Undistributed Update, Part II: More Pics Plucked for Exhibition and Release
by Anthony Kaufman
Not to pat ourselves on the back (okay, we are), but indieWIRE has been highlighting the under-appreciated films of the American independent and foreign sectors since 1998, when our first contributor’s poll of the best undistributed films of that year appeared. (That’s before Film Comment and the Village Voice published similar stories). While times have significantly changed in the last six years, many of the same players, such as Strand Releasing and First Run Features, are steadfastly playing the indie game and continuing to pick up our unsung favorites.
Now with the California Film Institute‘s series “indieWIRE Undiscovered Gems” (which is running now through April 15 at the Smith Rafael Film Center), we will join Film Comment, the Village Voice, and even Roger Ebert with showcases of overlooked films, composed of many movies that do not have U.S. distribution. It seems like it’s never been a better time to make a movie without a distributor in place. (That’s a joke.)
While a majority of the 12 films playing at the Film Institute’s Smith Rafael Film Center look like they will eventually get releases in TV, on DVD, and in theaters, countless other worthy films are still forgotten, tied up in legal battles, or just plain too weird or racy for even the art-house niche market. (What is going on with Larry Clark‘s “Ken Park” — on our 2002 list — anyway?)
In the second part of our update of films playing at the California Film Institute’s series, here are the six remaining movies showing in the series and brief updates on their distribution status.
Director: Ross McElwee
Update: First screened as a work-in-progress at the 2002 IFP Market, documentary veteran McElwee’s latest comic and touching investigation into his Southern heritage was acquired by First Run Features late last year, after a notable run at festivals from Cannes to the New York Film Festival. “First Run has proudly distributed all of Ross’s films, for almost 20 years now,” says First Run VP Marc Mauceri. “We saw a cut of ‘Bright Leaves’ when it screened at the IFFM, and also we were at Cannes when the final version premiered there.” The film is slated for release on August 25 at the Film Forum. Last week, First Run also released McElwee’s landmark 1986 work “Sherman’s March” on DVD, “packed with wonderful extra features,” adds Mauceri, “and we plan to release other early McElwee films on DVD as well.”
What’s Next: McElwee hasn’t yet decided on a new project. Says the filmmaker, “Too busy with what’s now — namely, getting ‘Bright Leaves’ out into the world.”
Director: Randy Nargi
Update: Who says indieWIRE doesn’t make a difference in filmmaker’s lives? After the Film Sales Corporation‘s Andrew Herwitz saw “G-Sale” on our 2003 list of best undistributed films, he signed on as worldwide sales agent and is beginning to screen the film for companies. Nargi never banked on distribution. “Our strategy was to spend a year on the festival circuit and gauge audience reaction to see if ‘G-Sale’ was worth wider distribution. If the film didn’t connect with audiences, we didn’t want it out there,” he says. “Fortunately, ‘G-Sale’ has had a tremendously positive audience response.” And critics, from Moira Macdonald to Richard Jameson, have come out in support of this garage sale mockumentary in the vein of Christopher Guest.
What’s Next: Nargi’s Washington-based production company Bogwood Films has a handful of new indie comedy projects in the works: a sequel to “G-Sale” called “For Sale By Owner,” about the suburban misadventures of an empty-nest couple trying to sell a home themselves; a TV pilot based on “G-Sale” called “The Bogwood Chronicles,” about the citizens who attend the Bogwood Community College adult education program; and a spoof of Miramax-like foreign films (“Chocolat Sur Mes Pantalons”) about a world-renowned Italian/Irish opera singer who returns to a small seaside town in Italy to try to recover his lost voice.
“Jesus, Du Weist” (Jesus, You Know)
Director: Ulrich Seidl
Update: Mean-spirited and misanthropic or sensitive and confessional, you decide. Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl’s portrait of church-goers speaking their sins and wishes to the camera, “Jesus, You Know” was acquired at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival and will be released this fall by Leisure Time Features, which also distributed Seidl’s last film “Hundstage” (Dog Days). “I saw ‘Jesus, You Know” at the Toronto Film Festival last year and liked it very much,” says Leisure Time’s Bruce Pavlow, who says his release of “Dog Days” bodes well for Seidl’s latest controversial work. “It did respectable box office numbers and got some great reviews as well as scathing ones. It is an extreme film, so that was to be expected. John Waters called it his favorite film of 2003 along with ‘Irreversible,’” adds Pavlow. Kino International also released “Dog Days” on video and DVD, which has been selling quite well, according to Pavlow.
What’s Next: Seidl is currently working on a new fiction feature.
“The Movie Hero”
Director: Brad Gottfred
Update: A regional fest favorite last year (Rhode Island, Austin, Cinequest), Gottfred’s zany debut “The Movie Hero” has since won awards at the Texas Film Festival and the York International Film Festival. Starring Jeremy Sisto as a man who believes he’s being filmed for an imaginary audience, the comedy has yet to sign a distribution pact. With producer Houston King hired as sales rep, Gottfred says, “We are talking to several companies right now after getting our first offer last week. We’ve won enough ‘audience awards’ at fests that we’re feeling good that a distrib will seize that as a sign the film works.”
What’s Next: Gottfred has several projects in the pipeline. “I am trying to line up a home for ‘Reapers,’ a low budget ‘sexual horror’ film,” he says. “I also have a romantic comedy about a private eye searching for a witch entitled ‘Enchantment’ that’s getting me some good feedback.” He is also producing “The Great Unknown,” which he describes as “Memento” with dreams, from a script he co-wrote, and a martial arts indie called “Mobster 78.”
Director: Laura Gabbert
Update: While “Sunset Story” had been listed on the Rafael calendar as a Strand Releasing acquisition, Gabbert’s affecting portrait of senior citizens at a retirement home for political progressives has not yet signed with a distributor. However, a deal is forthcoming. “All we can disclose is that ‘Sunset Story’ is about to be sold and the terms are being negotiated,” says producer Eden Wurmfeld. In a separate email, Gabbert says, “The good news is that ‘Sunset Story’ will definitely have a theatrical release this fall in at least 10 cities.” Last year, the film won prizes at the Los Angeles and Tribeca Film Festivals and took part in the International Documentary Association’s InFact theatrical tour across the country.
What’s Next: The “Sunset Story” team is working on developing the true story into a narrative project. Gabbert is also working on a feature film that she co-wrote with Lisanne Skyler (“Getting to Know You”).
Director: Gyorgy Sjomjas
Update: Blending documentary and fiction, Transylvanian folk music and a plot about youth gangs (or vagabonds) in post-Soviet Budapest, Sjomjas’s “Vagabond” appears bound to face the distribution limbo of most pictures from Hungary (though the recent “Hukkle,” a 2002 best undistributed film from newcomer György Pálfi, was an exception, getting a small release in 2003.) Born in 1940, Sjomjas is of an older generation of Hungarian filmmakers. His early feature work (“The Wind is Whistling Under Their Feet,” “The Wall Driller”) played in small venues in the ’80s, but he is largely an unknown figure among current art-house viewers in the U.S. Unfortunately, it may stay that way. (The only Sjomjas film on video in the U.S. appears to be 1979’s innovative western “Bad Guys,” available from Facets Multimedia.)
What’s Next: Reportedly, Sjomjas has been making folk music documentaries.
[ Read Part 1 of our Undistributed Update. ]