Interview with Tom Abell, founder of UK distributor Peccadillo Picture

by Frances Harvey

We talked to our member Tom Abell, founder of UK distributor Peccadillo Pictures, about the UK distribution landscape, the company’s upcoming titles, and past successes.


How did you start in film distribution?

I was originally a videotape editor back in the 80s. I did a lot of work for studios on the Home Entertainment side. I knew the guys from Paramount, Virgin, Warner Bros… and working with them I got an idea of how home entertainment distribution worked. I would watch films at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival [now called BFI Flare], which would only be shown at the festival and I decided I wanted to try and do something to give them a longer life. I had this knowledge from the studios and in 1992 I set up a company called Dangerous To Know, which I believe was the world’s first dedicated LGBT+ distribution company. There were other companies that distributed LGBT+ films, but at the time it was the only one that was: we’re here, we’re queer, and here are our films. It started off with home video, because that’s what I knew and then it moved into theatrical as I learned more.

And you launched Peccadillo Pictures in 2000. What has been your greatest success so far?

It was EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT, which is our most successful theatrical release to date, in fact probably our most successful film to date.

What led to its success?

The secret ingredients… it’s just that touch of magic that everybody wants. Maybe it was at the beginning of a greater awareness for ecology and the natural world, and what we’re doing to it. It’s just something so different. A lot of people wanted to take that journey up the Amazon with the film.

We had a really strong poster. We went through lots of different concepts with our designer, Sam Ashby, and we ended up with a very bold, stark poster. We decided to not include any quotes, just the figure of the shaman, the stars, and ‘nominated for an Academy Award’. It was very striking.

When we had the director over for Q&As it became clear there was a lot of interest in the film. I remember arriving for a preview screening at the BFI Southbank and there was a big queue going through the ticket hall, out of the door, and around the block. I remember asking what they were queuing for and it was the returns line for EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT. That was nice.

It was a really special film and really, this was one that we worked hard to get. We wouldn’t give up on it.

What is the usual split of income between theatrical/DVD/TVOD/Pay TV/Free TV/SVOD etc? How is it evolving? 

That’s a tricky one. It really varies according to film. For example, IN BETWEEN did quite well theatrically, the home entertainment side hasn’t been as strong as I thought it would be. So, it was clearly more of a film for the cinema.

Looking at 2018, our average split was 15% for theatrical, 22% for DVD, 50% for VOD (including SVOD) and 13% for TV. This doesn’t take into any grants, but it’s quite surprising how much is from VOD.

I think one of the problems we always face with the theatrical releases, is being given enough space in the cinemas. With IN BETWEEN we opened on 7 screens and then in the second week we were on 28. This was due to a higher profile film failing on its opening weekend, meaning cinemas were looking to replace it with a film that was performing, so we were lucky, that happens very rarely.

Usually if a film gets a good reception theatrically you can expect good numbers on home entertainment. Nowadays, I am happy if we sell 2000 DVDs in the first month and have 600 VOD sales (but it used to be 5000+). BEACH RATS is a good example, of a title that has performed really well. The theatrical was limited with the screens we could get it into at the time, because we were in a race against time. The sales agent had done a deal with Netflix and we had a very short window that we could release the film in. Quite often with the films that already have Netflix, we just say no, but with BEACH RATS I was pretty sure we could make it work. The box office was okay considering the screens, but the home entertainment was really strong. Sadly because of Netflix we couldn’t do a TV deal on it, we had interest but by the time the Netflix window was over it was too late for them.

How are things working with TV and the SVOD platforms at the moment?

I think everyone’s selling less to TV, for example, the BBC is only buying 12 foreign language films a year. We got one in last year, I GOT LIFE!, so we got lucky.

We haven’t sold to Netflix for about a year now, they would occasionally relicense but at the moment they are not really picking up things on a territory basis, they just want to take world rights.

Amazon are encouraging us to have our own channel, so we are experimenting. Sometimes we have international rights on titles, so we can put them up on Amazon across the world. And with the short films, and some of the documentaries we have. We started at the beginning of the year so it’s still a little early to tell how it’s working.

We’ve built up our YouTube, our ad revenue from trailers, short films etc. It’s been quite surprising in some cases. For example, a trailer for our shorts compilation BOYS ON FILM 2 has over 158 million views, which is probably due to the initial thumbnail generated by YouTube being a quite sexualised image! In general, our short films tend to do better than trailers, for example A WELCOME STRANGER had 17.5% of all views across our channel for the year.

With the transactional platforms such as iTunes and Amazon it’s sort of reached a plateau, the DVD money continues to dwindle, and the VOD transactions are static. It’s going to be interesting to see how it goes with all the SVOD platforms, if that’s how people are going to consume their video now. Though I think some people still like to have a collectible item, but that’s becoming fewer and fewer I think.

Have you had any digital only releases?

We are about to. A documentary called OUT, all about kids coming out. We are playing it at a film festival, then we will make it available online, so let’s see how that goes. I think there will be others.

What can be done to enhance the circulation of EU films across borders while maintaining territorial exclusivity?  

Unless it’s something that’s being picked up by Netflix worldwide, which will maybe appear on their front page for a week and then disappear. I think you have to have a system of territorial geo-blocking. It’s imperative really, there’s no other way to finance the films. Filmmakers get excited if they have a Netflix deal, but then that’s it, it’s gone. It has a certain window and then it’s very hard to find.

I think the biggest problem with the EU funding is that it just goes to the largest common denominator. I think these are possibly the films that need the least support. It’s something that they really need to think about, how they approach it. If Brexit does actually happen then all of the British films that get this support, they are going to lose all of that. Those large titles don’t need it, it’s the smaller, more culturally diverse that do need help.

I guess for the MEDIA programme, it’s the same amount of work for a tiny film as it is for a big film and if they see a big film working, then they could say they’ve done a good job, it’s perhaps more of a subsidy rather than actually enhancing the release of a film in those territories. Whereas that money divided between a handful of small independent films could actually achieve that much more, than in reality subsidising a larger studio film.

It’s harder and harder all the time for the independents. It needs to support smaller films, to think about cultural diversity, those are the films that I am interested in distributing.

What do you have coming up?

Next up we have PERMISSION, an Iranian film about a star footballer who is denied permission to leave the country by her husband. Then the documentary, JONATHAN AGASSI SAVED MY LIFE which is a German Israeli-UK co-production about a porn star.

In 2020 we kick off with AND THEN WE DANCED, then it will be the Icelandic thriller, A WHITE, WHITE DAY.

After that, we have the Ecuadorian film, OUR MOTHERS, and then MONSOON by Hong Khaou starring Henry Golding from CRAZY RICH ASIANS and LAST CHRISTMAS.

We have a good mixture of LGBT+, World Cinema and independent film.