Film Council places online bet

PETE BUCKINGHAM, THE U.K. Film Council’s head of distribution and exhibition, is nothing if not bold.

His decision to spend £3 million ($5.95 million) on a social networking Web site for British movie fans is the latest piece of lateral thinking by a maverick exec whose job is to persuade U.K. cinemagoers that there’s more to life than the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Myfilms, the brainchild of marketing agency Sledge, launched very softly last week. Its not-so-hidden agenda is to get mainstream auds excited about a much wider range of movies than is available at the average multiplex, and to give them a platform to demand more choice from distribs and exhibs.

“There’s a pent-up conversation waiting to happen about movies that sadly has quite a limited vocabulary at the moment,” says Sledge topper Tom Beaumont-Griffin. “I’m focusing on fire-starting this popular movement that says you don’t have to be a film buff to have a richer film experience.”

Buckingham is the first to admit that this is a big stretch. “This is an ambitious project. But if you can’t take a bloody risk occasionally with government money, nobody else is going to do it.”

Buckingham already proved that he’s not afraid of using the public purse to fund imaginative leaps into the future. He has committed $25 million over four years to roll out a network of digital screens in 240 theaters around the country, an initiative now nearing completion.

This has put Blighty in the vanguard of digital cinema outside the U.S., while also securing a foothold for specialized movies in a digital space otherwise likely to be dominated by the major studios.

Alongside the Digital Screen Network and $4 million a year in P&A funding for specialized releases, Myfilms ( is the third prong in Buckingham’s strategy to diversify U.K. cinemagoing.

He jokes about forcing film culture upon Brits whether they want it or not. But in truth Buckingham, himself a former distributor and exhibitor, is an instinctive populist with no desire tell popcorn munchers that they should be eating carrot cake instead because it’s better for them. He simply wants to give them the choice.

The Myfilms concept was developed in close consultation with distribs and exhibs, who sit on an advisory board, and based on extensive research into the marketplace barriers for specialized films. Its promotional partners include Lovefilm, Sky TV and Carlton Screen Advertising.

It’s conceived as a Web site where moviegoers can recommend films to each other. Each user creates his own home page, presided over by an individual cartoon avatar. The site will also aggregate a lot of information from existing sources, including when and where films are playing, and every special offer available for cinemagoing, such as newspaper competitions for free tickets.

“As film is a communal activity, we’re putting together a site about building up your film friends,” Buckingham says. “A lot of the content may well be about whatever people themselves find interesting. The recommendation engine will be based on individual profiles, driven by the consumer’s own tastes rather than by an editor.”

In this way, Buckingham and Beaumont-Griffin both argue that the movie biz will start to follow trends in music, with online communities championing a more diverse range of talent, and the industry taking its cue from the Web.

But what’s to stop Myfilms users spending all their time chatting about Brangelina, or the latest Hollywood sequel? Nothing; but the site’s engine will be gently tweaked to make sure other things get a look in.

“When ‘Spider-Man 3’ comes out, it will dominate every magazine and Web site, but not ours,” Buckingham says. Fully financed for three years, it doesn’t have to follow commercial imperatives.

Buckingham calls the site “a film society without any structure.” But in truth, nobody can be quite sure how it will work, or whether it will work at all, until it finds a critical mass of users. And then it’s the users who will decide exactly what Myfilms will be.

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