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Does it take marching bands and a live tiger to get a distribution deal at Sundance?

Published January 31, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Today, on this crisp Friday afternoon in January, Sidney Sherman walks down Main Street in Park City, Utah. He's a prime specimen of what the locals call the PIB (People in Black), the L.A. film players who overrun this laid-back ski town for 10 days every winter for Sundance, the mother of all indie film festivals. Sherman -- who once worked as the stand-in and body double for Keanu Reeves -- is now 33 and an accomplished producer, and he has a documentary in the festival. "Go Tigers!" is a 103-minute feature about the extraordinary craze for high school football in Massillon, Ohio, an economically depressed Rust Belt steel town that has little else to give it pride.

"Go Tigers" was financed entirely on spec, and Sherman's ideal scenario is to sell it to a theatrical distributor for $1 million, which would lock in a nice profit. The problem is that there are 105 other full-length movies at Sundance, and only a few will sell at all, let alone for decent money. Sherman needs to attract attention for the film; he needs to catalyze the buzz. Luckily, Sherman has a taste for do-it-yourself marketing. So, armed with a staple gun and a roll of cinema-size wall posters (known in the biz as "one sheets") he walks up and down Main Street, posting "Go Tigers" posters along the way. When you're the producer of a scrappy indie film, you do all the shoe-leather jobs that might be beneath the unionized flunkies on a studio project.

Sherman navigates the icy sidewalk past Zoom, the upscale-yet-casual restaurant owned by Robert Redford, patron saint of Park City and founder of the festival. This year Redford couldn't be bothered to show up for his own shindig. He's supposedly on location in Morocco, acting beside Brad Pitt in a big-budget studio flick, but conspiracy theorists among the PIB insist "Bob" is using this as a cover so he can move around town nearly incognito.

Redford's restaurant is at the busiest intersection in Park City's historic Old Town, but the village is normally so placid that even this corner doesn't have a traffic light. It doesn't need one except for these 10 days in January, when road-raging L.A. refugees maneuver their rented SUVs as though they were merging on the 405 freeway during rush hour.

Up ahead, Sherman finds a tall kiosk that Sundance has put up for movie advertising. He plasters it with "Go Tigers!" posters, covering over the fliers for a half-dozen other films. Then he's accosted by an interviewer for the Salt Lake City TV news. As Sherman stops to provide three minutes of sound clips to the camera, he has his back turned to the kiosk, so he doesn't see that the filmmakers for a rival Sundance entry are stapling their posters over his. And once they've left, other cineastes -- hoping to be discovered at Sundance, just like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh and Robert Rodriguez were in years past -- will come by within five or 10 minutes and bury them with a new layer of doomed publicity posters.

I'm watching this exercise in frustration because Sherman has bravely invited me to follow him around and get a behind-the-scenes view of the festival from the perspective of an indie producer. What I'll see in the following week should serve as both a source of inspiration and a cautionary tale to would-be filmmakers, whether they're looking to make a cheapo flick with a digital video camera and a loaded Macintosh -- all bought for 10 grand on credit cards -- or if they're lucky enough to have a no-strings million bucks from rich friends to turn out a 35mm print with slick production values.

Thursday, Jan. 18
Sidney Sherman is trolling the hallways of Shadow Ridge, the Holiday Inn-style hotel that serves as festival headquarters. He's carrying a tangle of passes to Tuesday night's "Go Tigers!" party: laminated party invites strung on shoestring-like necklaces. The Sundance tradition is to wear a bunch of passes around your neck as if they were ski lift tags. This is a way of showing off that you're a real insider, not a wannabe. Sherman's mission is to make the rounds of the public-relations firms in their hotel suites and swap invites to his own party for passes to a dozen other hot-ticket fetes. "These are the currency of the festival," he says. The parties are where most of the vital schmoozing takes place, where the buzz is spread and where budget-strapped filmmakers get free hors d'ouevres to relieve them of another night subsisting on donuts and microwaved hot dogs. The parties are also where you get the free stuff -- logo-adorned tote bags, T-shirts, scarves and jackets from the sponsoring companies. If you're ambitious about it, you can leave Sundance with a whole new wardrobe -- another conspicuous testament to insiderdom.

