October 29, 1997
Cover Story: What's Your Pitch?
The scene on the Angelika steps.
What's Your Pitch?
Hype, hope and desperation at the Independent Feature Film Marketand some Philly filmmakers who made it out alive.
By Neil Gladstone
It's impossible to get into the Angelika Film Center this morning without being accosted by someone who wants to pitch a movie.
"Sodomites at 12:30!" screams one who's holding a poster for All the Rage. "It's a homo-downer movie for the whole family."
"Butler, Minnesota on Saturday," announces a man in a tuxedo.
No, it's not Cannes, or even Sundance. But for one week a year in September, untested filmmakers from around the country come to New York for the Independent Feature Film Market (IFFM), hoping to be discovered.
This year about 10 Philadelphia-area filmmakers have projects in the market, and several more have shown up on their own to network.
There's Don Mitchell from East Falls, who's entered his work for the last three years. He's been burned before with big promises from fly-by-night distributors, but he's back with a five-minute trailer to try his hand again. There's Daniel Wachspress of Lawrenceville, NJ, here with his feature, One Take. A veteran of the market, he still hopes to maintain the image of hot young newcomerit's an easier sell.
And there's Philadelphia's version of Charlie's Angelsor at least that's how they're casting themselves in their promo art. Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Karen Carpenter and Kimi Takesue each wrote one of the three sections in the film Pick-Up. They're probably the only multicultural writer-director team at the IFFM (Negrón-Muntaner is Puerto Rican, Takesue is half Japanese) and they're savvy enough to work it.
Finally, there's Patrick Hasson of Huntingdon Valley, who's trying to capitalize on the fact that his film, The Speed of Mind, is a reject. The IFFM didn't want it. So he and his co-producer John Stefanic have set up their own screening at a nearby theater and are plugging it anyway.
This year's market finished up Sept. 14. After all of their hard work, the best these filmmakers could hope for was that the right person would return their phone calls.
This is the story of who got the buzzand who got the zzzz.
The IFFM was initiated 19 years ago by the Independent Feature Project (IFP), a nonprofit organization that promotes young filmmakers. Maybe two or three of the pieces screening here will ever be seen nationally, but that slim chance is good enough for most. A third of the filmmakers come from New York, another third from California and the rest are from all over the United States.
"For independent film on the East Coast it is the event," stresses Carpenter, who saw going to the festival as a step toward becoming a part of "the film community at large."
"It's like everybody's there," says Gretjen Clausing of the Philadelphia Independent Film/Video Association, who attended this year's IFFM to speak on a panel about producing documentaries. "I was surprised to just keep bumping into people"including Don Mitchell, whose work she'd seen but whom she'd never met in person.
The biggest challenge for a filmmaker, though, is standing apart from the fray. Unlike film festivals, the IFFM isn't open to the public, so individual movies don't get much buzz. And if distributors are interested in a piece, they do their best to keep it quiet in hopes of avoiding a bidding war.
Only a quarter of what's being offered here are finished features. There are also works-in-progress, shorts and unproduced scripts. Most artists are looking to hook up with distributors or production companies to get financing or finishing funds.
"It's the home to films who have none," disparages John Pierson, the independent film champion who helped start Spike Lee's career among others. He used to be on the programming board for the market in the '80s, but dropped out when it decided to host 400 projects and turned, he says, into an "undiscriminating zoo."
"I don't think the discovery factor at the market is very honest," he says. "Most people should expect to get nothing out of it."
But there are definitely industry pros on the scene hunting for prospects. This is the second year Larry Greenberg has come to the market searching for pieces to broadcast on the Sundance Channel. Sifting through all of the 20-something angst flicks and movies about filmmaking isn't the easiest thing to do. Though Greenberg looks at the synopsis for every film, he usually bounces between Angelika's six theaters, often staying for only a few minutes of each piece. Yet filmmakers know that he's in acquisitions by the color of his market tag, so he's hounded constantly.
Kevin Smith and Ed Burns both got their start at the IFFM with Clerks and The Brothers McMullen. From here their movies went onto Sundance and then national acclaim. But it's hard to say whether it was the IFFM or the big push from Sundance which played the more crucial role.
