Led by the maverick Hamish McAlpine, Tartan Films was the UK's most influential indie film distributor - but now it's gone bust. Geoffrey Macnab finds out why
For once, Hamish McAlpine was lost for words. "I really can't comment," the flamboyant and normally loquacious UK film distributor told me earlier this week when asked what had pushed his film distribution company Tartan Films into administration. "I am not allowed to comment on the situation at this moment. I've been gagged. I just can't help you at all." He wasn't, he added, even allowed to comment on why he couldn't comment.
Last Thursday, Tartan staff turned up at its central London offices to discover that the doors were locked and that the company had ceased trading. By the beginning of this week, administrators Chantrey Vellacott DFK were already scrambling to find buyers for the company's vast back catalogue. There was no shortage of interest. ("You're picking off the bones of the dead as if it was carrion," one distributor was reprimanded by an old friend of McAlpine for the haste with which he inquired as to which films might now be on offer.)
There are obvious reasons for Tartan's woes. Only a month ago, in May, Tartan Films USA (Tartan's American offshoot, which had been set up in 2004) hit the reefs with the announcement of a "public foreclosure sale" of all its assets. The UK market for Asian horror films, for so long Tartan's staple, had bottomed out. Recent releases such as Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely and Park Chan-wook's I'm a Cyborg did only patchy business. McAlpine's long-cherished plans to get more involved in film production hit a massive roadblock when Michael Haneke's English-language remake of Funny Games (Tartan's highest-profile production) performed poorly at the box office, despite a cast headlined by Naomi Watts. Some say McAlpine simply bought too many films, and Tartan's rivals have long known the company was seeking investment or a sale.
Eccentric and flamboyant, McAlpine was an adventurous distributor with a taste that ranged from the best US independent cinema to turn-of-the-century pornography (The Good Old Naughty Days) to films about serial killers (Ed Gein, Bundy) and classic European arthouse cinema (Tartan has released far more Ingmar Bergman titles on DVD than any Swedish distributor). He championed free speech, constantly jousting with the BBFC over ratings for films such as The Pornographer and The Isle. He was pioneering in introducing British cinemagoers to the work of Asian directors like Park Chan-wook, Wong Kar-wai and Kim Ki-duk.
Some former staff members are understandably bitter about the demise of the distribution company and the loss of their jobs. However, producers and fellow distributors have rallied to defend McAlpine, pointing out that Tartan has been among the most adventurous independent companies in the UK for more than 20 years - and one of the few with a recognisable brand name.
"It is so easy to bash iconoclastic entrepreneurs like Hamish," says producer Don Boyd, who founded Tartan in 1984 with McAlpine and veteran Scottish distributor Alan Kean. Boyd soon left Tartan to pursue his career as a producer and director, but maintained close ties with McAlpine. "Hamish is a brilliant, creative distributor with passion for what he does. Those aspects of his personality are inevitably the ones that cause ups and downs in creative careers."
Boyd suggests that McAlpine ran Tartan like "a creative tsar. He was like a Diaghilev of the film industry." Sometimes, he was erratic, but many of his decisions were brilliant. Boyd also takes issue with the idea that the company was a rich man's plaything. "Even in the very early days, people used to say it's the McAlpine family getting into film. We would say, 'It's not.' We put our own money there. We backed Tartan collectively. This was no vanity exercise."
"I've known Hamish McAlpine for many years. He is a friend of mine. I have admired and respected him from a distance over many years," says Philip Knatchbull, CEO of the Curzon Artificial Eye Group, which co-owns a DVD sales company with Tartan. Knatchbull confirms that his company is looking over the Tartan library. "Our team here is having a look at the detail of what is available to see if we can rescue the catalogue in its entirety to see that it isn't broken up."
There are plenty of anecdotes about McAlpine: some apocryphal, some true. He is supposed to have once dressed himself up as Béatrice Dalle and presented himself for interview to journalists when the French actress failed to turn up to a press junket. Once, he freaked out a senior US executive by holding a flickknife to his neck (he was trying to demonstrate that film is a cut-throat business, but the American didn't see the joke). Everyone in the industry knows about his scrap with US director Larry Clark. (After a heated discussion about Middle Eastern politics during the London film festival, the two men came to blows, and McAlpine refused to release Clark's film, Ken Park.)
Whatever the personal implications for McAlpine and his staff, Tartan's demise is sad and worrying for the UK independent sector. "It underscores the market polarisation that we are seeing," says Mark Batey, chief executive of the Film Producers' Association, pointing to the gulf between the blockbuster end of the market and the indie world. "The middle ground is incredibly treacherous. It is really difficult to sustain viable life. Everything is very risky indeed."
