Festival Beat

Gowanus, Brooklyn’s Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck wait quietly for the chance to talk to actor Mark Ruffalo at Sundance

Marketing is the message. So says Steven Grasse, director of the direct-to-video Bikini Bandits series. In the opinion of Grasse, “As filmmakers, we suck; but as promoters, we’re great.”

You may snicker and pat yourself on the back for being one of the torchbearers for cinematic art, but guess what? Steve’s got a career. You don’t. Need proof? Steve is headed to London for the October 7th premiere of the animated Bikini Bandits Save Xmas at the Raindance Film Festival. Once there, he will share the American Director in Residence chair with Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. And if that’s not enough, he threw a big party at Cannes with French Playboy—bunnies and all—while the tab was picked up by the estimable production company, Canal+. Then he’s headed to some exotic island off the coast of Madagascar to film his next feature.

Why Steve Grasse from Philadelphia, PA, with “a flawless concept done horribly,” and not you? Maybe it’s because you spend too much time quoting The Knights of Nigh from The Holy Grail and not enough time marketing. “It’s really what this whole business is about,” reports Grasse.

This film marketing mantra is the gospel from Grasse’s ad agency days. And this ain’t marketing for the faint of heart we’re talking about. Grasse and producer Michael Alan truly have quite a perfect set of grandiose balls between them. Before Bikini Bandits was even accepted to premiere at the Philadelphia Film Festival, Grasse and Alan took out full-page ads in The City Paper, the local alternative weekly, promoting their participation in the festival. This naturally pissed off festival brass, creating more press in the ensuing uproar. When the film officially became part of the festival, the Bikini Bandits team purchased every available seat at the premiere, creating a sold-out screening and generating more frenzied buzz. They then threw a big ol’ party, let 3,000 in to celebrate and left 2,000 cooling their heels on the sidewalk. Buzz, buzz, buzz.

What began as a performance art project has morphed into a true brand-name phenomenon. Grasse stresses that “People worry about getting it right the first time rather than building access to what you want or where you want to be. Each film is a baby step to that end.” Their next film is about Muslim terrorists confronting their anger issues through having regular sex. Sundance turned down Bikini Bandits. “Fuck ‘em,” says Grasse.

“What began as a film geek reflex has oddly become a very practical way to network. By being one of the front row rangers, you lead the pack of shuffling knuckleheads lurching toward the stage and it puts you closer to your quarry. You get in and get out.”

– Ryan Fleck

Tim Breitbach, co-producer and co-writer of Dopamine, had a different but no less successful approach to marketing his film at Sundance. It involved friendship bracelets. Yes, he’s referring to those woven string bracelets that seventh grade girls give to one another with squeals of platonic delight. Yet in the skilled promotional hands of Breitbach, these innocuous trinkets become a not-so-subtle metaphor for everyone’s favorite obsession. According to Breitbach, “In 2003, we had Dopamine in the Dramatic Competition at Sundance. We wanted to work the festival in a coy, playful way
that represented the content of the movie and built
the little buzz machine. We gave out these friendship bracelets that said ‘Dopamine’ in block letters. The physical act of handing out the bracelets was an intimate, one-on-one gesture that connected us with a lot of people, chatting with them while we slipped it onto their svelte, delicate wrists. And yes, we focused on women.”

Women no doubt made up the core audience for this thinking person’s romantic-comedy. Potential friendship braceleteers beware, warns Breitbach. “After about three days, the group of us that were spreading the ‘Dopamine’ love started to play games to save ourselves from boredom on Park City’s frozen January streets. We started doing stuff like, ‘Only give the bracelet to someone you would like to have a threesome with, while naming the starlet who would be included,’ etc. Needless to say, the giving was more selective, but the results were more encouraging. I mean, hey, we got distribution right?” Indeed they did. Dopamine got a 10-city theatrical release as part of the Sundance Film Series and was just released on DVD. If there’s one thing to take away from this article, it’s continuing proof of marketing’s oldest commandment: Sex sells.

Geek show. That’s how Dallas-based director Shane Carruth described the party scene at Sundance. You might think a hot young director scoring domestic distribution with a film in competition would have the doors flying off the hinges at the blanket of supposedly swanky parties that smothers the town during festival time. Not true. Carruth, whose film Primer was picked up by THINKFilm for North American release, had trouble getting into the “right” parties. Even though his name graced the pages of the magic “lists” around town, Carruth was still forced to endure grillings worthy of the Abu Ghraib welcoming committee. “If you’re not a celebrity or don’t have a celebrity’s face, you spend a ridiculous amount of time defending yourself to the doormen at these parties.” It was trial by fire. Carruth basically had to pitch these doormen to be allowed in.

The silver lining to this sooty cloud is that anything else you did would be easier than standing on a snowy Utah doorstep, reciting your resume while your nose hairs freeze. Fortunately, independent moviemakers are a notoriously resourceful lot. Carruth’s solution? “Be sure to tell the doorman you’re an actor in the film. That works.”

In truth, it’s when the enchanted doors swing open that your problem really begins. How to mine the career gold that surely lies in them there hills is yet another concrete block landing in your path. Like most of us, Carruth would rather be at home in his underwear watching TV than watching A-List actors and agents wrestling over cans of Old Milwaukee beer and broken potato chips.

Once the festival party frontier had been reached, Carruth was concerned with sharing a two-story tall version of his vision with a theater full of strangers after three years alone with a four-inch computer image. In preparation for the inevitable post-screening interrogation, he resorted to the popular “Oscar acceptance” speech method, rehearsing in front of a mirror, imagining the worst possible questions that could be asked. It seems to have worked; Carruth survived his first Sundance like a true disciple of Nietschze, ready to bear the arrows from a 20-city, October 8th release.

