AFM: ITN Boss Stuart Alson on “First Micro Budget Studio” and Releasing 96 Genre Films Per Year

Stuart Alson, ITN - H - 2020
ITN Films

ITN's Stuart Alson

The low-budget genre production, distribution and sales company has seen business grow 30 percent during the pandemic: "Our stuff is just good fun, nothing too heavy"

With a wildly colorful film catalog that ticks practically every low-budget genre box going — murderous clowns (Clownery), creepy nuns (The Bad Nun), deadly dolls (Mandy the Doll), zombie hunters (My Uncle John is a Zombie), haunted amusement parks (The Devil's Fairground), outlaw cowboys (The Dalton Gang), warring Vikings (Pagan Warrior), talking animated dogs (00K9), and Tara Reid (Art of the Dead) — production house ITN Films and its sales and distribution arm ITN Distribution has become a mainstay of the AFM.

For president Stuart Alson, it’s all about keeping what he claims to be the “first micro budget film studio” — which releases some 96 titles a year— as efficient and streamlined as possible, working directly with filmmakers around the world and cutting out every possible middleman to get his titles onto VoD platforms and Walmart shelves as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Alson explains why the movie world in which ITN operates has been one of the few to benefit from the pandemic, why keeping his titles in the $30,000 budget range keeps the pressure off and allows creativity to thrive and why it’s impossible to guess which terrifying monster is going to be the next big genre trend.

How has the lockdown been for the low-budget genre world?

Very good. Because people have been eating up content very fast and we’ve been able to push it out there. We’re the number one distributor to Walmart for these types of movies. During the height of the pandemic, the government effectively said the only place you can go is Walmart. That's what happened. And then on the VoD side, everyone has been sitting at home watching, watching, watching. And our stuff is all over the VoD platforms.

Can you quantify the increase? How much has business grown this year?

I would say it’s at least 30 percent better. Obviously we don’t want people getting sick, but being told to only go to Walmart and to stay at home watching TV has been good for us. We weren’t stuck trying to get our movies into theaters, because they weren’t going into theaters anyway. And our stuff is just good fun, nothing too heavy — Western, action, sci-fi and horror.

So what’s ITN’s primary model when it comes to making movies?

Essentially, we find a person that we trust to make a movie, then we just ask, 'what kind of movie do you want to make?' And we’ll try to get our filmmakers to use whatever they have around them. So we might have some really good people in Texas and say, can you make a Western, and they’re like, sure, my friend has a ranch. Or I have a couple of guys in Sweden and I said, can you make a Viking movie, and they said, sure, my friend owns a Viking village. So that’s how we get great production values at a low budget. They write the script and if it’s not too boring we fund it. And that way it just cuts out a lot of the steps. It’s a virtual film studio. It doesn't exist anywhere. And yet it exists everywhere!

So is there a very strict framework when it comes to setting your films’ budgets?

Absolutely. We’re a commercial operation and we don’t raise money — we make money by controlling the budgets. A lot of other companies or productions spend a lot of time raising money, but everything we do is to be more efficient, just like a downhill skier at the Olympics who wants to do everything he can to cut off half a second. As a studio we release eight films a month, every single month, worldwide.

When you get the ideas and scripts back from your filmmakers, how do you assess the commercial viability?

Some of that can't really be explained or taught, it’s just a gut feeling. Sometimes I'm right and sometimes I’m wrong. But we move very, very fast. And we can accept the occasional punch in the face when something doesn't work. But that way, you can be more free. If you can take a hit, it’s okay. But we put out 96 films a year, so we can win a few and lose a few. And we distribute everything ourselves — we don’t sell to distributors. And that saves a lot of time and income in time and energy.

If you put $500,000 into a film, you can't really just put them on platforms, because you have banks and investors to answer to. But we can instantly fulfill the needs of the likes of Tubi, Roku, Xumo, Pluto, Amazon, IMDb TV, all these places, and it’s all income. But if it costs $500,000, you couldn’t really just toss it up on there and see what happens. You’d have to sell it to a bigger company, and that slows down the process. You have to raise money from banks and investors, then you lose the creativity. Then everyone wants to know who’s in it, rather than who’s making it.

What sort of budgets are we generally talking about? What does an average ITN film cost to make?

It’s micro-budgets. I think if we were to nail it down, we're a micro budget film studio. In the studio system, there's the majors, Sony, Universal etc, then the mini majors, like Lionsgate. We’re the first micro major studio. Maybe we’ll have a theme park, but I’ll only be able to afford to have it in my apartment.

So if $500,000 is too much to just put your films out there quickly and efficiently, what budget is the cut-off point for you?

I don’t think you can make a movie and enjoy your life, without having to pre-sell it, even for $100,000. But you can still make a good movie for $30,000.

And if you made a movie for $30,000 and it earned $40,000, would that be considered a hit?

Let’s take 10 movies that cost $30,000 each. And if you lost on three, made 20 percent profit on four and a couple of them went crazy for whatever reason that you don’t even know, then everybody can enjoy the process and you just keep going. When you don’t have the financial pressure, you can take chances and have something really take off that probably otherwise would never have gotten made.

ITN films span the classic list of baddies — zombies, haunted dolls, clowns, nuns, scarecrows. Does this trend change and is it possible to predict where the next big scare is going to come from?

We really don't know. That's the one factor that you just don't know. If we did, everything would be a hit. And you don’t really know until you put it out there. But again, without putting so much financial pressure on everybody, you’ve got the freedom and people can be creative and take chances.

There’s a British company that makes very serious news programs and documentaries also called ITN. Have you guys ever been mistaken for each other?

Once every couple of years someone will ask if I’ve got a news clip.