There’s been plenty of talk about the state of the British film industry lately – calls for more King’s Speeches, more commercially viable movie product that will generate money and is worth investing in in the first place. What the bigwigs fail to understand is how frail the infrastructure of the homegrown industry is.
Lots of movies are made here, sure, but they’re mostly Hollywood flicks. And it continues to be true that unlike the States or our friends on the continent, there is a lack of interest on the part of cinemas, distributors, film companies and most of all audiences to watch independent British cinema.
But might that be changing and might it come courtesy of the kind of movie that is consistently smeared in the U.K. press? After all, Tinseltown churns out hundreds of horror pics, crime thrillers and romcoms and even the least Oscar-worthy still tend to be preferred over those made in Bromley.
Simon Phillips and his crew hope so. “I sat down with someone the other day,” muses the 31-year-old actor/producer who decided to make his own movies rather than wait for the phone to ring. “He described Harry Potter to me as a British film. I was like, Harry Potter is very, very American. It’s Warner Brothers, the money all goes back to New York. It’s an American film shot on location.”
Phillips is taking a different tack – sheer bloody volume. “If you make one film, it’s easy to be ignored,” he says. “Even if you make two, it could be passed off as a fluke. But once you get to nine, 10, people have to pay attention otherwise they look a touch out of the loop.”
His company Black & Blue Films, which he runs alongside Billy Murray (ex-The Bill and those lawyer ads) and Martin Kemp amongst others, are looking to make six movies a year. Yes, six. Their latest – at least in terms of release – is How To Stop Being A Loser, a romantic comedy about a nerd who turns to a pick-up artist to get the girl of his dreams (Hollyoaks‘ Gemma Atkinson).
They have at least five in various stages of post-production, with a repertory company-style cast and regular crew. It’s a work rate similar to New York’s Mumblecore movement, the micro-indie wave whose denizens now populate mainstream Hollywood like flies, but previously just made films with their friends on the Big Apple streets.
Phillips is hoping for similar recognition. “We make low-budget films,” he says. “There’s not much aspiration to make higher budget films than the ones we’re working on at the moment. We’d rather we had a breakout at this budget level than raise ten million quid to make something. We’re not really interested in sitting on our hands for 12, 18 months for one film to get off the ground.”
Their approach is intriguing – private investors who fund a slate of small films rather than one bigger one, as well as direct contact with distributors who are finally realising despite critical savaging, those swaggering gangster pics make money once they hit the shelves of Tesco and Asda.
“We reverse engineer a little bit”, explains Phillips. “We ask the distribution company we sell to what sort of films they’d like. What works for them. What the market wants.” The result is a football movie called The Rise & Fall of a White Collar Hooligan.
I’ll be perfectly honest – these films aren’t great, though there’s enough technical skill and the acting’s good enough (for the most part) to put it on a par with similar American low-budget output, even if the accent or locations aren’t as sexy. The scripts are written very fast: “I really want to be able to go back to that company in six months and say here’s your hooligan film”, reveals Phillips. “With a finished movie”. And it shows. They could use a few more drafts.
But the Roger Corman-esque spirit is something to be celebrated for cinema fans and you’ve got to love a group of guys who phone up Mark Hamill or Robert Englund because they loved them as kids in Star Wars and Nightmare On Elm Street in order to ask them to star in their films. They did – Hamill’s in Airborne and Englund in Strippers vs. Werewolves, both due out later this year. They even got Jean-Claude Van Damme.
It’s doubtful when David Cameron or Chris Smith discusses British filmmaking, they’re thinking about a sci-fi starring Van Damme’s daughter and Pierce Brosnan’s son. But BAFTA is full of people who spend their days talking about how they’re “waiting for Jude to read the script” and live on development money doled out thanks to cronyism as opposed to talent.
Phillips and his ilk (and there are a few – just go to your nearest big supermarket) are far from the finished article. And no, they’re not going to be winning any awards any time soon.
But they’re making movies and responding to the market. And it’s just possible that’s worth a whole lot more than one arthouse hit every two years.
“I think the plan for myself is to stay here and keep working here”, says Phillips. “We’re looking for our Blair Witch Project or our Shaun Of The Dead. And then we’ll be in a better position to decide what the next move is. And my guys will keep working very hard until that happens.”
How To Stop Being A Loser is out now.