Save The Arts: Parallel lines up the stars

The creative industries: We've had Britpop, now it's Britfilm. Dana Rubin profiles Parallel Pictures, while Dawn Hayes looks at funding
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PARALLEL PICTURES, the independent, London-based film company coming to market on AIM next month, is the envy of many an aspiring film producer.

Only five years old, the company has an impressive roster of upcoming projects, including two that seem destined for US distribution - one starring Bob Hoskins scheduled for production in May, and another slated for this summer starring Helena Bonham-Carter and The Full Monty star Robert Carlyle.

The company is headed by two seasoned producers who have done everything from feature films to television dramas, documentaries and music videos. Three years ago, it was among the first to reap the benefits of the National Lottery in the form of a pounds 1m award.

Despite this, the flotation will bring a much-needed financial infusion for a company that hasn't exactly been awash with cash. Until last July, Parallel Pictures was financed solely by the money generated by a number of potboiler projects, including music promos and a documentary drama made in India. The company had been losing about pounds 10,000 a year but had accumulated no debt, said finance director John Roddison. The two joint managing directors, Iain Brown and Bill Chamberlain, received no salary.

Then, in July, a number of private investors brought in at 15 pence a share. The money freed up the MDs to concentrate on bigger, more rewarding projects.

With the AIM flotation, the company hopes to raise pounds 1.1m by offering 4.3 million shares (47 per cent of the company) to the public at 30p apiece, a valuation of around pounds 4m. The remaining 53 per cent remains with its principal investors. Mr Brown and Mr Chamberlain would each have 24 per cent, and Mr Roddison 5 per cent.

One reason that small independent film companies have such a hard time - despite the much-vaunted renaissance of the British film industry - is the long lead times of projects. "There's always a long lead time, so you need a lot of working capital," says Mr Roddison. "That's what crucifies most companies."

Take the company's premier project, the one sponsored by the Lottery through the Scottish Arts Council. With the rights to the award-winning novel Poor Things, the promise of a generous grant and the participation of director Brian Gibson (who made Juror with Demi Moore), it looked a golden deal.

But then came problems with the script. "We've had five drafts," says a weary-sounding Mr Chamberlain. The director wasn't satisfied with the original script, which had been written by the author of the novel, Alisdair Grey.

"He wanted changes, and the writer he wanted to use wasn't available," Mr Chamberlain says, referring to American scriptwriter Chloe King. "So we waited for her. She did one draft. Then another draft. And then a polish."

It all took time. Meanwhile, Mr Chamberlain and Mr Brown were lining up the cast. Bonham-Carter agreed last summer, but it was only a couple of months ago that Carlyle signed on after reading the script on his honeymoon.

With script, cast and director, Parallel has since been trying to secure the remaining $8.5m (pounds 5m) in financing, and is negotiating with three distributors - two US, one European - but won't name them. Not until the money is nailed down can they begin talking to the Scottish Arts Council about a payment schedule for the pounds 1m.

That, too, has brought fresh complications. According to the arts council's revamped rules, any Lottery award not used within a year goes back in the pot. The council notified Parallel in December that it had until 15 March to use the money or lose it, says Jenny Attala, senior film officer at the Scottish Arts Council. At the very least, they must prove that a partnership deal is in the offing.

Once again, it's crunch time for Parallel Pictures. Assuming the financing for Poor Things is sorted, the movie should go into pre-production in July and be ready for release in the summer of 1999, Mr Chamberlain says.

If the film makes a profit, the council expects to recoup its investment plus a portion of profits. "It's taxpayers' money," Ms Attala says. "We'd like to invest it wisely so money comes back into the pot for other film makers."

Parallel Pictures' other big project, a $6.7m thriller set on the Mexican border, with Bob Hoskins, is scheduled to begin pre-production in May - providing financing is secured. That could happen as early as next week, Mr Chamberlain says.

The two MDs say the funds raised on AIM would go a long way toward making much of this process easier. The money would be ploughed back into the company in the form of extra staff to handle the work - in particular, employees to evaluate the stream of scripts, screenplays and books that inundate their office. "You could spend your life reading stuff rather than getting on with stuff," says Mr Brown.

Parallel Pictures is based in a rented, two-room office at the old Ealing studios in west London, an historic site which Mr Brown and Mr Chamberlain say gives them twinges of inspiration.

Parallel Pictures is the third independent British film company to list on AIM. Winchester Entertainment, a film financing and sales company based in London, raised pounds 3.1m on AIM in 1995. Last year the company invested the global distribution rights for Shooting Fish.

Metrodome Group, another independent London film distribution and media company, sold shares on AIM in 1995, raising pounds 1.2m. Last year the company was associated with the films Chasing Amy and Palookaville.