For Redbus, the film distributor that has cashed in on its rights to hits such as Bend It Like Beckham, the rewards have not come without risk. ‘There have been a number of occasions when we have gambled the whole company and could have lost everything,’ says Simon Franks, its founder. His first gamble was to quit his job as a City banker to start Redbus in 1998 with his business partner Zygi Kamasa. Franks says he knew nothing about the film industry but thought it would be more fun than banking. ‘I sent letters to the studios and industry players and made many phone calls, but I only ever got one reply. Even that didn’t lead to a deal.’ After being refused by the banks, Franks and Kamasa had to get their own funding. Eventually they raised £1.5m from wealthy individuals through an Enterprise Investment Scheme. The 43 investors included Cliff Stanford, the internet entrepreneur who founded and sold Demon Internet. Redbus’s big breakthrough came in 1999 when Franks saw a preview of Maybe Baby, starring Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. Predicting it would be a hit, he bought the distribution rights. Then in 2000, when Polygram was acquired by Universal Studios, Franks took another huge risk by taking on almost the entire staff of Polygram’s UK division. In March 2001 a German company, Helkon Media, bought 51% of Redbus. However, a year later it went into receivership and Franks and Kamasa are now exercising their right to buy back the shares. Redbus holds the UK distribution rights to 75 films. In addition to Bend It Like Beckham, which it co-produced, it has The Gift and Welcome to Collinwood, which starred George Clooney. Redbus has also diversified into an online video and DVD rental firm, Video Island, which is partly owned by Benchmark Capital and Saul Klein, who started Fantasy Football. ‘We have been very aggressive,’ says Franks and, as a result, Redbus’s sales have grown 286% a year from an annualised £263,000 in 1999 to £15.2m in 2002. ‘But with the size of the company now, we have become far more conservative. We certainly would not roll the dice to the extent we did in the early days.’ Nevertheless, in true entrepreneurial style, Franks and Kamasa have just produced the fantasy kids comedy Tooth, starring Harry Enfield, Stephen Fry and Richard E Grant. Franks is also planning to float the company’s film distribution arm next year, and if Video Island is as successful as he anticipates, he may list that too.
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