On June 6, after 17 years in the business of distributing indie documentaries, Jane Balfour of London-based Jane Balfour Films placed her company in the hands of a liquidator and officially went out of business. Both her clients and fellow distributors responded to the news with shock and sadness, but they echoed Balfour’s sentiment that her misfortune is a sign of the times.
‘The sad, bigger picture,’ says Balfour, ‘is that we are writ large the plight of independents in today’s market. Everyone’s talking about bigger markets and more outlets for programs, but it’s not really true because the new digital and cable outlets offer very, very low pay. Instead of selling programs for US$40,000 or even $4,000, you’re selling for $400 and you’re doing all the same work. We’re only on a commission from that, so you can imagine it.’
As late as May 24, Balfour was in negotiations to save the company, which represented approximately 1,500 docs, about 70 of which were feature films. The process of liquidation is being handled by Horwarth Clark Whitehill & Co. in the U.K., which has consulted a legal firm for advice on the termination of the agency’s contracts and the responsibilities of the company – and, therefore, the liquidator – in arranging for the collection of individual producer’s materials.
Joint liquidators Simon Thomas and Peter Dunn have also sought legal advice as to whether money received by the company prior to liquidation and held on behalf of producers, comprises a trust (trust money is not considered to be the company’s property). This is one of the many issues that will impact the level of return to individual producers. According to Balfour, who is working with the liquidator on a voluntary basis to speed the process, all rights will revert back to the producers when license periods expire.
In addition to the drop in dollars offered per program, Balfour points to a change in the nature of the market and the difficulty of retaining rights – particularly in the U.K. – as a catalyst for her company’s demise: ‘Broadcasters have become intensely nationalistic. They don’t want to give any rights to independents for anything that’s commercially viable, and they’re not interested in anything from outside that’s culturally different. And, the internationals and the multinationals just want branded products. The market for quality, independent programs – not made for ratings – totally decreased. The fact is, our sales plummeted.’
Despite recent events, Balfour emphasizes the importance of indies and offers some hard-earned advice. ‘Go into gardening,’ she laughs. ‘No seriously, however hard it is, [indies] have to put a proper value on their talent and work together with other independents to ensure proper recognition from broadcasters, the government and funding institutions, because ultimately everything depends on it. I still passionately believe in their importance and I’m sad I can’t go on supporting them.’
To the broadcasters, she has this to say: ‘There’s a dreadful dumbing down going on at the moment. Ultimately, people don’t want that. They want to be introduced to something they didn’t know they liked. If nobody dares to expand anyone’s horizon and show something different, everybody will be the loser. Everybody will get bored and switch off.’