A dozen years ago, three budding filmmakers — Zafer Ulkucu, Doug Sakmann and Nick Esposito — boarded a yellow school bus en route to the Vans Warped Tour in Los Angeles. Their task was simple: to promote the hell out of Citizen Toxie: Toxic Avenger IV, the latest superhero comedy flick by Troma Entertainment. They achieved their goal with flying colors by coordinating “the craziest nightclub-variety-show lunacy that exists,” Esposito says with a giant smile, but more than that, the experience showed them that — with each other’s help — they could make their own filmmaking dreams a reality without having to lean on an already-established company.
“We realized we could either keep using our resources for Troma and they could continue to own everything we create, or we could start doing it ourselves,” explains Sakmann. The trio decided to forge their own path, and in 2002 Backseat Conceptions was established in the Sewing Factory Lofts on North Fifth Street in Kensington. From there they built a streamlined setup that allowed them to dabble in a variety of different film and promotions-related projects — from putting on live shows and spearheading photo shoots to film and television production.
Ten years later, the guys have “aged into our experience level,” Esposito says. “We were actually very capable [10 years ago], but we were young … and in a shitty address.” Philly has given them the opportunity to add a long list of accomplishments to their group résumé, including seven years running the Backseat Film Festival and three years curating punk shows and other events at the popular but, sadly, now-defunct 941 Theater.
They’ve also branched out nationally by offering behind-the-scenes services to other film crews — whether it’s completely staffing a set or filling the gaps where other companies were lacking. “If [a production company] needs 40 extras on short notice, walkie talkies, prop firearms, craft services … any of the things that productions always need at the last minute, we are the guys who can get it fast,” says Esposito.
Backseat was also approached recently to take over a complicated music-video shoot for Minneapolis five-piece rock group Motion City Soundtrack, because “they tried to do it [on their own] and failed,” Sakmann says. Saves like this have contributed to their rising status as film-industry fix-it guys. And they’ve recently started getting noticed by major outlets.
They’re currently working on two shows for the Discovery Network that they can’t talk about yet, and for the past three years have snagged consistent gigs in reality TV — shows like Wreck Chasers on the Discovery Channel and the Travel Channel’s Paranormal Challenge.
But with all their work for other people, they still find time to tackle close-to-home projects, like the producing and special-effects work they did for the most recent films by local director Adam Ahlbrandt, The Cemetery and Cross Bearer. The latter, a horror flick about a “religious maniac hell-bent on purifying the Earth of its sins through murder and destruction,” is screening this weekend at the Prince Music Theater.
This summer, Sakmann returned to the Warped Tour in L.A. to film the third (and allegedly final) installment of their decade-long Punk Rock Holocaust series, which is scheduled for release early next year. Once again, he arrived there via the group’s school bus, which in 2011 was transformed into a fully equipped mobile production facility. “We started our company on a bus, and 10 years later we’re still working from one,” says Sakmann. But they’ve “used the knowledge accumulated over the last 10 years to make it 100 times better.” Now covered in a coat of black paint (“it looks like a prison bus”) and decked out with a control room and a main cabin large enough to hold an eight-piece band, the vehicle is not only a reminder of how far they’ve come since their humbler beginnings, but a way to keep them connected as they continue to truck around the country. “We can pull the bus up, plug it in and it’s a self-sustaining environment,” he says. “We can basically take Backseat Conceptions anywhere and still feel right at home.”
Cross Bearer screens Sat., Sept. 15, 7 p.m., free, Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., 215-569-9700, backseatconceptions.com.
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