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"There are certain films that I'm really proud of that have flopped really badly. But I don't consider them failures."
31 March 2013

Troy Lum is Hopscotch Films

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Mark Rogers

Kate Bezar on Troy Lum...

In the film industry, Troy Lum is considered a bit of a legend. Not only did he have the foresight to buy the rights to Amélie from script, but was also prepared to buy those for Farenheit 9/11 from just a paragraph outlining Mike Moore’s idea for the film. He’s not afraid to go where no distributor has gone before, and it’s unlikely that films such as Travelling Birds and Raising Victor Vargas would have shown at cinemas here if it wasn’t for Troy. Troy Lum is Hopscotch Films.

This story originally ran in issue #5 of Dumbo Feather

Troy Lum: Wong Kar-wai, the director, is in town. He just told us four days ago that he was arriving, and that we needed to hook up two days of interviews.

Kate Bezar: He contacted you because you distribute his films here?

Yeah, I’m doing 2046, which is his upcoming film. His next project’s with Nicole Kidman, so I think he’s having lunch with Nicole today at her house – so hobnobbing around.

You must do a bit of hobnobbing yourself.

Just a bit.

Do you get sick of it? I suppose that’s a loaded question, isn’t it?

No, I do get sick of it, but it’s one of those things that you’re either in the mood for or you’re not, and it’s just so much part of the job that you can’t really afford not to be in the mood for it. I don’t really, what do you call it, like, schmooze around too much.

I’m sure the best part is that you meet some fantastically talented people. And you’ve been in the same industry for quite a while now?

Yeah. I haven’t actually done anything else. I started in the business when I was 21. I travelled for a couple of years after university, came back here. I did writing at university and I wanted to be a writer – it was the only thing that I was really, really good at, and I really loved it. The biggest sacrifice I think that I’ve made doing what I do now is that I don’t write any more at all, and I miss that part of myself a lot.

Having a creative outlet?

I think I spent so much of my life identifying myself with being that person, that that was so much caught up in who I was, and so I had a pretty hard time letting that go. I missed that idea of myself, do you know what I mean? So I came back and I was really struggling –

This story originally ran in issue #5 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #5 of Dumbo Feather

I had very minimal career prospects, because I'd never really done anything besides work in restaurants.

I’d worked in hospitality and gone to university. I did a Business degree and an Arts degree, but I’d actually never applied it any way.

Did you ever try and get anything published?

Yeah, I got a few things published actually, in really obscure sort of poetry journals. I was really into poetry. It’s not very vocational. I used to do short stories and stuff, and then I think it was just that pressure of thinking that I had to do something with my life, and I had all this energy that I wasn’t putting anywhere.

Was there pressure from other people, or it was mainly yourself?

Oh, no, there was no pressure from anybody else, my parents aren’t really like that. I was just one of those people who was completely unemployed, but always really busy. I was just busy doing things all the time, and I just wanted to focus that in some way.

First of all I wanted to be in publishing, because my first passion before films is books. I love books, and so I thought, well, I’ll get a job in books, and I just couldn’t get anything at all. Then I thought, well, if I can’t work in books then I’ll work in film, but only independent film, which is what I really loved as well. I wrote a letter to Dendy [Films], and I got a job there as the office junior when I was 21, and then things changed and by the age of 24 I was running the company.

So, hang on, “Things changed, and by 24 I was running the company,” how on earth did that happen?

I don’t know. I think about it sometimes, and I don’t know how it happened either. Dendy was owned by a husband and wife team, and it was very much a private company. They were a distribution company and they had four cinemas, and then when it got taken over by a public company they both left so there was this massive vacuum.

I’d been there for a year when this all happened, then I got put up into a sales role, visiting all the cinemas and stuff. And then someone else left, and all of a sudden I was basically running the company. The first release that I did was a film called Waking Ned Devine, which did really, really well.

So when you say you “did it” you mean you sourced the film?

I didn’t source the film, but I released the film – going to cinemas, doing the marketing campaign, the publicity, I basically put the whole thing together. And from then I found myself running the company, and no one actually said anything. But it was funny, because I didn’t really know anything and

I was so young, I didn't really know the rules!

