Q&A: Stewart Till

Two days into his new role as Icon U.K. CEO, Stewart Till arrived in Santa Monica for the AFM having spent the 12-hour flight from the U.K. prepping for battle.

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Two days into his new role as Icon U.K. CEO, Stewart Till arrived in Santa Monica for the American Film Market having spent the 12-hour flight from the U.K. prepping for battle. The former CEO of United International Pictures and Polygram Film International president and until the summer this year U.K. Film Council chairman, Till completed the long-gestating deal to buy Icon U.K. after more than two years at the negotiating coal face. The veteran distribution and sales campaigner talks to The Hollywood Reporter's U.K. bureau chief Stuart Kemp about ambitions to build an international distribution company, reaping the benefits of having powerful and well-heeled backers and why VOD will be the savior of a film industry in crisis.

The Hollywood Reporter: How does it feel to be back in the game, running a company?

Stewart Till: Obviously, it feels great. There's a saying, "be careful what you wish for, you might just get it." It's been over two years to get the deal and the sheer volume of information to digest is keeping me busy.

THR: Is the acquisition of Icon a starting point for future expansion across Europe and beyond?

Till: There are two priorities right now. First is to maximize every pound in the U.K. we get from boxoffice and DVD in the short term. Secondly, we want to beef up the sales company and bring in ever-stronger product. We want to look at distribution in other territories but bed down Icon U.K. first. But we will look at major European territories and Russia. In terms of the U.S., never say never, but international will be the priority.

THR: How important in the current marketplace is it to have backing from Access Industries given you are personally also an equity investor in the deal?

Till: We're delighted to be backed by Access because they are very well sourced financially with an already impressive media portfolio. They have gotten to know the film industry over the past two years it has taken to finalize the deal, and they are in it for the long term; this is not a short-term investment.

THR: Your deal means you run an international sales company and a U.K. distribution banner. How is it riding the fence for a company that does two things?

Till: I think it gives us a unique advantage. We can go to producers and say we'll buy U.K. rights, we might buy Australian if Mark Gooder (Icon's Australian operations chief) wants to, and we also have a good, aggressive sales company to do global distribution deals. As a producer having two territories sold from the get-go and the promise that we will produce the best marketing materials as a sales company possible is a very desirable proposition to the producer. Equally, we can separate the two and just buy for the U.K., but ideally we would want to do the two elements on a project we like.

THR: The U.S. market place has shrunk. Is that something you think will worsen?

Till: The studios can't really retrench much more than they have. It (the specialty) will come back because these things are cyclical and there is an interest in smaller budget films that aren't the tentpole releases. As financing gets easier for all industries, not just the film industry, I think you'll see two or three new distributors emerging over the next couple of years. It's a U-shaped recession and we're at the bottom of the U right now.

THR: How hard is the market right now?

Till: It's exceptionally tough. There's a lack of liquidity, and worst of all, there is a lack of pre-sales. It's not dead, but it is very difficult (to secure pre-sales). People will still pre-buy but there is maybe only going to be half a dozen projects at this year's AFM that will attract top deals. Unless it is a must-have script, people will wait to see the finished film. Companies that get through the next couple of years can really look forward to prosperous times with video-on-demand and download revenue streams gathering pace.

THR: How important will VOD and downloads be?

Till: VOD and downloads will be the savior of the industry. It'll be like the glory days of video rental in the 1990s again without the inconvenience of going to a store to pick up the film you want and never having to discover that all the copies are already rented out. It's so desirable to the consumer, we can't and mustn't fail to benefit (as an industry). The consumer has shown a desire for quality movies, the boxoffice tells us that, and so if that's the outdoor experience, then the indoor one will be VOD or downloads.

THR: Do you plan on doing first-look deals to help feed the distribution pipeline?

Till: We have a first-look deal with Icon Prods. (Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey's L.A. production banner), and that is a very important, key deal for us. But apart from that one, we won't be doing other deals. I do hope we will be the first port of call with producers I have worked with in the past.

THR: How important in the acquisition was securing the Majestic library as part of it?

Till: It was really important. (A library) gives you a relatively secure income stream, and it's an asset. I want to try and create a bigger asset from the one I have so having the foundation is essential. The price reflects the value of the asset but that is true of any deal. We never discussed buying Icon without the library catalog.

THR: Were there concerns Access would walk away from what became a very protracted deal?

Till: Icon wasn't a desperate seller, and Access had concerns about turbulence in the marketplace. But having said that, both parties are pleased with the conclusion of the deal.

THR: How bad do you think the next two years might get?

Till: There will be some shrinkage, but I honestly think the sales and distribution companies trading now should survive because they have already made the adjustments.

THR: Did working as chairman of the public body the U.K. Film Council change you as an executive in any way?

Till: Absolutely. We are all a product of our experiences, and every job you do molds you. It taught me to be more strategic, and it taught me to come up with ways to bring together the public and private sector needs.