After "City Island," time for Hollywood meetings

Now that my movie is finally out on DVD, I realize the time has come to aim big -- and sell out?

Published August 27, 2010 12:27AM (EDT)

Yes, I'm back. Like a hammy vaudevillian who takes one too many encores thereby dissolving whatever goodwill the audience may have had for him, I'm still onstage. I have my reasons. Chief among them is that "City Island," the movie that I wrote and directed that stars Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies, is being released on Blu-ray and DVD on Aug. 24. Having blogged the entire making of the movie and then relived the whole experience in a dozen columns that I wrote for Salon at the time of our theatrical release this past spring, one little extra column to support the DVD release seems criminally modest. Anyway, they asked me to do it so here I am. For my next encore I'll recite "Gunga Din."

If you haven't seen "City Island" yet, then it's my duty to urge you to find the DVD at once on Amazon or at your local Wal-Mart. And if you saw it and enjoyed it you'll find many new and interesting features and facts on that little disc. Extras include a charming commentary from me and Andy Garcia (at least it felt charming when we recorded it a few months ago in a studio deep in Hollywood ... or was it the lunch afterward at Musso and Frank that left such a charming glow?). There is also a special featurette titled "Dinner With the Rizzos," which features me and the cast (Andy, Julianna Margulies, Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Steven Strait) discussing the film over some pasta and wine (filmed, I might ad, at 10 one morning -- and we really did eat the pasta and drink the wine). There are a handful of deleted scenes as well -- a beautiful monologue featuring Andy's character that was hard as hell to excise, but which simply didn't fit properly into the finished film, as well as a very funny scene of him undressing in public when he's on his way to ... I'll leave it at that.

"City Island's" DVD window comes quite a bit later than most movies released around the same time. We opened in theaters on March 19 of this year and are still out there on a handful of screens, which puts us somewhere in the 24-week range. I don't think I'm wrong in saying that pretty much every other movie that opened at the same time or shortly thereafter made it to DVD quite a bit sooner, which simply points to the fact that our theatrical run was a longer, healthier one than most. As I write this, the movie continues to open around the world,  recently in London to very good reviews and business. And a reader of my blog who is from Greece just wrote in to say that she was traveling to Athens to see it. Athens.

To say that I'm pleased with everything that happened with the movie is a bit reductive; I truly couldn't have asked for more from my producers, from our audiences, or from my distributors who stood by the movie, week after week, buying expensive ads and plastering them immodestly with whatever the latest, most attractive critical huzzahs were. (Though at the end of the day, they pretty much all boil down to the same few words, applicable to most any movie in any genre that has been reasonably well reviewed: "Fantastic!""Compelling!""Lovely!""Great performances!""See it!" There isn't much reinvention that can be -- or need be -- done with this odd literary subgenre.)

And so what does this all boil down to for someone like me? I can sum it up in one word: meetings. (Not the kind where we discuss how unmanageable alcohol has made our lives, the kind where we discuss how unmanageable the movie business has made our lives).

Meetings are in many ways as important an element in a life in the movie business as movies themselves. They fill up time, serve to introduce you to other similarly afflicted people, perpetuate the myth that this is a "relationships" business, and in general provide each participant with a little much-needed sociability in a business where too often the most social of events are the most forbidding and least welcoming (a little party called the Oscars springs to mind, but that's a story for another time).

But meetings are also a barometer of where you are career-wise, an index, as it were, to your heat-rating. You don't have to be the most popular person in town to get a few meetings, but you do need to have some sort of cool thing going on. Then again, you can be too cool for meetings -- actually that should be too "hot" for meetings -- unless the meeting is about a very specific project that you've been shortlisted on and that your agent and the studio's business affairs people are already well down the "in talks" road on.

But I digress.

I've had plenty of meetings in the past, and am having plenty right now. But the meetings menu had dried up for me in the couple of years prior to "City Island." I just wasn't that interesting to most people in Hollywood. They either already knew me or had other things to do that day. Sometimes a meeting was set and then canceled. No problem. Only then the person-who-canceled's office never bothered to reschedule. Yeah. Well, I grew up around the film business and learned early on to not take it personally. Do your work, be patient and believe in the future. Also use vermouth in your evening martini. It helps. But when the pendulum swings the other way -- and it usually does and it currently has for me -- go on a big bunch of meetings. Get it done. Meet up.

What are these meetings about?

We discuss what I'm doing and what they're doing. At their best, these meetings become friendly bull sessions on movies and taste in all things cultural. Recently I had a great time discussing possible remakes with some very smart development execs -- we were throwing around titles of mostly forgotten '50s Cinemascope epics and figuring out how to update them. Will any of this lead to anything? Almost certainly not! But as I said, it gets you out of the house. And who knew that anyone, other than I, thought it was a good idea to remake Cecil B. DeMille's "The Buccaneer"?

At their most shallow, though, these meetings follow a distressingly similar format: "I liked your movie," "What are you working on next," "Here's what we're looking to do," "We'd love to see anything you're working on." Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just that you get the distinct impression in many of these low-grade meetings that you're sitting across from somebody whom you will never again encounter in this lifetime. Which makes you wonder which was the fun part of your day: the meeting, or the wait in the traffic -- A.C. and satellite radio blaring -- on the way to the meeting?

