LONDON — On a Saturday night in November, 1,200 people gathered in a converted steel mill near Sheffield to watch the Shane Meadows thriller “Dead Man’s Shoes” on a giantscreen, with a live band playing the soundtrack and the director spinning discs afterwards. Those in the hip young crowd were paying $45 a head to celebrate the birthday of Warp Films, the Sheffield-based shingle that started 10 years ago as an offshoot to electronica label Warp Records, and still prides itself in being a bit of an outlaw.
Based 150 miles north of London, Warp has emerged over the past decade as the strongest brand in British indie filmmaking, and the anniversary marks a watershed of sorts: After winning awards and a cult following with edgy, provocative, low-budget movies, including teen skinhead drama “This Is England,” which beat out “Atonement” to nab the BAFTA for outstanding British film in 2007, the company is leveraging its reputation and relationships to launch its biggest slate of projects, with larger commercial ambitions. While trying to staying true to its distinctively British and defiantly non-metropolitan roots, Warp is aiming to make a greater impact in the international market, including a project or two that can finally break into the U.S.
“We’re not changing our beliefs,” says Warp’s CEO and founder Mark Herbert. “We want to make bigger films, but we’re still trying to keep our sensibility, a lot of which is about fearlessness. We do things that other people say we shouldn’t.”
That bold spirit is evident in its hefty production slate for 2013, which includes three films budgeted at more than $9 million, at least twice as expensive as anything Warp has previously attempted:
• Yann Demange’s actioner “71,” from a script by Scot playwright Gregory Burke (“Black Watch”), is about a young British soldier lost behind enemy lines in Troubles-torn Belfast.
• Tom Shankland’s “Destroyer,” starring Paul Bettany, is a Falklands War drama about the sinking of the HMS Coventry.
• “Tommy,” scripted by Billy Ivory, is a biopic about British cycling hero Tommy Simpson, who died in the saddle on the 1967 Tour de France while doped to the gills.
Beyond 2013, Warp is seeking to extend its reach even further, with stop-motion kids pic “Zero Greg” by BAFTA-winning animator Michael Please; young adult franchise “Numbers,” based on Rachel Ward’s trilogy, scripted by Paul Fraser for TF1; and American family adventure “Wild Boy,” based on Rob Lloyd Jones’ novel, in development with Film4.
While the Falklands War and the Belfast Troubles are subjects that have greater resonance in the U.K. than abroad, and Tommy Simpson can’t match Lance Armstrong for global awareness, early buyer reaction at AFM to “71” (via Protagonist”) and “Destroyer” (via Ealing) was strong.
The company has come a long way from its modest origins in Herbert’s garden shed as an offshoot of Warp Records. Warp won a BAFTA in 2003 with its debut short “My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117,” directed by Chris Morris and starring Paddy Considine. Considine introduced Herbert to Meadows, which led to Warp’s first full-length feature, “Dead Man’s Shoes,” a revenge thriller that became a cult hit on DVD.
The big breakthrough came with Meadows’ next project, BAFTA winner “This Is England.” Since then, Warp has launched the careers of several hot filmmakers: It has made 19 features, mostly with first- or second-time writer-directors, budgeted from $1 million-$5 million, including BAFTA-winning debuts by Morris (“Four Lions”) and Considine (“Tyrannosaur”), along with Richard Ayoade’s “Submarine,” Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” and Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio.”
In total, Warp has won eight BAFTAs (including three for its first TV drama, the spinoff series “This is England ’86 & ’88”), 13 British Independent Film Awards, countless festival prizes, and six Australian Academy Awards for Justin Kurzel’s “Snowtown,” the first feature from its production affiliate Down Under.
Yet Warp has yet to enjoy a breakout B.O. hit. Its best U.K. results are “Four Lions” with $3.7 million, “This Is England” with $3.1 million and “Submarine” with $2.3 million; “Tyrannosaur” and “Kill List” took in less than $500,000. But the films are made cheaply, tend to perform well on DVD and rack up TV sales, and sell regularly to loyal international buyers such as Australia’s Madman and Scandinavia’s NonStop.
Still, Warp hasn’t managed to crack America. “We’ve had a very strong festival presence in the U.S., but never had a film that’s properly got into the mainstream there,” Herbert admits. “Making a bigger impact in the U.S. is our ambition now.”
Warp’s managing director Robin Gutch, who originally joined from Film4 in 2005 to run the microbudget studio Warp X but now oversees the whole film slate, works from the London office, but describes Sheffield as “the mothership of the company.” This northern city, formerly home of the U.K.’s steel industry, is Herbert’s home, and feeds Warp’s rebel mentality, which also stems from its roots in the alt-music scene.
Warp’s growth was accelerated by the creation of Warp X in 2006, a publicly funded experiment in digital low-budget production, backed by the U.K. Film Council, Film4, regional agencies Screen Yorkshire and EM Media, and Optimum Releasing (now Studiocanal U.K.). This has come to its natural end after two rounds of funding that delivered 10 challenging and experimental films budgeted between $1 million and $2.5 million, including “Tyrannosaur,” “Kill List” and “Berberian Sound Studio.” The last, Paul Wright’s “Seaside Stories,” will be released next year.
“Warp X gave us the scale and volume to have a number of films coming through each year, and helped us develop our relationships, particularly internationally,” Gutch says. “It made us think partly as a financier as well as a producer, to think strategically about building a balanced slate.”
Taking its cue from its sister record label, Warp has reached beyond the usual arthouse audience to cultivate an alternative fanbase, with live events at music festivals and via social media.
The challenge is to expand from this niche, and to step up the budget scale, without compromising Warp’s commitment to originality and local authenticity.
“Our films have a real inherent Britishness which helps them to travel well,” Herbert says. “The distributors keep investing, so we must be doing something right for them.”
“Numbers” author Ward optioned the rights to Warp ahead of rival bidders, because the company was committed to keeping the story British, even though Carlton admits that’s more commercially challenging.
Warp is already starting to reach wider audiences, and embrace a wider range of voices, through its move into TV drama and comedy.
After its success with “This Is England’86 & ’88,” which scored record ratings for Channel 4, the company has produced comedies “The Midnight Beast” and “Privado” for C4/E4, and three half-hour dramas for Sky Arts.
Peter Carlton, head of Warp Europe, is making “Southcliffe,” a landmark C4 miniseries about the aftermath of a shooting spree in an English town, written by Tony Grisoni and directed by Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”).
“With ‘This Is England 86,’ we suddenly realized we could apply a film mentality to making TV, and that coincided with a desire (in) the market for high-end, (niche-targeted), authored TV drama,” Carlton says.
Says Herbert, “Five years ago, if you’d told me we would make a BAFTA-winning TV drama, I’d never have believed you.” He’s equally surprised that Warp has become a fixture of the U.K.’s media studies curriculum for high school seniors and college undergrads.
“I get several calls a month from students who are doing a dissertation on Warp,” he says. “When you become a producer, you just live to survive. You don’t think, crikey, if we keep doing films like this, we might become an institution.” What: Warp Films turns 10, looks for wider reach.
The takeaway: The music-label spinoff, famed for cult, microbudget pics, aims for a profile across the Pond.