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The New Generation Takes The Helm At Arrow Films (UK)

Alex Agran, Managing Director of Arrow Entertainment
Alex Agran is the second generation Managing Director of British-based Arrow Entertainment. The company's award-winning label Arrow Films has grown the audience for its titles by aggressively utilizing social media and the advantages for rapid communication offered by the internet. Alex discusses the changing dynamics of UK distribution from the viewpoint of Arrow Films within the strata of independent distribution – one-on-one in conversation with The Business of Film.

THE BUSINESS OF FILM: As the second generation of Arrow Films, an independent distribution company started by your father Neil Agran which is based in the UK, you joined the company 11 years ago, and took over the reins of the day to day running recently, as Managing Director. How were you roped into this wonderful but crazy film business?

ALEX AGRAN: When my parents started the business in 1991, it was in a room in our house. Most rooms in the house were occupied by either video stock or computers, so I literally lived film industry, as I was living in the house. I didn't join the business straightaway after university, I had a career in Media previously from AD sales to internet start-ups and online gaming. Neil and I had gone to the markets a few times together where I got to know the people the company dealt with, but my dad got to the stage where he didn't want to be quite so active in the business. So we talked about it and he drafted me, and I came on board 11 years ago.

TBOF: The product that was selling or you could buy ten years ago, compared to the product that there is now and what will sell to the consumer, is like night and day. From your perspective of a small independent distributor, how has the company adapted to the change?

AA: Originally, the company was buying classic catalogue titles, reissue titles, with one or two small theatricals titles a year. The first was Mrs. Caldicot's Cabbage War, a Pauline Collins film, which went out on a couple of sites. It was the type of film that would release theatrically. On the other hand we were quite aggressive in buying for the DVD market, which was still on an upward curve, with a few years of the DVD boom, before the market started to turn. Our business model at the time was to look for classic films that already had a release in the UK theatrically, or were very strong propositions for DVD, The focus was purely on DVD and catalogue films. At the time, you could pretty much release anything and it would sell; the DVD business was a great time in that sense as there was a very, very open market, retailers were opening up, it was very fertile ground. We were releasing maybe eight titles a quarter, and had a small but steady business.
All You Need is Love - Pierce Brosnan & Trine Dyrholm - Photo by Doane Gregory
TBOF: When did you see the change taking place in terms of the product, the consumer and the marketplace?

AA: We were still acquiring catalogue titles up until about 2009, which from our viewpoint was when we saw change - we analyzed our business model, the market, our position within the overall market place, and realized that it wasn't necessarily sustainable. The DVD market didn't have the legs for catalogue films. Our position in the marketplace at the time was of a small independent that released some good titles on the home (UK) ent market. However, the quality of the material we received from the producers wasn't necessarily that good because they were older films. We ended up putting out on DVD whatever material the producers had available and because they were older films there were plenty of issues. Taking all that on board in 2009, we launched our brand Arrow Video.: We made uniform special packaging for each release, specially commissioned extras for the release discs, brand new artwork that was commissioned using specialized artists that creating brand new oil paintings for each release. It was an antithesis to the artwork that you saw on DVD's across the board had become staid and static – everyone was using Photoshop and the salesmanship of cover art had disappeared; the idea behind the Arrow Video label was a distinct nod back to the old video rental days, where the consumer browsed the rental shop and was sold on the sleeves. We were investing in the brand, and acquired product to go into that brand which were mainly Horror films but were distinctly 'Cult'. Based on research and our experience, we summarized that the DVD cult buyer is a discerning, very loyal, and an avid user of the internet. So we knew that if what we were doing worked, it was going to generate great publicity across all the forums, the blogs and other emerging social media platforms. And it paid off. It wasn't dynamite to start but slowly progressed. After a year we released maybe a dozen titles. It was good and evoked interesting chat and buying patterns , but what we were we missing out on was the material that we were releasing with wasn't a high enough visual quality for the types of buyers that we wanted to attract. As a result of this, our investment into the brand became much more significant. We performed restorations on the titles that needed it and spent much more on commissioned extras to create fuller discs. We also bought bigger and better titles. All of a sudden we were a very respectable label, which started to win awards such as The UK Home Cinema Choice, in 2010, Label of the Year 2011, and the Guardian DVD Label of the Year in 2011, 2013. We started to be successful at what we did, and in the last two, three years, we've received serious global recognition. On that particular market segment brand, the Arrow Video Brand is considered a global Leader for cult films on DVD and Blu-ray who have created a very strong brand. We're now the go-to company for cult product in terms of restoring, and releasing, and there'll be no better version of the films that is released anywhere in the world.

