15 years on, my memory of Momentum Pictures hasn’t been erased
March 25, 2019
The re-issue of the mind-bending, memory-erasing feature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has had me recalling my time at the seminal mini-major…
Momentum Pictures was born out of the small U.K. art-house label, Electric Pictures, and was owned by Canadian company Alliance Films, under the watchful eye of its larger than life chairman, Victor Loewy. I spent the first half of the 2000s working at this outstanding independent distributor, a company that was ultimately swallowed up 12 years later by Entertainment One, in 2013.
Looking back, Momentum Pictures was a kind of U.K. A24, but during the peak, halcyon, days of the DVD format. It was a place that became home to some of the very best independent films of the noughties and, for that alone, it should be remembered fondly.
One of these extraordinary films hit cinemas (and the news) again this week, in celebration of its 15th anniversary: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, possibly now my favourite film of all-time. Incidentally, Momentum’s biggest hit (during my time there) also enjoyed the 15th anniversary of its U.K. release in January (sadly without any fanfare, or-re-issue) and that film was Lost in Translation – which is now my eldest daughter’s favourite independent film (she was born about 6 weeks prior to its general release).
Further to this, my friend, and ex-Arrow colleague, Codie Entwistle (now at Picturehouse) just named his baby girl Amelie – presumably after Amelie (Poulin) – a film famous for having the highest ever U.K. Box office for a French movie. So, in many ways, the reverberations of that period are still being strongly felt!
Fast forwarding back to present day, and ex-Momentum Pictures MD, David Kosse, recently hit the news with his big move from STX International, to Netflix, where he will soon head up International Film.
I first encountered David when I joined Universal Pictures in 1998, and at that time he was the VP of Marketing, an executive of the former Polygram Filmed Entertainment. Although I was employed by Universal Pictures, my offer letter was written on Polygram headed paper, so soon was it after the acquisition by the Hollywood studio. Everywhere you went there were remnants of Polygram lying about. In my desk drawer was a signed Fargo script and signed rental VHS video sleeves of Trainspotting. People smoked at their desks and it felt like working for Polygram rather than for Universal for about eighteen months.
Sadly, Universal closed it's U.K theatrical division around the end of the year 2000, merging it with Paramount - as UIP, for a period of a few years, before re-establishing studio independence locally again. This saw the departure of the whole team, and with it my ambitions to join them on the floor above.
By the time David left to set up Momentum, Universal was finally shaking off its old Polygram roots for good, and the International team (ran by Mary Daly – now at Fox in L.A.) were increasingly calling the shots, so I knew that it was definitely time for me to move on also. The other deciding factor was that the (predominantly special interest) team downstairs (run by Johnny Fewings and Helen Parker) had nabbed the rights to market and release the local U.K. production films (from the likes of Working Title), so my team were just left with the big studio films – however, I did get to personally product manage American Beauty before I left.
Momentum was a thriving and social office space and we were all together on one floor. Previously the Universal theatrical team had been one floor up and operated separately from the home entertainment team, who I’m sure they looked down their noses at. But that team was kind of legendary at the time, what with Julia Short, Kate Lee and the enigmatically aloof Chris Bailey, who was almost a kind of star in his own right. Many of this team went on to join rival independent distributor, Redbus, who are now Lionsgate U.K.
By the time I joined Momentum they had already theatrically released O Brother Where Art Thou and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Both had performed well, particularly the latter - which was quite an achievement, as it's incredibly hard to make family film work outside the dominant studio franchise content, and not many people in the U.K. had even heard of these characters, and certainly none of the kids would have done.
Like Universal, Momentum also had its sights on the potentially lucrative locally produced special interest programming market. Conrad Withey, who headed up the home entertainment team at MP, had also come from Universal, and this was very much his area of expertise. As there was a long theatrical to home entertainment window at the time, we needed to release more new product that first Q4, so we acquired some programming, as well as making some of our own.
One of those acquisitions was Puppetry of the Penis (which I had witnessed live on a Universal staff Xmas night out) – but unfortunately that ended up being a flop. More successful was our own fitness hybrid, Yogalates, which went on to sell silly numbers, becoming one of the most successful U.K. fitness video brands of all time. We later won a BVA Marketing award for the campaign at the time, with its TV ad-homage to Head & Shoulders (it’s two workouts in one!). However, the special interest content proved to be very hit and miss – although I was given the freedom to produce two programmes of my own – Learn to Play the Brazilian Way - a football skills video, and The Bollywood Workout – which I recall David describing as 'a good really concept, poorly executed' (I can’t argue with that prognosis!).
