Jonathan Sothcott interview: producing independent films in the UK

Producer Jonathan Sothcott talks about running an independent film company in the UK, finding the right project and a post-Brexit industry.

Jonathan Sothcott has had a hand in producing a whole lot of independent films here in the UK over the last decade. You may have even seen a fair few of them yourself, especially if you’re a Danny Dyer completest.

He’s the man behind Hereford Films, the production and financing company he runs with partner Damien Morley. If that name rings a bell, it might well be because Morley owns a modelling agency that takes care of most of the Page 3 girls, and the entrepreneur has even recently launched a bid to buy the Page 3 brand off The Sun himself.

Movies like Devil’s Playground, Dead Cert, Strippers vs Werewolves, Vendetta, We Still Kill The Old Way and its sequel, We Still Steal The Old Way, have slung enough copies to keep Surrey-born Sothcott and co. in business, and he’s busier than he’s ever been, with six movies either already out or in various stages of production this year.

Although it’s common to see him around and about doing deals or publicity, often surrounded by glamourous women in the expensive bars and restaurants of London, the soft-spoken Sothcott is also a bit of a geek at heart, and has worked his way up the ladder from a nerdy film fan to a genuinely successful producer.

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He also went through the wringer a bit in 2016, after The Hollywood Reporter ran a scathing article detailing various allegations against him (which he’s denied) including a quote from an anonymous producer declaring him a “blight” on the industry.

So, who is the real Jonathan Sothcott, how does he operate, and what does it take to make a low budget independent movie into something that will shift units in the UK right now?

We had a chat with him to find out…

Jonathan, thanks for talking with Den Of Geek. You’re a bit of an interesting character on the British film scene, to say the least. You started out in film journalism, didn’t you?

Well I tried. As a teenager growing up in the middle of nowhere I had no idea how to break into the film industry and the only thing I had even the slightest ability in was writing, and even that is a moot point.

There was – and still is – a wonderful horror film magazine called The Darkside and I threw myself upon the mercy of the editor Allan Bryce who took a punt on me and bought a couple of articles I had written on spec. So, while still at school doing A levels I was a journalist, interviewing film-makers.

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Through this I met another guy who, as I am with Allan, I’ll always be grateful to – David Gregory. David, through his company Blue Underground, was producing DVD extras for Anchor Bay and hired me as a journalist to interview the talent in documentaries and on DVD commentaries.

So, in my late teens and early twenties I was interviewing amazing people like Bryan Forbes, Ken Russell, Michael Winner, Christopher Lee, Sir Roger Moore, Peter Yates and Brian Clemens. And I absorbed everything they said like a sponge.

Eventually I started producing the documentaries, the peak of which was a profile of Wild Geese producer Euan Lloyd called The Last of the Gentlemen Producers. It was shown as the Bradford Film Festival. I will always treasure the memory of smoking big cigars with Euan after this screening, back in the days when one could smoke in hotels!

Euan was a good friend and I was devastated when he died last year. His daughter Ros asked me to give a eulogy at his memorial service which was a real honour. He was wonderful. I will very occasionally dip my toe in journalism for fun still – I reviewed Roger Moore’s autobiography for GQ and wrote a piece for them about Timothy Dalton but I’m under no illusion that I have any particular gift for writing!

What were your favourite movies growing up?

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My favourite movie has always been Jaws. I just adore it. I saw it on Betamax aged about 3 and must have seen it 1000 times since. I love it so much that I even love all the sequels. I can make a pretty decent case for Jaws 3 being an underrated gem.

I loved the Roger Moore James Bond movies, and still do – and anything he was in, especially those boys own movies like The Wild Geese and North Sea Hijack. My other favourite actor was Michael Caine, especially in his 80s period – anything from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to the Fourth Protocol.

I was a massive horror fan, particularly the classic British horrors produced by Hammer and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, both of whom I met. Silly American comedies like Police Academy, Porky’s, Big, Adventures in Babysitting.

As I got older anything made by Cannon really – I still love a Charles Bronson movie. The original Star Wars trilogy. Rocky, Rambo, Commando. Who Dares Wins. The early Steven Seagal movies, in fact all of them up to Exit Wounds.

As my horror taste matured I fell in love with The Lost Boys, Fright Night, A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Howling series, C.H.U.D. and the Critters movies. I’m not sure my taste could get much more blokey and I think it has informed a lot of my output as a producer.

And then the first feature you produced was Wishbaby in 2007? Looking back, was it a positive experience?

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I didn’t really produce Wishbaby. In fact, I didn’t at all. It was 80% done when I got involved via the producer Simon Sprackling who I was making documentaries with at the time. I found them the finishing money and got the UK distribution deal.

Unfortunately, it was embroiled in a legal dispute between the director, who was in the right, and a financier, who didn’t deliver, so sort of fell through the cracks. Steve Parsons, said writer/director, had an interesting voice as a film maker. He was a top composer – he’s also the punk singer in Howling 2! – and I think he could’ve had an interesting career making horror films but I think the experience put him off.

