U.K.'s Protagonist Pictures Chief on Competing With Streamers and Surviving Brexit (Q&A)

THR_Dave Bishop_Dave_Bishop_00560 - THR - H 2017
Charlie Grey

Dave Bishop also discusses filling some very big shoes following the departure of Mike Goodridge, who stepped down after five years leading the Brit sales banner.

It’s been quite a year for Protagonist Pictures. The Brit sales banner, which has been at the forefront of the U.K. film scene for almost a decade, had three films bow in Cannes, including Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which A24 swiped for domestic, and now has five titles playing in Toronto, including Clio Barnard’s hotly anticipated third film Dark River and Michel Franco’s April’s Daughter (which won the Un Certain Regard jury prize in Cannes).

Alongside all this, Protagonist kicked its film development arm into gear with the hiring of Len Rowles and, somewhere along the way, saw its much-loved chief Mike Goodridge announce he was stepping down after five years, swapping London for Asia to become artistic director of the Macao Film Festival. The move sparked a managerial rejig, with Dave Bishop upped to CEO from head of worldwide acquisitions, COO Dimitra Tsingou adding production president to her résumé, and worldwide sales chief Vanessa Saal taking on the role of managing director, sales and distribution.

Speaking to THR on day two of his new position and a week after Goodridge’s official departure (“We were technically rudderless for about three days!”), Bishop, who began his career marketing children’s VHS reissues at Sony Pictures, discussed Protagonist’s very hectic year.

Has the recent restructuring led to any shift in direction at Protagonist?

Not in terms of a hard and fast change. Mike Goodridge obviously did an exceptional job over the five years while he was here and will be dearly missed by everyone. He took the business from strength to strength and leaves an incredible business behind. I feel privileged to be able to step into those very big shoes. What we are keen to do is grow our production development division, so we hired Len Rowles at the beginning of the year, and Dimitra will now oversee our shift into that area in a more real way.

Where would you position Protagonist in the market?

I wouldn’t want to directly compare ourselves to any of our competitors. But I hope we have a strong brand, which is synonymous with great quality filmmaking and strong original voices. We’re as supportive of first-time and emerging filmmakers as we are established directors. Over the years we’ve worked with some incredible talent who have gone on to become some of the bigger names in the industry, be that Yann Demange (’71) or Gareth Edwards (Rogue One), and more recently we’ve worked with William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth) and Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) and we have Clio Barnard heading to Toronto with her second film, Dark River.

Do the business models of the Netflixes and Amazons taking worldwide rights — and often dealing directly with producers — pose an existential threat to sales companies like yourselves?

I think the tech companies have certainly changed the landscape of the industry and the way consumers consume film, and also what that’s meant for independent distributors. We recognize that that change has had an impact, but we’ve always had a good relationship with those companies and would hope to do so in the future. But it’s also one of the reasons taking a greater degree of ownership of our own movies puts us in a position to manage some of those opportunities moving forward.

Sorry to bring up a rude word, but how do you see Brexit impacting business?

I have to be honest, I don’t realty think I can add anything that hasn’t already been said on the subject. At this point we’re just waiting to see if there’s going to be any major impact to us. Obviously there will be concerns about [EU funding program] Creative Europe and what that might look like and co-production issues, but outside of that I think we’re, like the rest of the industry, waiting to see if there’ll be any fundamental impact on us.

You looked after sales for Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Any chance you could persuade him back for a follow-up? Asking for a friend …

If that was something he was prepared to return to I’m sure we’d be delighted to work with him again. It’s such a wonderful film and he’s such a hoot and such a lovely man.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 9 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.