Blogging “City Island”: After Sundance said no

Was I daunted? Well, yeah. But we pushed on toward Tribeca, and after 10 years of work, it was magic

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

Blogging "City Island": After Sundance said noAndy Garcia goes over a scene with director/writer Raymond De Felitta on the set of "City Island."

Those of you who have been following the saga of “City Island” for the past few weeks may have noticed that I’ve been taking you — painstakingly — through the improbable set of events that led to the making of our movie. When last we met, I had the great good fortune of hiring Julianna Margulies just days before shooting started. Logic (and continuity) would dictate that this next post, then, would be about the shooting of the film.

But no. Not so. For two reasons. One is that I’ve been covering the daily production saga on my blog, Movies ‘Til Dawn.

But there’s another reason for leaping over the shoot. I thought I’d write about how the hell we got to where we are. And where are we, you ask? We are fortunate to be one of the very small number of independent films to have been bought for theatrical release last year. “City Island” opened in theaters on March 19, in Los Angeles and New York. It will soon expand to eight more cities. Although you’re reading this after our opening weekend. I’m writing it before our opening weekend. Hence you know the reviews and I don’t. To take my mind off whatever fate awaits us, I thought I’d jump over the shoot and recount the journey from orphaned film (i.e., a film born without shelter into a cruel and unforgiving world — one with no distributor) to a film with an ending as warm and cuddly as Oliver Twist’s. Home was always there for us. It just took awhile to find our way to it.

We shot “City Island” in six weeks over the summer of 2008. We posted through the fall and targeted Sundance — America’s Premier Indie-Film Festival ™ — as our best debut platform. I’d had good luck at Sundance before, winning the audience award in 2000 for my film “Two Family House” which was bought at the festival by Lionsgate. In 2006, my documentary “‘Tis Autumn: the Search for Jackie Paris” premiered at Sundance, also finding a buyer and a slew of nice reviews. (Important note: Though the reception was strong at the festival for “Two Family House,” I didn’t think it stood a chance of winning anything and went home to New York early, thereby missing the chance to collect the only award I’ve ever won in person.)



So Park City was elected by we the filmmakers to proudly display our new movie “City Island.” Of course they’d leap at the chance! How could they not? Does that sound a bit arrogant of me? Do you detect hubris in my certainty that they’d welcome me “home” with open arms and proudly present my newest work?

Well, apparently they did. Or they just didn’t dig the movie. Whatever the reason, Sundance passed on “City Island.” Now this shouldn’t be the most earth-shattering thing in the world — truth be told, I don’t particularly enjoy the climate, altitude or screening facilities at America’s Premier Indie-Film Festival. But I was genuinely surprised and even a little hurt that they passed us up. I felt like I was part of a family that had secretly moved houses while I was at school one day and didn’t bother to leave me the new address. For a couple of days after the rejection, the predominant sound in my brain was: “Waaannnhhhhh.”

Then I decided there were other festivals and other ways to sell a movie and we’d march forward. Only there were also investors (and a big bank loan) and they’d all rather counted on the Glamour Boy of 2000 (me) getting our movie into America’s Premier Indie-Film Festival. Nerves were fraught. Edgy phone calls were exchanged. If I’m not mistaken (and I’m not) the bank began to inquire of us if we’d explored the option of going straight to DVD.

Jesus! One little turndown, and the movie’s history? My producers and I persevered and told everyone to stay calm. We looked at the calendar, saw South by Southwest and Tribeca coming up, and decided to take our shot with New York’s newest, coolest festival.

Back when I was a young’un, New York had but one festival: the very prestigious New York Film Festival. It’s still there. And it’s still prestigious. But it has not, over the years, allowed itself to evolve into a showcase for new films that might have commercial potential beyond the festival circuit. Indeed it has proudly stuck to its arty guns, showing films that you’re unlikely to see outside of … well, the New York Film Festival.

And then the Tribeca Film Festival came to town. Started by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal in 2002 — in part as a neighborhood-pride reaction to the decimation perpetrated on downtown Manhattan — TFF was a much more user-friendly, open kind of environment from the beginning. Though it took a few years for the festival to “find its voice,” it had become a major event by 2005 and movies were soon choosing it as a viable premiere spot over certain other festivals … like ones held in snowy mountain towns … named after a movie shot in 1969 … directed by George Roy Hill … written by William Goldman.