Shane Carruth’s Primer was picked up for distribution by THINKFilm at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival

Director Ryan Fleck and his partner, Anna Boden, gave up on parties. They wanted to go. They’d heard all the legendary tales about moviemakers being “made” in condo back rooms at parties sponsored by William Morris. But for whatever reason, they never made it up into the hills surrounding Park City. Instead they made a great short film, Gowanus, Brooklyn, and made the pimps come to them. Smart. “You can’t get too caught up in the schmooze if you don’t have anything backing it up,” remarks Fleck.

Easy for him to say, since Fleck and Boden’s Gowanus, Brooklyn won the Jury Prize for Best Short Film at the festival. “If you have a good film, the always uncomfortable schmooze factor can be minimized.” They got tired of standing around parties nudging each other while shot-gunning drinks to get up the gumption to make The Move and go and talk to some important person in the crowd. Fleck has devised something of a Zen koan to deal with the nerve-straining process.

“When you approach somebody, you’ve got to pretend to have confidence. I keep telling myself that everybody’s used to it; that they expect filmmakers to buttonhole them. I try to take comfort in that, but it really doesn’t make it much easier.”

Fleck and Boden also advise to sit in the front row at screenings where you may want to talk with a particular actor or producer after the Q&A. What began as a film geek reflex has oddly become a very practical way to network. By being one of the front row rangers, you lead the pack of shuffling knuckleheads lurching toward the stage and it puts you closer to your quarry. You get in and get out.

Fleck also advises not to “overlook the smaller festivals as a venue to really meet people. Sundance is the best, but you always get the feeling everybody’s looking over their shoulder for their next contact to be made. Smaller festivals like the Independent Film Festival of Boston, at the beginning of May, are amazing. The fest is so friendly. It’s really intimate, so it makes it easier to schmooze and make a lasting connection. The Full Frame Doc Fest in Durham, North Carolina is great as well.” Armed with a new agent, lawyer and executive producer as a result of their fest success, Fleck and Boden can sit back and let the sharks hunt for meat while they concentrate on making moving pictures.

Why is it that the best guys in the world have the worst time with women? I’m sorry folks, but it’s true. Nice guys finish last. Treat a film festival like a pimp smacking a ho and you’re virtually guaranteed festival gold. For instance, a longtime Los Angeles moviemaker who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons recently entered his romantic-comedy into a well-respected festival. He then proceeded to sabotage his chances for success in said festival. Phone calls went unreturned, e-mails went unanswered, requests for materials were ignored and finally he curtly informed the festival that he was taking off to a much-needed vacation in the South of France and couldn’t be bothered to attend. He won the Best Director Award. “Just blow them off and they give you an award. Most directors are asses, so hopefully by not attending the festival, they’ll like the film better than they’ll like you.”

In reality, this director’s not really much of an asshole. Sure, he’s a little loud, a little obnoxious and a little opinionated, but he’s not truly a full-blown asshole. He does theorize that it’s hard to maintain the fiction of a director if he shows up in person and you get to know him. It’s bound to be a disappointing experience to finally meet someone who’s done a careful job maintaining a persona of cinematic brilliance and mystery, just to realize he’s as shy, insecure and awkward as you are.

The lesson from all this is, if you’re not at your best, it pays to stay away or shut up. There’s an old law in acting that if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. This sounds simple, but when you’re stuck at a festival feeling like a pariah, it’s almost impossible to resist the temptation to open your mouth and let something stupid come out.

“Why is it that the best guys in the world have the worst time with women? I’m sorry folks, but it’s true. Nice guys finish last. Treat a film festival like a pimp smacking a ho and you’re virtually guaranteed festival gold.”

Andrea Sperling, producer of D.E.B.S., a lesbian Charlie’s Angels action movie satire, recalls a dust-up that happened at a long-ago festival. It seems there was an argument between the moviemaker and the distributor about re-cutting a film; the moviemaker prevailed and the film remained intact. In a public restroom at Sundance, the moviemaker’s agent was overheard siding with the distributor over the cut of the film. Word got back to the moviemaker, through Sperling, about her powder room betrayal. This ignited threats of bodily harm from the agent to all involved, forcing Sperling to spend the rest of the festival watching over her shoulder for the enraged agent in hopes of averting a bloody Main Street showdown. So watch your mouth—and your back.

Sperling’s most recent Sundance experience has been kinder and gentler. She and director Angela Robinson used the short version of D.E.B.S that was initially screened at Sundance as the carrot to drive the donkey that drove the cart. Prior to the film’s premiere at the festival, Sperling sent the feature script and short to potential financiers with the hopes of announcing a deal at Sundance. In the interim, Screen Gems bit on the script and short, and combined with a poster and trading cards created by Sperling and Robinson for the main characters, gave the production company an idea of what the marketing could look like.

There’s that word again: marketing. “Everything looked so good; we really hit a home run with them with the marketing ideas. Even before our film was accepted at Sundance, we came up with a ‘total concept’ strategy to drive our goals.” While at the festival, the D.E.B.S. people passed out the trading cards on the streets of Sundance, adding to the film’s “buzz.” The gamble paid off. The story of four female spies out to thwart evildoers will be released in March by Screen Gems. The director, Robinson, has become something of a poster child for parlaying homework and talent into a huge career. She’s set to direct the $60 million Herbie the Love Bug for Disney, starring Lindsay Lohan. While that may make most of us want to chase a bottle of pills with a fifth of Southern Comfort, the message is: Talent plus marketing plus guts equals success. It’s that simple. It’s either that or it’s back to the church basement with the Christmas pageant… dreaming of a career.

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