Filmaker and friend of Greenlit Marcus Markou is currently making an impact with the self-managed release of his latest feature, The Wife And Her House Husband. Discontent with conventional ways of getting his work in front of audiences, Marcus has grabbed attention by making the full cinema experience available for just £1 via his Cinema For A Pound initiative.
This is not the first time he has short-circuited the traditional paths to audience - his debut Papadopoulos and Sons was self-released in April 2013, across 13 screens. With a guerrilla marketing campaign predominantly targeted at the British-Greek community, it ended up having the highest screen average in the whole of the UK for its week of release.
We sat down with Marcus to talk about his audacious methods of taking charge of his own distribution.
How did you get into the idea of becoming your own distributor? Were there creative decisions attached? Why not go the conventional route?
It’s a long story! My passion was acting. I always felt free on stage and liberated. I wasn’t chasing recognition but I just loved to be on stage and communicate the words of an author. It always felt special to me that I could hold an author’s words and express their story. I always felt this connection to the author.
I went to LAMDA quite late in life. Being the son of an immigrant, it’s not an easy thing to do when the expectation is to make money and create security after generations of poverty. My family is from Cyprus. Becoming an actor was alien to the Cypriot immigrant culture. And the truth is, I didn’t have the guts to go after school or University.
I was 27 when I went to drama school but I dreamed of being at the RSC. And I would have got there. I know it. Because I was getting great feedback from the drama teachers and getting the lead roles. And when I left, I had the chance to go to the Royal Manchester Exchange and be in a play called the Magistrate. It was a perfect part for me. But at the same time I was starting a business with my younger brother and my family. They needed my help. And I chose to help them instead.
But it was never about the money for Andrew, my brother, and I. It was about making the idea work. After about four years, we became profitable, we paid our investors a dividend for years after that and over those years we slowly bought those shares back to be a fully family-owned business.
And then my urge to act re-emerged. It was too late to be an actor and I was committed to running a growing business. So I joined an improv group in London and I fell in love again with storytelling. This took me to writing and I wrote plays. Writing took me to producing my own work – so I could see it realised. This took me to directing – because I wasn’t happy with what other directors were doing with my work. This took me to filmmaking and that took me to distributing. I never planned these steps. As I’ve said before, I step into the next step.
I never, ever imagined, I would make films. I was a film fan, like everyone else, as my family were the first in Birmingham to get a VHS recorder and as a child in the late 70s and early 80s, we watched the movies my mother recorded on a loop: The Good the Bad and the Ugly; Some Like It Hot; Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood; What’s Up Doc with Barbra Streisand; all the Carry On movies. The kid’s TV back then was sporadic and I watched these films so many times, I could repeat whole scenes. In retrospect, this feels like an education.
But now in my 30s I was running a successful business and most financially successful people buy sports cars. I’m not a car man. I drive a Toyota Aygo and I love it. It really feels like real driving. It huffs and it puffs and I love the gear changes. And I love to dodge in and out and park it anywhere. It’s bright orange and I drive it around London like a spiritual statement! Ha! Sorry, I digress. But now after many years of building a business I could use the money to create and distribute my own work. What else would I do? Get an agent? Try and make money from writing TV shows? I am an artist with independent financial means. It’s an intoxicating combination. And it scares some people in the industry because they cannot bully you.
This explains who I am. Most people struggle with the idea that I am an artist and I am also a successful entrepreneur. The two never mix. One fears the other. But I wear both hats. And interestingly, its never about making money. Even in business, we are driven by the idea and the process. The money is the score card and barometer of how good the idea is and how well it is executed. I live a relatively modest life. I don’t aspire to brands, fast cars etc and I hate parties with a passion. I detest many aspects of the film business. I was saying it was toxic before it started saying that about itself. I still cannot get over how absurd the Oscars are and the obsession with what people are wearing. It’s just weird. Isn’t it? Or am I the weird one?
So starting with Papadopoulos and Sons, at what point in the film's life did you start working on a distribution plan? Did you have any preconceptions about what was involved?
The 1990s were a brilliant decade for indie films and how many of them found big audiences. And even in later years, we all loved the story of how Little Miss Sunshine (I think its budget was $3m… not sure, you need to check) was then at Sundance and snapped up for $10m. I assumed that something similar would happen to Papadopoulos and Sons. But it didn’t. So I had to improvise a plan.
The BBC was instrumental in making my mind up on self-distribution. They liked the film but were not sure about taking it. Then when Papadopoulos and Sons got to Palm Springs – via The Thessalonika Film Festival (where it won the audience award) by chance Hollywood Reporter had come to see the film (in Palm Springs). They raved about Stephen Dillane. He is a brilliant actor, a fine human being and just a dream to work with actually.