Seemingly everyone at Sundance hosts a party, and so Sherman and director Kenneth A. Carlson had wanted to try a more creative approach to marketing. But many of their ideas for what they call "guerrilla P.R." were rejected outright by the festival or the town. They hoped to bring the Massillon High School football team's mascot -- a real live tiger -- but the Sundance honchos were understandably wary of getting involved with animal rights issues. They wanted to bus in the school's gung-ho marching band, but Park City's noise ordinance outlaws sound that can carry more than 25 feet. They thought of importing the huge tiger balloon that resides on the rooftop of the Wendy's hamburger franchise in Massillon, but Park City already has a regulation against inflatables in anticipation of the 2002 Winter Olympics, when this resolutely quaint alpine hamlet will be besieged by shameless advertisers.

"There are laws against everything in Park City," Sherman tells me, "but in a way it's good because it prevents overload. It's better to get 'discovered' than to overhype the film."

After stalking the hallways and swapping party passes, we get into Sherman's rented Jeep Grand Cherokee and drive back to our own hotel suite. This is where a total of six guys -- two producers, the film editor, the director of photography, the production assistant and I -- are sharing a two-bedroom suite, sleeping on the beds, the couches, a rollaway, even the floor.

Sherman's partner and executive producer, Todd Robinson, is sitting at the kitchen table hacking out a TV script on his Sony Vaio subnotebook. Robinson, with his long brown hair and beard, looks more like a blue-collar guy than the stereotypical slick Hollywood player. At the moment he's busily writing an episode for "Special Victims Unit," NBC's spinoff of its popular detective drama "Law and Order." For several years, Robinson and Sherman have kept up their more lucrative careers in the worlds of studio movies and TV while pursuing the financial crapshoot of making documentaries together.

Robinson is an Emmy-winning TV writer who has penned screenplays for famous big-budget movie directors such as Ridley Scott and Wolfgang Petersen; Sherman was one of the development executives behind "The Fugitive" and "Falling Down." But artfully crafted documentaries are what they make for love, not money. The genre gives them the chance to create films their own way, without the long, frustrating process of dealing with studios. Instead of waiting an exhausting two years for a series of 10 people at a studio to say OK to a fictional feature film, they like to simply go out unsponsored and shoot a low-budget documentary that tells a compelling and poetic story.

The catch is that eventually they need to make back their six-figure investment, which is difficult, since so few documentaries are plucked for theatrical release. Their previous film, "Amargosa," was a portrait of an eccentric septuagenarian who performs solo dance-and-mime shows in a small theater she renovated in a remote ghost town in California's Death Valley. "Amargosa" received critical acclaim and even made it onto the 10-film "short list" for the Academy Award for best documentary, but it still didn't sell for cinematic distribution. (To be considered for the Oscar, Sherman and Robinson had to "four wall" the film -- that is, pay the owners of an art house in L.A. for a week-long theater run) Now they have an offer on the table from the Sundance Channel for $15,000 for the TV rights, a fraction of the film's costs. This time around, with "Go Tigers!" they need a much bigger sale to validate their indie dreams.

Robinson picks up a little orange plastic football with the "Go Tigers!" logo, one of 500 they've produced as promotional giveaways. He throws it across the room, disappointed that it's so cheap-looking. "I can't believe they charged us $2 a ball," he says. "These probably cost 2 cents to make."

Friday, Jan. 19
Sidney Sherman walks into the Morning Ray cafe bakery on Main Street, hoping the manager will let him put up a "Go Tigers!" poster in the entrance vestibule. The Morning Ray's menu is based on the many varieties of authentic boiled-and-baked bagels it imports from Manhattan's famous H&H, so its 63 place settings are filled with Gotham filmsters and it's a particularly good place to get their attention. But as Sherman looks at the wall, he sees it has already been plastered with a lengthy message to customers from the cafe's owners, who have survived 13 previous Sundance festivals. Like most of the merchants and townspeople in Park City, they despise the attitude they get from the arrogant Hollywood types who are invading the place. So they've posted some explicit rules of proper conduct.

