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11 December 2023

Strong distribution key to success

By Martin Baker

And so from Los Angeles to Paris, and the set of a movie adapted from a Jackie Collins novel. I was invited there by some Hollywood producers who have been looking at turning my book into a film. It's very difficult to work out what goes on in the heads of these folks. I suspect I was invited as a temptation, an invitation to get a feel for the business of making a film – a process that so many people seem to find so wickedly compelling.

Believe it or not, I had even been offered a speaking part in this movie. The producers felt that, for some reason or other, I would pass very well as a self-satisfied fashion-industry investor, a creature with more money than sense (some might argue that I'm self satisfied – but surely someone as impecunious as me can't have more money than sense).

Anyway, I couldn't make the designated two days' filming, because I had a prior speaking engagement at my old university – a commitment of honour. All the same, I showed up a few days later on set at the Hotel Lutaetia in the St Germain district of Paris. My neophyte's insight into the business of filming is, I'm afraid, profoundly unoriginal. It's organised chaos. So much so, in fact, that while being shown around by the two leading producers, we found ourselves unexpectedly in shot, and had to behave like extras. So if you ever see Paris Connections (released as a Home Premiere DVD by UK supermarket chain Tesco later this year), you can look out for me and a man and a woman in the corner of a party scene shot in the hotel ballroom (Then again, I can't imagine why you'd be bothered).

The business logic of this movie, though, is considerably more interesting than the sight of me skulking in a corner for a couple of seconds. Tesco is the distributor, the mechanism of selling. So the content-providers (in this case, the producers) have gone to the distributors in the knowledge that if the distributor funds the project it will be committed to selling it. The content-providers get funding from the distributors and cut out the uncertainty that comes with so much project financing. The distributor gets a quality product at a low cost, with a high margin on sales.

At this level, the model is exactly the same as selling breakfast cereal, with a few add-ons. A supermarket that sells its own breakfast cereal does so for the simple reasons just outlined: low production cost, higher margin. But a movie is a much more complex product than a packet of cereal. There is business development by brand association here. A supermarket which may already sell its own mobile phones, have its own internet business, etc, might well see movies as an extension of its media business.

Then there's the power of marketing. The mighty mobile business Orange already has its own film studios. Orange's advertising makes fun of the possibility of a mobile phone company interfering in the content of making a movie. You may be familiar with the series of short Orange films shown in cinemas before the feature. These Orange commercials depict real Hollywood stars having their movie-pitch ideas subverted to crass product showcasing by myopic Orange executives. The commercials are hilarious, and designed to put us at ease. The message is that commerce will never interfere with artistic freedom – and that commerce is worthy of being associated with the glamour and the general aesthetic of the artsy world. It is branding by association.

But there's the possibility of creeping control here, too. I haven't seen the script for the Tesco-funded movie, yet I suspect there will be very few scene-setting shots featuring the frontages of other supermarket chains. Product placement is the extreme example of this kind of branded-content control (Ford famously struck a deal with the producers of the James Bond movie to have Bond drive a small Ford from airport to country club in Casino Royale).

So, while content may be king in our new media world, we have to live with the fact that it simply cannot get to us without a delivery platform and marketing mechanism, jointly known as distribution. And the distributors have a great deal of power. Marx deemed it an imperative to control the means of production. Nowadays you need to control the means of distribution. Maybe that's the truth underlying the famous media-studies aphorism that the medium is the message.


Martin Baker is a journalist, author and commentator on international affairs


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