her reviews, Peter Bradshaw as well.

So I'd like to do more with the audience engagement and building up a fanbase, not just for Park Circus, but for any classic film. There's nothing more annoying than reading the same reviews over and over again, and it's nice when someone's looked at something a bit different or undiscovered. People ask us if DVD is a threat, but I actually think it helps us.

Thanks to John Letham and the staff at Park Circus for their time. Find out more about upcoming releases on the Park Circus website.