Patrick Hasson and John Stefanic don't exactly seem like the next Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch. For one thing, Quentin and Jim never stood on the steps of the Angelika handing out 10-page rants entitled "The Film The I.F.F.M. Doesn't Want You To See."
It's Friday, Sept. 19their screening is scheduled for 6 p.m., just eight hours away. Hasson spent three years writing, directing, producing and editing The Speed of Mind. He maxed out his credit cards and got a student loan to cover the $11,000 budget.
After receiving a rejection notice, Hasson and Stefanic harangued the IFP with more than 20 phone calls.
"First we were told that the market didn't have the money to put on all the films that were entered," recalls Hasson. "Then they said they didn't have the time."
"The notion that he was shut out is ludicrous," counters Michelle Byrd, executive director of the IFP, in a separate conversation. When Byrd first talked to Hasson, she suggested he attend the market anyway. But she eventually grew tired of his pestering. "I could sense he was a bitter guy and decided not to talk to him anymore."
In his complaint packet, Hasson argues the film wasn't accepted because it was too cutting-edge.
"People aren't at the market looking for ultra-experimental work," responds Byrd, who admits that most filmmakers hope to get a national release out of the event. "Experimental filmmakers would probably get angry at us if we took their money and nobody came to their screening."
Yet Hasson figured the people he needed to build his film career would all be at the IFFM. So he rented a room at the Tribeca Film Center and printed up flyers. If he'd been accepted into the festival a screening would have cost him $425, but at this point he's shelled out $1,500. He's so far into debt he's now living with his parents.
"Filmmaking isn't a business, it's an addiction," he jokes, paraphrasing one of the panelists he heard at a seminar. The sentiment seems painfully apt.
Today is the final publicity push for Hasson and Stefanic. At tonight's screening the duo will see if several days of leafleting has paid off.
The lobby of the Angelika Film Center is hopping like Macy's on Christmas Eve. Flyers are plastered over the faux Roman columns and amateur PR groups are dispensing Java Heads coffee, Starving Artists lunch bags and Slaves of Hollywood switchcombs to promote their flicks. Representatives from the Independent Film Channel and regional film boards man tables around the room.
Downstairs, Daniel Wachspress is standing outside Theater 6 welcoming friends and crew members who've come to see the 12:15 screening of One Take.
"You never know what's going to happen until three weeks after the market," figures Wachspress, a veteran of the experience. The Lawrenceville, NJ-based director appears to be in his mid-30s, but refuses to reveal his age. He has his reasons:
"You know what Richard Linklater's distributor told him after they picked up Slacker? They said: 'You just made this great 20-something film; it'd be better to sell it if you were this young hot filmmaker.' But he was in his early 30s at the time. So, as far as you're concerned, I'm a child prodigy."
There are about 30 people waiting to see One Take, in a theater that can hold 100 more. When it begins, the sound is a little muffled and warbly. Part of that can be attributed to One Take being shot on 16mm. There's also a shadow running up the middle of the screen. Wachspress strolls back to the projection room to see if anything can be done. None of the problems are so bad that they make the piece unwatchable, though its syrupy, soap opera soundtrack is a bit much.
The story revolves around Kevin, who just received a card in the mail from his deceased ex-girlfriend. How did a woman who's supposedly been dead for a month send a card just a couple of days ago? That's what Kevin wants to know. So he makes a beeline to his ex's hometown to find out. It's a sentimental piece with some good lines ("Life isn't worth killing yourself over") and forgettable ones ("I would climb 100 mountains if she'd let me spend the rest of her life with me").
Twenty minutes into the picture, half of the audience is already gone. Toward the end, a long black scratch appears down the center of the frame. Wachspress takes another walk to the screening room. Fifteen or so people are left when the lights come up.
Wachspress is already waiting by the door. Crew members congratulate him and the rest of the audience files by with nods of appreciation.
"It's a nice piece with good characters that you care about," says a man with grey hair. "You're going to submit it, right?"
"Right," replies Wachspress.
Miles Kahn, director of Slant Blue Elwood
hums to Miles Davis while haning out flyers.
