In Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley's "Battle for Brooklyn," the subject is the Atlantic Yards development project, in which the New Jersey Nets, with the help of co-owner Jay-Z, would get a new home in downtown Brooklyn. It's a local story about plans to develop an area of Brooklyn that's currently taken up by an abandoned railway… and a series of well-populated residential blocks.
Today, little of what the developers promised the community is coming to fruition. Through the story of the last residential holdout, Dan Goldstein, and a group of community leaders (most notably Brooklyn councilperson Letitia "Tish" James), the film tells the bold story of those who stood up for what they felt to be right.
After a debut at Toronto's Hot Docs and screenings at venues throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan and other markets, "Battle for Brooklyn" opens today in Los Angeles. indieWIRE caught up with Galinsky, who told us about the process of making the film and taking a local story wide. For more information on the film, visit its website here.
When crafting this film, how did you know what story you wanted to tell?
We were concerned with not making a film that felt like an activist film, but we were following activist in a verite way. We decided this film was about [Dan Goldstein] when we realized he was the one guy who was not gonna sell out. Dan was gonna lose his home and his whole way of living in the world. This is a large community fight, but we decided to tell it through one character. Earlier, we loaded the film up with other subjects and it got really boring.
How has the response been with all those involved?
We took pains not to involve ourselves in the fight. In a way, the film is about eminent domain, about kleptocracy in government and special interests working together to do things that benefit themselves. Errol Louis, who wrote about the Atlantic Yards project glowingly in the Daily News, thought the film was fair, which we were worried about. The people who know the situation well think we went easy on the government and the developers. We had a lot more about the corruption, but it became so overwhelming to people. It depressed them too much. The film, as it stands, really paints the government and the developer in a negative light. They colluded together. We were a little nervous. It didn't represent everyone in the fight against Atlantic Yards, and it wasn't a pedantic strident story of their fight, but they've really gotten behind it.
How did you decide your distribution strategy for the film?
There are a number of routes to getting films in theaters. The cleanest, clearest one, is premiere at Sundance, get picked up by a big distributor and then spend six months planning a release. What happens, though, if you don't get into Sundance, or Tribeca? The film world has become increasingly major fest dependent, from both a distribution point of view and a press point of view. If a film isn't at one of the major fests, it's completely off the radar of the industry.
We knew that we had an incredible film and we were excited once we got into Hot Docs. However, Hot Docs is late in the fest season from a distribution standpoint. So, once we got asked to be opening night at Brooklyn Film Festival as well as a screening with Rooftop Films in June, we decided to pull the trigger and distribute the film ourselves.
The response in Toronto confirmed our thoughts about the idea that while "Battle for Brooklyn" is clearly a Brooklyn story, it's a universal film. At the two sold-out screenings, people continually related the film to their own experiences. We were able to get the film booked at Cinema Village to open a couple of weeks after the Brooklyn Festival. It was an incredibly unorthodox approach, as the film had no real profile in the US film/doc world as it hadn't been at any of the US festivals. However, we realized that if we didn't get it out right away, we'd miss our window of opportunity for a theatrical release in the US.
How was it bringing the film to its hometown crowd?
Back in New York, we hired a publicist, Julia Pacetti, and piggybacked on the great press we got from from the festivals to build awareness in New York. We knew that everything would depend on both the reviews and how well we did in NY in terms of whether or not other cities would book the film. As "Battle for Brooklyn" concerns a major community fight against a developer we knew that we would at least have support from the community that we documented. We had an incredibly strong first weekend for a self-distributed film. We grossed over $11,000 that weekend. The exciting thing was that the film continued to run strong and ended up nearly $20,000 for three weeks. Word of mouth has been tremendous and we are slowly booking it in other cities across the US.
And where did the film go from New York? Where will it go from here?
While we basically ended up skipping the festival route in the US, we were overjoyed to be selected by Michael Moore to show the film at his Traverse City Film Festival at the end of July. In August we move to RI, California, and New Mexico. More dates are lining up all the time. Again, while the film follows a local story, we took great pains to craft a cinematic experience that is universal.
Unfortunately, corrupt governments that work with businesses at the expense of communities is the norm. Our goal was to inform and inspire people. They're informed, inspired, and also a little bit mad.