Rule No. 5 says: "Cell phones are annoying. Do not expect your server to stand by before you hang up." Cellphones are Public Enemy No.1 to the mellowed-out residents of the mountain village. As the local alternative newspaper, Wild Utah, writes in its "Sundance Survival Guide": "Restaurant folks: if you can't get customers' attention to take their order, give them your cell phone number and tell them to call you when they're ready." The paper also advises the locals: "Go skiing. No one from out of town will. It's much too hard to talk on your cell phone when carving turns."

But cellphones are only one of the Morning Ray's prohibitions. Its nine-point rule list continues in its etiquette instructions for Hollywooders:

"Try to limit special orders ... Keep it simple. Don't be surprised if you don't get the double decaf soy latte with no foam, a twist of lemon, and whipped cream on the side that you ordered -- get a grip!"

"Because everyone in Hollywood knows everyone else in Hollywood (or wishes they did) and hey, we simply must dine together, there will be a $20 per person 'joiner fee' not including food. This is partially due to the fact that we do not know everyone in Hollywood; all we know is that joiners back up the kitchen and make everyone wait longer."

"Finally, if you are pushy, rude, abusive, or otherwise unpleasant, you will be asked to leave immediately. Don't believe us??? Try it -- we could use the space."

Friday night
"Go Tigers!" is scheduled for its world premiere at 7:30 p.m. I expected the screening to be at the lovely Egyptian Theater on Main Street, an archetype of the old-time movie palace. The Egyptian's marquee is the standard visual image -- the "establishing shot" -- in almost all the media coverage of Sundance. But that's where the "dramatic" or fictional films get their debuts. The documentaries have their first screenings at the Holiday Village, a suburban-style three-screen complex in front of a big parking lot in a strip mall. It's hard to think of a less glamorous setting. Inside, the cinema has a tacky, '70s, stripped-down style of exposed cinderblock and cheap orange curtains. It's a throwback to the kind of dives indie films were relegated to before Sundance helped to make them into a bigger business, before they made their way into new theaters with cup holders and stadium seating.

Sherman and Robinson sit in the back of the cinema through the showing. Robinson is clearly uncomfortable, and both are annoyed that cellphones keep going off throughout the screening, even though before each show a Sundance official admonishes the crowd to turn off their ringers. Still, the audience reacts at the right places. They laugh hysterically when a teenager at a keg party vomits three times in quick succession. They hoot when two bulldogs -- the mascots for a rival football team -- are filmed copulating in the background while their master talks to the camera, oblivious to the scene of primal animal instincts.

In addition to the laughter, the audience is immersed emotionally in the film. The Sundance liberal types chafe at the moral compromises that Massillon makes to have a top-caliber team that can fill its extraordinarily large 25,000-seat stadium: It "red shirts" or holds back the best eighth-grade athletes for a year so they can enter high school when they're bigger, stronger and more mature. It was accused of illegally recruiting a star player from a rival town. Its co-captain, a defensive star, was imprisoned for rape. Its top players repeatedly take the college boards and get scores that are too low for them to qualify to play on college teams. Its academic facilities are literally crumbling while its football players have a weightlifting coach and enjoy spacious locker rooms fit for the NFL. Nonetheless, the team creates a sense of real community in the town that's otherwise beaten down by steel mill closings and economic depressions, and it's hard not to root heartily for the Tigers to give Massillon a little hope.

The producers know that representatives from some of the top indie distributors are here: Goldwyn, Miramax, Lion's Gate. So are a few dozen film enthusiasts who stood in line for more than an hour to get in. Sherman thinks those hardcore cinema fans are one reason why it's better to shop a film around at Sundance than in Hollywood. He could have invited the distributors only to see a special showing at a private L.A. screening room, but it's weird when you're projecting a film to a dozen hardened industry people. Better to have real fans in the audience. Better to give them a chance to talk it up at parties and on Main Street when they're eating bagels at the Morning Ray.

