But lots of movies don't. When I distributed my own film in '97, I learned how tough this business is
When last we met, my movie “City Island” had just opened the previous weekend and, presumably, you followed its fate (which has so far been as good as it can get). But I have to hand these columns in before the weekend — so I didn’t know what hell awaited us last Thursday night. I sat, bemused, writing my column and wondering if eight and half years of waiting was going to end in the biggest anticlimax of my life … or if we were going to have our lifespan extended.
It appears that the latter has happened. We got some great reviews (and a few snarky ones — no harm, dears, even faint praise counts in my book) and are now expanding outwards to eight other cities, as well as multiple theaters in Los Angeles and New York. (For a complete listing of where you can currently and in the near future see “City Island,” go to our Facebook page.)
In a seriously weird development, “City Island” had, for a brief and shining moment, the No. 2 box-office take in the country. For real! It helps, of course, to be on only two screens. But there we were, on Box Office Mojo, listed with an impressive $35,000 cumulative take on two screens for our opening weekend, second best in the country and the best ever opening for our distribution company, Anchor Bay. Reading this was so unreal, so utterly unfathomable to me, that I did the only sensible thing in the situation. I began to worry about the following weekend.
Because we are, after all, chasing something at all times in this strange and deadly pursuit of film glory. Chasing the great script, chasing the hottest star, chasing the money — that’s what you really spend the time chasing. And let’s say you catch all three? You’re probably chasing a distribution deal — even star vehicles seem to elude regular old studio backing these days. And even if you already have distribution in place, you’re chasing the most important thing of all: the numbers. For in the numbers resides the ultimate answer — not to whether or not your film is any good, but to something infinitely more sinister and important to filmmakers; whether or not it will be easier or harder for you to make another film.
The opening weekend has become to movies what opening night was on Broadway for many years — a do-or-die, make-or-break, one-shot all-or-nothing marathon of anxiety. By the end of Friday night, the marketing guys can see the numerical writing on the wall; you’re going to make the numbers predicted (or hoped for) or you’re not. Let’s say you open in a couple theaters like we did — a so-called “platform release” with plans to open in more. And the reviews are good. And the buzz seems like it’s there. And three people come instead of 3,000.
Do you think those other theaters are going to be playing your movie? Why would they? Because they said they would?
The coldest of all realities in the movie business comes on your opening weekend — it is the moment that you truly understand that the field you entered was grossly mislabeled. It is not the business of “entertainment.” “Banking” is the correct term. It’s a banking game with banking rules. We’ll give you more if you’re a good risk. We give you less if you’re a bad risk. (Or at least that’s how banking used to work … could it be that the movie business has finally out-stabilized the banking business?)
That’s the reality. Alas, this blast of cold air blows most filmmakers who are on the wrong end of it right off the cliff. It tends to make them believe that the marketers are the enemies of art and that the exhibitors are too greedy and impatient to allow a film to “grow.” And perhaps they’re right — some of the time.
But I’ve never really felt this way. I tend to sympathize with the position that my distributors are in — is this the Stockholm syndrome in action, as I display sympathy for my jailor’s predicament? I think I feel this way because I was fortunate enough (though it didn’t seem like “fortune” at the time) to be my own first distributor on my first movie.
What happened was: In 1995 I made my first feature, “Café Society,” a period piece and a true labor of love that premiered in Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. A heady and terrific experience for a 30-year-old filmmaker — and a puzzling one as well. Because the stories that you know about debuting filmmakers are the ones about the smasheroos — Soderbergh and “sex lies…,” Tarantino, Baz Luhrmann. But every year a good many other filmmakers make their debuts and you don’t hear much about them. Their films didn’t shoot to the top. Although some sink to the bottom, others wind up perching in the middle — good reviews, a respectable debut offering, people get to know who you are … but that’s about it.
That’s what happened with “Café Society.” There was some talk of it getting sold — I forget what company — and Roger Ebert liked it a lot and said so. But Todd McCarthy the (no-longer) Variety critic gave it a dismissive little notice and suddenly it was nowhere. When we all got home to the States (and a lugubrious trip home it was), the best news the producers had was that Showtime loved the movie and wanted to buy it and air it as a “Showtime Original.” The film’s fate was sealed. We were a high-end cable premiere. Everyone take the good from the situation and move on.
But moving on isn’t in my DNA — not if I’m not ready to. I made a movie that I knew to be good and that deserved a theatrical run. I did a little research and found that self-releasing — aka four-walling — wasn’t an unheard of practice; many actor/directors did it with so-called “vanity projects.” In a few cases — notably “Red Rock West” — movies that had been made with no distributor and then sold directly to cable backed up a step afterward and found a theatrical niche. I became convinced that “Café Society” would have the life it truly deserved if I could just open it in New York and get the notices that I knew we’d get.
So I opened it myself. I’d made some money in the year after “Café” writing scripts for hire and, after doing a little assessment, found that opening my own movie was about on par financially with buying an expensive sports car. A very expensive one. Not a really expensive one, though. In the upper middle. Porsche, si. Ferrari, no.
So what the hell. I shopped for a theater and got The Screening Room (of blessed memory — they were on the corner of Canal and Varick) interested. But for them to do a first run they wanted a guarantee of how much I would spend on advertising. Thus did I learn the shocking truth of what it costs to buy ad space in the New York Times. And how wonderfully reasonable radio ads are by comparison. Still, in for a penny in for a pound, and I forged ahead.
