Money to play with

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Fancy a quick flutter? How about investing in a play or film? As a growing number of small investors in theatre or cinema are discovering, it's a risky business but it's also fun. For as little as #163;500, you can buy a share in a production - and in return you will receive a dividend from any profits.

Investors in a film by Cromwell Productions have the bonus of taking part as an extra. So far, they have fought at Culloden and Bannockburn in Chasing the Deer and The Bruce, and stormed Dunsinane in Macbeth.

"It's a bit like having shares in a racehorse," says Bob Carruthers, managing director of Cromwell Productions. "You don't know whether you're going to win but you can enjoy your day as a spear-carrier or washerwoman." If the film does well, investors will share 50 per cent of the profits. Shareholders in Chasing the Deer received their first return of #163;25.52 last year. Free tickets to the film premire are included in the deal and investors' names appear on the credits.

Mr Carruthers has partly financed all three Scottish films with the help of small investors like Ian Blake, a retired schoolteacher from the Scottish Highlands who has invested #163;500 in Macbeth, which stars Helen Baxendale and Jason Connery.

"I've made my living teaching Shakespeare and I felt I wanted to put something back and enable a wider audience to see the plays," explains Mr Blake, who taught English for nearly 30 years at Charterhouse. Macbeth has particular significance for him because at Charterhouse he produced a modern-dress version that included a commando-style attack on the castle. He also appeared in the play when he was a schoolboy.

Mr Blake also welcomes the employment that such productions bring to Scotland, although he's not expecting to make any money. "It was made very clear that you shouldn't do it if it was your last #163;500," he says. "Not many teachers could afford to ladle out that kind of money, and it did seem rather self-indulg ent at first. But when I saw the film, I felt it was money very well spent. "

On a positive note, Mr Blake feels that Macbeth is a good bet because it is in demand by schools, a point taken up by Mr Carruthers. "Macbeth will never go out of fashion," he says. "We could be selling the video and TV rights over the next 20 years." The Cromwell version also sticks closely to the original text, which will make it popular with schools.

But what makes a film a hit with small investors? About 560 people have invested an average of #163;620 in Macbeth, for instance. Mr Carruthers describes a third of his investors as "Scottish culture vultures" who are keen to promote the heritage of the country. The other two-thirds are film enthusiasts who want to support good quality, low-budget British films.

The end of closed-shop trade union agreements in the industry means that feature films can now be made for #163;500,000 instead of #163;2-3 million, which makes it possible to rely on small investors. "It's a way of proving that we don't need to depend on Government support to make commercially viable films," says Mr Carruthers.

Dan Crawford, director of Terrific Tours Productions, which has recently launched a musical version of The Famous Five, believes small investors often have an affinity with the show they sponsor. "There's an element of sentimental investment, of nostalgia," he says. Terrific Tours and the King's Head Theatre raised #163;75,000 from about 40 small investors to put the show on the road. They are hoping to capitalise on the enduring popularity of Enid Blyton, as well as the centenary of her birth this year.

Penny Jones of the Society of London Theatre believes the number of small investors - or "angels" as they are known in theatrical circles - is increasing as people become more aware of the idea. The society sends details of new ventures by its producer-members to members of the public who are interested in investing. Producers generally take 40 per cent of the profits, while investors share the remaining 60 per cent.

"Theatrical investments appeal to people who aren't necessarily looking for huge returns, but want to be involved with something they enjoy or feel strongly about," says Ms Jones. Tickets to first nights and invitations to first-night parties are the perks they enjoy most, she says."People get to feel involved - it's investing in enjoyment."

Another outlet for angels is the Gabriel Fund, which offers the chance to invest in the theatre at a reduced risk. The fund gives contingency backing to producers. This is the cash all producers need to have in reserve in case the show makes a loss; much of it may never be needed if the production is successful, and investors will still receive a share of profits.

Initially, investors in the Gabriel Fund put in #163;1,000, but they must be ready to come up with another #163;4,000 if the show runs into problems. Profits are based on the amount the fund has invested.

The main advantage for investors is that a panel of eagle-eyed experts from the Gabriel Fund will weigh up the merits of different productions before deciding to commit any money. The panel includes a theatre producer, a theatre underwriter and the director of a ticket agency, who all have experience of spotting success. So far, the fund has backed one loser and two winners, Chorus Line and The Goodbye Girl.

Once bitten by the investment bug, angels seem to find it hard to pass up the next opportunity. Mr Blake is now considering investing in King Lear, the latest project from Cromwell Productions. He is also hoping the company will follow this with Hamlet, and give him the chance to invest in his favourite Shakespeare play.

Cromwell Productions 01789 415187; Terrific Tour Productions (King's Head Theatre) 0171 226 8561; Gabriel Fund 01242 820128; Society of London Theatre 0171 836 0971.

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