It suddenly occurred to me, while driving home from a meeting one morning, that I've been at this game a long time. I graduated from the AFI (American Film Institute) in 1990. Got an agent right away. Started going on meetings. That was 20 years ago. That first year of meetings was a constant state of exuberance and hubris. I was 25 and, for very little reason indeed, had been anointed the NEXT BIG THING. Why was this? Well, my AFI grad thesis short, "Bronx Cheers," was nominated for an Academy Award. It's a good film -- not as good as it was 20 years ago, but what is? -- but I think the fact that it's a period piece (Bronx, 1940s) and that we got it all very right production-wise, led the town's tastemakers to see me as a precocious visualist (which I am not and never was), a kind of budding pretender to the Zemeckisian-Spielbergian throne whose taste seemed both popular and pompous (a very winning combination when marketed correctly). Had I grasped this perception of me at the time, I imagine my career would have looked something like this:

Early to mid-'90s: Some Disney fare, popular box office things.

Late '90s: Creation (or in on ground floor of) a franchisey thing. Maybe direct the first one and exec-produce the sequels.

Early to mid-2000s: Get into the TV business. Once a successful series or two is launched, I flutter between "godfathering" projects under my banner and directing whatever big-budget star-driven vehicle I choose. One every two years, I should think.

Then, at 45, a moment of clarity comes to me. I can no longer pursue the soulless endeavors that my career has forced me to focus on. I want to make a "little movie" ... about a family, say, in the Bronx. No big special effects, no franchise stuff, not even any major "set piece" scenes. Just a movie about life in a middle-class family, the dreams and desires, the thwarted ambitions and the mistakes of the past, and how we are all forced to face who we are at some point in life.

That movie, of course, would have been "City Island." And I did get to make it. I just skipped the millionaire stuff in between. But screw it. Life is long. Once, many moons ago, Alan Parker (and where the hell is he these days?) came to the AFI and did a seminar. His advice to the students was not to listen to people who say you should start by making money for studios because then "they" will let you make what you want. "If you make them money, they'll never let you stop," he said. "Start by making what you really want to make. Get rich later." Apparently I was listening when he offered up this bit of wisdom and, deplorably, I have spent the last 20 years doing only what I've wanted to do.

So in a stunning reversal I've decided to finally take life in showbiz seriously (i.e., go to these meetings and keep a straight face) and try -- really try -- to finally get rich. Well, solvent would be nice! And perhaps find out if there's a way for my own tastes and talents to merge (profitably I would hope) with the mandates of the mainstream. Look, there are only so many movies made a year and somebody has to direct each one of them. (Unless you're Steven Soderbergh and you direct every other one of them.) So for my next 20 years I intend to do the very thing that conventional wisdom (not Alan Parker) would say I should have done with my first 20 years. Thus the journey we've taken with this film seems to have brought me to the balance point of my professional life; at 45, I have either a different life in front of me, or none at all. Which would you pick?

While you (and I) mull that difficult and ultimately unimportant question, I'd like to reflect on the handful of happiest (and strangest) things that happened as a result of "City Island" having been as well-received over the past six months as it was.

  1.  According to the New York Times, the New York City subway maps were redrawn by the Metropolitan Transit Authority for the first time in years and City Island (the actual place) was, for the first time, actually included on the maps. I take complete credit for that. Wouldn't you? Article is here.
  2.  The majorly successful author, James Patterson, really, really liked the movie and said so to his billion or so readers on his blog. Click here to read Mr. Patterson's movie "pick of the week.
  3.  Andy Garcia and his wonderful actress daughter Dominique Garcia-Lorida were nominated for their acting work by the 25th Annual Imagen Awards. Dominique won. I wonder what breakfast was like in that house the next morning.
  4. Variety actually mentioned the word "Oscar" in the same paragraph with "City Island." "Do some of these titles seem like Oscar long shots? They are. But awards voters last year recognized good work in 'offbeat' pics as varied as 'In the Loop' and 'The Messenger,' so hope springs eternal. It's definitely worth mentioning some smaller 2010 films that have garnered many fans, like Sony Classics' 'Please Give' and 'Mother and Child,' Magnolia's 'I Am Love' and Anchor Bay's 'City Island'."

Finally, there have been a handful of e-mails I've received from people who saw the movie and just felt like reaching out and telling me how much they liked it. Some are people who work in the industry, and that's quite a rare thing as we tend, for some reason, not to tell our creative brethren much of anything. But many are from people across the country who just wanted to see a movie about people, one that made them laugh and then cry, one that inspired them to go back again, this time with a friend or relative. These were the e-mails that I prized the most, for in the not-so-distant past the communication between audience member and filmmaker would or could never have happened.

So that's where we sit with this particular movie, this "City Island" of ours. I certainly don't plan to write as extensively about every future movie I make like I did for this one, but this time it felt, for some reason, like a case study should be made. For the kind of movie that is "City Island" might well be an endangered species, one too large to exist in the current jungle, and yet too small to appeal to the new world zoo. Perhaps the future "City Islands" will be home movies, shot by families about their own families and posted on YouTube. And perhaps they'll be really good! We don't know where we are in our history. As the Chinese proverb goes "Nobody knows if the world is very old or very young." Moviemaking as we know it may be a fast-fading trend or still at the dawn of its creation. Should anyone wonder what the journey from script to screen for an independently made movie in the early 21st century was like, they can refer to the pile of material I've accumulated and posted over the past two and a half years. Or just go to Salon and breeze through the dozen columns I was honored to have been asked to write this past spring.

Better yet, buy the DVD and watch the movie we made. The end product really is all that counts. That and the meetings that resulted from it, of course.

By Raymond De Felitta

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