After "Go Tigers!" ends, the producers hang out in the lobby, trying to gauge the audience's reaction as it filters out. The famous critic Roger Ebert enters the building -- he's here to see the next documentary, "Scratch," a history of hip-hop DJs. Sherman and Robinson approach Ebert and give him a handout with the times for the "Tigers" showings for the rest of the festival, then they respectfully leave him alone. Minutes later, back in the Jeep, Robinson muses: "Poor guy. He must get hit up every seven minutes."

Sherman turns to Robinson and says: "Some acquisition executives left after 30 minutes." He then turns to me and explains, "Tonight was low-level distribution people bird-dogging for their higher-ups. It wasn't people who can pull the trigger" and make an offer.

"I can't tell you how painful it is to see your film for the first time with an audience," says Robinson.

Saturday, Jan. 20
At 9:45 a.m. in the bedroom of the hotel suite, Sherman takes a cellphone call from Shaun Redick of the William Morris Agency, which is representing "Go Tigers!" He's gotten the reactions from last night. Miramax, Lion's Gate and USA Films have all said that they won't make an offer. Paramount Classics is a question mark. There's possible interest from Goldwyn and from Sony Classics, which sent a hired scout and now needs to have one of its own people view the film before making a decision.

"Cool," says Robinson enthusiastically when he hears about the possible bidders. Then quickly his attention seems to turn to the spate of turndowns. "Fuckers," he says.

Sunday, Jan. 21
There's a press screening of "Go Tigers!" at 9:15 in the morning. Sundance's organizers want the critics to make their own independent judgments without any unwanted interference, so it doesn't allow the filmmakers to attend and schmooze; Sherman and Robinson have to rely on their public relations representative, Ali Forman, for a report.

The big coup, Forman recounts, is that Elvis Mitchell, a top critic from the New York Times, has showed up to see the film. Afterward, he won't tell Forman whether he liked it but says he'll write about it in his coverage of the festival. This is good but not great: If Mitchell loves things, usually he tells her.

That night the "Tigers" crew heads up to Deer Valley -- an ultra-swank resort where the biggest stars like to stay during Sundance -- for a party in honor of a (fictional) movie about whores and junkies. The setting is a house with large, rough stonework on the ground floor and unfinished logs as the posts and beams above them. The style is Log Cabin Hunting Lodge meets Nouvelle Riche Chateau. The huge 7,600-square-foot structure (five bedrooms, eight baths, four-car garage) is currently on the market for $2.95 million -- not cheap for a weekend skiing retreat. Its value might be boosted by the fact that tonight Mick Jagger, Stephen Baldwin and Julie Delpy are in the house.

Monday, Jan. 22
Sundance has grown so much that there aren't enough real movie theaters in Park City to handle all the screenings. Tonight's showing of "Go Tigers!" is in the large conference room of a hotel, with a makeshift projection system. You don't get Dolby or THX in a conference room. But this is really the make-or-break night for the film: Sherman and Robinson are expecting the audience to include reps from a slew of potential buyers, including Sony Classics, the Independent Film Channel, Blockbuster, Goldwyn, Artisan -- and even Miramax, which is giving "Go Tigers!" a second chance.

In the lobby I'm talking with Jeff Werner, the film's editor, who took more than 300 hours of raw footage, found a compelling narrative line and cut it down to an hour and three-quarters. Werner is a Hollywood veteran who edited big-budget studio films such as "The Mirror Has Two Faces" for Barbra Streisand. As we wait for the screening, the "Tigers" crew looks tense, standing in the wings so there'll be more seats for the film fans who've waited in line for more than an hour to get in.

"This is the first time I've realized that the film might not sell," Werner tells me. "It's a real drama."

