03 Jan A candid chat with Jonathan Sothcott, a prolific film producer
By Matthew Martino
Jonathan Sothcott is one of the most prolific film producers in Britain. His hit films include Vendetta starring Danny Dyer and We Still Kill The Old Way along with White Collar Hooligan, Fall of the Essex Boys and Devil’s Playground and he has worked with Ray Winstone, Jason Statham and Mark Hamill. His films have sold over a million DVDs and he has won a number of awards including ‘Best Producer’ two years running at The British Horror Film Festival and the prestigious British Lion award at The British Independent Film Festival. GQ magazine described him as “a film producer behind a whole new generation of on-screen hardmen.”
We held an interview with him!
1. Jonathan hows the journey been so far in the film industry?
JS – Bumpy! The main problem is that it isn’t exactly an industry in the UK – its a strange little collective bogged down in ego and vanity. The reason so many actors, directors, writers and producers head for Hollywood as soon as they have a taste of success is because its a proper industry there. Los Angeles is a mining town where they mine movies. One of our great flaws as a country is a constant need to apologise for and denigrate success and its nowhere worse than in the British film industry where they seem to deliberately try to teach them to try and make unsuccessful films that nobody’ll want to watch. I’ve never been part of the cliquey film industry establishment – I’m not a member of BAFTA and I’ve never applied for BFI money, I hate the culture of people just sitting around plotting and grumbling and never getting off their arse and doing anything. I just want to make good, commercial films that people will enjoy watcing. My films aren’t about delivering messages, I’d rather leave that to Royal Mail. And plenty of people hate me for that. I grudgingly get “well I suppose he gets films made” like thet isn’t the name of the game. Since 2008 I’ve produced over 20 movies (some very good, some unspeakably awful – you learn as you go) which is an average of two and a half per year. I’ve worked with some incredibly talented people and some incredibly stupid people. But I don’t regret a second of it. And of course it isn’t all doom and gloom – our film-making heritage is second to none – Britain gave the world Hammer Horror, James Bond, Carry On, The Long Good Friday, Educating Rita, Lock Stock and Layer Cake. Our actors are probably the best in the world and our technicians too. Which is why so many American films come over here and employ them. I just wish we could be a bit more unashamedly commercial and embrace our strengths. A few years ago a director came to me with a project – an excellent script. He’d made a couple of exceptionally good but not particularly commercial films. I really wanted to get the film made for him – he was very talented, very broke and a very nice guy. Then came the bombshell. He wanted to shoot the film in Romanian with English subtitles… and wouldn’t compromise on that. End of conversation. And that sums up why it can be a very frustrating business.
2. How has the industry shifted since your earlier days producing low budget features to this present day?
JS – It isn’t as much about DVD as it was even two years ago – yet conversely digital and VOD haven’t closed the gap left by DVD yet. There’s also no longer a bona fide theatrical (cinema) market for independent British films now – sure there are these vanity releases where you book a cinema and get friends and family to buy tickets but I think that’s like self-publishing a book. And you know that’s OK but it isn’t for me. I grew up in the 80s – trips to the cinema were reserved for special occasions – so we rented videos, that’s what formed the basis of my film education (and I love films – I eat, sleep and breathe film). I don’t particularly aspire to my films going to the cinema – all they’re going to do there is lose money because when people go to the cinema now they want bang for their buck. Its an expensive night out so they want a Rogue One or a Captain American Civil War, not a little horror or gangster film that will be £7.99 in ASDA 2 months later. The cinema is going out for a steak dinner. The films I make are more like a chinese takeaway. And I’m very happy with that (I mean, who doesn’t like a chinese takeaway?). The other real problem has been the rise of the mis-sell cover. It started 8 or 9 years ago when a (now defunct) company called Revolver released a gritty, quite worthy drama with Danny Dyer and Tamer Hassan called City Rats. Ignoring the fact these 2 actors had no scenes together in the film they badged it up to look like a sequel to gangster film The Business. It sold hundreds of thousands of DVDs, all to ultimately disgruntled viewers (people would come up to Dyer in the street and tell him how disappointed they were)… but it sparked this craze for sticking out anything Dyer did with a misleading cover – gentle gay prison drama Borstal Boy was made to look like Scum for example. I did a mockumentary comedy about the film industry called Just For The Record. Great ensemble cast – Rik Mayall, Steven Berkoff, Sean Pertwee etc etc. Dyer did a day on it (he was very good) playing against type… and the distributor stuck it out on DVD with a cover that made out it was a Danny Dyer gangster film with knives and guns and God knows what. Anyway, eventually the public got pretty wise to it, though it still goes on – ‘hooligan’ films with no hooligans in, ‘Essex Boys’ films that aren’t about the Essex Boys murders (not that we really need to flog that particular dead horse much more!). People still buy these films but they are wise to the tricks of the trade so are, quite rightly, more selective.The final problem – and this one’s a killer – is piracy. High speed broad band has been the equivalent of giving bank robbers machine guns. Virtually every film is available to illegally download way before it is officially released and of course that stops people buying them on DVD or iTunes which means they make much less money which makes it much harder to make more. I know everyone thinks buying one dodgy DVD won’t hurt but it really does – its a massive, massive problem for the film business and one that nobody really does anything about.
