Marcus Markou: from a chip shop to owning a building and a feelgood movie

Dynamis Online Media building in Shoreditch

Dynamis Online Media building in Shoreditch

“You must meet Marcus Markou,” I was told by John Park, former editor of Fringe Report. “He is very enthusiastic,”

So I did. And so he was.

Marcus is aged 43 with a Greek Cypriot background.

John Park raved to me about Marcus’ first full-length movie Papadopoulos & Sons, made in 2012. In 2010, Marcus had made a short titled The Last Temptation of Chris. He is also chairman of the Dynamis Online Media Group. We met at their offices in Shoreditch.

“All the rents in Shoreditch have gone sky-high,” I said.

“We’re alright,” Marcus replied, “because we bought the building.”

“You were brought up in Birmingham,” I said. “Whereabouts?”

“Sutton Coldfield.”

“That’s not Birmingham. That’s posh,” I said.

“OK,” said Marcus, “I was born in Sutton Coldfield but grew up for the early part in Erdington, opposite an industrial estate above a supermarket. We had a chip shop there, but my father was book-keeping for other Greeks. I think he was the first Greek accountant in Birmingham in 1971 and – in 1973 – we moved to Solihull, which is pretty posh.”

“Despite that,” I said, “you were a fan of the kids’ TV show Tiswas, which I worked on in Birmingham…”

A studio floor pass for the show

As a child, Marcus actually appeared on kids’ show Tiswas

“I was very passionate about Tiswas,” Marcus told me. “As a child, I definitely divided the world into (BBC) Swap Shop viewers and (ITV) Tiswas viewers. And those people went on into their respective lives in the same vein.

“If you were a Swap Shop person, you went and studied a Swap Shop kind of degree at a Swap Shop kind of university and you ended up in a very ordered Swap Shop kind of life – These were the children who were told they were clever as kids and they were not imaginative. Tiswas was for the others, who found the world confusing, found rules difficult to understand and were, early on, shown the way by Tiswas – a little bit of chaos, a little bit of improvisation.”

“But now you’re a man who owns an entire building in Shoreditch,” I said.

“You can do many things in your life,” said Marcus, “but, until you own a building, you’re seen as nothing. You can be very successful, imaginative but, when you own a building, suddenly people frame you – Oh! He can’t be completely nuts! He owns a big building!

“Your family has a showbiz background?” I asked.

“No. But when you’re an immigrant family that wants to assimilate, you have to very quickly play a part. My dad came over in 1962. My mum was born here but her dad moved over in 1930; her mum in the 1940s.

Marcus at his office in Shoreditch

Marcus the businessman chats at his office in Shoreditch

“You become accustomed to a dual life. Your Greek life might not be plate-smashing, but it is very Greek. The characters are a bit larger-than life; you have an extended family; you have fewer barriers in family relationships; you’ll all chip in when someone’s in trouble.

“The thing I most admire about Greek culture is this sense of joy and acceptance which is characterised in the smashing of a plate and the Greek dance. This sense of joy. When I look at Britain through Greek eyes, that’s sometimes absent. It can be stiff and formal and buttoned-up.”

“Why do Greeks smash plates?” I asked.

“We’re just accepting,” said Marcus, “that, at some point in the future, we’re gonna break these plates out of anger, frustration or an argument. So – fuck it – you might as well smash them now, while you’re happy. I love that.

“Really, in my film Papadopoulos & Sons, the main character’s journey is towards that – It’s towards Fuck it! as an idea and, with that, comes a sense of liberation, acceptance and happiness.

They sing, they dance, they smash plates - Papadopoulos & Sons

Singing, dancing, plate-smashing – it’s Papadopoulos & Sons

“It’s the story of a very wealthy Anglicised Greek businessman and his very Anglicised family. They’re very wealthy and they lose everything in a financial crash. I started writing it in about 2009, after the 2008 Northern Rock collapse in the UK but before the big Greek banking crisis.

“In Papadopoulos & Sons, the only thing the banks can’t take – which none of the family know about – is an old, forgotten, dormant fish & chip shop which the father used to own. The reason the banks can’t take it is because it’s half-owned by the spirited larger-than-life brother whom the family haven’t seen in over a decade because the brothers fell out. They’re left with no alternative but to all move back to the forgotten fish & chip shop and they have to start again. It’s a classic riches-to-rags story.

