Kickstarter & Independent Film – A Conversation with Director Simon Horrocks

The last time we saw a revolution in independent film, producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein were leading the charge with Miramax Films – taking small, critically acclaimed ‘arthouse’ movies such as Sex, Lies and Videotape and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and investing in their distribution to wider audiences. Although their championing of independents from around the world gave us greater access to the work of Almodovar, Tarantino, Soderbergh and Smith, among many others, they eventually came under fire for driving the budgets of independent filmmaking up.  Though they had helped to raise the profile of the independent film industry in general, young, self-funded auteurs were still struggling to reach their audience.

The movie-making game is rigged against independent movies. Every aspect of filmmaking, from production financing to distribution, is pre-disposed to favour studio pictures. That being the case, small projects are marginalised at best – and at worst, they are locked out altogether. A new revolution was needed to help creative minds reach their audience. Enter, Kickstarter.

Launched in 2009, this for-profit organisation was founded with the intention of helping creative projects find the funding they required. Since then, over 43,000 creative endeavours have been successfully funded – everything from games and music, to art, film, design and technology. Project creators open a Kickstarter fund with a funding goal and an outline of their vision – and maybe some samples – and offer rewards for money pledged. Backers cannot receive financial reward for their support, but incentives may include memorabilia, copies of the finished product, tickets to screenings or concerts – or anything connected with the idea. If the funding goal is reached, the project receives the money. If it is not, the project gets nothing. This serves to both protect the backers, and motivate the project creators – they must publicise their fund in order to be successful. When a project is successfully funded, Kickstarter charges 5% – which is taken from the pledges collected.

Kickstarter is essentially a modernisation of methods that have been used by artists forever. Twain, Mozart and Beethoven, among others, all relied heavily on the generosity of interested benefactors and supporters in order to create their masterpieces and reach their audiences. This facility utilises new technology to bring together support for the arts from around the globe, and in addition to reverberating throughout many artistic sectors, the impact is being felt in the independent film industry, too.

Most notably, earlier this year, the creators of the TV show Veronica Mars took to Kickstarter to give fans the opportunity to fund a movie, since studios said they would, in principle, support the project, if the filmmakers could find support for the budget. Find it they did, with over 90,000 devoted fans collectively pledging $5.7 million to resuscitate their favourite TV character. Excited debate swirled around the crowdfunding site – could this be a new dawn for independent film? The past eighteen months have certainly made it look that way, with 10% of films screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012 being Kickstarter funded, and two Kickstarter funded films receiving Academy Award nominations in March of that year. Throughout 2012, a total of 63 Kickstarter funded films screened in more than 1,200 cinemas. Not only are films being funded, they are also being distributed – a crucial factor for independent filmmakers.

Enter Simon Horrocks – writer and director of the entirely self-funded independent British film, Third Contact – now seeking distribution through a Kickstarter campaign.

“I’d wanted to be a filmmaker since I was about 7 or 8 years old, but instead found my way into the music industry, earning a modest living as a film and TV composer. My writing partner and I fell on hard times, when various events conspired to lock two years worth of work in a warehouse. I was working in a cinema to pay the mortgage and was inspired to make a feature when members of staff received an anonymous email from an organisation called ‘Film In The Make’, setting us filmmaking tasks.

“From that, I directed a short for virtually nothing, and that sowed the seed in my mind that I could make a feature the same way – it would just take longer. So, I wrote Third Contact, making sure all the scenes were do-able on a zero (or very small) budget. I worked on the script for about eight months.

“I broke the script down into locations, and started filming, with each location being a mini-shoot, as if we were shooting a short film. This took just under a year. We had to improvise a lot. The locations weren’t necessarily as I had envisioned them when I was writing. Also, some of the roles were played by friends who had never acted before, but I saw them working for the character – again, sometimes bringing something new to the story which I hadn’t seen in the writing.

“I would try to look at the production from an angle of ‘What are we gaining by shooting so unconventionally’? There was only one moment where I felt really defeated. I only had one professional light, which had been found discarded in the back of a BBC cupboard by my composing partner who worked there. We were shooting some scenes in a basement, and it was damp. I had a bad feeling this would blow the bulb, and it did. Stupidly, I hadn’t got round to buying a spare, so I had no light for the scene.

“Tim (Scott-Walker, lead actor) just said, ‘I know you’ll make it even better – even more moody’. So, I just used the available lighting – the ‘practicals’ – and I think he was right. That was the whole philosophy of the shoot – try to turn adversity into a positive. Apparently, when Godard shot A Bout De Souffle, he didn’t have the footage to shoot from different angles, so he had to cut the same shot together, creating ‘jump cuts’, which was then seen as a great innovation. So, we approached every budget limitation in that fashion – any limitation would become a positive if you were prepared to innovate and experiment.”