I had posters made. I had postcards made and distributed them myself in bars and businesses in the neighborhood. I tirelessly stumped for publicity and managed to get a big, two-page Sunday spread in the New York Daily News about the movie. I even got sponsors to host a premiere night party — one of them was Mercedes and they supplied a fleet of 1950s issue Benzes to glide up in front of the theater and deliver the film’s stars. There was ever-faithful Peter Gallagher, ever-believing Frank Whaley and ever-ambiguous Lara Flynn Boyle, all showing up — a little perplexed, I imagine — for the premiere of a movie that they’d made a year before and had already premiered on their TV sets. My favorite image from the evening was of Gretchen Mol — who wasn’t in the movie — draped across the hood of an ancient Mercedes convertible, posing for paparazzi. I remember looking at her, smiling and thinking: What the fuck have I bought myself?
Because it really was folly to have taken this to the extreme that I did. What hope was there that I would make any of the money I was freely dispensing back? Where was the business in this little business plan of mine? Well, where was the good sense behind so many folly-like endeavors that suddenly take off into the stratosphere? I can’t think of one example now and probably couldn’t back then. Let’s just say I was throwing my movie its bar mitzvah — I did love that movie like it was my child — and leave it at that.
“Café Society” opened the following Friday. I woke up early to get the papers (this was pre-Internet, if you can imagine) and promptly got the bad news; two pans, one from New York Post, the other from the Daily News. (The good news is that the two tabs inexplicably plagiarized each other’s review title: “So Noir Yet So Far,” they both read. Har, thought I.) The New York Times wasn’t on the stands yet. I went home, as deflated as I’ve ever been. And yet weirdly relieved. The whole thing was truly behind me now. The money was gone, the party was over and people just didn’t like this movie enough.
Then I got a call from my publicist. After I answered and found out who it was (this was before caller ID as well), she said “Congratulations on your Times review.” I didn’t know it yet, but Stephen Holden had written as lovely, supportive and intelligent a notice as you’d ever need to justify the mad, intrepid journey I’d been on. Quickly the theater owners were on the phone to me as well — they were blowing up the Times review and putting it outside the theater. This boded well, they told me — the Post and the News weren’t really the audiences they had been looking for anyway (so they said). I took it with a grain of salt. Maybe, just maybe, a few loyal New York cineastes would locate Holden’s review and think of checking out the little movie playing in one theater downtown. But don’t be surprised, I told myself, if the paper of record doesn’t quite wield the power you’d expect.
Except then the theater got an unusual phone call. It was from Woody Allen’s office. He’d read the Times review and wanted to see the film.
This may well have been the single thing that made the entire self-releasing experience worth the trouble. That one of the most significant cultural heroes of my life had requested a copy of my work, thanks to the positive notice in the paper of record that he’d read (no doubt over the legendary bowl of Cheerios, consumed after the legendary 40-minute walking machine workout, and before ferociously cranking out yet another script/essay/play) made the whole damn journey worthwhile. The famously disengaged comic was stirred to engagement and was coming out of his notorious shell. But in fact, that shell proved to be the problem; though we offered to screen it privately for him in the theater, that was a non-starter. The print needed to be shipped to his private projection room the following morning. Which was a tough one since we had only one print of the movie and weren’t about to cancel the Saturday night showings.
Still we worked it out — even though it pained us to have to put a time limit on how long he could keep the print. He (or his people) agreed and the print went uptown and was promptly returned for the Saturday night showings. (I know what you’re wondering: What did Woody Allen think of the movie? I don’t know. He never said. I never heard from him. Very Woody.)
But the real drama lay in my realization, on the opening Friday night, that there was a direct correlation between how much money the box office was taking in and how much I — being the film’s distributor — would be willing to spend on further ads. It didn’t take me long to see that if a certain threshold weren’t reached — if, in fact, people just didn’t care enough to come out and see the movie — then I would be certifiably insane in spending any more of my fast-dwindling reserves on further exhortations. Woody’s interest was all well and good — but note that he didn’t pay to see the movie. We paid to deliver the movie to him.
Thankfully we did pretty well that first weekend — well enough for the theater to want to hang for another week … and then another … and then another few weeks during which they split the bill between my movie and a Spike Lee documentary. At the end of the day, it was a financial wipeout for me, but a good mark in the career plus column. Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel reviewed it nationally on their TV show and gave it two thumbs up. Frank Whaley and I bought an ad in Variety congratulating ourselves. A small distribution company, Northern Arts, took the single print and carted it around the art-house circuit of a half-dozen cities — without me having to pay for the ads. It was the summer of 1997 and it was, in a sense, the end of innocence — because I knew that I would never again go through that amount of trouble and that amount of money for a cinematic cause. Not unless I’d gotten a lot richer making films in the interim.
Nevertheless, it was good to learn what the bottom line truly was and how it felt to be the one whose neck is extended financially. No matter what horrors distributors visit on filmmakers, I never truly feel that they’re out to purposefully destroy a film’s chances. It’s a risky business — actually that’s far too polite, it’s an absurd business. The fact that there are guys out there who still believe in spinning the roulette wheel of theatrical distribution makes me feel that they are kindred spirits — not a lot more sane than the filmmakers who spend years of their lives trying to solve the unendingly complex puzzle that, in the end, results in 90-plus minutes of filmed entertainment.
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