I believe it was the first urban British horror film and it stands up pretty well should you stumble across a copy in Poundland. 

In the decade since, you’ve had at least some involvement in producing close to 30 UK feature films. That’s an eye-wateringly impressive number of projects, considering the state of the industry here right now. What have some your biggest learning experiences been, in terms of making mistakes, or trusting your instincts?

My biggest learning experience has always been trust your gut – especially about people. Everyone who has made my Spidey sense tingle has turned out to be an arsehole. The older I get the less tolerance I have for idiots.

When I was making Vendetta everyone – everyone – told me not to use Danny Dyer – he was washed up, past it, toxic etc. I stuck by him because I knew he was right and the huge success of the movie proved me right and of course made me insufferably smug. 

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But sometimes I get it wrong – recent examples there would be Age of Kill – far too ambitious for its budget and a good director but one who wasn’t the right fit for the material – and Bonded By Blood 2 which I thought was a solid movie but didn’t have all the elements expected in those Essex Boys films.

I think that particular mini-genre is kind of done now anyway. Every time I see a Range Rover on a DVD cover that isn’t Layer Cake now I die a bit inside. 

Speaking of Mr Dyer…he’s popped up in a fair few of your films over the years. You’ve said in the past you owe a lot to him, but your friendship has also been a bit tumultuous. Are you currently friends or foes? 

I’ve not spoken to Danny in a while, though there was no grand falling out. Having access to him in 2009/2010 certainly opened a lot of doors as he was a hot property and over the subsequent years he was a big part of my life. He was never someone who went out & opened doors for me the way say Billy Murray and Martin Kemp did but we did a lot together.

As well as movies such as Devil’s Playground and Vendetta we made Danny Dyer’s Football Foul Ups and a stand-up tour How A Middle Class Feminist Fell In Love With Danny Dyer. And of course, James Mullinger, who fronted said tour, and I also wrote the book The Films Of Danny Dyer. I was very happy when the Telegraph described the book as “strangely delightful” – a better review than any of the films it examined ever received from them!

It’s an extremely fickle industry though and if you have half a dozen genuine friends who are there in the bad times as well as the good then you are doing well!

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Someone you probably spend a good deal of time with at the moment is Damien Morley, your partner over at Hereford. Can you take me through an average week for the two of you?

Yes, unfortunately I spend more time with Damien than I do with my girlfriend which is a shame because he’s just not as beautiful as her – but then again, I don’t think anyone is! He’s a very smart guy and a good foil to me. His focus is very much business, whereas I am a tiny bit more creative – e.g. I actually read scripts sometimes. If you’ve seen the excellent documentary Electric Boogaloo about Cannon Films that’s the best insight you can get into the workings of an indie film company. It really is like that, except we’re much smaller and only half as crazy!

We are in a state of flux at the moment as Damien is looking to move to the States so we are working out the logistics of that. We will open a Hereford office in LA but we’ve also just moved offices from North London to Notting Hill which I’m very happy about as its where I live. In fact, Hereford Films is named after Hereford Road in Notting Hill where I lived with Sherlock actress Lisa McAllister some years ago.

So now we have our new base our days basically consist of sitting around in restaurants drinking wine… no not really! Most mornings we recap on all the trouble we caused in whatever bar we were in last night… again, I’m kidding… we start with a recap of what news has filtered in from LA overnight – we’re doing an increasing amount of business with the States. Then we’ll hassle our lawyers and financiers and then I’ll probably talk to Paul our excellent head of production, driving him mad to get budgets down or tidy up scripts.

We now have a development co-ordinator Emmeline who reads all the material submitted to us and reports back whether it is worth exploring – 90% is utter rubbish – so we’ll touch base with her. Then we’ll have a lunch meeting with an actor or a director or a financier.

We have a number of other businesses too, including a couple of publishing companies and Damien has a model agency so we’re always spinning plates. We go to LA every couple of months and are currently planning our next trip there. I had been plotting a move out there too but I have decided to stay in London and just commute to the States as is required.

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I also write a little bit too – I’ve created a TV series with Keith Arem who directed the Call Of Duty video games – I am under no illusion that I’m a writer as I said before but it was an idea I’d had for a while and Keith was the perfect person to creatively partner with.

We’re very flexible: we’re not a 9-5 business. We work hard and we play hard too. It isn’t an ethos that suits everyone but it seems to be working for us.

We hear a lot about DVD and Blu-ray sales dwindling in a digital age. When you decide to take on a new project, are you primarily focused on making it a physical home release, and what are the hallmarks of something that will sell well, in your opinion?

Physical still works in the UK but the distributors have to spend money promoting it. We Still Steal The Old Way performed well for us on physical recently. But audiences are getting pickier and the number of retail outlets is dwindling – it is really just the supermarkets left. The British gangster film is more of a struggle these days as it no longer works solely in this market and they simply don’t travel. Germany used to be a decent secondary market but even that’s getting tougher.