Third Contact tells the tale of depressed psychotherapist, Dr David Wright (Tim Scott-Walker), who embarks on an obsessive investigation after a second patient takes their own life in mysterious circumstances. He sets out to uncover who, or what, is behind their deaths before any more lives are lost. The film is shot largely in black-and-white, with occasional splashes of colour, on a handheld camcorder. Sound, music, creative camera angles and strategic editing are all used to conjure the necessary atmosphere to stunning effect.

“For Third Contact, there were a mix of influences – Chris Marker’s La Jetee being one of the most important. Combine that with Vertigo, Pi, The Pledge, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Memento. I was also inspired by David Lynch shooting Inland Empire with a pretty basic DV camera – that showed me it’s not about the equipment – it’s about the creativity. That’s where I’m most in my element, I guess.”

Having funded his production entirely on his hourly cinema salary, Simon Horrocks needed to get his work to an audience. He found himself screening Third Contact at the German Film Festival, 46 Hofer Filmtage.

“The Hofer Filmtage is a great festival, with a wonderful atmosphere. All the films are selected by Heinz Badewitz, who has run it since the 1960s. In Germany, the festival is considered prestigious – it would be their equivalent to Edinburgh. But the festival has a long history of introducing filmmaking talent to the industry, with big names in German cinema like Wim Wenders, Werner Hertzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and others showing their films there. The town, Hof, was termed the Home of Film by one of them. I had met a German filmmaker living in London – Michael Pakleppa – who loved Third Contact and was a long-time friend of Heinz. He gave Heinz a copy, he loved it as well and asked to screen it.”

The critical response to Third Contact was overwhelmingly positive, with literary critic, author and journalist Thomas Rothschild asserting that, “It certainly is no exaggeration to say it’s quite the masterpiece…” But the culmination of Simon Horrocks’ dream lies with London cinema, and he is using Kickstarter to get there.

“We shot the film without industry involvement, so it seemed right to distribute it that way, too. Platforms like Kickstarter make it possible to raise funds for things like distribution. This means you can go to the audience and ask them to back you. It’s not an easy task. You have to become a film publicist. But it does mean that you have your destiny in your own hands, if you have an appealing project and a huge amount of determination.”

The Third Contact Kickstarter goal is £15,000, and funds pledged will enable Simon to bring his work to a much wider audience, particularly at a time when smaller fare is elbowed out to make way for studio ‘tent-pole’ productions.

“Cinema is crowded. There are many films crying out for attention. How do you get noticed? This is the same for anyone in a creative field – novelist, musician, the list goes on. The funds will allow us to pay for a PR company to promote the film and create promotional materials, such as posters. It’s so important to get your marketing right. We’ve learned so much about Third Contact by running the Kickstarter campaign, so we have actually done much of the concept work already. Which means the money will be even more effectively targetted.”

Simon’s ambition to bring his first feature to the big screen in London stems from his passion for the cinema experience, having found his own inspiration there. This does not mean the life of the film ends there, however.

“Distribution platforms are evolving now, with digital taking over. This makes films easier to distribute. But I still feel the cinema experience is vital for inspiring audiences and new voices. Just because it’s easier, doesn’t mean we should just let cinema die. If we love cinema, as I do, we must try to keep it alive, and not just abandon it to the huge event movies which dominate the multiplexes. We plan to release Third Contact to a select number of independent cinemas in London. With the PR funds getting us good audiences, this would hopefully allow us to screen it elsewhere – perhaps touring it to independent screens around the country, and even overseas.”

Simon remains open-minded about the long-term impact crowdfunding facilities such as Kickstarter could have on independent film finance. Reserving judgement on whether we are witnessing the evolution of film funding, he welcomes the opportunity to engage an audience in the creative process.

“I’d like to say yes, filmmakers are going to take the reins of their own projects and go straight to their fans and their audience for finance. I think it’s too early to say, at the moment. We’re still at the pioneering stage. My experience, so far, is very encouraging. It is possible to find and connect with your audience, even for a film as unusual as Third Contact. You find there are people who are looking for something fresh and they will become fanatics on your behalf – because you are not some distant ego on a pedestal. I feel it is very healthy for film if the audience is part of the creative process and is connected to you and your work.”

With just a few days left to go on his Kickstarter campaign, will Simon Horrocks’ future projects involve Kickstarter?

“Quite possibly. I have a number of stories to tell on the big screen. But, so much depends on the result of the Third Contact campaign. Everything we have done in the last four years comes down to this – the next few days.”

Discussing Kickstarter and independent film with Simon Horrocks, it is impossible not to be inspired. Could it be that the system – previously rigged to prop up the giant, well-monied movie studios – can be restructured from the ground up? Not only are filmmakers finding their production budgets from crowdfunding, but also their distribution. Could we be witnessing the end of the era in which faceless, corporate accountants determine what films are made, and what films we get to see on the big screen? Will the audience be calling more of the shots? It seems so, and Third Contact is leading that charge.

Filmmakers and audience, side-by-side, creating and experiencing art – welcome to the future of cinema.

Find out more about Simon Horrocks and his movie, Third Contact at: http://www.thirdcontactmovie.com/makingof.html#.UcwjPqtwbIV

Watch the trailer: