A New British Horror Studio?
An interview with Lawrie Brewster
Lawrie Brewster has huge plans for the British horror film industry. But can the UK return to the halcyon days of Hammer and Amicus? Horrified’s editor, Jae Prowse spoke with the Hex Studios co-owner…
Lawrie Brewster is a man very much on a mission. The co-owner of Hex Studios has been directing and producing (alongside writer/producer, Sarah Daly) genre films for the studio since 2011. From the exceptional folk horror Lord of Tears (2013) to the forthcoming sword and sandals fantasy, The Slave and the Sorceror, Hex Studios’ output achieves production values that far exceed modest budgets.
The relative and ongoing success of Hex aside, Lawrie has even bigger plans for genre filmmaking in the UK. If you’ve spent any time browsing horror film chatter on social media (particularly in Brit horror circles), you’re more than likely to have discovered his unique series of talking head videos and photos, offering a flavour of what he hopes will herald an exciting era for British horror: a new British horror studio.
Following a request for ‘passionate volunteers from all walks of life to join (the) team and help create a campaign to develop an independent British Horror Film Studio,’ Lawrie’s recently launched British Horror Studio website has already received almost 1,000 signups (at the last count). Something is definitely bubbling under the surface, but what does it all mean, and what effect might is have on both the creative and fan of British horror? Horrified caught up with the man himself to add some flesh to the bones…
Horrified: Can you give a bit of background on the genesis of the idea for a British horror studio?
Lawrie Brewster: So, to give you an idea, as a film producer I’ve worked for over ten years in the independent sphere, from higher indie budget films in the US like Kids vs Monsters (2015, Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki) to lower budget horror movies produced in the UK like Lord of Tears, or our latest release, Ghost Crew (2022).
From the success of Lord of Tears and our character, the Owlman me and Sarah Daly, founded Hex Media, aka. Hex Studios, which has produced a number of indie horror movies, which we’ve financed with crowdfunding, and for the most part, distributed them by ourselves.
That company was founded with the help of Roger Corman, and is inspired by the likes of American International Pictures, Tygon, Amicus and Hammer. Our company grew over the years, humbly and modestly, to produce more films, and to create more opportunities for our fellow artists working in the horror genre.
However, success can be like taking off a blindfold, and having worked in film for over a decade, in production, film marketing and distribution I knew, in my heart, that something special was missing in British horror.
What’s missing isn’t the passion, the hope, the aspiration or even ambition of the fantastic artists working in film. No, they’re doing their best, but the cards of the industry are stacked against them. From the bonfire of the colossal changes that took place in the British film industry, that consumed so many of those classic era studios, nothing of their likeness came back to replace them. Not, from our own shores.
But, across the pond we have Blumhouse, we have A24, and so many more. Big and small, not to forget Troma Entertainment and others. But, what about the UK?
What are we doing wrong? What’s going on when even the Hammer that exists today feels like little more than an Intellectual Property hedge fund?
These problems go so much deeper than the financial, but it affects our filmmaking and audience culture as well. British horror is produced today in a largely parochial self-deprecating manner, which isn’t to say it’s not great or beautiful. But, they won’t get much sunlight beyond regional film festivals, and even our most prominent genre festivals will usually eschew them in favour of US titles, lobbied for by US Sales Agents and Distributors.
When even our festival or audience culture can’t bring itself to promote the work of independent filmmakers properly, is it any wonder that a crisis of confidence has developed over the years, which routinely holds us back from reaching our potential. That leaves many British filmmakers dreaming of a victorious discovery of their talent which takes them far and away from our shores.
Is that all that success in British film has to offer? A way to escape? And, in independent film is success just a meal ticket to produce ponderous entertainment for broadcast television? A way of becoming part of the media institution which has largely expanded to fill the vacuum of our decayed independent film sector.
One day, as I was working the grind as a producer raising finance for projects, I walked past a stunning building. A large, romantic structure of the 1800s, which was beautiful… but broken. Its window panes smashed, its ornate ironworks bent out of shape. A sign hung from the door proclaiming the place to be dangerous, with a risk of falling debris.