That year I went off to Cannes, and we bought the Blair Witch ProjectAll About My Mother – the Almodovar film, and Buena Vista Social Club. And basically, I came back and that was probably the best independent package that anyone had bought for years, and that was it, and that was my job, and it started from there.

So when you’re in Cannes you see, what, hundreds of movies?

Yeah, I see probably about five or six movies a day for two weeks.

And so out of those 80 movies or so, you just go with your gut on which you think are going to be most successful.

Yeah, it’s just instinctive. It’s tricky, because you definitely lose more than you win in distribution. Second guessing what the public is going to like is difficult, but especially second guessing what they’re going to like in literally six or seven months time, because it takes you that long to go from the market to actually release the film.

So you’ve got to be very much aware of what else is around, what else is going on. I don’t really believe in picking trends, but over the years…like, the whole documentary thing came about when we bought Bowling for Columbine. But at the time, when we bought Bowling for Columbine I wasn’t actually thinking, “Oh, wow, documentaries are going to become a new thing”.

That was really the first one though.

Yeah, pretty much. I mean we’d dabbled before in documentary. I’d released Buena Vista Social Club, and I’d done a film called One Day in September, but no one really considered a documentary a film that they would see at a multiplex cinema, they might see it at some small cinema. So that changed everything.

So you saw the film and you thought, okay I really think there’s something here?

I saw the movie – I’d never watched The Awful Truth, so I didn’t even know who Michael Moore was at all – and was just like, fuckin’ hell, this is amazing. It crystallised for me all the thoughts that I already had about the United States and the cycle of violence. It was stuff that I’d thought about over the years, and so to see it on screen, it’s really amazing the way that he did it.

I remember quite vividly there was a big standing ovation in the Palais, and everyone came out, and I was thinking, well, it’s really in essence just a documentary about gun control, but it speaks louder than that. It was my first Cannes as Hopscotch, as my own company, and so I guess there was quite a lot of pressure for us to start off with something that was going to… But it was a huge risk, not just in terms of the fi lm itself, but also saying this is what our company was going to do. I think at the time I paid what was a record price for a doco.

So is there a sort of bidding war that goes on?

There is, but it’s not open bidding, and it’s like any other business where you have relationships. I’ve released, I think probably close to a hundred films, so I’ve got good relationships with producers and sales agents and I’ve got a good reputation for releasing a certain film, so if you have a certain film then I’m the person to do it in this territory. It all adds up.

It’s also the money you put up front, and how much you love it and you’ve got to get to know producers who respond to different things. Some producers are just all about the money, some are about your passion and how much you want the project and what you say you can do for the film, which is the spirit that I respond to the most. But yeah, you’re never bidding against your competition in the open. That makes it a bit harder, because sometimes it’s behind closed doors, or at a party, you know what I mean? You’re always basically working. When I’m at Cannes I wake up at seven in the morning and am in bed by two in the morning. The whole day is just full on working for two weeks, and that life is pretty weird, because for me it’s about three or four months of the year I’m away. I work a circuit of Berlin, Venice, Cannes, Toronto, LA and Hong Kong some years as well, Sundance. And so you’re constantly away in this artificial world where movies are the only thing that matters, and it’s pretty insane. You really lose what’s going on in the rest of the world in many ways.

A completely surreal existence.

It’s really surreal. When you’re in these film markets there’s a daily newspaper that comes out which is just all about who’s bought what, who’s sold what, reviews of films, just movie news. They’ve got enough news to release one every day while you’re away that goes for 40 or 50 pages, and there’s four of them, Screen International, Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and Moving Pictures. So each day the first thing you do is look through the trade magazines, that’s how unreal this world is. You don’t even pick up another newspaper so anything could happen and you’d have no idea. All you know is what films are cool, what films are bad, what’s screening, who’s here, what’s what, but no idea about what’s happening anywhere else.

