Post-London, on my return to Glasgow the first thing I did was fire up the edit suite to add Siân Phillips’ opening speech to a sequence I cut almost a year ago. In that time I’ve shot most of the film and edited the script to a manageable length without too much damage to the narrative spine. For the next six months or so, barring a few extra shoot days, I’ll be in post-production until the film is complete. And as I hoped, Siân’s performance is both compelling and, at times, deeply heartfelt.
Pleased as I am with my progress, the downside is that the film’s running time is longer than anticipated, certainly longer than my own reading of the script. To resolve this means some tough decisions, not least discarding parts of Siân’s performance. If nothing else I’m a pragmatist. As a cultural outlier I’m aware “Voyageuse” might outstay its welcome so I’d sooner make it shorter than risk losing the audience, assuming the film will ever reach an audience because as I write the prospects of a screening are zilch. Not that I expect programmers to beat a path to my door but right now I’m too preoccupied with making the film to deal with how and when and where it can ever be shown.
I’m not alone. For indie filmmakers visibility is both the holy grail and a perennial problem. Even when a film attracts investment – be it through industry finance, public sector backing or crowdfunding – the chance of a meaningful theatrical release is rare to non-existent. For non-commercial films, the standard trajectory is to attract festival screenings to garner favourable reviews that can be parlayed into greater exposure that, if you’re lucky, result in a distribution deal and/or sales. Of course, having name talent helps as does a good backstory – the film’s subject matter, say, or some choice anecdotes about its making or having a standout press kit – the rudimentary stuff taught in Filmmaking 101.
In truth, however, the growing number of films competing for festival slots makes it all the harder to gain attention. While industry-endorsed films don’t have to try too hard because festivals compete to attract them, I’m not convinced by blind submissions especially when on average it costs about £100 to submit a feature film to a festival. Even if your hard-won film is selected, festivals rarely cover travel and accommodation or even offer a split of the takings, begging the question – what’s in it for me? When working on your own dime, I’m sure there’s better ways to go bankrupt.
The alternative route for indie films, we’re told, is online distribution. What never gets said is that without a sizeable promotional campaign most movies are destined for obscurity. A few years ago the industry wisdom was all about the long tail and niche marketing but as a record company executive once told me, every musician and their dog has 800 unsold CDs languishing in their attic. The same is true for film. Thanks to Vimeo and other platforms these days it may not cost much to self-distribute but few if any films ever break even let alone go into profit. I’ve yet to see credible statistics on the viability of an online release for a small-scale, micro-budget film but I suspect there’s little to learn. For every breakout film there’s a thousand you’ll never hear about.
On the most miserable day of the year – the third Monday in January – as I write these words I’m aware how far removed they are from what’s truly important – the impulse to tell a story and create something beautiful and enduring. Last week it was both my – and (had she lived) Erica’s – birthdays, a reminder of another year gone by where in my darker moments the prospect of being a functioning filmmaker becomes ever more remote. To celebrate the occasion I took a short (but cheap) break in Torremolinos to shoot at the Pez Espada, the hotel where, in December 1960, Erica spent her honeymoon with Gwynne. Here I set out to capture the essence of the place for an episode that features in the film.
Built in 1959, famously the Pez Espada was the first high-rise development on the Costa del Sol and although it has since been expanded to cater for mainly elderly sunseekers, still retains many original features; an impressive black and white terrazzo floor, murals, glass curtain walls and bespoke furniture – glimpses of glamour from a bygone age. On the walls are photographs of the hotel’s many celebrated guests including Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, Sean Connery, Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti, King Faisal and numerous European Royals – the international jet set whose time has come and gone. In the intervening decades Torremolinos became a byword for the naff Spanish resort but I found it remarkably sedate. There are worse places to be, I reckon.
Having gained permission to shoot, I stood my camera, attracting looks from bemused pensioners, one or two of whom couldn’t resist the chance to pose. While it might seem indulgent to travel all this way for a short sequence I could have replicated elsewhere, sea, sunshine and palm trees are in short supply at home. Besides, I needed the break, fleeting as it was. As the plane descended towards Glasgow Airport I was met with snow-covered hills and lead skies, reminding me of the old filmmaking saw: you can never buy the weather and certainly not in Scotland.
The above image is a frame grab of the beach outside the Pez Espada which in its heyday was a private extension of the hotel gardens. Today the gardens and beach are separated by a public promenade and accessed by a gate.