“As a story goes, it’s a well-worn path, but it found its audience and is still finding its audience – on Netflix especially. It’s on Netflix, on iTunes; you can get the DVD; it’ll be on the BBC in about two years time.”

“Has it make a profit?” I asked.

“I spent £1 million to make it. I’m about 40% recouped already, after a year. A film recoups over a decade.”

“So you just happened to have £1 million lying around?” I asked.

“We put the money in from this business,” explained Marcus. “We created a new company and made a commercial loan from one company to the other. It pays off its interest and capital, like you would any other way.

“I self-distributed in the UK. No-one expected that to be successful, but I did the deal directly with Cineworld. It started off in just 12 cinemas for one week. I remember sitting down with the cinema booker and asking: What do I need for a second week? He said: You need to get 400 or 500 per cinema.

Marcus directed the movie, edited the trailer, designed the poster

Marcus directed the movie & the trailer & designed the poster

“So I went out and built a plan to get 400 or 500 people per cinema on its opening weekend. But what he had meant was £400 or £500. We had the second highest screen average of any film that weekend. Only Oblivion with Tom Cruise had a bigger screen average. We were the No 1 film at Cineworld in Shaftesbury Avenue in London for four weeks. We started in the 100-seat cinema, which sold out within hours when booking started two days before we opened and we ended up in the 500-seat screen. For me it was a dream come true.

“That’s been the thing carrying the film: the way I distributed it. But, in a way, it’s the spirit of the film. It’s independent. It’s going back to basics. We cold-called every Greek Orthodox priest in Britain and told them to announce it in their Sunday service – many did. All the community turned out. We did it the old-fashioned way.

“A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to one of Spain’s biggest distributors and he said: I heard about this. I heard the buzz about it.

“We did it the way it should be done. We got out there and hit the streets. We did not spend £1 million advertising it on the sides of buses.”

“So your next film,” I asked, “is going to be…?”

“Well, I’ve started a story…”

“About a man who owns a building?”

“That’s not far off.”

“And it turns out the building is actually a rocket ship?”

“No.”

“Can you tell me anything,” I asked, “without the risk of someone nicking the idea?”

Marcus as he wants to be seen on LinkedIn

Marcus as he wants to be seen on social media site LinkedIn

“I’m not talking about it,” explained Marcus, “because, as a teenager and in my twenties, I had lots of ideas for books or plays or films and I was brilliant at telling the idea in a pub. But, once I’d done that, it just left me. It’s weird. They loved it in the pub! It’s brilliant! It’s a hit! Great! The job is done! And I just didn’t need to write it. Now I try to frustrate myself by not giving too much away until I’ve finished it.”

“In that case,” I said, “you’re a performer not a writer.”

“Oh, I went to drama school,” said Marcus. “I wanted to be an actor. I went to LAMDA at 27 and I loved being an actor. I still do.”

“But there’s no money in it?” I asked.

“I just realised I could get my creative acting kicks from improvisation. So I joined an improv theatre company called Fluxx. And, in two weeks time, I’m doing a week-long Meisner course. I love acting. I love being on stage. I love performing. That’s what I love. So I can go join an improv theatre company and love the process, but I don’t need to be competing for four lines in a spin-off of The Bill – and being badly treated by some assistant casting person who clearly has issues.

“Realising that freed me. Then I started writing. I could get my acting creative kick in another way. Acting’s a beautiful thing. Earning money sometimes spoils it. That’s why there are so many unhappy actors who have got themselves into a trap: the goalposts are constantly moving. I’ve got to get a better agent. I’ve done this, so now I have to do that. I tell them: Get off the treadmill. Go join an improv theatre company. Start enjoying your acting again.”

“So you’re not a frustrated anything?” I asked. “You’re satisfied.”

“I think I’m satisfied,” said Marcus. “I treat life as an illusion that one is here to enjoy and make the most of. You have to make it your own, whatever it is – as long as you don’t treat it too seriously.”

There is a trailer for Papadopoulos & Sons on YouTube.

Marcus’ 11 minute short The Last Temptation of Chris is also on YouTube.

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