Everyone bangs on about September 11th, which gets a bit boring, but we were in Toronto when it happened, so we had all these people from all over the world, who are people I see constantly, but don’t really know very well. And people are freaking out, and it was just Kafkaesque. They shut the festival down, no one could get anywhere, so for four or five days you had the whole international film community stuck in Toronto without being able to watch any movies, without all the stuff that we usually had to occupy us, none of the trade mags, and we had to talk about other things all week. At the time I remember talking to some people, going, this is really great for the film business. All of a sudden you had people crying on your shoulder and blah blah blah.

I had moments with some people during that time where I actually saw who they were for a moment, and you think if you break that barrier, from there on it’s going to be different. It wasn’t. It wasn’t like that at all. It took the industry literally until the next market, and everything was back to normal again.

You’ve chosen a really interesting industry.

It’s like two different lives in a way. I’ve got my life here and then I’ve got I guess my circuit life. If you can imagine, of the core players there’s about 500 people, so about 500 people basically choose every film in the world that people see.

We see each other all the time, you know each other’s taste, and people know the history of things that you’ve bought. When you get introduced to people they go, “This is Troy, he bought Blair Witch and Amélie…”. It’s like a little badge of honour, and it’s so surreal. And then of course when you have like a big failure, you carry around these films like a ball and chain for the rest of your career.

Have you had any major flops?

Yeah, I’ve had a lot actually. My hit rate is better than most, but, well, I mean I don’t really, it depends on how you classify failure. Unfortunately the big driver of success in our business is box office, unfortunately for most it’s really the only driver of success, but I don’t want to judge success and failure on box office. So there are certain films that I’m really proud of that have flopped really badly, but I don’t consider them failures. Films like Raising Victor Vargas, which is one of my favourite films that I’ve bought, or a film that I bought last year called Together, a Chen Kaige film. I really loved those films.

We buy a lot of films that we know aren't commercially viable, but it's important for us, it's important for the brand that we're still bringing in really good cinema, even though they might be commercially challenged.

On the flip side as well, the majority of films that we buy are commercially driven, but I think every once in a while you’ve got to buy films that you love, and sometimes those films that you love end up being big hits. Bowling for Columbine was a film that I just really loved, and really didn’t have a commercial sense of it at all, but bought it because I loved it and I think that’s really important.

Did you get the rights to Fahrenheit 9/11 because you’d bought Bowling for Columbine?

It definitely played a big part. Australia was Bowling‘s most successful territory in the world pro rata, so Michael Moore knew of us. When 9/11 wasn’t even in production, he basically offered us the film, but only had a paragraph on an A4 page about what it was about. He needed a big chunk of change for us to be able to do it, again, it’s a punt that you take based on the abilities of the film-maker. I always think that the director’s the most important part of any film, and I think you’ve got to back the talents of brilliant directors. So it was a big risk.

I was sitting across from one of my best friends, probably in the world, who’s also on this circuit. She is a French woman who works for Wild Bunch, an amazing company, who do the riskiest films and amazing stuff, but we’ve always been really good mates, and really good mates without ever doing business with each other. And then all of a sudden she had Fahrenheit 9/11 and she was selling it on behalf of Michael Moore. She said, “Troy, we’ve just got to put our friendship aside,” and then she said, “I really want you to have this film, but I need to close it in the next ten minutes because this other company’s coming in, they’ve made an offer”. So the window on that film was ten minutes, the price was half a million dollars, and all I had was one paragraph, and one of my best friends actually selling it to me. So I just made a really instinctive – could have been stupid – decision, but it ended up being a smart decision. But it’s hard to say that it was a smart decision at the time, based on such small things I can’t really figure out if it was smart. I remember coming out, and telling my business partners Sandie and Frank, “I’ve just bought Fahrenheit 9/11.” They were like, “How much?” And I told them, and both their faces just dropped, because we all knew that if the film didn’t turn out, then we could have just lost the company on that one.

Really? What would it have had to do at the box office for you to recoup that?

Well, you’d have to spend at least half a million again on marketing, so probably about three or four million…

And did it do that?

Oh, we did eight million. That’s what the business is like. I mean it’s about personal relationships. I think when a lot of people say, “You’ve got really great taste, you buy really great movies”, and that’s what people think my ability is, but I actually don’t think it’s that at all, because most of the time when I’m buying a movie all my competitors are going after the same movie. I actually think my best attribute is I get on well with people, and I don’t really try to be anyone else, and I’m really social so I actually quite enjoy staying up to two o’clock in the morning having drinks at Cannes. I know that sounds like such a wank. Our major success this year so far has been a film called My House in Umbria. If you know my taste in films, it’s like the anti-taste – I hate those movies. When that screened, my partner Frank saw it and said, “Fantastic, it’s going to do really well, Maggie Smith in Tuscany”. I really was resistant to the film.

You thought it wasn’t Hopscotch?

Yeah, not Hopscotch, not the kind of film that we do. And then now of course it’s the biggest hit of the year, and my talent there was not actually knowing that it was a good film, my talent was just wanting to back up my partner who really loved something. Instead of fighting him and going, “I don’t want you to do it, I don’t like it”, I said, “You like it then let’s go and do it”. It’s a different way of being good at what you do, because even if it didn’t work, you still know that you backed your partner in a positive way.

So who are your partners?

Frank Cox, who has been in the business for 30 years. He owned a company called New Vision. We have that library now, which has the seminal art house films of the ’80s and ’90s; the Three Colour trilogy, basically the whole Jarmusch catalogue, the Kevin Smith catalogue, ClerksChasing AmyMonsoon Wedding, amazing films. And there’s Sandie who is I guess my professional soul mate. We’d been working with each other since I was 21, she started at Dendy about two months before I did. I’m more numbers and relationship oriented, so I do sales, accounts and a lot of the relationship stuff, but she does all the marketing and all the artwork. We describe it as everything that you see about the company is Sandie, and I’m everything that you don’t see, the airy-fairy stuff. The way Hopscotch came about was that Frank was basically my main competitor when I was at Dendy but we were obviously at different stages of our lives.

I'd just bought Amélie from script, which no one had ever really done before

– bought a foreign language film from script.

Yet it’s such a visual film.

Yeah, but it was so beautifully written. I think I paid 60 grand for Amélie and it did about seven million box office. Frank and I always got on really well and what I liked about him was that even as a competitor, if you had success, he never begrudged your success. And when we did Amélie, he came up to me one night and he said, “That was such a great campaign, good on you. You must do really well, you must get a really big share out of that”. And I know, thinking about it now, it was a tactic, but I was “No, I don’t actually”. He goes, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well I’m just an employee”. He goes, “But you’re running the company, don’t you get a share in the success? We should talk”.

So it basically progressed to Frank saying to me in a very personal way that he wanted to change his life, that he’d done very well out of the film industry, but he didn’t want to do it in the same way that he was doing it now. He wanted to travel, and he wanted to go to all the festivals, and meet all the friends and some of the people that he’s known for 30 years, but he didn’t want to go through the day-to-day of running a company and releasing the films and stuff. He saw me as his opportunity to take a step out and our partnership was based on that, and based on trust. I can’t imagine any of Frank’s accountants or lawyers thinking that he was doing a smart thing, because the deal that he put on the table was so weighted towards me, I mean it was ridiculous, he was putting up all the money. And he just wanted to change his life, so he spends about half of his time here in Australia, and the rest travelling in Greece or Cuba or whatever. But he still has a major hand in what the company does, just in a different way. I was wanting to change my life, because I just wanted another challenge. At the time it was a strange decision to make – because I was running a really, really successful company, I could have stayed there for the next 20 years and done what I did, and I had a great team – but

I just needed to do something else and so I went out on a limb.

It was really just a lifestyle change for both of us that actually meant something, and then when that happened I just realised I couldn’t really do it without Sandie, so she came over and we made her a partner as well.

And you obviously saw a gap in the market for a company like Hopscotch.

