A battle for screen-time

Ingenious ways for low-budget films to reach their audience
Philip Davis stars in ‘Borrowed Time’

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Picture this: you have managed to scrabble together funding for your first feature film, shot it, edited it and secured entry to the UK’s most prestigious festival. Not only that but it is well received by both festival goers and critics, even picking up an award. You might breathe a sigh of relief and think you’ve finally made it. Think again.

Today’s film distribution landscape is as cluttered as a Bosch triptych and almost as treacherous, with up to a dozen new releases every week. Studio-made leviathans scoop up most of the attention and box office takings, while numerous smaller fish are left fighting over the scraps. Even independent films with a buzz about them can struggle to be noticed and many are left without a distribution deal.

This was the situation that befell the makers of Borrowed Time, an offbeat British comedy-drama about the unlikely friendship between an old curmudgeon and the youth who burgles him. When it is released next Friday it will be the culmination of a four-year journey that began as part of the BBC’s Microwave scheme for ultra-low-budget movies. In 2011, after a successful showing at the Edinburgh Film Festival (it made a Best of the Fest selection), the producers were pursued by interested parties but none was prepared to make a concrete offer.

“People were quite honest with us and said that it’s quite tough at the moment doing micro-budget films in a theatrical context,” says Olivier Kaempfer, producer of Borrowed Time. He is realistic about the reasons why: “People do want to see other films but sometimes when they turn up on a Friday night with kids or on a date, they are going to see the bigger, more obvious entertainment. And so it requires a more innovative approach to communicate to people that this film would be worthwhile to watch.”

For the makers of Borrowed Time, the answer lay in going it alone. Convinced there was a potential cinema audience for their film, they resolved to raise the cash for distribution through crowdfunding website Kickstarter, which launched in the UK in October 2012. They figured that if people really did want to see the film, they might be willing to pay up front. Setting a target of £20,000, they offered incentives ranging from £5 for a Facebook “thank you” to £1,000 for a painting by the film’s writer/director Jules Bishop, as well as the donor’s name on the opening titles and a drink with the cast and crew.

“What attracted us to it was being able to raise the budget but also you’re really building your audience when you do it,” says Kaempfer, who also ran a social media campaign. “The whole concept of Kickstarter is a sense of involvement. People back the project but they also buy into the story. They become part of the story and it can have a happy ending or an unhappy ending.”

Borrowed Time’s story did have a happy ending, with 360 backers eventually pledging a total of £21,721, which is now being spent on PR, a cinema booker and physically bringing the film to theatres. Ironically, the further buzz created by the Kickstarter campaign lured back theatrical distributors and Borrowed Time finally got offers – but Kaempfer and co opted to stick to their guns.

Reece Shearsmith in ‘A Field in England’

It is not only newcomers who are looking for a new angle on distribution. Earlier this year A Field in England, the phantasmagoric fourth feature by writer/director Ben Wheatley, the fastest-rising star of British film-making, garnered attention for its unusual release strategy as well as its unusual story about four men seeking treasure in a field full of psychotropic mushrooms in civil war-era England. Rather than following the usual pattern of cinema opening followed by DVD release and eventual appearance on TV, it was released on all platforms simultaneously, showing on free-to-air channel Film4 – which funded the movie – the same night as it opened in UK cinemas.

“It’s a big way of saying it’s about what the audience want or need,” says executive producer Anna Higgs. “Not all audience members are lucky enough to live near an independent or art house cinema ... or they might have children and can’t get out of the house. So it’s a way of giving an audience a chance to see a film at the same time as it’s in cinemas and letting them choose. Early suggestions are that [the release strategy] helped raise the profile of the cinema release, and cinemas started to book it when they realised what a perfect storm we’d managed to create around this really exciting film being released in this really exciting way.”

The free TV option might have been expected to hit box office takings but the experiment proved that there’s life in the fleapit yet. “It is the sort of film that in a traditional model may have only been seen in five screens and stayed around for a week or two,” Higgs says. “Instead we opened in 17 screens ... and now eight weeks later it’s still showing. It’s proved that people do think the cinema experience is special.”

Film4 also used what Higgs calls “a bespoke approach” for Shane Meadows’ Stone Roses documentary Made in Stone, with a special Manchester premiere attended by the band and open to the public. “It’s a film about and for the fans, so we said, ‘Let’s treat it in a way that’s almost like a gig – the way the fans would want to experience the band.’” The blogosphere duly went wild and, much like one of the band’s concerts, 4,500 tickets sold out in 60 seconds.

This approach may work for a director with a growing cult following or a band with a massive existing fan base but would it work for any film?

Higgs is cautious. “The danger is to say, ‘OK, we’ll just do that again.’ Just because it worked once doesn’t mean it will work again with another film. It doesn’t work the same as it does for studio films. We need to be wary of moving wholesale to another single model.”

Kaempfer remains optimistic that even independent cinema can thrive in the digital age. Social media can work in its favour; so too, he suggests, would tiered pricing, whereby cinemas would charge, say, £12 for a studio blockbuster but £5 for a low-budget independent film. “Rather than it just being depressing or frustrating that the model that you grew up with isn’t working, it can be very exciting or inspiring to be part of a new way of doing things – or at least try.”

‘Borrowed Time’ is in selected UK cinemas from September 13

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