Back in 1999 at the Toronto Film Festival, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was running Miramax at the time, bought a drug-addled independent film about rave culture in Wales called Human Traffic. The low-budget feature made a decent profit after bringing in $2.5 million at the U.K. box office. Weinstein probably didn't know it at the time, but that deal in Toronto helped one of the film's British producers, Allan Niblo, jump-start his career and a super-successful new movie company.
"It was a true independent film success story: We raised the money privately without any help from the industry and it sold all over the planet and became a cult hit," Niblo says, looking back at the first film he ever produced.
A couple years later, Niblo met producer James Richardson, who was himself flush with cash from an indie hit he had produced, Kiss Kiss (Bang Bang)--not to be confused with the 2005 movie with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer--in 2001. The two decided to join forces and co-found their own London-based independent film company, Vertigo Films, named for the famous Hitchcock film. Since its 2002 launch, Vertigo has expanded into new areas of the film industry, generating €10.2 million in 2014 revenue and landing at No. 217 on Inc.'s list of the fastest-growing companies in Europe.
Richardson and Niblo produced their first film under the Vertigo name, The Football Factory, about hard-drinking and hard-fighting soccer hooligans, in 2004. The film, which was written and directed by Vertigo partner Nick Love, wasn't a box-office smash, but brought in $10 million in DVD sales. Next they made It's All Gone Pete Tong, a comedy that won accolades including the Toronto Film Festival's city award and best feature at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.
Small names lead to big hits.
Over time, Vertigo developed an effective formula for both critical and commercial success: Find a talented but not yet well-known director and help him make a great movie with a small budget. In 2008, for example, Vertigo produced The Escapist, directed by Rupert Wyatt, who went on to do Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The next year, the company made Bronson, about an infamous convict in the U.K. The film gave actor Tom Hardy his breakout role and Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn his first English-language feature. From there, Refn went on to win best director at the Cannes Film Festival for Drive, starring Ryan Gosling.
"We are known for launching new talent," Niblo says.
The other part of Vertigo's strategy is to get involved in every part of a film's life--production, post-production and special effects, and sales and distribution. The founders first encountered how crucial that was after missing out on distribution of The Sweeney, a film Vertigo produced based on an iconic British TV series, which Niblo says would have netted the company around $5 million in profits.
"It was a big learning curve figuring out ownership and rights and the control of the destiny of the product," Niblo says.
To develop its distribution arm, Vertigo turned to distributor and producer Rupert Preston, who began heading up the company's efforts after coming aboard as a partner in 2003. Vertigo also joined with film development and financing company Film4 and media investment group Ingenious Media to form an international sales and distribution company, called Protagonist Pictures, in 2007.
Vertigo now distributes almost every movie it produces, as well as others--to date, the company has produced more than 30 films and distributed nearly 40. One of Vertigo's most successful productions was the box-office hit Streetdance 3D. Vertigo also produced the award-winning Monsters and distributed movies including the documentary The Cove, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, and The Diary of a Teenage Girl, to British audiences.
Niblo and Richardson also built a state-of-the-art production facility and a visual effects and 3-D company, the Post Republic, in Berlin. "We try to do as much in-house as possible," Niblo says. "When we can produce a film, do the post-production, special effects, 3-D, then sell it and distribute it, we can control the cost of a movie and make a decent profit."
Now one of the largest independent movie companies in the United Kingdom, Vertigo has increased its revenue almost 600 percent over the past three years. The company has never taken outside funding and currently has about 20 employees.
And it continues to expand its business. Niblo says Vertigo next will start filming a television show. Details are being kept under wraps, but he says it will be a big-budget epic. TV will be a bigger part of Vertigo's business going forward, he adds.