The filmmaker's new fan is Lawrence Smith, producer services director for the Sundance Film festival.
Soon after Smith leaves, One Take's producer, Larry Fuhrmann, scurries up to Wachspress.
"What'd he say?" asks Fuhrmann.
"He said, 'You're going to submit it, right?' And that he really liked it."
"What'd he say? Did he say, 'I'll get in touch with you' or 'You get in touch with me'?"
"He said, 'You're submitting it, right?' I said, 'Right.'"
A few moments later, Wachspress confides, "If there's one person who was going to like the film, that's the one."
Outside of the Angelika, Don Mitchell is trying to get in touch with Doug Witkins, president of Picture This! Entertainment. Witkins read a synopsis of Michael's Fire, Mitchell's work-in-progress, in the IFFM program book. Then Witkins went to the market's video library and watched the five-minute trailer Mitchell made to preview his project. It's a tense scene between two teenage boys. One, who has a severely burned leg, orders the other to kiss his blistered thigh to prove his friendship. The sadistic interchange is well-executed and simmering with sexual undertones.
That may be part of the reason Picture This! Entertainment is interested in Michael's Fire. They specialize in gay and lesbian movies and are probably best known for the campy musical Isle of Lesbos. Mitchell, 32, is aware of the scene's suggestiveness. The story, which is set at the end of World War II, is based on an unpublished novel by his father, a Pennsylvania writer. That home-state connection enabled the filmmaker to get a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant to the tune of $16,000. He used half of it to live on over the past three months. The rest he spent on production.
Few young directors do period pieces because it's expensive to recreate an era accurately. If Mitchell had his druthers, he'd shoot Michael's Fire in Philadelphia for $2.5 million. But first-timers rarely get that kind of budget. So he'll settle for 1.5.
The president of Picture This! wants to talk about the project, but is leaving early Saturday. Mitchell's screening is on Sunday (a notoriously lousy daya lot of people have already left by then).
"If it's not supposed to happen, it's not supposed to happen," sighs the filmmaker, struggling with his new cell phone. "It amazes me that communication technology is so advanced and yet we still have problems getting in touch."
He leaves a message. For most of the day he's been hyping Michael's Fire to the crowd inside the Angelika. It's a lot easier for him to do it these days than it used to be.
"The first year I was here I was running around like I had to make a deal," he recalls, scratching his goatee. "I think I terrified these peopleme looking like a young Charlie Mansontrying to get them to do something they didn't want to do." Now that he has several markets under his belt, he's made a few acquaintances and calmed down quite a bit.
One seminar that's not on the roster but probably should be is "The Art of the Spiel: How to Sound Like You're the Next Wunderkind in Five Sentences or Less."
Karen Carpenter got an impromptu tutorial at the opening night party. (Schmoozing doesn't stop when the sun goes down. Market parties are sponsored by various companies every night of the week. The IFFM may celebrate the independent spirit, but these shindigs are more like Hollywood-in-training.)
"A female producer, who's totally wasted, comes up to me and starts bragging about how she has all this money and loves independent films," recalls Carpenter, 33, sitting at a small bistro in Little Italy.
"I tell the producer about the project and she asks for my card. I run to go get one and by the time I get back she's already onto the next person."
When Carpenter finally hands the woman her card, she notices a man looking over her shoulder and strikes up a conversation.
"'What's your pitch?' he says. I'm not prepared to give it but I figure it'll be good practice. So I start and he interrupts me in the middle, saying, 'It should be more to the point.' He looks at our promo card and starts critiquing the copy."
To generate interest in the project, Carpenter and her partners commissioned full-color flyers with a quick synopsis of the stories.
Each section of Pick-Up revolves around a relationship between two women. In Carpenter's piece, a pair of house cleaners disocver onbe of their clients is out of town and decide to make the most of it, changing their lives a long the way. Takesue writes about a cloakroom clerk who confronts her fleeting dreams, annoying customers and an instrusive security system operatorall in one night. Negrón-Mutaner's tale is of two lovers: one wants to save the world, the other just wants sex.
