Coffee Films first came into being in 1996 as an underground collective of friends, artists and musicians living around Kent. Working with an array of cheap S-VHS and Hi-8 consumer camcorders and editing tape to tape the group made a wide range of largely experimental films and videos on zero-budgets. Almost 20 years later and Coffee Films is a well established British independent film production company which has screened worldwide, won critical acclaim and reached into seven figure budget filmmaking. You can find an overview of the history below.
The creation of Coffee Films emerged from the Naked Pony Theatre Company; a fringe outfit based in Canterbury that spent three years producing a series of innovative and acclaimed productions from European and English classics such as Woyzeck (Georg Buchner), King Lear (William Shakespeare) and La Ronde (Arthur Schnitzler) to their original work Titanic (devised by school children under the supervision of the company).
The performances were particularly notable for their minimal casts (Cyrano de Bergerac, commonly performed with anything up to 200 cast members was stripped down to just 4 actors), huge script edits (King Lear was reduced from 180 minutes to just 90) and remarkable staging (nearly all the plays were performed with a combination of just 3 spotlights and 4 fresnels casting pure white light, combined with a set created by film and slide projectors). The end result was unique, and quite unlike anything else outside of the London fringe.
Naked Pony rehearsing King Lear, the Woyzeck poster and artistic director Hadrian Garrard
In 1996 Naked Pony's technical director Steve Piper produced the 4 minute short Televisual Man with friend Dave Smith under the company name Mr. Spambapstic Films. An Orwellian themed experiment shot on S-VHS tape, edited in-camera and completed in a day it would be 9 years before the public would get a glimpse of the film, but it kicked off a series of experimental short film shoots with an expanding number of participants over the following years.
By 1998, after successful tours of King Lear and Woyzeck, Naked Pony artistic director Hadrian Garrard set out to secure a grant from the Lottery to enable them to produce a large scale original work with playwright Goran Stefanovski for European touring. The Lottery were having none of it and refused the money (undoubtedly applying it instead to yet another tasteful town centre monument); disillusioned, Garrard proclaimed that theatre was dead as an artform and company assets were sold to fund a film short of King Lear, the intention being to move the company on into film production.
Shortly after completing the film Garrard moved on to a successful music career playing trumpet with Ed Harcourt, whilst Piper settled into a corporate marketing day job and started organising his filmmaking collective into an early Coffee Films team. Made up mostly of friends who had little or no previous film experience, the original intention was to show that anyone could have a go at making films; huge budgets, film schools, special effects and stars weren't as important as a tight knit team with plenty of ambition.
One sheet for Televisual Man
1998 was a highly productive year with the team creating ten experimental film shorts, animated sequences and documentaries. By 1999, inspired by the guerilla film-making acheivements of Robert Rodriguez and feeling confident, the team started working towards shooting a feature length film, determined to create a project that could work artistically and commercially and still all with no budget. Three feature length scripts were completed and shooting repeatedly started, however, it became clear that scheduling around the entire cast and crew's day job commitments was a virtual impossibility and all three projects ended up on the shelf.
In 2002 shooting began on a final no budget short (Dealer) for release to festivals and Internet streaming sites, a few months later the wonderful How To Disappear Completely script landed in our mailbox all the way from Canada and a run of good opportunities began appearing on the horizon. Towards the end of the year the first board of directors was established with Piper as managing director, television QC Rob Fairlie as technical director and entertainment lawyer Vanda Rapti as director of legal and business affairs.
Poster for the short How To Disappear Completely and producers Rob and Steve collecting their award at MIFED in Italy
The company was officially incorporated early on in 2003 as Coffee Arts and Media Ltd, and by 2004 How To Disappear Completely was touring the world's film festivals and gained the company recognition as one of Europe's best young production teams from an independent jury formed by MIFED and the Italian National School of Cinema. The film's success kept it on the screening circuit for the next five years alongside a series of other dramatic and documentary shorts (including Televisual Man) which opened up opportunities doctoring feature screenplays for US producers and shooting music documentaries and videos for artists on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 2005 Last of the Scottish Wildcats, a documentary on Britain's rarest mammal and only wild feline, went into production and surprised everyone by successfully capturing unique footage of an animal only the BBC had previously successfully filmed over a decade earlier. Introducing the company to the high end wildlife and current affairs market a new slate developed directed at the nature television sector whilst the film itself gained critical acclaim in the national UK press. Ultimately coming to market in 2008 as a DVD the film donated half it's profits to wildcat conservation through the Scottish Wildcat Association, a charity inspired and largely set up by the Coffee team.
Scottish wildcat photographed by Steve Piper
2008 also saw a change in the way the company looked at marketing and exhibition; tiring of the constant costs to screen at festivals with five people in the audience the focus moved to the emerging social video networks as primary exposure with well received channels appearing on most of the major web video sites scoring the Last of the Scottish Wildcats trailer over 100,000 views when it was released.
Riding the Myspace wave as the UK's most befriended filmmaker and picking up a variety of official partner deals with leading sites including DailyMotion, Bebo and Blinkx, a short film screening site, Coffee Shorts, was launched. Coffee Shorts spent a few wonderful years showcasing short films before being shut down by UK VOD regulator ATVOD with license fee demands. Although the claim was later overturned at appeal to OFCOM, future changes in regulation were threatened and it was already unfortunately too late for Coffee Shorts.
Moving into 2008 attentions, distracted by all things wildcat, finally returned to feature filmmaking with attachment to the music documentary project The Death and Resurrection Show with ILC Productions in New Zealand, a remarkable look behind the scenes of Killing Joke; one of the world's most influential bands. The project rolled for a further six years before finally wrapping and getting set for international release in 2015. Meanwhile, a relocation north to York for a change of scenery inspired a script development boom starting with an adaptation of the cult British web series Zomblogalypse and quickly spawning a slate of dark dramatic and thriller films harking back to the award winning short film days, kicking off with computer hacking / Internet privacy / mass surveillance drama 0day.
Over 20 years into the business with a lot of diversions along the way the company has found itself doing just what was intended back in the 90s, producing unique, quality and commercially viable independent feature films and looks set for 20 years entertaining audiences as one of the industry's most diverse and surprising independent production companies.
Coffee Films are at a screen near you now.
At various points through our history we've been involved in a variety of side projects to filmmaking both in creative industries and wildlife conservation;
SCOTTISH WILDCAT ASSOCIATION
More articles covering or reviewing specific films can be found on the individual project pages, the following articles are company overviews published through the years.