What works in the physical market place right now? High concept quality horror, ala Blumhouse, if it’s had a decent theatrical push. Quality action with at least one international recognisable name – Cage/Willis/Seagal etc. American rom-coms with a decent female lead. Everything else is a risk really. 

I still go to HMV on Oxford Street every week and buy my DVDs but I realise that I’m in an increasing minority. I have Netflix but I just don’t watch many shows on it because I have so little time. 

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In the States and in Europe physical sales are less important than here. We are focusing more on digital and VOD, particularly with our horror slate as that’s what seems to resonate there. It’s a new era with new challenges and to adapt is to survive so that’s what we’re doing.

How do you think the independent film industry will evolve in the UK, post-Brexit? Can you see your job getting harder?

I honestly don’t think Brexit will have any impact on the UK film industry per se. There will probably be an increase in traffic from American films using our studios and crews in fact. I voted Remain but I kind of think we need to get on with it now – I find this constant questioning of democracy at the minute rather troubling.

A far greater problem is piracy which is increasingly becoming a battle I fear we can’t win. The last two films I had out were absolutely pillaged by illegal downloaders, a significant proportion of whom don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. I am constantly shocked at how flagrant these SOBs are in their flouting of the law and if the industry doesn’t wake up and tackle this aggressively and proactively it could well be the death of independent film as we know it.

You had a bit of bad press last year. One particular Hollywood Reporter exposé was absolutely brutal. Is that something you have to just power through or does it set you back?

Unfortunately, when you either achieve a degree of public success or pop your head over the parapet and put yourself in the public eye to promote your work, then you have to be prepared to suffer the slings and arrows as well as the plaudits.

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The internet is a curious thing because anyone can pretend to be anyone. There’s no immediate deterrent so they behave differently to how they would in real life. In my view anonymous internet trolls – sad people, sometimes ill people, are always fuelled by jealousy. They are unhappy with their lives and so try to project their failures and unhappiness onto others who they perceive to be happy and successful. It isn’t anything new.

There are also those who are so desperate for a bit of attention to make themselves relevant that they attack other people online in order to make themselves look good. It’s all rather sad and depressing, isn’t it? I mean honestly – get a life! If you have to air all your perceived grievances and misery on Facebook and Twitter then you really need to take a long hard look at yourself. People need to spend less time on the internet and more time going outside in the sun and doing things.

I have an actress friend who is a hard-working patron of an animal sanctuary – there’s a guy who again and again sets up fake twitter profiles to accuse her of stealing all the charity’s money. And all of this will be because of some tiny, probably imagined, slight, most likely her not ‘favouriting’ one of his tweets. These people need to wake up and start acting like responsible adults.

In – what was it you said, 30 movies – it really isn’t unusual to have made a few enemies, particularly when your job involves hiring and firing. There’s a director I fired off a job about 8 years ago who’s still crying about it. Of course, he hasn’t made another film since. But that isn’t because I fired him, it’s because he’s utterly hopeless. Couldn’t direct traffic.

I had a film collapse a few years ago – it was the subject of a particularly unpleasant law suit during production and the financiers, who in this case owned the film until they got their money back, sold the film out from under me. Everyone got knocked on it, including me for the best part of £50,000, but I’m not going to go on Twitter and cry about that. You just dust yourself off and move on. 

So yes stalkers, trolls, losers – whatever you want to call them the internet gives them a voice. And sometimes they come together to form a little sort of federation of hate and jealousy and will, God help us, start a Facebook page. Can you imagine. And the fact that we live in a world where an anonymous Facebook page makes the news is very sad indeed. That’s even sadder than people caring about Love Island.

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Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the Hollywood Reporter article due to ongoing legal action against them. And that’s a good example about people on the internet not actually thinking of the consequences of the bile that spews out of their keyboards. Not just lawsuits – but if you think sitting on Twitter trolling producers/actors/directors etc is going to make you perceived as anything other than an unemployable sociopath by the industry then you’ve got another thing coming.

What does the future hold for you personally? What are your long-term goals?

Well we have carefully developed a slate for the changing market – family films, horror films, action films. We’re dipping toes in television, publishing and apps.

I ultimately would like Hereford to be a name that people recognise as the sign of a quality film. I remember seeing Martin Scorsese saying that when they saw ‘A Hammer Film’ on the opening credits then they knew they were in for a good time. I’d like Hereford to stand for something similar.

One thing I’ve learned is that long-term goals are hard in this industry as it is constantly evolving and one has to evolve with it in order to survive. I don’t have lofty ambitions like Oscars and BAFTAS. Awards are lovely but ultimately, I want to make films that entertain people. Films that people enjoy. When someone tells you they’ve seen and enjoyed your films that’s a great feeling.

Jonathan Sothcott, thank you very much.