Blogging “City Island”: Filmmaker, hype thyself

I directed an award-winning indie with Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies. New job: Internet whore!

Topics: City Island, Film Salon, Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Access, Tribeca Film Festival, Movies,

Blogging "City Island": Filmmaker, hype thyselfAndy Garcia, left, with director-writer Raymond De Felitta on the set of Anchor Bay Films' "City Island."

In the summer of 2008 I finally got to shoot my screenplay “City Island,” a movie that I’d been trying to make literally since the turn of the century. I was fortunate to have finally assembled an amazing cast — Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Alan Arkin, Emily Mortimer — and after private equity had been assembled and trips to the markets in Berlin and Cannes had been made, most of the financing was in place. (Payroll was something of a cliffhanger week to week, but sometimes you just have to practice a little faith.)

A year or so earlier, I had begun writing a blog called Movies ‘Til Dawn, which was essentially a way to justify the enormous amount of time I was losing every day watching YouTube clips of old jazz performances and old movie musicals (two of my passions in life). Once “City Island” started moving ahead, however, I realized I would have to abandon the blog due to the obvious time constraints. The small but faithful readership I’d attracted would be a thing of the past.

Then I thought … why? Why not, instead, allow the blog to evolve into a simple diary of my activity for the year — that being the making of the movie. So, with the help of my assistant, Amy Basil, and plenty of goodwill from the crew, actors and producers, we blogged the entire making of the movie — complete with daily production reports, call sheets (addresses blanked out, natch) and clips of outtakes. (That proved to be briefly controversial, as one of the financing entities didn’t like the idea of letting people in on our “mistakes.” Eventually cooler heads prevailed. People love seeing this stuff.) To my surprise, the little blog that had a few hundred hits a day suddenly was peaking in the low four figures.

This exercise created a real grass-roots following for the movie — the readership has clung faithfully to the unfolding story of the film ever since production, though of course once the roller coaster of production ended, a third of the readership went away as well. Postproduction can be a somewhat somnolent activity after the heady rush of principal photography. (What a lovely term, that. Is it still in use? Or, like “retake,” does it belong to a Selznick’d/Sam Spiegel’d past?) Still, when the movie won the Audience Award at Tribeca in 2009, many of my readers reacted as if they’d won part of the prize as well. And in a sense they did — for they’d shared the experience of the film’s making and the anxiety-producing, unknown aftermath of its fate.



Now, a year later, the movie will be released theatrically by Anchor Bay Entertainment. It opens March 19 in New York and Los Angeles, to be followed (we hope) by a multi-city, ever-widening release. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been writing an online book essentially summarizing the entire experience of making the movie. As I recount the story, I continue to use (and reuse) all the materials we collected during the shoot — outtakes, production stills, call sheets, production sketches and other ephemera. Beginning this very week, I’m recounting a day-by-day production history of the shoot. By the eve of the movie’s opening I’ll have got through postproduction, the whole “festival thing,” and the story of the sale and release planning. On the day of the movie’s release, we will go “live” — writing about the fate of the film, its reception and future, in “real time.”

So there you have it: I am an avowed Internet whore, out to shamelessly and relentlessly promote my movie. Look, when you’re in a field where every opportunity might be your last, why not take matters into your own hands? I’m pleased to say that Anchor Bay is doing everything it possibly can to promote the movie in the best possible way. For the first time in my professional life, I don’t have that queasy feeling that things are slipping away just as they ought to be heating up.

Still, I can’t help but think that much of this has to do with taking matters into my own hands — by committing early on to documenting the whole experience, I in effect became my own publicist-promoter-producer. Whatever the actual effect the blog has had in the universe, the karmic impact has been palpable. I’m convinced that spreading information is the only appropriate reaction to living in the age of information. By telling the story of the making of “City Island,” the movie’s world has gotten bigger. I hope I don’t sound too proletariat … oh, hell, let me sound like a goddamn commie union organizer: “City Island” is the people’s movie. It belongs to the faithful who followed the tale of its making and whoever they want to rope into the experience, and it’s theirs to feel the pride of ownership in. Let the drums roll out. Strike up the band!

And the fact remains that I don’t wish to repeat past mistakes. My other movies played big festivals, got awards and many positive reviews, and all were sold. But in the aftermath of the sale, I tended to feel my job was done, and I let the experts take things from there. Which they were more than happy to do, of course, but too often this led to insufferably mediocre results — the half-measures, hedge betting, and one-foot-in, one-foot-out attitude that too often typifies indie-film distribution. This time, by creating, spreading and promoting the “supplemental materials” we had at hand, this mistake was averted from the get-go: We were driving the film’s fate from behind the scenes from the beginning. The movie, of course, must stand for itself. But the meta-movie, the story that the readers of my blog have been following, lingers over the entire experience in a strangely protective way.

So I thought I’d ruminate, over the next few weeks, on some of my experiences and how they’re impacting my feelings about the release of this, my fifth movie. No bitter grapes here — well, a few perhaps, but most good Hollywood stories are told with pens dipped in bile. Really what I’m looking to do is to contrast the past and the present in order to arrive at what I think is already a proven truth about the future: We are, in fact, approaching the very best time in history for the producing and distributing of all movies. We are all, at this moment, pioneers in the nickelodeon business — in the same position as those Zukors and Laskys of the early 20th century who invented the now-defunct rules of the movie trade as they went along. Many questions are unanswered, and all speculation as to how movies will be watched and distributed is fascinating, if suspect. One thing, though, is certain: Independent films need to be promoted in the future by the filmmakers themselves — and not just in the pre-release stage. The meta-film is now as important a tool as the star appearing on … I was going to say “The Tonight Show,” but it sounded so charmingly last century.

Begin by blogging your own movie. If nothing else, it will keep you off YouTube for a few extra hours a day.

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