3. What challenges do you often face within production?
JS – The biggest challenge with making independent British films – if not the only real problem – is the finance. Going back to my point that it isn’t really a proper business, financiers in the UK are so bloody unreliable – they’re late, they disappear, they try and change the deal at the eleventh hour. Its absolute murder. And of course as the producer you have to carry the can for it and even worse you have to protect the buggers because you’re tied up by all kinds of confidentiality agreements. One film I did was the subject of a massive copyright infringement law suit and the financiers simply sold it out from under me and hung me out to dry. Everyone got knocked (including me) and it was a complete disaster. But what do you do, sit and cry about it forever or just dust yourself off and move onto the next job? I got ripped to pieces on the internet for it: I even had some lunatic start sending poison pen letters out to people I work with. But if you’re going to put your head over the parapet you have to be prepared to suffer the slings and arrows.
The other problem we face is a lack of decent scripts. At the minute I’d say we generate 80% of our projects in house and then go out and find a writer. That isn’t that unusual – its how Hammer operated in the 50s and 60s but it’d be nice to get more quality original material than we do. I’ve made a couple of films about the Rettendon murders so of course I get pitched that stuff all the time – Essex Boys Zombies, Essex Boys The Musical, Essex Boys Vs The Krays. Its pretty soul destroying. I also get a lot of very right wing taxi driver vigilante pitches, often I suspect, from taxi drivers and always written for Ray Winstone. They do love Ray.
But on the other hand, even these are high class problems. It isn’t like I’m going down a mine with a canary every day – I’m making a living from my passion and not many people can say that.
4. Hereford Films has a growing stock of interesting and commercial films – what has been the driving force behind this ?
JS – Me, really and my determination to be the best film producer I can be. I’m a terrible workaholic, I sleep 3 or 4 hours a night these days and am emailing and reading scripts at 2 or 3am as I’m sort of tuned into LA time. I’m very lucky to be working with a couple of guys who have the same philosophy as me – film-maker Adam Stephen Kelly and businessman Damien Morley. We have a very clear vision for Hereford and we’re all very motivated and driven. Damien, like me, sees his future in California, but we’ll always have a base in London. He’s a very smart guy, an expert at monetising online content and apps, which will increasingly become a big part of our business. Adam is much younger than us and recently directed his first feature film, the revenge thriller Kill Kane, which he did a great job on – I thought it was Vinnie Jones’ best performance since the Guy Ritchie movies. So Adam is a very talented film maker and we are very much on the same wavelength creatively – so I’m always happy to trust him to work with other writers and directors to develop our projects. He has a big, big future in the film business. Our ambition has no ceiling – I mention Hammer Films of the 60s and 70s often because their business model was great – they made up to 10 films per year and I’d love to match that. I’m very lucky in that I had some amazing mentors when I was younger. In my 20s I made a documentary about Euan Lloyd, the producer of The Wild Geese and Who Dares Wins, called The Last of the Gentleman Producers and spent a lot of time with him, absorbing information like a sponge. Sadly he died last year and I was humbled to give a speech at his memorial service. I worked for David Wickes for a while, who directed The Sweeney and The Professionals. I learned so much from David, a spectacularly intelligent man. People like Bryan Forbes and Brian Clemens who created The Avengers gave me their time when I was young and I learned a huge amount from these industry legends. I was also very lucky that when I decided to try and be a film producer, the actor Martin Kemp took a chance on me and let me use his name to open a lot of doors. Martin and I have done a lot together in the past 10 years and remain the best of friends to this day. He’s a wonderful man, a really good human being and I’ll always be very grateful to him.
5. Following on from your recent tweets in support of Rita Simons, will she be making an appearance in one of your next films?
JS – Well Rita’s wonderful isn’t she? I think she and Samantha Janus have been fantastic. I’ve often used Eastenders as a casting directory – obviously Martin was in it. Soaps are great training ground for independent movies – some of the best actors I’ve worked with have been in the soaps: they’re always immaculate, know their lines, deliver on the first take – Billy Murray, Adele Silva, Craig Fairbrass, Kierston Wareing, Gemma Atkinson, Chris Ellison, Sam Strike, Danny Boy Hatchard – all of them were a dream. Of course they’ve all had amazing careers outside of soaps but they never lose that discipline – soaps are one of the toughest jobs as an actor – incredibly long hours, constant script changes… its almost like having a proper job! And of course soaps make you so famous that you pretty much lose your privacy. So yes, fingers crossed for Rita. Twitter’s a funny thing isn’t it? Anyone I have a little tweet up with people automatically think is going to be in my next film. I’m very good friends with Vicky Pattison so everyone’s expecting me to make We Still Kill The Geordie Way.
6. What is the master plan for 2017 ?
JS – We’re focussing on 4 main areas going forward – Hereford Horror (does what it says on the tin), Hereford Family (everything from Jane Austen to talking dog movies), Hereford London (the UK crime thrillers and action films – we’re making a second sequel to We Still Kill The Old Way called We Still Die The Old Way and a female vigilante film called Nemesis) and Hereford Television – having a crack at the small screen. There will of course be projects that don’t fit neatly into those categories but we’ll bang those square pegs into round holes as and when we come to them. By the end of the year I’d like to have an office in LA as well as London and being realistic I’d like to make 4-6 films this year. You’ve got to aim high.
You can keep up with Jonathan’s latest films via the Hereford Film website – www.herefordfilms.com