MySpace goes to the movies
The social networking giant and its members help produce a British comedy.
(Fortune) -- The Toronto Film Festival has been the launching pad for many an Academy Award-winning movie. "Ray," the gripping tale of legendary singer Ray Charles' rise to fame and his battle with drug addiction, was unveiled at the festival several years ago. So was "Crash," the gritty saga of racial and social strife in Los Angeles.
This year, one of the most talked-about movies to be shown at the festival in September is Vertigo Film's "Faintheart," a lighthearted British comedy about a battle re-enactment buff who is gets so caught up in his role as a Viking warrior that he almost loses his wife to their son's gym teacher.
Okay, "Faintheart" isn't likely to win an Oscar for best picture like "Crash." The Daily Telegraph calls it "a likeable if conventional underdog-makes-good comedy." But "Faintheart" is noteworthy because Vertigo, a small British studio, co-produced it with MySpace, the social networking web service with 120 million members worldwide.
My Space, which is owned by News Corporation (NWS, Fortune 500), is promoting "Faintheart" as "the world's first fully user-generated feature film." That's a bit of an exaggeration. MySpace allowed hundreds of thousands of its British members to contribute to the making of "Faintheart". But make no mistake: this is a professionally produced film.
The more intriguing point is that MySpace has built huge number of potential ticket buyers for "Faintheart" by enlisting all those members. "It's a very really interesting way to get people involved," says Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research and co-author of "Groundswell," a recently published book about social networks and YouTube. "You end up with a ready-made audience."
Allan Niblo, co founder of Vertigo Films, says that is exactly what he wanted when he approached MySpace about "Faintheart." He was intrigued by how other filmmakers had used MySpace to promote hits like "Knocked Up." "We thought what if we made a film on MySpace that tapped into that market?" he says.
Here's what Vertigo and MySpace ended up doing. Starting in February 2007, MySpace solicited 806 shorts from aspiring feature film directors. A panel of judges including actress Sienna Miller selected three finalists from a short list of 12 entries. MySpace users picked the winner: Vito Rocco, whose short film, "Goodbye Cruel World," had actually debuted in 2004 at the Berlin Film festival. In other words, Rocco was not exactly a novice.
Rocco and David Lemon, an experienced television show writer, wrote a script for "Faintheart." Key scenes were posted on MySpace so users could suggest ideas and contribute dialogue. Fourteen thousand members auditioned for eight parts in Faintheart. The biggest roles went to professional actors, though. Richard, the sales assistant who gets into trouble as Viking Warrior Readmund the Just, is played by Eddie Marson, whose resume includes roles in "Hancock" and "Miami Vice." Richard's wife, Cath, is portrayed by Jessica Hynes, who appeared in "Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix."
Four little-known bands from MySpace also wound up contributing to the soundtrack along with multi-platinum singer Katie Melua. The site's members also weighed in on how the movie would be marketed. "It's been a joy to listen to them," says Niblo. "Studios usually have to pay for this kind of research. Like what should the poster look like? We were able to get that information back through MySpace."
Anyway, you get the idea. Pros ultimately controlled the making of "Faintheart." But MySpace got hordes of users interested a movie with a $2 million budget from a small studio that might otherwise have gotten little attention. MyMovieMashup, a site devoted to the making of "Faintheart," received 11.6 million hits. More than 20,000 users signed up as friends on the site. Surely, some of them will venture out to the neighborhood theater to see the film when it is released in England and Ireland in September.
"Faintheart" has yet to picked up by an American distributor. That's likely to change after it is shown in Toronto. Chris DeWolfe, CEO and co-founder of MySpace, says "four or five studios" have asked to see "Faintheart" again after it was shown in June at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. "We have one of the largest audiences of any media company in the world," DeWolfe notes. "There is built-in marketing in the deal [with Vertigo]. The worst case scenario is they reach 120 million users worldwide immediately."
Of course, it remains to be seen if "Faintheart" will be a hit. Michael Nathanson, an analyst at Bernstein Research, isn't so sure. "Just because [MySpace] can promote a movie doesn't mean folks will see it," he says.
But either way, MySpace comes out ahead. It gets a cut of the profits if "Faintheart" is a smash. If not, it doesn't lose any money as MySpace didn't have to put up cash to get its producer credit. That's how eager Vertigo was to tap its user base.
Meanwhile, "Faintheart" has already boosted traffic on the site. "They are thinking, 'What can we do that generates traffic we can use to sell ads,' " say Bernoff. Surely, DeWolfe is looking forward to attending the Toronto Film Festival. But if MySpace sells more ads? Then he's really happy.