There wasn’t really a gap in the market, but it was mainly… I mean Frank has a great reputation in the market after 30 years, and I was, I guess, in those international terms and in that world I’m talking about, I was the kid that everyone saw as having the Midas touch, because as I said, everyone talks about your successes and no one talks about your failures. So I was just the guy who released Blair Witch and bought Amélie and so because of all those independent hits I carried around all this kudos. You know, it was weird but no one talks about all the big time flops that I had as well.

So you are, what, 26 at this stage?

26, 27. I think youth is a big thing as well. I’ve always made sure that I was my own personality. I think in that international marketplace I stick out like a sore thumb because I’m young and I’m Australian, but I don’t look Australian. So I think in that sense it really helped me. Especially in the film business which is all about perception, it’s such smoke and mirrors, because everyone’s reputations are based on such flimsy things, and I don’t really operate in that way. But by the same token I use it to my advantage when it’s there. So there wasn’t really a gap in the market, I just basically knew that no matter where I went I would take my relationships with me?

Yeah. And that would be your point of differentiation?

Yeah, the point of differentiation was me, and Frank, and our tastes and the stuff that we want to do and the fact that we do buy films that we love and that

we buy films for political reasons – which is one of the reasons why we bought Bowling for Columbine.

It was like a really salient, political view point that we have, and I think all of those things mean something. So if you’re buying films that are an extension of your personality, then I think you are your own unique thing, so there wasn’t really a gap in the market, because the market’s probably overcrowded.

As you said, they’re all bidding for the same films anyway. So when you say you buy films for political reasons, in that one paragraph about Fahrenheit did you realise how politically charged it was?

Yeah. I mean he [Michael Moore] basically said that Bush got into government by sinister means. But also, what Fahrenheit 9/11 did was basically crystallise all the theories which the neo-conservative right which dominates our media took Michael Moore to task about – all that stuff is completely factual. There’s nothing in the film that is actually an out-and-out lie.

How did the media treat the movie?

Terribly. Terribly in this country, it was horrible. It was a great experience, but what it really showed me is just how in the pocket the Australian media is to American conglomerates, and how much of a sucker we are to all that bullshit. It really upsets me that neo-conservative, gutless crap is just pervading everything that we do in this country. Even respectable broadsheets that were meant to be left-leaning, they were like the worst – The Age, The Herald – they were so jumping on the bandwagon. It became a Michael Moore backlash, these papers would print a double page on all the inconsistencies in the film, and yet I never saw a double-page spread on all the inconsistencies in the search for weapons of mass destruction, which is what the film is fucking about. I would read a full-on critique on the movie about an unfair war, but I never ever read a full-on critique on the unfair war. And I just thought, what the fuck is going on? And I think that’s really disturbing, it’s really disturbing. I think Australia, in terms of its sensibilities, has just gone fully backwards in the last ten years, disturbingly so. The ground swell voice of dissention is actually not really there, and I find that really disturbing. So we do a lot of that sort of work, or just films that have a different idea about the world. I think that’s really important.

Is that where you think film has been extremely powerful?

Look, film’s most powerful message is still to entertain, I still think that is its primary function, but I think you’ve got to give people a new reason to go to the cinema or just to move them. Each film that we do we try to make it a unique experience for a certain kind of person. I think somebody would say, “Look, if it’s a Hopscotch film then I’m there”, but funnily enough we don’t really buy that way. So something like Touching the Void for instance, it’s an amazing film, there’s an amazing message in that film, but it’s also a film that we thought was pretty much directed to a certain person, and once we found those people, it became something else. I think even with Somersault… Somersault was a funny one, because it was really about knowing the director Cate [Shortland] and thinking, you are an amazing talent. When we read that script, it was about seeing Australia and those characters in a totally unique way and so that’s why we took that film on. We didn’t take it on thinking it was going to win 13 AFI awards and blah blah blah. I think what we try to do is give a unique experience – whether it’s Spellbound, or Travelling Birds, or Goodbye Lenin!Barbarian Invasions – we’re trying to give people different reasons to go to the cinema, not just to be entertained, but

to see a totally different world or to get a totally different life experience.

