Danny Perkins made waves in the British film industry in 2018 when he left his long-standing role as CEO of StudioCanal UK – a tenure that saw him oversee big and beloved hits including Paddington 1 & 2, Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy aNL Shaun the sheep movie – to set up his own film and TV production company.
Elysian Film Group, which he launched with producer Kate Solomon (United 93), unveiled its distribution arm in early 2020, backed by minority investment from CAA (the giant’s first investment in a UK distributor). However, the timing wasn’t great: less than a month before the first pandemic lockdown.
It was understandably a slow start on both the production and distribution fronts. But in 2023, the company — a nimble operation with just four employees, including Perkins (which brings partners on board for major releases) — has made a lot of noise. First of all, it’s the biggest house movie to date, Best days – featuring songs from British boy band Take That – was released in June (featuring Take That at the London premiere), Elysian collaborated with Anonymous Content. It also announced another major production Fackham Hall, the first significant outing from Mews Films, a comedy venture created with Kris Thykier’s Archery Films. And in a coup of sorts, it teamed up with Bleecker Street and Anonymous to acquire the British rights The boy and the heron, the latest creation from Studio Ghibli and the hugely celebrated animation of master Hayao Miyazaki, which some speculate could be his last film. A Christmas release is set.
Speak with The Hollywood Reportr, Perkins discusses why he thinks The boy and the heron could be Studio Ghibli’s biggest hit, the challenges facing distributors in Britain but why there are still opportunities, and answers a crucial question about Paddington.
You launched Elysian in 2018. What does the company look like now, at the ripe old age of 5?
It doesn’t feel that long. We have always had an ambitious plan. But I think the pandemic was probably not the ideal time to build operations from the ground up. But we did Best days, which was a big project, a big independent film and a big independent release. It took a lot of effort to build a production company and then also a distribution company, with the support of CAA and Dear Gaia Films. We were able to release that on more than 600 screens, which was an achievement in itself. And it’s nice to follow that up with something like The boy and the heron, which is the next big release. And then we talk about production Fackham Hall will premiere early next year with a stellar cast of Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Thomasin McKenzie, Katherine Waterstone and Emma Laird announced so far. It’s a parody of it Downton Abbey, a very funny script and has been acquired by Bleecker Street. What we’re dealing with in production is having projects with a defined audience and defined sales, commercially oriented British films.
And is it primarily the intention that your productions appear in cinemas?
Yes. My background is in understanding the theater audience and setting it up that way. So that’s what we tried to do. It is challenging. And then with distribution you obviously have to look at things that are led theatrically. So we apply the same instincts to both things. To be honest, the emphasis is definitely on distribution, and if we can get involved in manufacturing, then it’s trying to feed the distribution sector.
Your distribution branch and CAA’s investment were announced in Berlin in 2020. Timing-wise, it couldn’t really have been worse considering we were all in lockdown a month later. Did it have a huge impact or, given that you had just launched, did you not really feel much of it?
I think it definitely delayed plans. We had to take stock and assess the situation. And what was the challenge with the pandemic was that there wasn’t a finite amount of time associated with it. So in terms of distribution, we started with some smaller pickups to build the team and build the system. The first edition was Earwig and the witch and it’s great now that we’re home to Studio Ghibli in the UK and can follow this up with The boy and the heron.
Your first company Optimum Releasing, which later became StudioCanal UK, was also the UK home of Studio Ghibli, right?
Yes, we did Ghostly away in 2001, so it’s been a relationship of over twenty years. It’s such a great company and it’s great that they have that loyalty there, so I’m very happy to continue this relationship.
You have acquired The boy and the heron next to Bleecker Street and Anonymous Content. How did that partnership come about?
It came about because they are also the partners Fackham Hall. We learned about Bleecker Street by doing the US deal for that film. Anonymous also appeared on the UK release of Best days. So it has been a natural thing to work together and look at the possibilities that are available. But it’s an Elysian release, with the support of those two, mainly financially. It’s us on the ground.
Although beloved, Ghibli’s box office figures in Britain aren’t great. Do you think this might be different?
What’s interesting, since we last released a Miyusaki film, is that My neighbor Totoro took the stage in London and was hugely successful. And Ghostly away will hit the stage next summer. We work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. So I think the audience for the films has grown. And The boy and the heron is really well placed, having a very good run at the autumn film festivals and playing in London for two sold out screenings. There is real expectation. So it feels like it could be one of the biggest Ghibli films in Britain
Best days, which was your first major release and also your biggest production, felt on paper like it ticked all the boxes – about Take That, supported by Take That, and tapping into the nostalgia market. But it may not have seemed to perform as well as expected. Do you think this had less to do with the film and more to do with the difficulties indie releases face?
I think there are definitely challenges for independent film right now. It was a big, ambitious film and a big release – we did a big premiere and played Take That. I think we may have suffered because we opened in the summer and the weather was very nice, but not good weather for the cinema. And there was also a lot going on in terms of people giving concerts and things like that. So it was a challenge to reach the desired number. But I think we had a respectable box office, but obviously we would have liked a lot more. We learn a lot from that.
How does Britain in general view indie films and distributors like your company? Things have changed dramatically in a very short time and it certainly seems more difficult to make that breakthrough. Is there still room to thrive?
There’s definitely a chance. There are fewer distributors around, but there is still an audience. I think there is actually a market opportunity. The challenge for us is to have the right activities and resources to achieve this. I think the flexibility of distribution and production is the right approach. It’s about preparing to really exploit it.
Considering you were such an essential part of the first two Paddington movies and helped bring the bear to StudioCanal, I can’t ask you about the third movie. It’s been six years, but are you excited now that we finally have a release date?
I’m as excited as anyone else to see the next movie. All I hear is that it went very well.
Do you prefer? Paddington 1 or 2?
Two is incredible, but there was something special about working on the first one. They shot it before the bear was properly rendered and people didn’t know what it looked or sounded like. It was such an amazing experience to be a part of it and to see how this idea at a meeting grew from that beautiful film, and the way people responded to it and it became something huge. So I think, oddly enough, this is the first one. Two were so good, but it was almost easier because they had worked so hard on the first one.