Interview: Borrowed Time Producer Mia Bays on pioneering direct distribution in the UK

Interview: Borrowed Time Producer Mia Bays on pioneering direct distribution in the UK

An Oscar-winning producer – her first film, Martin McDonagh’s Six Shooter, won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short – Mia Bays is the founder of Missing In Action Films: an independent production company and marketing consultancy boasting 21 years feature film experience on such titles as Tsotsi, Shifty, Ill Manors and Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.

As the Creative Producer for Film London’s micro-budget features initiative Microwave, her latest project involves overseeing an alternative distribution strategy for writer-director Jules Bishop’s homegrown debut Borrowed Time, which was made for just £120,000 and opens in the UK today.

Mia kindly took the time to talk BEV through the pros and cons of using such schemes as Kickstarter and Tugg to secure theatrical distribution for the Phil Davis-starring comedy drama, and what this pioneering approach might mean for cinema releases in the future…

BEV: Why did you decide to go the direct distribution route for Borrowed Time?

MB: This is Microwave’s sixth movie so as a scheme we’ve got some previous experience where we’ve gone the traditional route. We actually had offers from three distributors and I have to credit Olivier Kaempfer, the film’s producer, with being the driving force in wanting to do something different. We screened it at Edinburgh Film Festival in 2012 and it proved to be a real crowd-pleaser, so inspired by a lot of American case studies – they’re much further ahead with direct distribution – we looked into different models. Frankly, having seen the ever-dwindling returns from traditional models, we thought, What is there to lose?

So, where does one start?

The big first step was raising our own P&A [prints and advertising budget] using Kickstarter. Olivier was the one to push that. If we can get over this hurdle – if we can raise marketing money – we’ll be the first film to do it in the UK. Then we’re potentially up and running. Once that was achieved, we revisited the traditional model distributors’ offers and had conversations, by which time Olivier had connected to an initiative called A2E: Artist to Entrepreneur. This was set up by Ted Hope at the San Francisco Film Festival, who’s a huge exponent of filmmakers connecting directly to audiences. They chose six films to put on this initiative and I think Borrowed Time was the only international one – everything else was US. They brought the filmmakers out to San Francisco to work with consultants who were all at the top of their game in this area, the idea being to train and inspire filmmakers to go off and do it themselves. Olivier came back armed with lot of interesting contacts and tools. It took us a while to then figure out how we were going to put all this into action. If you’re going to do direct distribution you really need an ‘A’ team. We weren’t 100% convinced at the time. I’ve been in the film industry for 22 years. I was a distributor and a sales agent. One becomes very reliant on the ‘old model’, because you’re part of it. Then you become frustrated by it as a filmmaker and a financier, because you look at the numbers and think, This is just ludicrous! We never make any money. Or if we are recouping it’s much further down the line.

At the time Revolver, who had released three of our films, were sadly falling apart. We knew Dave Shear was leaving and setting up Shear Entertainment. Dave’s a brilliant booker and head of distribution. He loved the movie and was up for doing something different. Then we talked to Rob Wilkerson, who’s on our board at Film London and owns Target Media, part of which is Organic – who are a major film PR and marketing company. He felt that that was exciting for them, too. Not as a moneymaking exercise, but again to experiment and to use what they’d learned in the traditional model. Through all those conversations – and really because everyone felt that the film was good enough, it always comes back to the film – we had this great direct distribution team. That’s absolutely not the same as self-distribution, though obviously a cornerstone of the plan is the filmmakers driving this.

We read a lot these days about filmmakers turning to Kickstarter to fund production, but yours was specifically for P&A.

We raised that money – about £25,000 – and then New Models, the BFI fund, had launched by this time. Which is exactly for looking at this issue, inviting both traditional distributors and filmmakers themselves to apply. We started talking to them about how it might work and why it was exciting. We had to put together a really comprehensive plan and in the end they match-funded, so we had £50,000. You can do something with 50 grand, in a very targeted way. High Point then sold the pay TV rights to Sky, which is potentially decent revenue. They brought in Matchbox who are handling the other VOD rights and putting out the DVD. In order to do a multi-platform approach everyone on the team has to have their specific area of expertise and responsibility. We have to report to the BFI and galvanise the Kickstarter investors – make sure they know what’s happening with their money and feel included in this groundbreaking initiative.

Watch the Borrowed Time trailer

This all makes the process more transparent than it sometimes seems.

Yeah, we’re constantly updating! We actually had a screening the other night for the higher level investors. That was their chance to see the film for the first time, meet the cast and filmmakers. We’ve sprinkled events throughout the first few weeks of the cinema release in order to keep it going. Everything’s very driven by the first three days of release in cinemas – that’s often the indicator of success or failure – but for indie films that’s never going to be feasible. For instance, we’ve hardly got any evening shows for the first week because The Great Beauty’s doing really well – a major arthouse hit – and there’s other stuff opening, so you just get bumped. We have to make the best of that: put on special events, deliver our cast, deliver new and interesting things that keeps it ticking for weeks two and three. You’re not just relying on that opening weekend. You’re giving cinemas some faith that even if they’re just giving you a couple of shows, you’re going hell for leather to sell those out and prove that there’s an audience.

It’s a new conundrum: on the one hand digital exhibition should mean there’s no longer an issue with sufficient prints being available, but the sheer number of films coming out now means it’s tougher to get them into screens.

I think documentaries have been much more artful – again inspired by US tactics – when connecting with the audience, giving them a better reason to come to events, call to action on social issues, special interests, etc. It’s easier to do it with docs than fiction. It helps that Borrowed Time stars Theo Barklem-Biggs, who was in The Inbetweeners Movie and has a growing profile, and also Phil Davis obviously, such a brilliant veteran actor. It helps because they’re a draw.

Borrowed Time is the first British feature to utilise Tugg, a crowdsourcing platform that enables communities to host screenings at their local cinema.

Yes, we’re kind of beta testing it! Tugg doesn’t really become significant until later in the release. It’s much more about week four onwards, when you’re galvanising the audience to keep a film going. Tugg’s so new that there aren’t that many cinemas supporting it yet. It probably won’t benefit us enormously, but it’s groundbreaking that we’re trialling something that is clearly going to be amazing for indie film. And hopefully showing cinemas that people are prepared to go out there and organise their own events, for the right movie. Tugg opens up the audience’s ability to get alternative programming, especially regionally. My mum lives in Somerset and whenever we go to see movies there we literally drive about 30 miles! That’s the nearest cinema that has anything that’s not insanely mainstream.

Borrowed Time goes on theatrical release from Friday September 13. More information and a list of cinemas showing the film can be found here. Follow on Facebook or Twitter for details of special screenings. Events confirmed so far include…

Saturday September 14: youth-targeted screening in association with SBTV at Ritzy Brixton

Sunday September 15: Q&A and live taxidermy event at Hackney Picturehouse

Tuesday September 17: Phil Davis in conversation with Mark Kermode at Curzon Soho

Tuesday September 24: cast and filmmaker Q&A at PeckhamPlex.

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