TBOF: When you say Cult films what kind of films does that embrace?

AA: The cult genre are films from any genre such as Japanese shock horror, Chuck Norris action, Blaxploitation, Spaghetti Western, Sci-Fi - basically anything that's cult and that affords us wide-ranging scope for acquistions. Another important aspect of that growth are the strategic elements, PR that's generated on the releases. We announce the projects quarterly, using videos produced by our in-house production team that are uploaded via our social media channels. It's hugely important to us to give the fans security and surety that they know what is upcoming as well as being cutting edge and making fans smile, as well as having something viral which adds to the growing global fan base of Arrow Video. We have instituted an acquisition model, to acquire people to the brand. The idea is that at point of entry to Arrow Video, they'll see we have other restored titles of equal quality with the same amazing level of extras and outstanding artwork. This is supported and endorsed but our growing roster of celebrities including such luminaries as Guillermo Del Toro, Eli Roth and Terry Gilliam.

TBOF: Now that the Arrow Video Brand has a successful global following, do you intend to expand to other countries?

AA: In February 2015, we launch in the USA on the Arrow Video Brand. We've just raised $100k from Indiegogo (a crowd-funding organization) to get support from our fans in the US and we completed our funding in about 23 days! We are launching over there with some amazing product and that's an amazing fertile territory for cult films, there's no-one doing what we do in the US and it's a very exciting move for us!

TBOF: In this new branding of your distribution model, how much social media do you do? How vital is social media to your consumer and revenue base?

AA: Masses, communicating with our fan base is huge. There is a team of people dedicated full time on that task, we talk to them regularly, give them sound bites, keep them updated with new releases and what's going on, we hear back from them and take on board their feedback. Social media is brilliant and increasingly important for our business. Consumers today, especially for our brand, communicate that way to us and each other. How we communicate to our fans is how we're seen, so we do a lot of it, and it's very two-way. We hear what they want to say and we feed it back into the machine and it helps with our acquisitions because they suggest things that they would like to see.
Ciro Petrone, Molly Egelind, Sebastian Jessen - Winetasting - Photo by Doane Gregory
TBOF: Do you go to many markets? And how important is it for you to go to the markets? Or do you, like a lot of buyers of product, go to certain markets but not others anymore?

AA: There are three, distinct sides to our business: Arrow Video, which is the cult label, the new release theatrical titles and the TV business. We still buy films theatrically and all rights for the UK, which necessitates going to the markets and finding the product: Toronto, Berlin, Cannes, and the AFM. Also we go to the TV markets: MIPTV and MIPCOM. The other part of our business is the TV side, which is probably best described as an international TV business. We acquire the best of international TV series, mainly from Europe – series such as The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, series with critical acclaim, that we feel will break through into popular culture. We found this side of the business on the major Scandinavian series and is still its backbone but now we also offer the best of European series including series such as Gomorrah, Prisoners of War, Salamander. Often and where we can, we acquire all the rights and we sell them to BBC, Sky, and Channel 4. Where we spot the potential, we buy the rights, then we sell it to the right platform for TV. We distribute on DVD and Blu Ray, through iTunes, Sky Store, Amazon, Netflix, Google Play, XBOX, Vubiquity and through all the major Digital partners.

TBOF: But you are not a middleman. Arrow Films is buying international TV series for domestic distribution in the UK.

AA: We are not middlemen. The product that we buy, we distribute domestically in the UK and Ireland and have a production team which encompasses Marketing, Sales and Operations. We do sometimes buy three or four different territories and then sub-distribute those licenses to other companies in those territories, but our focus is mainly UK and Ireland.
TBOF: Arrow has been able to establish three different but interrelated divisions – largely due to the way that the distribution pattern or the system for films is now digital and mainly - be it for materials or marketing to the consumer - is via the internet. You maintain a theatrical tentacle, but I should imagine it's limited, isn't it?

