Phil Davis has a DVD library at his London home, with space reserved for a particular kind of movie. After a 40-year career, starring in everything from mod classic Quadrophenia to TV’s Whitechapel, the veteran actor with the wolfish grin is still lending his talents to low-budget British films.
“That’s my thing, small movies about real life. Human stories. And most of them will never make it into a cinema because cinemas are full of superhero films. So you do them knowing they’ll probably end up on DVD, and when they do, you just put them with the others in the library. And you know the sad part? Some of them are really good.”
But Davis’s new film will soon be at a cinema near some of us at least – despite being exactly the kind of low-key British heart-warmer that struggles to get into movie houses. Called Borrowed Time, it’s a sweetly scabby tale of a gormless young burglar forging an unlikely friendship with an ageing recluse, with Davis cast opposite newcomer Theo Barklem-Biggs. Yet while the film is set in murky east London, what propelled it into cinemas was a company based in downtown Manhattan. Its name is Kickstarter.
To many in the film business, Kickstarter might just be a revolution – a website featuring a vast menu of movie projects appealing for support from as little as £5, allowing donors to taste life as a film financier for the price of a pizza. As a further incentive, rewards are on offer – a poster, say, for a small contribution, your name in the credits for more lavish support. Those with deeper pockets might even get the chance to hang out with the cast.
In the US, with studios never more risk-averse, big names have joined the queue for funding. Spike Lee recently raised more than $1.4 million for a new film yet to be made, minimally described as “funny, sexy and bloody,” despite protests claiming the site should be for unknowns.
But if Kickstarter is filled with films trying to get made, the men behind Borrowed Time saw a different role for it. By last year – after a frantic 18-day shoot where everyone, including Davis, was paid the minimum wage – director Jules Bishop and producer Olivier Kaempfer had their movie in the can. But like so many British movies, it was then that things stalled. While getting a film funded is never easy, the real problem is getting it into cinemas. As Davis says, “It’s hard getting people out of the house when you ain’t got big stars or money for posters on buses.”
Kickstarter offered an alternative. While releasing the film themselves sounded daunting, Kaempfer and Bishop decided it might just be possible with a modest war chest. Soon, their Kickstarter appeal was underway: their official target was £20,000, with just 30 days in which to raise it – all campaigns on the website being subject to a strict time limit.
Part of the elegance of Kickstarter is that it’s not just a collection bucket – it’s also a focus group. If enough cash comes in, then beyond the actual money lies hard proof an audience is out there waiting to buy tickets. Yet the reverse is also true – if your target isn’t met, then donors’ pledges are returned to them. As Kaempfer explains, “It’s a huge gamble because then everyone knows people don’t really want to see your film.”
Unsurprisingly, everyone involved found Kickstarter nerve-racking. Davis took it upon himself to lean on old friends (“I’ve reached that stage in life where I know people with a few bob!”) but mostly they relied on the kindness of strangers. “The magic,” Kaempfer says, “is you really don’t know the people coming forward. But they’re out there, looking for that experience you can’t download, backing something to become a reality.”
At his computer in Glasgow, one of those people was David Wardrop. At 28, he was already a seasoned Kickstarter donor by the time he stumbled on Borrowed Time. Operating with no great personal fortune (he drily describes himself as an environmental services operator, level three – “I’m a bin man”), he’s backed 227 projects, with sums ranging from £10 to £50.
“The sheer diversity attracted me,” he says. “There were projects from all over the world, and such a range of ideas.” Though usually a fan of sci-fi, he was drawn to Borrowed Time for other reasons: “If there’s a film being made with new talent, I’m always interested – Simon Pegg and Ricky Gervais don’t need my money. And I like local stories that will mean a lot to people. In this case it looked like a real London film.”
Eventually, thanks to Wardrop and 359 others, Borrowed Time reached its target and is set for release on Friday 13 September – and if its makers now admit to nerves over its chances at the cinema, they’re grateful to have the opportunity to find out. The film industry, meanwhile, is watching keenly to see if a new way of releasing films might just have arrived, and to pick up PR hints, too. As Kaempfer cannily points out, “This interview may never have happened if we’d just got a grant from the British Film Institute in the first place.”
Back in Glasgow, Wardrop intends to continue on Kickstarter, admitting that he relishes just being a part of the films in some small way. And for Davis, it will soon be time to have a drink with 17 new friends at a screening of Borrowed Time, as part of the reward for anyone who gave £250 or more. “Oh, I don’t mind at all,” he says. “If it gets the film into the cinema and out of the DVD library, I’ll do more or less anything.