The BBC saw this and said that if Papadopoulos and Sons had a theatrical release then they would take it. To get this onto the BBC was, for me, a dream like being at the RSC. It felt like an invite to play at Wimbledon on Centre Court.
The advice from industry contacts was that I could do a “service theatrical deal” – which means you just stick the film in a handful of cinemas that won’t get an audience and then you’ve got what you need for other deals – in this case the BBC deal. But I wanted more than that. I wanted the film in Cineworld or Odeon and I wanted people to see the film. I wanted to find an audience.
People said I was mad because I only had £40k to do this. And most movies were opening at the cinema with millions thrown at marketing and movie stars and still struggling.
But, I went away and worked on a plan which is very well documented. Lots of videos and case studies about this have been written and made. You can find them on the internet. But in short, the plan worked and with just a £40k print and advertising budget and we ended up with the second highest screen average in our opening weekend. This was only topped by Oblivion, the Tom Cruise movie. The film ran in some cinemas for weeks and weeks – often with three or four screenings a day in four or five screens on one site. We have the Greeks to thank for that.
The movie was picked up by Netflix, did a 100-screen release in Germany, sold inflight, the BBC and DVD deals all over the world – as well as deals in Greece, the Middle East and the far East.
I had no idea what was involved when it came to self distribution. I made up the plan as a I went along. It was an improvisation. I don’t really know what step I am going to take next but if you trust the path, the next step will come to you. In all things.
I explored every angle and I treated the entire exercise on the basis that I knew nothing. And I didn’t know a thing. But I learned a lot on the way. It was intense and it was 70-hour weeks and weekends. But it paid off. I did it alone. And we never even made it to the British Independent Film Awards. I often joke that they don’t give awards for indie films that are written, directed, produced, financed and distributed by a filmmaker because no filmmaker does it!
How did you book the cinemas to begin with? Did you have any problems? Was the industry at large sceptical / helpful? How did you decide which sites to use?
If you are looking to self distribute your movie into cinemas you need to work with a cinema booker. That is their job. They will work with big companies like Sky or Netflix or Paramount and they will also work with you.
The person I have worked with on all my self distribution activities is Martin Myers at his company Miracle Communications. I am only now realising why he called his company Miracle because Martin is able to create them. He is, without doubt, a highly regarded and experienced professional in the industry and also one of the most decent and ethical people in the business. You don’t even sign a contract with Martin. It’s a handshake. Like it used to be.
He won’t do any of the marketing or advise on how you can build an audience. That is your job. But he will knock on the cinema doors, he will recommend which cinemas to approach, he knows the people in the exhibition business. He is a fourth generation cinema man from a family that has cinema in his blood. He will hustle the cinemas on your behalf and help strike the deal with them and argue your case. In the case of the Wife and Her House Husband, I was asking to four wall it (hire the screens outright) so I could charge just £1 per ticket. We didn’t have any reviews, no festivals (this was before our win at the British Urban Film Festival) and no household names in the picture. As you can imagine, it was a tough ask.
Once you've got the venues booked, what next? How did you start to promote P&Sons? What where the challenges, and how did you overcome them? Any unexpected support from anywhere? How did you deal with press, and what was their response?
As I say, this is a huge topic that I have talked about for years. It’s so well documented. Do you mind if I refer you to a few links that go into detail? I think it’s important. These links will also cover your questions about what happened once we opened.
Fast forward, and now you're opening with The Wife and Her House Husband. Why did you choose to go down this road again? How have things changed in the last 10 years?
Yes, lots has changed. It’s even harder for indie films. The agencies that represent talent don’t really consider indie projects like they used to. This is because of the glut of streaming services – Netflix, Apple, Disney etc. But this is changing as we speak, as show after show is being cancelled as I type. So, my prediction is that it can and will swing back to indies.
However, in the last few years it’s been even more challenging to attach talent to indie films. It’s interesting that I just got Stephen Dillane by the skin of my teeth – to use a cliche – for Papadopoulos and Sons.
Originally, he could not commit to Papa and Sons because he was due to start filming with Game of Thrones. It was only when I cast his son, Frank Dillane, that he found a renewed emphasis to come and make my movie. So, he got Game of Thrones to rewrite their schedule – so he could make a movie with his son. At the time, it was the most expensive TV show being made and they changed their schedule to accommodate Stephen. I am forever grateful to them.
