U.K. dancing film jigs for distributor

A dancer featured in the film "Morris: Life With Bells On"

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Tess Vigeland: The British-made movie "Slumdog Millionaire" stands a good chance of winning something at the Oscars on Sunday. It has ten nominations, including Best Picture. The film is one of those British "sleeper" hits. Think the "Full Monty" -- ignored at first in Britain, but exploding on the international scene after getting a U.S. distributor. Scores of independent film makers in Britain hope that their movies will follow suit. One example? A film about Morris dancing. What, you've never heard of Morris dancing? An Ancient British folk tradition where guys in white shirts wave hankies and bash sticks together. Well Marketplace's Stephen Beard advises us to get ready for the hot new thing.


Stephen Beard:

Datchet Border team: Are we all set? Nice and smart. Two straight lines!

This may not seem the most promising theme for a full-length movie.

Datchet Border team: Give it plenty -- right this time!

Morris dancing is an offbeat, ancient pastime, performed here by the Datchet Border team. These days the dancers can often be seen in the summer capering outside country pubs with their curious paraphernalia.

DANCER: We've got the bell pads on our shins. We've got the sticks in our hands. And we've got handkerchiefs which we always use in the dancing.

This 500-year-old English eccentricity has now been parlayed into a comic feature film.

Film Teaser: Morris dancing: seemingly an innocent pub pastime involving hanky-waving bearded men.

"Morris: A Life With Bells On" tells the story of one man's struggle to modernize the dance. Poking gentle fun, it's proving quite a hit with English audiences.

English Viewer 1: I could recognize the caricatures of certain kinds of people and I really enjoyed it.

English Viewer 2: I laughed like a drain. I thought it was wonderful I really did.

English Viewer 3: I thoroughly enjoyed it -- very tongue-in-cheek.

But the audiences have been tiny. Only a few hundred people have seen the movie at special screenings in village halls. There hasn't been a general release. Writer Chaz Oldham says the distributors didn't share his enthusiasm for the subject.

Chaz Oldham: They think it's too niche and they're not sure that there's a market for it here. And therefore they're not prepared to take that risk.

And risk there certainly is. The distributor buys the rights, pays for the prints and markets the movie. That can run into millions. The director, Lucy Akhurst hopes to persuade a more entrepreneurial, American distributor to pick up her film.

Lucy Akhurst: My experience of people in the entertainment industry in the States is that they will give you the time. They want to see if you've got something that could possibly be the next big thing.

After all, she says, look at "The Full Monty", "Four Weddings and a Funeral", and other British movies that were hits in the U.S. first before they even opened in the U.K. But Terry Ilott of the Film Business Academy says these were exceptions. Don't be surprised if Morris doesn't sweep American distributors off their feet.

Terry Ilott: I mean, American distributors make exactly the same calculations as everybody else. And if it's a British film they'd want to know why it hadn't been distributed in its home market.

But on the positive side, he says, an odd subject matter is no bar to success.

Ilott: "Slumdog Millionaire." What could be less likely: a combination of Mumbai slum life and a TV game show? I mean, what could be less likely as a subject? I don't think subjects matter in films really.

Unlikely as it seems, the producers of Morris hope their curious little movie will strike some chords and ring a few bells in America.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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