These are paradoxical times for UK distribution. On the one hand, there are dozens of companies handling what might loosely be referred to as arthouse fare. On the other, there is the sense of a contracting market. Distributors feel they are caught in a transitional period between old-style theatrical releasing and a brave new world of digital distribution and video on demand that doesn't seem to have arrived. Hundreds of films are released every year, and the competition is ferocious. "It definitely feels like there are more players at the moment fighting over fewer good films," says Justin Marciano, managing director of Revolver.
Whereas in the past, a small arthouse gem might be given a chance to build up word of mouth and find an audience, now every film is judged instantly. If the opening weekend figures are disappointing, the film will be yanked out of cinemas. Meanwhile, when a small distributor does go all out to give a film a big push, the risks can be daunting. If the film flops, the distributor is lumbered with huge bills that it will struggle to pay. Some suggest there is a growing conservatism: the exhibitors are no longer ready to take a chance on the kind of films Tartan prided itself in releasing. There are signs that the industry is moving more and more toward the mainstream. DVD profits are falling. TV no longer buys arthouse films in the way it once did.
"It is a total and utter disgrace that the television industry has marginalised independent and arthouse cinema, knowing that was a vital part of the way that films were distributed," says Boyd. He also lays blame on "New Labour apparatchiks who have marginalised cinema in its purer forms. People have been willing to back rather silly romcoms." Boyd bemoans the public money that has been "put into bureaucracy and shockingly bad British films" when that money could have been used "much more intelligently to help out people like Tartan and perhaps encourage them to be more involved in European and British film production".
Despite Tartan's travails and the struggles facing the independent sector in general, not every UK indie distributor is downcast about current prospects.
Marciano points out that Revolver made £1.2m with Guillaume Canet's French thriller Tell No One, which suggests the market isn't as averse to foreign-language fare as the naysayers suggest. Knatchbull highlights the current success that Artificial Eye is enjoying with Abdellatif Kechiche's Couscous, about an elderly shipyard worker who founds a restaurant. Meanwhile, Optimum Releasing - now backed by French major Studio Canal - is releasing 300 DVDs a year and recently announced plans to move into production, remaking old classics like Brighton Rock.
"It's an ultra-competitive and tough market to be in," says Marciano as he contemplates Tartan's woes - but then adds: "in our experience, it has always been that way."
Hail the Tartan army ...
Six films that put the distributor ahead of the game
Man Bites Dog (1992)
This Belgian mockumentary about a philosophical serial killer broke new ground with its mix of ultra-brutal murder and mordant humour. It heralded a new mood in early 90s cinema - which it shared with Reservoir Dogs, released virtually simultaneously in the UK - but avoided the kerfuffle surrounding the Tarantino video release.
Unbelievably nasty Japanese fetish-horror epic (the first Takashi Miike film to get a serious UK release, in 2001) that, in many ways, was an indicator of the psychotic depths the terror cinema of the far east would plumb. A year earlier, Tartan hadn't gambled on the true J-horror pioneer, Ringu, but quickly snapped it up for DVD release; together, they ballasted Tartan's identity as the place for skin-crawling bodyshock.
Gaspar Noé's deeply distasteful revenge fable tested audience endurance to the extreme with its nine-minute rape scene, though the ferocious brutality of a key murder was just as disturbing. Arguably the most gruellingly graphic film ever released in the UK - though Tartan tested the censors with the authentically hardcore The Idiots and 9 Songs.
In the early part of the decade, Korean cinema roared past all comers in the far east ordeal-horror stakes, with this implacably violent parable leading the way. The middle section of Park Chan-wook's "vengeance" trilogy paved the way for Hollywood's wretched exercises in torture porn - but at least Park avoided the overt misogyny that infested the films that followed in its wake.
Proving that Tartan wasn't just about sex and violence ... or maybe not. There's quite a bit of both in this stunning documentary about two bands' rivalry in the US west coast retro scene, and DiG! led a whole spate of music films into cinemas. Tartan also put out two other wonderful examples: The Devil and Daniel Johnston and the Ramones biog, End of the Century.
Super Size Me (2004)
Tartan's most commercially successful cinema release, which made an instant global star out of activist film-maker Morgan Spurlock as he chomped his way through a month of burgers. Proved that protest docs didn't have to be worthy and boring, and triggered the environmental-issue film virtually singlehandedly.
source: The Guardian