Mods and Rockers return to Brighton for Optimum effect

Optimum Releasing is venturing into the realms of production to satisfy its appetite for film distribution, as Ian Burrell reports

The time for another Mod revival is almost upon us. One of Britain's most dynamic film companies is in the process of remaking Brighton Rock, the movie based on Graham Greene's cult 1938 novel, and setting it amid the deckchair-throwing mayhem of a Sixties bank holiday in the Sussex resort.

With Sam Riley in the starring role of petty criminal Pinkie (famously played by Richard Attenborough in the 1947 film), the new movie is being made by star producer Paul Webster (Atonement, Eastern Promises) and young director Rowan Joffe. They start shooting in October.

Before that the same company, Optimum Releasing, will begin filming another potential British youth cult classic, the coming-of-age drama Here Comes The Summer, which will try to capture the charged atmosphere in south London during the summer of 1981, when rioters put Brixton to the torch as the nation prepared to celebrate the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer.

"It's very British in its essence, harking back to films such as Quadrophenia and This Is England," says Will Clarke, chief executive of Optimum.

Close observers of the British movie business will know Optimum, based off Carnaby Street in London's Soho, as a film distribution company with a catalogue of 1,500 titles and 400 DVDs. These are the people who distributed such gems as Pan's Labyrinth, In The Loop, Persepolis and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Ten years after it was founded, the company's bold entry into the world of film production is partly a result of the seismic changes gripping an industry that is struggling to cope with the impact of digital technology. Optimum's managing director, Danny Perkins, says: "At Christmas, [we] lost 10 per cent of the DVD retail base with Woolworth and Zavvi closing. You can't lose that many stores and not feel an effect. There are still people buying DVDs but at lower prices than before. We've had a good run but we are going to have to change the model."

Clarke is equally frank. "DVD is still good for us but how many years has it got?" he says, damning the notion that the internet's global audience allows a vast pool of niche films to collectively outsell the few blockbusters. "The long tail [theory] is bullshit basically. It's the top 20 per cent of the movies making nearly all the money," he adds.

Optimum has decided to take action. Three years ago, the business was sold to the French company StudioCanal, part of the Canal+ group. Strangely, the deal gave Optimum opportunities to shape the future of British film by giving it access to StudioCanal's library, which includes such valuable British property as Ealing comedies, Carry On movies, Gothic horrors from Hammer Films and wartime classics including Ice Cold In Alex and The Dam Busters. The latter, originally made in 1955, is being remade for Optimum by Lord Of The Rings producer Peter Jackson. "He's talking about doing it in 3D," says Perkins. "It makes sense because when they did the original version of The Dam Busters they only had three planes. [Jackson] has built nine planes. They can only taxi and they can't fly, but he owns one of the biggest effects studios in the world."

Brighton Rock has a budget of £6m and Clarke defends the notion of switching the action from the Thirties to the Mods and Rockers era of the early Sixties. "That backdrop is not something that sweeps away all the elements of the story. Rowan Joffe is extremely faithful to the book," he says.

Optimum's production slate will include a remake of Great Expectations, written by David Nicholls, and an adaptation of Cecelia Ahern's Where Rainbows End, but it will not limit itself to such projects. "There are original stories to be told," says Clarke. "I wouldn't want to be just doing remakes; that would be lazy." So the company is behind the production of Danny Boyle's upcoming Ponte Tower, a thriller based in Johannesburg and centred on the tallest residential skyscraper in Africa.

On the acquisitions front, Optimum is backing Leap Year, a new project from Simon Beaufoy, who wrote The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire. It stars Amy Adams as a woman who plans to go to Ireland to make a February proposal to her boyfriend. Optimum is also behind Roman Polanski's new project, an adaptation of the Robert Harris book The Ghost, starring Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan. Jacques Audiard's tale of Corsican organised crime and violent Islamic fundamentalism, A Prophet, seems a sure-fire winner, having already won a Gran Prix at Cannes.

Clarke is keen to scotch the idea that Optimum backs only dead-certs, a charge made following the success of Armando Iannucci's In The Loop. "It was a tough film," he says of a movie that took £1.3m. "People said afterwards that it was always going to do very well but it's a political satire – name me a political satire that has done that level of box office.

Similarly, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, the movie which made Optimum's reputation as a distributor, was ignored by the company's UK rivals. "No one went after that film," says Clarke. "We bought it on a one-page pitch from Michael Moore. Afterwards, we were in the bar in Cannes thinking, 'Have we done the right thing?'"

A year later at Cannes, the finished film was the toast of the festival, though Clarke and Perkins were not popping corks. "We were sitting on some really cheap plastic chairs having a pint," recalls Perkins. "Someone said to us, 'You've got the hottest film in the festival and you're sat here!'"

Their reason for buying the rights to Moore's film was the potential to market it to those who were protesting the invasion of Iraq. "I went on a march to protest against the war," recalls Clarke. "You think that even if you get 10 per cent of the people on the march coming to see the film, it is commercial reasoning for releasing it."

Mickey Rourke's The Wrestler was similarly a no-brainer. "It doesn't take much to think that the script echoes the career path of the actor playing the lead role. So Mickey Rourke became the marketing hook for that film, it's very straightforward, it's the comeback kid."

With the help of founding partner Paul Higgins, Clarke and Perkins have grown Optimum's turnover to £36m a year. Central to its future is its relationship with a series of trusted partners, such as the Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver, who has agreed to supply five new films over two years for distribution (including Whiteout, which stars Kate Beckinsale as a lone US marshal stationed in Antarctica, and Warp, about the Sheffield company which releases dance music by the likes of Aphex Twin and films by Shane Meadows. Optimum did the executive production for Meadows's Dead Man's Shoes and This is England and wants to formalise its relationship with Warp's film arm, generating two movies a year.

But there is still insufficient material out there to satisfy Optimum's appetite for film distribution. "You want to spend the money but you can't because there's nothing out there," complains Clarke. "That's the whole point why we're going into producing, because we can't find in the open market place what we want."