Twenty minutes into the screening, the projector malfunctions and the film rolls without sound for most of a minute. It feels like eternity to the filmmakers. Sherman races out of the room to see what's wrong. The sound returns, but the "Tigers" crew is visibly upset for the rest of the show.

"The audience never came back after the sound glitch," Sherman says gloomily after the credits roll, adding that the missing dialogue contained vital information for the story. Werner isn't so downbeat, but he does think that the audience took half an hour to re-engage with the narrative.

Robinson disagrees. "They still dug it," he says. "They laughed at the right places."

Later, at a Thai restaurant on Main Street, Sherman has a hard time eating the pad thai and curry chicken because his nervousness has given him stomach pains. "It's so nerve-racking to have a screwed-up screening," he says.

Tuesday, Jan. 23
Before this morning's "Go Tigers!" screening at Holiday Village, I see a middle-aged woman standing outside the theater entrance wearing a sandwich board. The sign on the front says "SUPPORT GROUP: Mothers of Indie Filmmakers." She's Lindsey Miller Lerman, a Nebraska Supreme Court judge, and her son has a 75-minute film at No Dance, one of the several Sundance alternative festivals that have sprouted up in Park City at the same time as the mother fest. There's also Slamdance and Slamdunk and Lapdance and TromaDance. (Troma is the studio behind tasteless comic horror masterpieces such as "The Toxic Avenger.") Last year Redford denounced them all as "parasites," and surely they are, but the newer festivals have captured some of the edginess and guerrilla ethos that Sundance lost when it became more assimilated into the Hollywood mainstream.

Lerman's son's No Dance film is called "Nebraska Supersonic." She's handing out fliers. "It's done in the mockumentary style. He made it with one-third the budget of 'Blair Witch,'" she says, proving that she's as well-versed in cinema as in law. "It has the sensibility of 'Spinal Tap' or 'Best in Show.'" Her son shot it at age 21; now he's 25. "He's been camped out in the dining room for the last few years."

After the "Tigers" screening, Bob Berney from the Independent Film Channel emerges from the darkened cinema. IFC's lower-level people saw "Tigers" at its earlier screenings and recommended it to Berney, the senior executive or "trigger guy," the one who has the power to make an offer. In the lobby, he tells Shaun Redick of William Morris that he loved the film. Redick tells the producers, and hope is restored after the gloom of last night.

Wednesday, Jan. 24
After six nights of staying up until 2 or 3 a.m. at parties or poker games or watching "Apocalypse Now" on cable TV, and six mornings of getting up at 7 or 8 for breakfast meetings or screenings, Sherman and Robinson are exhausted. They're both lying in bed at the hotel at 3:30 p.m. when the phone call comes from their agents. Sherman and Robinson are instructed to drive over to the William Morris condos at once. A deal's underway.

Cassian Elwes, the head of Morris' indie film practice, has sequestered the IFC executives in one of the agency's ski condos. He escorts the producers and 'Tigers' director Ken Carlson into a second condo next door. The idea is that Elwes will shuttle back and forth between the two parties, hammering out the terms of the deal. Cassian's bother Cary (who starred opposite Alicia Silverstone in "The Crush") is hanging out in the second condo, where Sherman and Robinson are brought to wait. He hands them a bottle of mineral water.

"You're going to sell your movie," he says. "Cool."

Thursday, Jan. 25
The news makes the Hollywood Reporter and then the other trade publications. The North American rights to "Go Tigers!" sold to IFC for a reported low-to-mid six-figure upfront payment. The price was less than the movie's production cost, but the deal gives the producers something rare for a documentary film: a theatrical run (as well as a later showing on cable TV, of course, plus home video). And if it does well in the cinemas, the filmmakers could earn back the full cost and even make a profit.

With three days left in the Sundance festival, Sidney Sherman is happy that he can finally try to catch one of the remaining screenings of someone else's film.

By Alan Deutschman

Alan Deutschman is the author of "The Second Coming of Steve Jobs."

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