Ten years ago, a gentle British romcom about a man (Eddie Marsan) struggling with a mid-life crisis while spending his weekends as a Viking re-enactor closed out the Edinburgh Film Festival.
Only Faintheart was a bit different. It was a unique experiment, a collaboration between a number of British production companies and pioneering social media behemoth Myspace which, between 2005 and 2009, was the biggest social network in the world.
Before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the rest became the behemoths they are now, this was the first of its kind, a kind of interactive mash-up that in many ways helped pioneer the kind of behaviour that’s now a given in the movie world, like social media marketing, utilising influencers and crowdsourcing.
Yahoo Movies spoke to some of the main players to find out how it came about.
Vertigo Films’ head of theatrical marketing and publicity Wahida Niblo was working with Myspace’s James Fabricant on promotional strategies for 2007 documentary Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten when they had an idea of a joint project.
WAHIDA NIBLO: I think we were at a really interesting time in film back then and there was a lot more scope to take risks. [We wondered] what would it look like if we were to let the fans decide some elements of the film? It came from a little idea and grew into something much bigger.
EMMA HARTLEY (Vertigo development exec and associate producer): It was a large partnership between Myspace, Channel 4, the UK Film Council and Vertigo. I remember being sat round these very large meeting tables, having discussions about how we were going to run the process. What elements would be user-generated.
The Myspace MyMovieMashUp was born (and still lives on at myspace.com/faintheartthemovie).
Wannabe directors who had a project on the go were encouraged to submit their short film and a video pitch.
The initial shortlist was whittled down to 12 by an expert panel including Saving Mr Banks producer Alison Owen (whose daughter Lily Allen shot to fame thanks to Myspace), director Michael Caton-Jones (Basic Instinct 2) and Sienna Miller. That was reduced to three and then the winner was voted on by the Myspace community.
HARTLEY: I must have watched hundreds of short films (806 were submitted).
NIBLO: Everyone was so excited about it, it was fantastic.
VITO ROCCO (Faintheart writer/director): I heard about the Myspace initiative and I’d been working on a script with a writer (David Lemon) for a TV series about people dressing up as Vikings at the weekend. We worked on the script for a year or so. I put in the proposal for Faintheart and did a funny pitch on a mobility scooter.
NIBLO: He worked so hard to get his film the most votes. [He] was the most tuned-in to gaining traction with the fans.
HARTLEY: It was an experiment. This was the infancy of social media so we didn’t know what was possible. I was in my early twenties and on Myspace at the time. It was great we had the backing from the company rather than just us doing it ourselves, like, we have a page. They helped us understand.
ROCCO: I remember going up to the Isle of Man to meet some Vikings in the summer before we shot it. I was actually on a kind of mission to get them to vote for the film, to get the “Vote for Vito” campaign going on. They’d set up camp on the island living the life in their longhouses with their open fires, kids running around in bearskins. Round the corner there was a hessian-incrusted booth which had an internet terminal in. They went in there to check their emails.
Ahead of its time
Rocco, whose previous short had done well on the festival circuit and been shortlisted for an Oscar, won the public vote and Faintheart was immediately greenlit. Eddie Marsan came on board as Viking re-enactor hero Richard, whose wife (Jessica Hynes) kicks him out of the house. Wonder Woman star Ewen Bremner played his friend, a Trekkie called Julian.
ROCCO: We posted sections of the script, saying can you think of something funny for Vikings to do. I can’t think of anything specific that was added.
NIBLO: It was a great way to build a community of people who, from the get-go, felt like it was their project. Everyone who voted for Vito felt a bit of ownership of the film. Everything we did with the film they were very passionate about, they were very supportive. When we needed hundreds and hundreds of extra for the big battle sequences, we put a message up and they were very excited.
HARTLEY: We did a casting hunt as well. We got so many casting videos. That had more engagement than the director search, because the barrier to entry was lower.
CHRIS R. WRIGHT (an actor who was cast following his Myspace audition): I’d just spend four years working on an independent feature film… [Faintheart] felt like I was in Hollywood.