I suspect that once Stephen started on Game of Thrones that would be it. And even when named actors are not working the agents do, quite rightly, prefer to have them available in case a TV job came up, rather than commit to an indie that doesn’t pay as much. This isn’t always the case but this is what I was finding in the decade since Papa and Sons. But, as I say, the tide changes again as shows get brutally canned as streamers are in a fight to get profitable. We will see lots of mergers now among streamers. It makes sense for them to merge and pool resources, finances and brands rather than fight it out for subscriptions and paying crazy money for, often, average TV shows and movies.
Alongside this, we have also had to deal with the slow demise and death of cinema. Even big budget movies with stars will go straight to a streamer. I was lucky enough to see Marriage Story (a film I really like) at the BFI Film Festival before it went to Netflix. And I use this as an example because there is a scene at the end when Adam Driver sings a Sondheim number and its very theatrical and I remember thinking in the cinema, “you can hear a pin drop”. I found it beautiful and profoundly moving. Later when friends saw it on TV complained that his scene was oddly out of place for them. Some responses were “What the f**k was that about?” Were we even watching the same movie? That’s interesting in itself.
So I wanted The Wife and Her House Husband to be on a big screen and that it would get a big screen experience. Hence my “cinema for a pound” campaign and four walling it.
You're doing three weeks in London, followed by a week's run in both Birmingham and Bristol. How did you decide on that pattern of release? How did you approach / deal with the cinemas? What do you think the significance of starting in London is, and do you think this approach would work anywhere else?
As mentioned above, the key was finding an angle and it worked because I could work with someone like Martin Myers on how we could get in. With Prince Charles I did have to meet them and pitch the idea. The three weeks is a gamble. First week is sold. Second week and third week is quiet. I’m doing my best to build momentum. Mark Kermode coming out for us on his show “Kermode and Mayo” helps. The three star review in the Guardian doesn’t help. It’s a good review concerning the film. The critic’s chief complaint was the length of my title, which seems ridiculous when you consider Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. But there you go.
You've made an entire initiative around this - Cinema for a Pound. How did that idea emerge?
Come on. Who doesn’t love something for a pound?! But seriously, it’s the greatest marketing tool in any business. My model though doesn’t rely on making money. It’s really used as a marketing tool to build an audience and justify a possible sale to a streamer.
What's the response been like?
It’s an art house film. We don’t see them anymore on screen. It’s microbudget. I shot this film in just nine days. It’s also a story about breaking up. These are rare too. We have a “getting together” culture when it comes to movies – hence the Rom Com. It’s also a two hander. That is really challenging to get right over a feature film length. It’s also pushing the boundaries on gender, sexuality and why people break up and how they try to stay together. It puts a focus on open relationships and it deals with grief. When you add all that together, I would say its going well.
It is a complex, layered story because it has to be. I am lifting the lid on a marriage and I do it in 90 minutes via a conversation between two people. As Mark Kermode says… “It’s ambitious” but I never set out to be so. It has to be what it is. And even the people don’t resonate with the story they acknowledge its emotional truth as delivered by powerful performances. That’s a great place to be, frankly.
TWAHHH has been getting very strong reviews. Was it a challenge to get press to come and see it?
Yes, it’s always a challenge to get the press in. But the Guardian, Total Film, Sight and Sound, Kermode and Mayo show, to name a few, have been fantastic. Even when Sight and Sound was critical, it was critical in an engaged format and I liked that a lot. Sometimes, the reviews that struggle to understand what you are doing give you an insight into what the film is doing in their heads. The themes do push on ideas of sexuality and gender which can challenge the viewer – which we rarely do in cinema. This was the point that Mark Kermode was making on his show when he said That the Wife and Her House Husband had a philosophy. It’s about something. Most movies are about very little.
What are the best / worst things about managing your own release? Do you have any advice for filmmakers looking to self-distribute?
It’s a huge commitment in time. For me, its been the last six months at least. And its ever so lonely. But I have a wonderful family and some amazing supportive friends who have popped up just when I needed with a consoling arm or some words of comfort or a surprise gift in the post. My advice is this. If you’ve made a film from your heart, from your soul, if it’s a film you believe in as a story and not because you want to get an agent and not because you want to establish your ego in this world, then break every sinew in your body to get it out there. Otherwise, it will be hell. It has to come from your soul.
Cinema For A Pound, featuring a double bill of The Wife And Her House Husband and Marcus's hugely popular short Two Strangers Who Meet Five Times is on at the Prince Charles, London until the 30th March. It then goes on to play between 7th and 13th April at the Mockingbird cinema in Birmingham, then from 15th to 20th April at The Orpheus in Bristol.
BOOK HERE for Cinema For A Pound
Papadopoulos and Sons is currently available on BBC iPlayer