At the age of 33, Arvind Ethan David, the Malaysian-born, Oxford-educated founder and CEO of London’s Slingshot Studios, has already had more careers than most people manage in a lifetime.
He’s been a theater director, playwright (he won an award for a recent L.A. staging of his student work “Dirk”), lawyer, dotcom mogul, consultant to some of the U.K.’s top producers and managing director of Ruby Films.
But these jobs just laid the groundwork for his vocation as head of Slingshot, a microbudget digital film studio that’s rapidly emerged as one of the most innovative players on the U.K. production and distribution scene.
Launched below the industry’s radar in early 2006, Slingshot has just released its first movie, gritty urban drama “Sugarhouse,” and has two more coming through — “French Film,” a romantic comedy starring Hugh Bonneville, and “Faintheart,” a comedy set in the world of Viking re-enactments, which starts shooting next month.
Slingshot, based at Ealing Studios, plans to produce 10 movies over three years at average budgets of $500,000 apiece, and to release them itself, exploring digital distribution and online communities to carve out a niche for fresh talent on a shoestring.
Fox Searchlight veteran Liz Draper is running the distribution arm, sniffing out films such as U.S. doc “Cocaine Cowboys” and Parisian coming-of-ager “Water Lilies” to add to Slingshot’s own titles.
All of a sudden, the upstart studio, backed by digital pioneer Arts Alliance and Creative Capital Fund, is being embraced by the establishment. Training org Skillset recently awarded it $500,000 to support its work with new writers. Slingshot also has struck a co-financing deal for six pics with Screen West Midlands, and a has partnership for a dozen projects with BBC Films.
BBC Films topper David Thompson testified, “We are really focussed at the moment on trying to break the mold in low-budget filmmaking, and Slingshot has a really brilliant take on how to do this — from early development stage right through to production.”
The BBC deal is a big vote of confidence in Slingshot’s creative and commercial vision, and significantly improves the odds it will succeed.
On the other hand, confidence is something David never seems to have lacked, though he tempers it with an engaging line in self-deprecation.
After forming a theater company as a student, he turned down a directing career to train as a lawyer, but quit to launch comedy website Hahabonk during the first dotcom boom.
“It was a very expensive education on other people’s money about how to run a business,” he notes wryly.
A stint at business school led to consultancy work for film producer Alison Owen (whose company, Ruby, he ran for a time), and then for Mark Shivas at Headline Pictures.
“Having seen how tough it was for producers to own anything, I thought that I either have to give up and move to America, or change the rules,” David recalls.
Gotham indies Hart Sharp and Indigent inspired his idea for a digital studio, giving talent and crew gross points to make edgy movies with recognizable casts for virtually nothing.
Slingshot’s development is a communal process ruthlessly focused on getting scripts ready for greenlight, involving workshops, test shoots and writers giving feedback to each other. Production coin is raised under the EIS tax shelter, which means it has to be spent within the year. “Something remarkable happens when you tell people you’re going to make their film unless it goes wrong,” David says. Of the nine projects it has optioned, only two have been dropped.
As a dotcom survivor and ardent blogger, David also believes in the power of the web to help in the making and marketing of movies. For “Sugarhouse,” Slingshot did online test screenings via Arts Alliance’s DVD rental service Lovefilm. “Faintheart” won a MySpace competition for $2 million in production finance from Film4, Vertigo and the U.K. Film Council, with the MySpace community participating in the creative decisions.
For all that, “Sugarhouse” died at the box office, despite a decent cast (Ashley Waters, Andy Serkis, Stephen Mackintosh) and some plaudits. Clearly, the Slingshot experiment has a way to go yet. But as the name of his company suggests, the industry Goliaths would be wise to keep an eye on this particular David.