Independent theatrical film was really the heartbeat of Momentum, but we were also strong on home entertainment catalogue, seeing as we were given the keys to the Studiocanal cupboard. A veritable treasure trove of classic 80's and 90s films was at our disposal and we set about putting their choicest titles onto the DVD format for the very first time. Iconic titles such as Terminator 2, Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Stargate and The Rambo Trilogy. We released Terminator 2 in a steel box (before Steelbook existed) and it sold so well that we decided to make a limited-edition black tin version, purely on a whim - and then that sold out too. Everything film-releated sold so well during this period and that meant that we could invest in elaborate packaging. I fitted Basic Instinct out with a totally bespoke moulded ice-pack for the DVD box to sit in – lord knows what that cost to manufacture and Stargate had a unique fold-out cardboard pyramid-pack! We had quite a cavalier attitude to spending back then as everything just flew off the shelves.
Momentum Pictures also had a healthy rental video business at the time, run by Peter Dutton and Michael Lee (now of The Movie Partnership), but the home entertainment teams were merged after Conrad left to set up his own special interest programming company, The Rights Company. It was then that the focus shifted more and more towards the ‘sell-through’ side of the market, as rental video slowly declined and died. Rental department Product Manager, Chris Bird, who later went on to be one of the first employees of Love Film, is now the Worldwide Head of Film Licensing at Amazon. This kind of meteoric rise happened to more than one of the Momentum staffers as it was a fertile breeding ground for the next generation of more senior industry execs.
From the very beginning, MP seemingly had the Midas-touch when it came to theatrical releasing, and that confidence was palpable. Two years in, the only flop I can now recall was the 2003 teen musical, Camp, which upon reflection (and also at the time, to be fair) was a major gamble. They say that bad things come in three’s and came along they did, like a convoy of doomed buses. Three major flops, all in a row, during the autumn of 2004. Stage Beauty, starring Claire Danes was supposed to be a new Shakespeare in Love, which was followed by James McEvoy in Inside I’m Dancing and then the doomed English Language version of L’Appartement, Wicker Park, starring Josh Hartnett and Diane Kruger. All 3 of these releases were disasters at the box office and represented a huge hit for the company, and that experience subsequently dented some of that sense of infallibility.
Soon after this period, David left to go back to Universal and in came French producer Xavier Marchand, who took Momentum Pictures from being just a distributor to being a distributor-producer. One of his rising protégés was Robert Walak, who had been acquiring home entertainment content for us, such as direct to video genre films and prestige lines such as The Shaw Brothers catalogue. Robert later got involved on the production side, starting with the infamous Lesbian Vampire Killers before moving onto produce Weekender. As with Chris Bird, Robert later soared to a very high level in the industry, by way of The Weinstein Company, up to becoming President of Focus Features, living the Hollywood mogul dream in Los Angeles.
There's huge industry push these days to get more women in higher positions within film distribution but Momentum at that time was rich with strong and super-talented female executives. Sam Nichols headed up the theatrical division, Sally Caplan ran acquisitions and business affairs, before heading to the UK Film Council, Krista Wegner was Senior VP of Finance and Operations and is now EVP sales and Distribution at Participant Media, Theresa Roberts who headed up PR went on to be SVP of publicity at EOne, Head of Marketing, Bec Mortimer, went on to become Marketing Director at Netflix UK, after a stint at EOne, and that's just to name a few.
Many who started out as interns or juniors are now heads of departments at studios (Robin Kinsey, Llewelyn Radley) or managing partners at agencies (Sarah Faithfull), and that is also just to name a few.
Momentum released some of the most significant independent films of the 2000s – including Bowling for Columbine, Britney Spears’ Crossroads, and most of Ryan Reynolds’ early film catalogue. Later they would hit an incredible high with the release of The Kings Speech and foreign language hits with Downfall, Headhunters and Let the Right One in. Not all of the decisions were good ones though. One Friday afternoon we sat down to watch a new horror film, on a scrawny labelled VHS tape, called Saw, and afterwards we all thought it was a bit ‘meh’ and passed on it. Later it became the best-selling horror film franchise of all-time!
After five and a half years I moved on myself. I often look back on this decision with a sense of profound regret, as it was such a great company to work for, with such great films to work on and people to work alongside, but I had run my course in the position I was in and had always coveted a position in theatrical marketing, which in the end just wasn't forthcoming.
Many staffers followed David Kosse to Universal, and then to STX (Anne Frank, Andy, Llewellyn). Some moved across to EOne (Xavier, Bec, Alex, Ken, Neil, Theresa, Louisa, Nick, Deborah, Robert Bentley and the rest of the sales team) and some others went to Altitude Films (Hamish, Lia, Mark, Adam). It’s interesting to see how many stuck together and still work together to this day.
The Momentum brand was revived in 2015 as part of a venture with Orion Pictures to jointly acquire films for distribution in North America and international markets. I’m glad that the imprint has survived and I’m proud to have been part of its history.