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“You’ve just got to try to stay on top of the changes”

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James Gay-Rees • Producer


- Cineuropa met up with British producer James Gay-Rees to talk about his success, often generated in the documentary field, with films like Amy and Senna

James Gay-Rees  • Producer

Producer James Gay-Rees is an important representative of the British film industry, because he demonstrates the potential of UK-based filmmakers to achieve global prominence. His success is also remarkable given that it has often come in the documentary field, something which until quite recent years had been almost unheard of.

It might surprise some people to therefore learn that he actually studied economics and accounting at university. It was only after working briefly for an American auditing firm that he then interned for Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, before moving into a junior development role with Orbit. He humbly describes this as a “tried and tested route,” but his success is anything but ordinary.

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Cineuropa: What do you think the key to your success as a documentary producer has been?
James Gay-Rees:
There really is no secret magic to it. It’s partly luck and timing; timing is very important. We do of course also tend to pick subjects which have audiences built into them. Amy [+see also:
film profile
and Senna [+see also:
film profile
both already have established followings, obviously. That said, we’ve also made films like Palio, which is about the horse race in Siena, a beautiful little film we made which nobody knows about. So it does help if you’re dealing with an iconic figure like Amy Winehouse.

The reality is too, that if you want to make a top-end documentary feature (at a maximum cost of maybe a couple of million Pounds), you need to be able to prove your film will have a global audience. You can’t just finance that kind of thing out of the UK or from license fees. You have to have a movie that will travel, so you need somebody with appeal in foreign territories. Nevertheless, lots of people make really good movies for a lot less than we do, as have we.

How expensive is it to make a film out of archive footage?
Archive films are really expensive to produce. It’s cheaper to shoot stuff than it is to use archive. The going rate we had was about £4,000 a minute, but some people wanted something more like a million. That makes something like Amy a really expensive project. I mean all archive docs take so long to edit. The budget was definitely about right though, because we couldn’t have done it for any cheaper, and Amy was a big star, meaning the film sort of warranted that.

How do you go about trying to prove your film is worth investing to potential investors?
It’s very important these days to run all the numbers. You have to start by looking at a bunch of similar titles, and you see how much money they made in each territory. Then you apply really conservative estimates to your film, say half of what these other titles did.

Once you have those kinds of figures, then you can go to sales agents and estimate what minimum guarantee costs you could charge, and how much business you would have to do to recoup the money invested. This is a bit of a flawed model, though.

How different was the experience of raising money for Amy to most of the other projects you’ve worked on in the past?
Well, we were asked to make this movie by the record company, because I know the guy who runs it; and even though I didn’t know much about the story, I thought there had to be something in that. They underwrote the film, and came to us asking how we could do it? So I suggested we take it to Cannes, pitch the idea there and get a really good sales agent. We were going to present is as “Amy – from the makers of Senna” and see if it sells. It sold really well, so all the investors’ risks were taken away, because it sold in so many territories.

And has your recent good fortune made you optimistic about the future of producing?
I think you’ve got to be especially savvy about how you shape your finances at the moment. I think the old film model that we’ve all worked with for the last 20 to 30 years is on its knees, and is about to go. I mean I’ve just been to Los Angeles to talk to all the new platforms, and Netflix are set to spend ten billion Dollars in the next five years, so that really will blow the studio model out of the water. You’ve just got to try to stay on top of the changes. 


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