An Interview With – Distributor Tony Safford
Tony Safford is the Head of Acquisitions for Fox Searchlight, who specialise in the US distribution of foreign films including British and Irish film. The company’s first-ever film was The Brothers McMullen, which charted life in an Irish-American family, and other films they have distributed include In America, The Good Thief, The Van and Waking Ned. Tony Safford was responsible for acquiring the hugely successful Once for US theatrical distribution.
Tell us about Fox Searchlight – its ethos and how it came about.
It was part of a wave in which the studios established their own specialist distribution divisions and it’s about twelve to thirteen years old. It’s always been filmmaker-friendly and marketing-driven, both of which are quite important and both of which are necessary for us to get behind the project. There are plenty of films that we fall in love with but don’t see a clear way into the market place, in which case we are not the best distributor. There are other films where we do see a path into the market place, but just we don’t like them as films – so we are also not the best distributor.
As far as your input into the process goes, how does your job work on a week-to-week basis?
Acquisitions forms about half of the Fox Searchlight slate. We release anything from about eight to thirteen films a year. Any less than that is inefficient, any more than that is inefficient. This allows us to put a lot of time and effort behind the films that we acquire, which is how I like to work. The acquisitions are opportunistic; they are driven by our passions and what we find out there in the world.
And to what extent does your own taste in films inform your judgement regarding what films to release?
Yes, that’s actually a good question. One of the reasons we think we are good at what we do is that we are the audience for these films. There is no disconnection between what we make and acquire and the kind of films that we like. We are equally admiring of the films of our competitors, for example. We think that Focus and Paramount Vantage have some spectacular films. We are the audience for these films and the same is true of the films that we acquire and that we produce or green-light. We know where we are and what our worlds are like, and it’s always a struggle to market and distribute the films effectively, but we do think that we understand our audience because they are ‘us’.
Do you find that you are having to go out and look for films or does everybody beat a path to your door?
It’s a combination of both. We think that we are a preferred distributor for many filmmakers but at the same time we have to be competitive and pursue the filmmakers and projects that we believe in. And it can be very competitive for those projects.
Do you find that you establish ongoing relationships with filmmakers in terms of, for example, having a good experience with one film and then going on to have a closer relationship for future films?
Yes, we’re fairly user-friendly. A good example of that is Jason Reitman. We established the relationship a few years ago by acquiring Thank You for Smoking and have continued it with Juno which is working wonderfully well for all of us.
At what sort of stage do you normally get involved? When acquiring films – the non-American ones – have they normally seen the light of day elsewhere before you become interested in them?
Yes, in acquisitions, when it comes to world cinema, you are talking about a completed film. That’s almost always the case in relation to foreign-language films. With English-speaking films – from the UK, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, it can be a different story. Most films are very execution-dependent. Foreign-language films are extremely execution-dependent. And that is true around the world. We will co-produce prior to completion for some English-language films.
Can you give us some idea of how you perceive the importance of film festivals in relation to your acquisition strategy?
Festivals are great because they provide two things that are important. On the one hand they provide an audience – even though it is not an exact replica of a market place audience, you know we all respond to films in a common way. And then there are critics. At major festivals like Sundance or Cannes or Berlin, where my colleagues are now, or Toronto, you have both of those components, and they are both important to help us understand a movie. Because we look at films in isolation a lot, and that is not how they are meant to be seen.
So, tell us about how you came to acquire Once?
Once is a fabulous example of what to do and what not to do. Probably after the Galway Festival (I don’t know the exact chronology), there was a ‘secret’, DVD that, prior to the Sundance Festival, made the rounds of the acquisitions crowd. I didn’t see it. Senior Searchlight people didn’t see it, others here did and presumably some in the other companies did. Looking at Once on DVD like that, it was clearly not an attractive acquisition. That was a clear mis-step for the film, because looking at the film without an audience, it doesn’t come alive. It was only seeing that film at Sundance, with an audience, again and again and again, and hearing that audience speak of its joy and appreciation of that film. And that was what we responded to – the incredible reception that the film received.
You have released a number of Irish or Irish-related films – have the results generally been better than you would have hoped?
We always hope for better results! With Once we were delighted with our association with the picture. We adore it here at Searchlight. There are a number of things you can say. Irish films compete with the rest of world cinema, not only here, but everywhere. They compete with the best of specialist cinema from around the world and to compete they need to be as good as films from the UK, as an Almod—var film, or a Wong Kar Wai film, etc.
Having said that, I think there is something ingrained within our national identity that is intrigued by something ingrained within the Irish national identity. There are historic roots, there are cultural roots, there is a sense of Irish iconography that is attractive to us. It gives Irish films a point of entry, but the films still have to work. There is something very attractive there that we like.
Are there any aspects of the US market that you regard as key when you are looking to acquire a film?
There are two things that are very important. The first is how audiences respond to the picture and second, which is also very important, how critics respond. There are times when you know you are going to need both, and other times when you can get away with just one. There are some films that have certain marketable elements attached to them. Once was not one of them. Once absolutely needed critics to say that it is adorable, delightful, one of the best films I’ve seen all year – those kinds of statements. It had that sense of authorship, but it needed a push, and it was really a critic in the Los Angeles Times who decided to make that film ‘special’ and he wrote that in his review and had an on-going box in the LA Times reiterating that the film was special. It needed that, and there were a number of critics elsewhere in the country who felt it was their role to champion the film because if they didn’t, it would not succeed. Critics rarely feel that sense of empowerment, but Once had all of these good vibes going with it – it was a film that everyone wanted to succeed.
You alluded to the affinity that exists on a cultural level between Ireland and the US. Do you think that Irish filmmakers are playing sufficiently to these strengths?
Good question, but it’s always difficult. The irony is that as soon as you start looking at strengths and calculate your stories and characters around those strengths, the whole thing goes to hell. You make a film that feels false and calculating. What was so delightful about Once was the incredible sense of authenticity of its world and its characters. Audiences responded to that. Character, place, dilemma, song, music, emotion, romance, love. It’s called ‘Once’ for a reason – it doesn’t happen a lot!
You know after the [Sundance] festival, I told someone that we had acquired an Irish film – Once and she thought that ‘once in our career we acquired an Irish film’ – we can’t replicate that. And the strange thing is that the market place is also always looking for something a little different. It doesn’t want Once II. And that’s the hard thing – always to stay ahead of the audience. It wants something fresh and original and not derivative. So the only advice that you can give specialist filmmakers is to be authentic in terms of voice and creative in their expression.
This interview first appeared in Issue 121 of Film Ireland Magazine.