Europe meets US: the movie

A new generation of film-makers was invited to peek behind the scenes in Hollywood to learn winning business formulas. Rachelle Thackray reports
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QUIRKY British films such as The Full Monty may tickle the American funny bone once every so often, but while it's true that the Yanks like our sense of humour, it's comparatively rare for European films to snowball through the ratings like their home-grown blockbuster rivals. The vast majority of European film-makers struggle to attain the kind of commercial success that is apparently at the fingertips of Hollywood's biggest boys.

And until last year, it seemed like a losing battle for even the most talented. It was then that Polygram Filmed Entertainment decided to do its bit for the industry in Europe and give a helping hand to the continent's best producers by coming up with an intensive course, Fast Lane. This programme, now in its second year, gives an elite of eight the opportunity to see at first-hand the workings of the industry in Los Angeles, and has been acclaimed both in the industry and by its participants. Its creators say it can provide in five short weeks what would otherwise take five years to learn by trial and error.

This year, the course took candidates from Belgium, Holland and Scandinavia, as well as from Britain. They were taken to meetings with the heads of all Polygram's departments, and given introductions to the movers and shakers in the industry. Participants were also asked to present their current favourite project at the start, and then again with modifications at the end. The finale was a graduation evening at BAFTA, attended by Four Weddings and a Funeral star Hugh Grant and Culture Secretary Chris Smith.

Briton Andrew Bendel, who has spent eight years working in films and has the recent Metroland to his credit, found Fast Lane supplied him with crucial experience and - so to speak - a glimpse of the bigger picture. "We had all made movies on a national basis, but this was about trying to acquire some knowledge so we could go on and make movies which should succeed internationally. We were exposed to the decision-making and thinking of these people; there was a lot of information, and to tell the truth, a lot of it is still sinking in."

One of its most valuable insights for graduate Paul Fitzgerald, who co- produced the award-winning films Thirty Five Aside and He Shoots He Scores, and whose company Clingfilms is based in Ireland, was how to best use resources within a film budget. "Production is one of those areas which is often left to chance. We seem to apply resources to training, but even if resources are applied to production, it tends to be technical aspects. One thing which did make an impression was precisely how much influence a marketing department has in a Hollywood studio. The heads of marketing are some of the most powerful people there, and while they say they hate to pigeon-hole films by genre - like Pretty Woman meets Die Hard III - they do it all the time."

Andrew Bendel also found the marketing aspect helpful, together with sessions on acquisition, distribution and promotion of films. "As Europeans, we have been very lax about thinking how films should be marketed. It's seen as something you think of after you have made the film; but now I would think of it from the word `go'. You have to market the idea."

Meanwhile, Stewart Till of Polygram Filmed Entertainment, one of the initiators of FastLane, believes the course is uniquely placed to give graduates a world-class polish. "We felt that rather than putting money into existing colleges, it would be useful to take a generation of producers and give them a very intensive look at the way Polygram works in the film business. It was a belief that we should do something in terms of training and give something back to the industry. European film-makers tend to have much shorter horizons, making films with impact in their own countries, and they tend to be obsessed with production. We try and teach them that it's only half about production, and then it's about distribution."

He adds that competition to get on the course was fierce, with 300 experienced applicants. "We have taken people who we felt were on the verge of success, looking for the people who had a burning desire to be successful. But another objective was for producers to have some affiliation and loyalty to Polygram, so that when they do develop the next Full Monty, they will come to us."

Says Paul Fitzgerald: ""Before FastLane, there was very little available to film-makers, and without the required experience in feature-film production, it was very hard to know what the thinking of the decision- makers is, and what drives them. But FastLane lets you see how these people operate."

Contact Wendy Bowen on 0171 747 4275.