But, what a grand place it must have been once upon a time.
It evoked thoughts of Down Place the Georgian building most recognisable from Bray Studios where Hammer produced their films between 1951 and 1970. It lives today, as a studio and a well preserved one at that. But, there is no Hammer there.
There is no home for British horror, no structure built of stone where you can rest your hand and know, that deep inside is a place that champions the art that you cherish, that cultivates and fosters the horror talent of tomorrow. A venue where events and festivals might even be held, which can fill the hearts of artists with pride, can support them and cultivate a new culture of respect from audiences where filmmakers and fans of the horror genre can come together as collaborators instead of the mercenary relationship of producer and consumer.
Passing through the doors, I can see sets under construction for the movies of tomorrow, and I can see artists, horror journalists, writers and sales people working together to develop a community that makes such a place an epicentre for British Independent Film.
That was the genesis of my idea. And, at the age of 41, now rapidly approaching 42, I’m eating chunks of avocado in an attempt to lose weight on the Keto diet. At the same time I realised I had to take care of myself, I knew that time itself was not in any unlimited supply. The experience I have, and the potential of everyone around me, that I know, and hope to know in future, is the one opportunity we have in this lifetime to create something extraordinary.
We can re-shape a horror film culture, and audience culture, and have a transformative impact within the world of independent film, breathing new life into the sector of underdog, of which there is none quite like the British Independent Filmmaker.
Isn’t that something worth fighting for?
H: With British horror distribution, sadly, in the doldrums, why now?
LB: This is an exceptional topic by which the very question invites a torrent of exceptional arguments. What doldrums? What about film X or film Y which made a pretty penny?
Broadly speaking, the realm of independent film distribution from here to across the pond is in a slow, ponderous sleep-walk towards the edge of the precipice. What lies at the bottom of this cliff-top nobody really knows, but they and perhaps all of us in the industry somewhat fear it.
These issues affect the US side of independent film distribution, but the UK is especially vulnerable. This is because our own distribution potential is so dependent on the activities of US distributors at present.
For example, in the independent sphere, success is especially dependent on physical retail, and especially distribution arrangements via RedBox in the USA. Now, for the indie filmmaker munching super noodles in Milton Keynes, it’s unlikely that a red-painted vending machine would figure much in their marketing or distribution strategy.
UK distributors, who watch the remnants of physical distribution crumble, look to those shores for deals with Walmart, Redbox, and any outlet they can get. In effect, they’re becoming 2nd rate US distributors, fighting to catch up with their established US rivals.
And, that’s only those distributors who remain. One by one, those with significant overheads have crashed, a phenomenon that filmmakers became most aware of following the collapse of the distributor Metrodome.
Meanwhile, Video-on-Demand has failed to fill the vacuum, instead of distributors and retailers cutting deals together, new multi-national billion dollar corporations have inserted themselves as the essential middle-man for any deal. Their cut is a bewildering prospect, leaving distributors and producers in a state of crisis since the ascendency of the digital platform.
AVOD is a desperate lifeline, but the rope is tenuous. With AVOD new digital platforms have multiplied, many of them simple apps on Amazon, in other forms its YouTube itself. One need only look at the distributor ITN, and its own YouTube channel V Horror to see the current value of independent horror films, where new films are added almost daily. It also tells us that many distributors are relying on even YouTube ad revenue to help with their sustainability.
Things will only get worse. But, things will also get different. With British Horror Distribution, I envisage our studio project cultivating a different method of engaging with new British horror films. A much more personal relationship, one that might combine aspects of crowd-funding, participation in creativity, production and events, one that sees us develop a bubble from which a model of sustainability might be developed.
Our distribution and business model must ensure that creative authorship and the spirit of our unique British horror artistry can be cultivated and re-grown. It won’t survive in the mercenary, cut-throat market which even now fights for its survival.