AA: The theatrical business is interesting, it's ever-changing. You have to keep your pulse on it, and it's very, very challenging. I often use this analogy that if an alien landed on the planet and looked at what the theatrical business was about, they would think that it would be absolutely crazy to be involved in it. There's very little money to be made at our small independent level. We've got to be very careful. Our challenge is if we can't have a traditional art-house release, we spread our net wider to buy films that potentially could play in the multiplexes, which increases the challenge due to the VPFs, and a 16 week window that is rigid. And a larger P&A commitment. So, it's extremely difficult. However, the positive side of that is - there are more avenues with which to distribute your product online, as we inferred earlier. Apple/Sky Store have become a go-to place for watching quality films or TV programs at home. The consumer seems to be choosing an alternative route to consume films rather than going to the cinema. Sky Store are very active in acquiring new products for EST, Netflix and Amazon are acquiring both TV and film product, particularly TV. There are now new companies in the fray, that have launched in the last year or two like Wuaki.tv, and filmmakers and distributors like ourselves will see some growth out of them. The online and digital side is starting to make an impression on the traditional model but everything's changing very quickly, and month by month. We have premium VOD where films are being released on a VOD platform at the same time as theatrical and windows are collapsing all the time. – Everything has become much more open now and the more choice available to distributors to release their films with a variety of models borrowed from the US market there is, the better off the consumer will be.
Borgen - The International TV Series
TBOF: It is interesting that Roadshow have publically announced that they're now going to Day and Date on product worldwide. For the industry I think it's great that a studio actually came out and said it, instead of that eventuality hanging in the background.

AA: I think it's good that it's in the foreground. As a distributor you can either play the hand that you're given or you can try and make it happen –you have one aim as a distributor – to play your film in as many places as possible, through whatever means you can. The cinema 16 week to DVD window is outdated for independent and non-wide releases and favors studio product, which benefits from having the film in cinema as long as possible. They can wait for the Home Entertainment release. It makes total sense. But for an independent, when you've got to spend twice on the marketing spend once on marketing the theatrical then market to DVD makes no sense at all. Collapsing that window, in the end, is down to the cinemas; they hold the cards and aren't going to change too quickly. Their model is there to support the major studios. They have play studio films for as long as possible and respect the window, and have to keep the same terms for everyone in the industry, but if they did decide to break it, then that would be great. But up until that point, it just means that we would look twice at doing a theatrical release because we don't want to wait as long as 16 weeks off the theatrical release in order to release the DVD.

TBOF: How then do you sustain your theatrical aspect of your business?

AA: By careful selection, we have become very astute and careful with what we buy. Love Is All You Need was our biggest theatrical release in April last year, which grossed a very respectable £900k at the box office. We were very happy. The elements of getting all your ducks in a row – which means getting star support, the right dates, the right poster campaign, the right PR company, the right PR campaign – are all the things that you need make happen for a film to work. You're also up against every other film, and the weather! You need all these other things for it to work, and thankfully for Love is All You Need it did work. But for other titles that are smaller, it doesn't always happen. We had a film recently, God's Pocket, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of his last films, Christina Hendricks from Man Men starred and John Slattery from Mad Men directed. It was a good cast. It had John Turturro, as well, and Richard Jenkins. It was a solid film, 3 – 4 star film. It did okay, but I think in another time and another day, it would have done better. We basically have a 10 point checklist for when we're acquiring product, and if we don't hit 8 of them, then we won't buy it. Moving forward, we are going release about 1 or 2 a quarter, larger films, bigger budget, broader scope, and will tend to be English language, whereas previously we were buying more foreign language films. Because we can't compete with the larger independents, we have to look at what we acquire and think, it's got to have star power but it may not be a five star film, but can we still work it, particularly on the ancillaries.

TBOF: Finally, do you still enjoy the business, still have a passion for it?

AA: Totally. I think you've got to have that, to make it work. Thankfully we've got a multifaceted business, we're a TV distributor, one of the best in the cult video distributors in the world, and we're also a dynamic theatrical distributor. We've also branched in the last 2 years into events in a major way which supports the growing business on both the TV side and The Arrow Video side. We're entrepreneurial and take chances but we've got the best team in the UK that aren't afraid of upsetting traditional models and adapting the business in different directions. So we've got many angles with which we can look at a product. We can also rely on our library of programmes, because we know that's going to do a certain amount of business a year, mainly because we've got quality films and TV programming which are evergreen. So it enables us to feel that, okay, we can take a chance with a film theatrically and try and make something of it if we see an opportunity.


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