Anyway: We showed the movie to Tribeca and waited a bit nervously. Because the truth was, if they turned us down, we probably were looking into DVD companies. The schedule after Tribeca includes the difficult-to-penetrate Cannes Film Festival, then a long wait until Toronto in the fall. Not that there aren’t many other festivals in between: They simply are not buyer’s markets.

And then, thank Christ, Tribeca called us and said they wanted the film. Not just wanted it but wanted to give us a real sendoff — a fine featured spot in the festival lineup. We told them we’d bring our stars with us and all the muscle we could muster.

Still, a festival is a festival — not an auction house. Getting distributors’ asses into the seats was still difficult and iffy at best. The movie needed to get some advance press and that most elusive of all things — buzz. You can’t buy it and you can’t count on it. But you do need it to stand out from the crowd.

We held our breath, went to premiere night with our fingers crossed and hoped that the buyers would show up at one of our four scheduled screenings.

Our first surprise came on premiere night. The film got a standing ovation.

Now festival audiences are not regular audiences — and the presence of the lead actors of any given movie in the audience certainly charges things up. But the laughter, applause and genuine good will the movie attracted was slightly astonishing to us. And soon another surprise came our way.

We seemed to have buzz. How did we know? Because our other screenings all suddenly sold out. Now the problem was: Did we have enough seats for distributors? Soon Tribeca was adding screenings — I believe we finally had 9 or 10 — and they too were all sold out. We did Q&A’s after each screening and were always delighted with the big-time reaction the movie seemed to provoke: It was an audience movie, one that the viewers laughed at, rooted for, spoke back to (oddly enough — it seems to provoke some people to urge the on-screen actors to do or not do certain things, i.e.: Don’t go in that door! Watch out! Oh no! Etc. An almost nickelodeon-like experience).

Proof that it was, in fact, an audience movie came one afternoon, deep into the festival, when my producer, Lauren Versel, called me to tell me that the votes for the audience award were being tabulated online and we seemed to be in a tie for first place. At which point I decided to attend that particular award ceremony.

That night, we were thrilled to be the recipients of the Heineken Audience Award — the movie seemed to have acquired a streak of good luck, good will and good karma. Of course the buyers would be interested in us now. Right?

Not exactly. While people from the major companies were coming to screenings, our phones weren’t exactly ringing off the hook. A few passes came in — always couched in compliments and confusion (“We loved it, very nice, we’re all broke and just aren’t acquiring right now …”) A few companies seemed genuinely interested — Sony Classics and Miramax both made noises like they might be making offers … and then disappeared from view. Fox Searchlight watched the film and felt it necessary to send me an e-mail saying that while they liked the film and found it in some ways reminiscent of “Little Miss Sunshine,” the “filmmaking just wasn’t quite up to that level.”

Which is at once both the gentlest and creepiest way anyone in Hollywood has ever told me to fuck off.

And then there was a company that kept calling that we didn’t know much about. Anchor Bay was the “specialty” division of Overture and a very nice man named Kevin Kasha was genuinely enthused by the film. Well, that was a relief. Although they were a “small” company, they thought big. And they thought we had something that might — just might — be a tiger by the tail. Our talks extended way past the end of the Tribeca Film Festival and culminated in their acquiring the film for theatrical release.

That was last summer. The folks at Anchor Bay have proven to be a dream to work with — collaborative, supportive and genuinely invested in making our movie work in the marketplace. Early on the decision was made — mutually — not to put the film out in the so-called award season, as it seemed too crowded and unnecessarily competitive a time for it to find an audience. And so we’ve been waiting … and waiting … and finally here we are. I wrote the script in September 2001. I met Andy Garcia around Thanksgiving 2006. Lauren Versel had the movie financed by spring 2008. It was finished at the end of that year, premiered in the spring of 2009 and — as you read this, in March 2010 — it has opened.

A long journey — and as I write this (on Thursday before we open), I don’t know its outcome. But you do. And whatever it may be, I hope you feel like giving the movie 90 minutes of your life. I truly believe you won’t wish for your time or money back. And I truly don’t wish for the decade of my life that the movie took to get made to be given back to me — it’s all been worth it.

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