'We couldn't save Howard the Duck'

Christopher Fowler is currently working on Wilde, a biopic about Oscar Wilde, and is involved in all aspects of film making. His company, The Creative Partnership, owned equally with co-founder Jim Sturgeon, is worth about pounds 8m
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The Independent Online
It was supposed to be a secret when Mel Gibson came to our Soho office to edit the trailer for Braveheart. I'm sure it was just a coincidence that all our secretaries wore unusually glamorous outfits and started hanging out in reception. The cinema is a glamorous business. At The Creative Partnership we've promoted films like The Phantom of the Opera, Goldeneye, Tom and Viv and Picnic at Hanging Rock. You lose count of how many stars you've met.

But in Britain a Barnum and Bailey approach has often been taken to create that glamorous image. The whole campaign for a Seventies horror film called Willard involved driving a van around London with a giant rat on the roof. The worst case was when Can't Stop the Music was launched. They put "dance" and "England" together and hired Morris dancers to stand outside the theatre.

Jim Sturgeon and I started our business in 1978, when the British film industry hit all time rock bottom. He drew storyboards and I was a 24- year-old copy writer who was feeling incredibly compromised writing ads for cigarettes and pot noodles. Partly, we were lucky to get in when we did. Shortly afterwards video began to revitalise the industry. It was the birth of a media explosion.

We met while working on freelance projects and the whole decision to form a business took less than six weeks. Although we didn't borrow any money, we did talk to bank managers about what we were doing. The first one told us that most partnerships falter within 18 months. That's never been a problem for Jim and me. We still don't have a formal agreement.

Our idea was to design promotional campaigns for films from the top down. Sometimes we're so involved that we retitle a film. Until we got to it, The Crying Game was called The Soldier's Wife. We're also very blunt with our clients. If a film's a dog we tell them it's going to shed on their carpet. We told the distributors of Howard the Duck that nothing could be done to save it.

This was quite a break with tradition. There were poster design houses and radio studios and one film could have several different, sometimes conflicting campaigns. And films are just one of a wide selection of products they're selling at any given time. We were the first to specialise.

But that means that we live or die by our ideas. When we started, the first thing I did was to go through magazines like Screen and Variety noting all the films in production and on people's slates.

We came up with some sort of crappy brochure and sent it out to all of them. Despite that, the ripples spread out really quickly.

Our first mistake was putting all our savings into a horrible trip to Cannes that first year. We didn't realise that to get ourselves time to talk to people we needed to go earlier. They're all far too busy when the film festival is on. We still go every year but now we understand how it works. One film sold for pounds 1m in one territory entirely on the strength of a 10-minute promo we showed at Cannes.

In 1980 we expanded into Hollywood. In retrospect it wasn't a brilliant idea. Britain has a really spotty track record in film. One of our first projects there was also one of the strangest. Dino De Laurentis was financing Flash Gordon and had bought up an animated version to get rid of the competition. Although he wasn't going to show it, the contract said that trailers had to be produced and we got the job. We're still in the States, doing the larger indie movies, but we're playing by American rules, not the way we do it here.

Our business has had lots of ups and downs. Some months it's like the Mary Celeste, other months we're open all night. Our worst blow came when Palace Pictures went bust in 1991, owing us pounds 88,000. Jim had to remortgage his house to keep us going.

It took 18 months to dig our way out of that hole. But if you look at the business as a whole over the last 17 years it's grown pretty steadily, and now has billings of pounds 3m.

There's an adage in the film industry - no one knows anything. But Jim and I do know our business - we're both film buffs - which helped our business succeed. Even more important than that, though, is the ability to make decisions quickly. So many people want to be told what to do.