Sunday, May 28, 2000

Scene two: Selling the movie

Local independent producers find that making film is the easy part

        A year ago, filmmaker Edward Radtke had to remind himself not to get too elated.

        His second film, The Dream Catcher, had been featured at a Lincoln Center showcase in New York and earned the best-director award at the Los Angeles International Film Festival, the first of more than a dozen festivals worldwide that would screen the movie.

        Audiences were charmed. Critics were enthusiastic. Acquisitions executives were interested. Surely, he imagined, his years of toil and debt and sacrifice were about to be rewarded.

        By mid-winter, when his film still had no distributor, he had learned this: “Filmmaking is pure aesthetics. Film acquisition is pure capitalism.”

        These days, while a major Hollywood movie company is flinging a few of its multimillions around town during the filming of Traffic (starring Michael Douglas), Mr. Radtke's lesson is hitting home for local artists who make low-budget independent films, often at great personal cost, then try to sell them.

        Still in its infancy, the Tristate's independent film movement has produced a solid fistful of full-length features in the past few years. Most were made on tiny budgets, usually less than $200,000. But it hasn't produced one movie that so far has been commercially distributed in theaters or on video or cable TV.

        A little more than a week ago, The Dream Catcher was picked up by a French distributor at the Cannes Film Market (which runs concurrently with the film festival) and will open in Paris in the fall. That breakthrough may open doors for the film in other European markets, and could also nudge American distributors into buying.

        Even though the European deal will barely pay enough to retire the production debts, it makes The Dream Catcher a modest financial success compared to most other local indies.

        “There are eight or 10 entities that control what people see in art house theaters in this country,” Mr. Radtke said. “If no one from one of those companies steps forward to champion your film, you are in trouble.”

        Ira Deutchman, an indie veteran who represents the movie in the marketplace, said small films face huge obstacles. “Once upon a time, the sheer quality of the film would have been enough,” he said, “but in this day and age it's simply not enough.”

        For instance, he said, “Over the course of the last four or five years...the cost of advertising and marketing a film has skyrocketed to the point it doesn't seem possible for those small sleeper movies that used to emerge to emerge....It used to be that if a movie made a few hundred thousand dollars' profit, that was good. Nobody's satisfied with that any more.”

        In the meantime, he said, prospects for The Dream Catcher are hopeful. “The film is still in play,” he said.

        “The most extraordinarily rewarding experiences I have had in the business come from situations like this, where the common wisdom is that the situation is impossible. I believe in the long run...there's going to be some kind of a market for (The Dream Catcher), and I think it's going to be seen for the great movie it is.”

        The Last Late Night, written and directed by Scott Barlow and produced by his father, Rick, broke into the film-festival circuit thanks to aggressive promotions headed by the elder Mr. Barlow, who runs a marketing firm in Milford. It will screen in June at the Nashville Independent Film Festival.

        “We weren't prepared for the difficulty in attracting distributors' attention, being located here in Cincinnati,” Rick Barlow said. “My sense is if we were in Los Angeles or New York we would have been able to get ourselves in front of more distributors, more sales reps, producers' reps, agents, people who might have put our movie in front of distributors.

        “We have relied very heavily on festivals. But, of course, it's tough to get into the big festivals, the big 10 or big 12 ... We've had good reviews, even awards, except there aren't any distributors at these festivals.”

        The Barlows blanketed independent distributors with tapes of the movie, but found few bothered to watch it.

        Rob Kennedy, director and co-writer of People Like Us, applied to a half-dozen leading festivals, but was accepted at none. “I found in each case the chances of getting into the festivals were worse than getting into Harvard Medical School.”

        Mr. Kennedy personally delivered tapes to distributors.“I would go back in these little offices, I'd get to the first guy (in the hierarchy) and hand him my tape. I'd look around in a nice little 12-by-12 room, and there would be stacks from floor to ceiling of tapes.”

        The lesson he learned, he said, is this: “There's a lot of magic in movie making and it's a lot of fun, but be ready for the reality check when you get out in the world of distribution.”

        Jim Daumeyer of Pleasant Ridge went to the film school at the University of North Carolina and worked in production in Wilmington, N.C., before making Bottom Feeders. The film went nowhere; he applied to 20 film festivals and was turned down by every one.

        “It's kind of disappointing because you see a lot of these other films of equal budget and equal effort...and somehow they seem to make it and the others don't,” he said.

        A major problem was that he had no budget for advertising and promotion, he said. “Just making 100 dubs of your film and sending them out, marketing materials and all that, it takes a lot.”

        One more lesson: “One thing I've learned is not to self-finance. We're just getting out of that (debt), which is going to feel good.”

        For The Dream Catcher team, the lessons are still painful.

        One small distribution company made a modest offer for the film — for an amount less than production costs — but withdrew it before the filmmakers came back with an answer.

        Producer Julia Reichert said that, as soon as the offer was made, “We should have said, "Thank you, we'll take it.'”

        At the time, she said, “We were at the top of the world, we thought we should get a little bit more than that,” she said. “And, boom, here we are a year later.”

        On the other hand, Mr. Radtke said, “We handled it exactly the same way we handled every other important decision, “whether it was editing or casting or anything else. We deliberated. We thought it through carefully. Had we known the offer would dissolve overnight, it would have made all the difference.”

        Mr. Deutchman said it is still unclear why the offer was withdrawn.

        The lack of bids was dispiriting, Ms. Reichert said. “We felt that we all collectively did our utmost, and it still wasn't good enough.”

        Nevertheless, she said, “We went to so many film festivals, we had so much fun, we met so many filmmakers....That was wonderful.”

        Her advice to new filmmakers: “I'd say, don't start unless you really do have the money to finish,” she said. “And most people shouldn't have the hope that they're going to strike it big.”

        For all the rejection they suffer, most local filmmakers remain remarkably upbeat about their cinematic pursuits.

        Rick Barlow said he and his son have their eyes on the future. “For novices like us, I consider this an educational experience. And I know the secret of all success is determination and luck. I'm not sure how much luck we've had yet, but our determination is intact. We will not stop till we have revenue.”

        Mr. Daumeyer, despite his bruising experience with Bottom Feeders, said he plans to try again.

        “My whole goal was to learn about filmmaking. So in a sense, it was just as much money as film school would have been, and it's gotten me in some doors....I think I'd still like to give this thing another go, for another decade at least.”

        Between film festivals, Mr. Radtke has been working as an assistant director on commercials and other films.

        While the search for a distributor for The Dream Catcher continues, he is thinking about moving to Los Angeles, where he would have more opportunities to direct and to develop his next independent feature.

        Just before the end of the year, he talked about keeping his frustration in perspective.

        “Here I am,” he said, “I work in the fantasy business, I've been able to dream very vividly and to have the help and encouragement and support to see those dreams come real. I'm healthy and young and living in a free country at the end of the millennium, and I just don't see how I have any reason to whine.”


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- Scene two: Selling the movie
    Post-production problems
    A look at local films in works
    Prize-winning 'Dream Catcher' will open in Paris
Brian Rose digs up the past
DEMALINE: Regional plan relies on county
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