This article first appeared in IF Magazine Issue #150.
Troy Lum couldn’t have picked two more different features to mark the launch of his new production company: I, Frankenstein and Two Mothers. One, a reimaging of the classic horror tale; the other, a controversial story about two mothers who sleep with each other’s teenage sons.
Not so says Lum.
“Although those two films in isolation look really different to each other, they share some sort of commonality, which is the films have a real global potential. And there’s a certain scale that takes them beyond your sort of kitchen sink Australian movie and that’s kind of the aim.”
Both films have notable cast (Aaron Eckhart in I, Frankenstein and Naomi Watts and Robin Wright in Two Mothers) and scale. In the case of I, Frankenstein, that scale amounts to a $50 million budget. But while few Australian production companies (outside of Roadshow) have been involved in screen projects of that size, Lum says the deal is structured to minimise the production risk.
“I can’t go into the detail of it but suffice to say there isn’t really a downside from the production perspective. From a distribution perspective there is and we’ve got ‘skin in the game’, but from a production perspective we’re covered so again that’s really about the relationships.”
Lum knows all about risk. He (alongside partners Frank Cox and Sandie Don) built Hopscotch Films from a fledgling distribution company to a major local player over the past decade. Last year, global distributor Entertainment One acquired the company for £18.3 million ($27.8 million).
Lum says he’s still 100 per cent focused on the distribution side of the business – “just working harder” – and that the move into production reflects the changing, and increasingly competitive, nature of the industry.
“It’s not about how you get the content – it’s just about getting it. And that means that you’ve got to be involved in all levels of the business, so whether it’s looking at films at a festival, buying scripts from sales agents or developing your own material, I think if you’re not doing all of those things then you’re not really in distribution to its full extent.”
Hopscotch Films is riding high this year after the success of Aussie feel-good movie The Sapphires, which exceeded all expectations by grossing more than $14 million at the box office. Saving Mr Banks, starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, is set to provide some reflected glory after Disney recently acquired the high-profile drama outright from Hopscotch Features (and partners Essential Media and Entertainment and Ruby Films). Other successes for the distribution arm in 2012 include Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris ($7.42 million) and, on the smaller end of the scale, Iranian film A Separation ($1.49 million).
The company contributed a pre-tax profit of £1.8 million ($2.73 million) to new parent eOne (Hopscotch Features is still independently-owned although its content flows into the Hopscotch Films pipeline) over the ten-and-a-half months to March 31 – and that was before The Sapphires’ barnstorming release.
“Ultimately I’d taken the company as far as it could go with me running it, which was starting to spend some big money on films,” Lum says. “When you’re risking a million dollars plus on a movie with money out of your own pocket, your Monday mornings are pretty scary. Your margin for error is quite low. You do that four times in a row and it doesn’t work, you don’t have a company anymore.”
Lum has a noted eye for films and scripts – during his early years at Dendy, before starting Hopscotch, he paid just $60,000 for the distribution rights to Amelie, then at script stage. The film went on to gross $7.2 million at the box office. Still, acquiring small films on the cheap and bringing them to a wider audience is a business model that no longer exists, he says.
“There’s not enough films out there to do that and if they’re there, then it’s really competitive and they get really expensive. So you need to have scale, you need to buy bigger films and you need to do that, I think, with the strength of a big company behind you.”
eOne is supporting the company to make bigger acquisitions, Lum says – the company now has multi-year output deals with studios Summit Entertainment and Lakeshore Entertainment.
Producing or acquiring great content remains an ongoing challenge – and attracting audiences to see it in cinemas is becoming considerably more difficult.
“When I started in the business I started at Dendy and we were underneath the cinemas and basically you went upstairs and saw your clientele who were going to see your movies and I know in those days the majority of the concession tickets they sold were to students. Nowadays the majority of the concession tickets they sell are to pensioners.”
The same people seeing independent cinema in the early-90s are still seeing similar fare today – A Midnight in Paris played firmly to the over-40s while A Separation attracted over-35s – although they’re not going as often.
“Call that one of the deficiencies of the youth but there seems to be a much more sort of disposable attitude towards entertainment where a lot of the films where we had a lot patience for growing up doesn’t seem to be the case now. So it’s very difficult to get that younger audience in to see what we’d consider an art-house movie.”
However, Lum is a definite believer in the ongoing power of the cinematic experience, even as audiences increasingly view content on different platforms and challenge traditional theatrical release strategies.
“You have to keep people in the cultural habit of going to the cinemas and the only way you can do that is building some sort of exclusivity in that experience,” he says. “Whether it’s in the scale of the film, so they need to see it on the big screen, or it’s about it only being available on the big screen, but it’s really important… once we lose that habit then yes, things become more accessible to everybody, but we lose we lose something as part of our social fabric.”