Berlin: eOne Exec Explains 'I, Daniel Blake' Grassroots Marketing and 'BFG's' U.K. Success (Q&A)

Charlie Gray
Alex Hamilton

British exec Alex Hamilton discusses his Midas touch when it comes to releasing underperforming Hollywood titles in the U.K. ('BFG,' anyone?).

While Disney scooped most of 2016’s box office bragging rights, in the U.K. the real success story was eOne. Not only did the indie distributor’s British arm break its own record with a haul of £109.2 million ($137 million, double its closest indie rival Lionsgate), but it claimed the fourth-biggest market share ahead of Sony and Paramount in the process (and scored the most BAFTA nominations out of anyone with 20).

Proving its dexterity, much of the success was done by bucking the trend of major disappointments in the U.S. With The BFG, it took a rare Spielberg flop on one side of the Atlantic ($55 million) and turned it into the director’s third-biggest film of all time on the other ($40 million), and it later achieved a similar feat with The Girl on the Train ($75 million in the U.S, $29 million in the U.K.).

Leading the charge from the engine room (actually a fairly modest glass-fronted corner office) sits Alex Hamilton, 50, who joined the company in 2008 and oversaw the successful release of such films as Twilight and 12 Years a Slave (which it helped push to $33 million in the U.K. against $57 million stateside). Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Hamilton talked about holding his nerve when his biggest, and most expensive, film of the year faltered in the U.S., how Brangelina almost spoiled the party with their divorce announcement and what he told Ken Loach — while in a flood of tears — the first time he saw I, Daniel Blake.

You actually predicted that you’d have your biggest year, didn’t you?

Yeah, I committed the cardinal error of saying, in December 2015 and in front of everybody, that we were going to have our biggest year. But then we did, fortunately. To get over £100 million ($125.3 million) was great.

So how did you manage to turn The BFG from a domestic flop to such a roaring success in the U.K.?

It was two full years of weekly meetings and basically bringing people from all parts of the company together. We went to L.A. a number of times and made sure we were part of the process very early on, and it really paid dividends. It was physically our biggest release, and everybody bought into it. And it was the first Spielberg movie to go out through an independent in the U.K., and now it’s the third-highest-grossing Steven Spielberg movie ever here.

It opened in the U.S. before the U.K. There must have been some fears about the effects of the poor domestic opening rippling across?

There were a couple of weeks of, like, “Hold your nerve, guys.” I remember saying to everybody that the money was all spent, we’d spent it all. Just tell everybody it’s different here! But you do get a little bit nervous.

Was it a similar thing with The Girl on the Train?

Yeah, we spent a lot of time working on it, spent a lot of money and went for it. We had the world premiere in London, which was great. I think that’s because they’d seen the kind of thing we could do when we had the premiere of The BFG and felt comfortable with us having it here. However, the same day, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie announced their divorce, so all those pictures we were anticipating the next morning on the front pages didn’t happen.

You created a rather unique grassroots marketing campaign for I, Daniel Blake. How did this start?

When I first saw it, before Cannes, I wasn’t quite anticipating what would happen over the next 90 minutes. I was in bits by the end. All I could do was stumble up to Ken and say, “You’re a lovely man,” and then bugger off because I was still in tears. But I remember coming out and just saying, “This is what gets you up in the morning. We can do something here.”

And what did you do?

So we had the premiere up in Newcastle [where I, Daniel Blake is set]. We turned down London. They wanted to do a big thing around it. We just said, “Look, London isn’t appropriate for the premiere of this film.” We did lots of community screenings and employed regional marketing officers and did stuff that basically got the film seen a hell of a lot before it went out. We worked with the Trinity Mirror [newspaper group], and they really pushed it. We actually have a clippings agency that shows you the perceived editorial campaign value, and it was something like £15 million ($18.7 million). It was just insane.

It must be gratifying to see it work so well.

Yeah, it’s [Loach’s] biggest film in the U.K. [now on $3.9 million and counting]. But I found it really, really gratifying when BAFTA nominated him for best director, as well as I, Daniel Blake for best film and best British film. He hadn’t been nominated for director by BAFTA since Kes [1969]. I don’t actually think he’s really bothered. I just hope he gets the opportunity to give a speech!

I heard this great anecdote from Rebecca O’Brien [Loach’s producer at Sixteen Films] from Cannes where she said Ken ran into Spielberg in the lobby of the Majestic and Spielberg said, “I just need to tell you I watched all your movies recently with Daniel Day-Lewis, because he thinks you’re amazing.” And Ken just turned around and said, “You must have been a bit depressed.” I thought that was brilliant.