At the time when we bought Amélie from script, that was one of the reasons we did it. I mean for me, I loved that idea of that the small things in life are really important, and that’s what Amélie was about. Like, even though there were special effects it was really about a unique personality in the world.

And seeing the magic in things.

Amélie wasn’t as much of a character as she was a feeling. Her character for me represented an actual feeling, that whole feeling of the world being beautiful for the things that you don’t see, or the small things in life, or the searches for happiness and of sensory and tactile things. She was actually an emotion, and by the end of that script I was in love with Amélie. I was in love with a character on a page, I just fell in love with her, just the way that she looked at the world and I think if anything that’s what we’re going to try to do. But we’ll see.

Do you consciously try to support the Australian film industry? Are you actually producing an Australian film?

Yes. We are. I think it’s really important for us as a leading distributor to be involved in the Australian film industry. It’s a lot harder than you might think, because it faces so many external challenges.

Being, what, the size of the market?

The size of the market, the way that most people think about the Australian film industry. It’s not the film industry itself, it’s the conditions of Australia, I think. When everyone bangs on about how crap the industry is I think what they’re not really considering are the conditions that the industry operates under. We’re a very small English-speaking country, and that means a few things. The first thing it means is that our language doesn’t protect us naturally like in Korea, or Japan, or Argentina, because they want to see something in their own language. So we’re an English-speaking country, but we are fully, fully dominated by America culturally – more so than any other English-speaking country in the world. I think

last year about 93 percent of our box office came through American films,

American popcorn movies. Our TV’s dominated by America, our radio waves are dominated by America, and the American system operates on a totally different basis. Australia produces 15 films a year of an average budget of about six to seven million dollars. In the United States they produce hundreds to thousands of films a year, and the average budget is more than $60 million. Then we’ve got an Australian media that is so non-supportive of Australian films and actually don’t understand. I mean if you’re making 15 films a year as a nation, then you haven’t even got an industry, that’s a national hobby. There’s no private funding in Australia for it, because we can’t recoup out of our own market. If you make an Australian film for $60 million you can’t recoup out of Australia. I mean, very rarely, maybe for The Castle and broad Aussie comedies, but it’s very, very rare.

So I think there’s some major obstacles, some would say insurmountable obstacles, to getting these films out there, and I just think that if a film does, it’s almost a bloody miracle. Somersault has done extraordinarily well at the box office, it’s done about two and a half million dollars, for an art house movie. But as soon as it won all the AFI awards the Australian media went out and really attacked it. Instead of understanding what’s wrong with our culture, they want to attack people who are trying to give it a go against major odds. I find that really upsetting. So supporting Australian industry for us is trying to be involved in that process, but it’s tricky. And it’s got nothing to do with talent pool – the talent’s obviously in Australia, because we have such amazing people going over to work overseas – it’s the structure we have to work in, the budgets we have to work in, it’s the mindset of the Australian public, and I’m hoping that it’s going to swing around again for us.

It’s about due to swing.

Well, it’s got a lot to do with the government and the pervading attitude in Australia – the fact that we’ve, I really believe, lost a sense of identity over the last 15 years of who the fuck we are. We’re further away from reconciling with our indigenous past, and becoming a republic and becoming all those symbolic things that bind your culture together. We’re further away from that now than we were 15 years ago. And so what does that mean? It means that we’ve got this rudderless cultural boat. It’s really sad, because over those 15 years we’ve lost ground to the rest of the world, and in fact Australia hasn’t had a worldwide film hit since ShineShine was a fucking long time ago and most countries in the world, including New Zealand, have had major international success in that period of time. I think the only way that we can really change where Australian films are at, is to actually change the way that we view ourselves as a country, because that will allow us to be able to stick our head above all the American stuff. But we don’t have that at all, we don’t have a very sympathetic regime, I should call it.

That same regime would label you as being very “un-Australian.”

Exactly. Well, ‘un-Australian’ just basically means going against whatever they think. It’s like un-Australian’s an insult. Well, if Australian means locking people up in mandatory detention, then maybe I want to be un-Australian.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Mark Rogers

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