And so, to answer your question, this is why we must work to develop a plan that allows us to create a seed of potential, a seed for British horror that can be carefully tended to, that can germinate and grow. As it does, it could permeate beyond the traditional market, whatever that might look like in the future.
H: You’ve set up a website to encourage signups. What is the expectation for those who do signup? Why should people sign up and what are they getting?
LB: At britishhorrorstudios.com we’ve set up a website so folks can send us their email address so we can organise ourselves better. People should sign up if they like what they’ve read so far about the project.
But, what should they expect? This depends on what they hope to experience through this project. But, if we can all work together, then we can all receive the ultimate gift, which is our very own British horror studio. That’s when our accomplishment will begin to pay its dividends to those who helped make it happen.
And, to put it bluntly this project requires artists, journalists, business people, and horror fans to make that happen. What are the benefits for them?
As a studio we would develop film projects with our artists, and those who have creative aspirations. We’d connect folks, and with the use of experience, knowledge, gear, and premises they’d produce films, with us and with each other. These films could be distributed afterwards via the studio, utilising the unique distribution model we’re keen to develop. Our studio would also provide a holistic and inspiring level of support, which is critical for British Horror artists to regain their confidence, and to offer them protection against the often unfair realities of the film industry.
In the end, we plan for our films to produce revenues that sustain the studio, and profit us all in more ways than one. Hopefully, culminating in an annual event, in our very special venue, where we can all get drunk together.
H: What are your plans for growth in 2023? Can we expect the studio to be a going concern by the end of the year?
LB: Our plans for growth are quite flexible, and they need to be as we gather a deeper understanding of what level of support there is among horror fans (from around the world) for this type of project. At the moment, we’re at the infancy stage, which of course makes it a perfect time to get involved.
At the moment, we’re aiming to grow our email list through three phases, beginning with 1000 sign ups, 5000, and 10,000.
With the first 1000, we’ll set-up our community infrastructure, and with a group effort we’d work towards our goal of 5000 and 10,000. Ultimately, these very large email lists will comprise and cater to different segments of the horror community. Starting with artists, and growing to encompass more and more fans of the genre.
Once we eventually reach 10,000 emails, we feel confident towards moving ahead with a concrete fundraising campaign, and contributing from our own company to get things moving on the property front, with a number of British Horror conference events.
From that stage, we’re onto building works, film productions, and more events. It’s ambitious, daunting and formidable.
But, what else are you doing in 2023? For me, it’s a beautiful addition to the goals I have for this year. What a thing to be a part of!
Specifically, as regards to becoming a “going concern”, which relates to a company sustaining itself profitably, then this will not occur this year, not until we’re actively producing films and distributing them. This year, will be about erecting the pillars that can support this vision, with 2024 looking to be the year in which the cogs of our machinery begin to turn, and the first films are greenlit into production.
H: Are you planning to concentrate on just developing and making films?
LB: Our primary focus will be horror films, and events designed to support the production of Horror Films, which will include workshops, conferences and a festival. That said, we are keen to support horror authors, comic book artists, and live performers and we’ll be sure to find ways that they can benefit from the project directly, and indirectly.
H: What is the ultimate aim? Is there a five or 10 year plan?
LB: The ultimate plan is to resurrect something special from the past, we’re not talking a literal recreation, after all… our memories are themselves romantic and a little separate from the reality. We’re not looking to turn the clock back, but there is beauty in the past, and there is something magical about that era of British Horror, which can add a spark of hope and aspiration for British Horror filmmakers today.
We need our identity back. The five and ten year plan would see an evolution of this studio, so that it might comprise several historic properties, busily producing films under the guidance of producers, and voluntary steering groups. Distributed around the world, with clear and transparent accounting, with a focus towards sustainability, security, and growth.
There is no need to run with a faberge egg. If we manage it, we’ll act cautiously to preserve it, and grow what we have. But, to get there is going to take a lot of work.
So, I humbly hope folks reading this will visit britishhorrorstudio.com and sign-up today, so that their voice can be heard, as we work together to achieve something so much more important than ourselves.