None of this impresses the man with slicked-back hair, who as it turns out, is in advertising, not film. But a close friend of his produced The House of Yes, one of the big movies at the market, and he promises Carpenter to tell his friend about Pick-Up.
"Then he starts rewriting our script, suggesting alternative plots. At this point I'm just like 'whatever.'"
But she's shaken enough to hunt down a few trade secrets from other people at the party.
"When someone asks you to pitch your movie, give them two lines that are provocative, but general. The type of information that forces the listener to ask, 'And then what?' Only give them a little information at a time."
You've got to hook 'em fast and reel 'em in slowly.
Back at the Angelika, Stefanic is trying to round people up for the 6 o'clock screening of The Speed of Mind. It's a quarter of 6 and the IFFM van that was supposed to leave at 5:30 is still parked in front of the Angelika. A few riders decide to walk, others take a cab. Stefanic is trying to reason with the driver. At 5:50 the van embarks on what's supposed to be a 15-minute ride. But it's rush hour in New York. After sitting in gridlock for five minutes, one of the passengers suggests abandoning ship. Stefanic takes the pressure as well as can be expected, admitting the circumstances are beyond his control. When the van arrives at the Tribeca Film Center, 20 minutes of The Speed of Mind have already whizzed by. That just might have been for the best. Because even Tribeca Film Center's plush seats don't make this an easy movie to sit through. It's about an abusive father-son relationship as told through the eyes of the young victim and the mentally handicapped teenager who lives next door. The idea isn't bad, but the production is awkward and amateur. The acting is on the level of a high school play and certain shots look like the cinematographer bought his first camera two weeks before production started. Only 10 people make it all the way through The Speed of Mind. Approximately half of them were involved with the movie.
There's no one from Sundance running up to congratulate Hasson afterwards, but he has five or so fans come up to ask him questions.
Stefanic seems a little deflated: "Now we know that if you're going to do films, you have to do films that a general audience is going to appreciate."
Halfway across town, Don Mitchell is gabbing about the meeting he just wrapped up with Doug Witkins of Picture This! Entertainment: "[Witkins] was no bullshit: he'd read the synopsis, liked the scene and wanted to know more." Mitchell is waiting to get in the reception for the premiere of The Climb, John Hurt's new movie (not a market filmafter all, it's got a big-name starbut being shown in conjunction with it).
"He asked questions about the budget and thought 2.5 was out of reach for a first-time director, but 1.5 wasn't out of line."
The exec also wanted to know how attached Mitchell was to the actors he'd used for the trailer scene, figuring it would be best to get a "name" for one of the two main roles. He also figured the piece could be sold to the gay community, keeping the story exactly the way it is.
The gay market isn't just looking for pieces with pronounced sexuality, says Mitchell, but also higher quality films, with good characters and suggestive plotlines. Though the meeting is Mitchell's most promising interaction in the three years he's been to the market, it's hardly a marriage proposal. It's more like a nice first date.
"Towards the end of the meeting Witkins told me, 'Period pieces are hard.' I said, 'Hard to make? Hard to finance?' He said, 'They're just hard.'"
So what did IFFM do for these Philly hopefuls?
Daniel Wachspress made a good impression on somebody potentially important; now he's waiting to see if Lawrence Smith's affection for One Take bodes well for acceptance into Sundance.
The Pick-Up trio had already sent their script to several production companies long before the market started. At the IFFM, they met with four; those who valued "poetry" over marketability placed highest on their list. But most deals take at least a year to iron out. In the meantime they're raising funds to start production in the fall of '98.
Patrick Hasson and John Stefanic have decided on a change of direction for their next flick: "The Speed of Mind was an 'art-house flick,'" says Stefanic; their next one, Waiting, is going to be a comedy.
As for Don Mitchell, he will keep in touch with Picture This! while also trying to raise money independently for the project. He's currently working on his second draft of Michael's Fire and expects he'll send Witkins the fourth version.
Is it hard to come back to the market year after year with such fleeting promises?
"At home I keep a rejection file and an acceptance file," responds Mitchell. "Whenever I'm bummed I take both of them out. The rejection file is five times as large as the acceptance one. I know that I have to go through that much pain to get that much pleasure."