Collaborative effort launches site's strategy

LONDON — Hollywood is filled with horror stories of development by committees of execs altering filmmakers’ long-cherished projects beyond recognition. But spare a thought for helmer Vito Rocco.

His debut feature “Faintheart,” set to receive its world preem at the Edinburgh Film Fest this June, is being billed as the world’s first user-generated feature film, thanks to MyMovie Mashup, a MySpace U.K. competition that granted its winner £1 million ($2 million) to make the project, backed by Film4, Vertigo Films and the U.K. Film Council.  

The competition, launched in February 2007, represented the online social network’s biggest foray yet into the film biz. While the site has long been used by U.S. studios to market films, the MyMovie Mashup contest was the first time MySpace was closely involved with a project from start to finish.

MySpace users were invited to vote for their favorite director out of more than 8,000 submitted shorts, with the winning director receiving the coin to make his or her project. MySpacers were also invited to offer their input toward the development of the project with casting conducted via online auditions.

That means Rocco faced the possibility of MySpace’s millions of users putting in their 10 cents as to which line or which ending would work best.

While that prospect might have put off most hardened helmers, in Rocco’s case the project was his ticket to being discovered. His short film “Goodbye Cruel World” won the MySpace competition by more than 500,000 votes.

Since then, MySpace users have contributed lines of dialogue, the film’s soundtrack and suggestions on its poster and marketing campaign, as well as sharing opinions on the 10 unknown thesps cast in small roles thanks to the online auditions.

The announcement on June 10 that MySpace would also be teaming up with bestselling novelist Paulo Coelho to make an almost entirely user-generated feature film adaptation of his book “The Witch of Portobello” has once again raised the question of how effective the social networking site can become in the business of film production.

“It’s a natural growth for us to become a hub for the filmmaking community to build their audiences and connect with each other,” says MySpace Senior VP of content and marketing for intl. Jamie Kantrowitz. “We’ll continue to look at interesting projects for our audiences to express themselves in collaboration with the important content creators. This will continue globally, and there will be more projects to come.”

While few would argue with the power of MySpace, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.,  as a marketing platform, it remains an unproven force in terms of its proletarian approach to development being able to benefit a project.

The “Faintheart” MySpace profile, for example, has been viewed 12 million times, with 20,000 users regularly offering feedback and input.

While the development by committee has historically resulted in a film reduced to its lowest common denominator, the irony of the MyMovie Mashup experiment could be that the final product, at least as regards “Faintheart,” is a sweet-hearted, traditional romantic comedy. The pic is set in the world of battle re-enactments, with the central figure a weekend warrior played by Eddie Marsan (“Vera Drake”), who sets out to win his wife back after she becomes tired of his infantile obsessions.

A similar result occurred with an earlier feature filmmaking contest, the televised “Project Greenlight,” in which the first and second season winners were standard indie dramas — strangely enough, one was also set in the world of war re-enactors.

“We can get terribly carried away with the notion that we’ll be delivering a revolutionary product, but the irony is, we’ve ended up with a conventional film,” Film4 senior commissioning exec Peter Carlton says. “I think that in these challenging days for independent filmmaking — just look at what happened to Warner Independent, Picturehouse, ThinkFilm — you need to deliver independent films differently and build different relationships with your audience. What’s interesting about what MySpace is doing is it gives you an opportunity to build traditional word of mouth, which you can’t usually do when opening weekends are so important and you’re faced with huge advertising budgets from the studios.”

Vertigo will be releasing the pic in the U.K., planning its widest-ever release this September with 250-300 prints.

The project is available for other territories, and there remains the possibility of another News Corp. company, most obviously Fox Searchlight might pick the film up. Fox execs have not yet seen the pic, although were they to acquire “Faintheart,” it would be a serendipitous piece of synergy between MySpace and Fox.

“It’s been a fascinating and, I think, successful experiment,” says Vertigo exec producer Rupert Preston. “The extraordinary thing about using MySpace is we’ve been able to discover new talent.”

MySpace execs are also looking to ramp up their own filmmaking activities, with plans to be involved in more local-language and U.S. projects.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more