ROCCO: They would upload their audition videos at home and we would call them in if we liked them. That was quite groundbreaking. We did get half-a-dozen people who’d never acted before.
WRIGHT: I was never made to feel like a competition winner.
Constant interaction with the fans was one of the key elements. Several of the Myspace actors uploaded videos to the site from the set. One of them was Phil Lester, one half of YouTube/Radio 1 megastars Dan & Phil, who played a small supporting role.
ROCCO: I did weekly vlogs which were uploaded to the Myspace pages.
HARTLEY: We did have some people commenting every day [on Myspace].
NIBLO: One of the learning curves was the instantaneous reaction we’d get back from fans. Any time we’d put any messages up, we’d get an instant reaction. This was before how people react to news now. Ten years ago, media was ever so slightly slower.
Faintheart was chosen to close the 2008 Edinburgh Film Festival. But while it had been heralded in the press as the first user-generated or interactive feature, audiences expecting some kind of cutting-edge movie would be disappointed.
ROCCO: I think probably what happened is people were expecting a completely revolutionary narrative…it’s a romcom with Vikings. I think people were expecting, in terms of its aesthetic, for it to be quite radically different. We were trying to do something new with the marketing, but the product itself was in essence very old-fashioned. But that was because of the story. It was a story about people who were stuck in the past.
HARTLEY: I just remember [the film] having charm. My mum could watch! I think that the first film I showed my mum that I had a credit on.
NIBLO: The campaign to find our Myspace movie was very non-traditional. But I think the film which inevitably won, it’s an amazing, fantastic movie but it’s a traditional movie.
Reviews were mixed. Time Out called it “amiable yet underwhelming“, and the Guardian poked fun at its crowdsourced origins saying, “we were at least offered the chance to shape these characters, construct that plot, and make this picture. But we fumbled it. We stink. Two stars for the lot of us.”
Regardless of what the critics thought, the film was nominated for the Edinburgh Film Festival’s Audience Award and the premiere was attended by a legendary former 007.
HARTLEY: I remember Sean Connery being at the premiere and being really excited.
WRIGHT: I remember seeing the back of his head while he was watching me on the big screen and he was laughing, so that’s a moment I won’t forget. He’s very handsome in real life!
Where the movie was unique was in its release strategy.
NIBLO: One of the ways we released the film was we gave it back to the fans for free online. I remember Myspace crashed because [the film] was available for a few hours for free.
ROCCO: I think it was the first multi-cross-platform feature release. Everything was released at once. The result was maybe we were a bit ahead of the game. It’s much more common now for people to be able to choose a platform on which they watch [something].
But while Faintheart may now have faded from people’s memories – along with Myspace – its legacy remains visible in other platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Kickstarter and Instagram, or in Wattpad-turned-Netflix YA hit The Kissing Booth.
Vertigo remains a force in British independent cinema, its films include Streetdance 2, The Sweeney and Monsters. Chris Wright continues to star in UK indies and appeared on Big Brother in 2014. Meanwhile, Vito Rocco is developing feature films while directing serial TV, most recently helming episodes of Emmerdale and EastEnders.
WRIGHT: Maybe it came at the wrong time? It was a great idea and it definitely felt exciting. I don’t know what’s come since that’s sort of equivalent. I’ve got a nice little embossed Myspace Moleskin notebook somewhere.
HARTLEY: I don’t know what the measure of success was. From a development point of view it was a success. We are user-generating all the time now, it’s just not quite so organised with a structured timeline and four huge backers behind it. It’s more DIY, I guess.
NIBLO: I think the way it shaped the way I work and we work as a company, we’re always aware of creating an early fanbase and trying to find a core group of advocates who’ll really support and champion the film. The whole moviemaking process wasn’t just let’s try and make multimillions, it was let’s try and see what we can do with a fanbase.
ROCCO: In the case of a film like Faintheart, it’s a very gentle, warm, funny, hopefully moving British comedy which possibly would have found a bigger audience had it bubbled its way up through the festival circuit, rather than being heralded as this groundbreaking product. I like to think there’s a place for [it] in the British public’s heart. It’s lovely to talk about after all this time.