*Reference Tribeca Film Institute’s Reframe Collection Blog:
Our dear friend, Peter Guzzardo has been chosen to represent the classic Tribeca Film Institute selection; American Blue Note Starring Peter MacNicol and directed by Ralph Toporoff for world wide distribution. All rights are available (for now): contact peterguzzardo[a]gmail.com. His new company is called “The Speckled Trout Moving Picture Company (web site still under construction), but we are the first to know!!!
Reframe Spotlight: ‘American Blue Note’ – A Journey to Oblivion and Back
Most directors have an interesting story to tell about their films’ travels to finding an audience. That’s certainly the case for the filmmakers in our Reframe Collection, as our mission with the program is to provide an outlet for those titles that have become “unmarketable” in the eyes of established distributors. But not many in our collection have had a ride like Ralph Toporoff‘s American Blue Note. After hearing it we implored him to recount his experience as it not only exemplifies what Reframe is all about, but is a cautionary tale for any filmmaker hoping to make their mark in the business.
Anyone who has ever made a film knows the experience can be both a dream come true and a living nightmare. American Blue Note was both. Based on my own experiences as a musician in the 1960s, the film, starring Peter MacNicol (Ally McBeal) with a screenplay by Gilbert Girion, was my first feature as producer/director and was a complete labor of love. The first public screening at the 1989 AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles ended with a happy audience, good reviews and a foreign sales agent, Walter Manley, promising to sell my film to the entire world. Walter’s next stop: the 1990 Cannes Film Market.
Curiosity got the best of me. I flew to Cannes for a chance to see the film business up close and personal. What I found was a tiny room on the wrong side of the tracks. Walter had set up shop in a suite at the Carlton Hotel with a giant poster of my film hanging on the wall. My gratification diminished when wandering around the hotel later I realized everyone had giant posters of their film hanging on walls, some for films that didn’t exist. Still, on the first day, Walter sold three territories: Norway, Sweden and Denmark and pronounced me the next Fellini. The next day brought no sales and Walter concluded the independent film market was now “dead.” I’d gone from Fellini to dead in twenty-four hours. Fortunately, over the next week, Spain, Portugal, England and Germany bought the rights and my death became less severe. When the Italians requested American Blue Note to open the Florence Film Festival, I considered myself resurrected. Walter advised against it, arguing if I got a bad review the territory could not be sold and I’d be dead again. I bought Walter a drink and accepted the Italian invitation. The last day of the market we sold Australia and left Cannes with sales to twelve territories and very positive reviews in the trades. I realized that like the stock market the film business ran on volatility and paranoia. Didn’t matter. We’d done well and once again, life with American Blue Note had become a dream.
I learned that a single midnight showing in a small theater in Chicago or a one-day screening at a multiplex outside of Minneapolis could be construed as a theatrical opening. I threatened a lawsuit and got my film back.
My luck continued to reverse when Walter Manley died. A Swedish company for foreign sales picked up American Blue Note in 1996 but the company went belly-up and sold their library, with my contract, to another distributor. Nobody told me. This second distributor met the same fate and sold their library and my contract to Lionsgate. I didn’t know that either, until I got a letter welcoming me to the Lionsgate family. I called to find out when my adoption took place, how long I should expect to be a family member and what the fate of my film would be? Lionsgate informed me that they bought the library containing my film in 2008, owned the rights until 2014 and had no plans to reissue it. Having never signed anything to 2014 I exchanged emails and phone calls with Lionsgate’s legal department and was eventually informed “after additional investigation,” that my contract had expired in 2009. Once again, I was the owner of my own film.
A month later, in 2011, a large box arrived from Lionsgate containing “deliverables” (materials needed by a distributor to make prints, videos, trailers, etc.). Inside were a few one-inch video masters from 1992 and some old 3/4-inch video cassettes that had deteriorated beyond use. What was missing was the original 35mm negative of the director’s cut of the film and the film’s soundtracks. Thinking it was an oversight, I called Lionsgate, but they insisted they’d never received it. I called WRS, the film lab in Pittsburgh where my original negative had been stored only to find out they had shut down several years earlier. Now, I was panicking.
In an old Filofax from the days before smartphones, I found a twenty-year-old phone number of the New York rep for the now deceased WRS. I dialed and amazingly he answered but the news wasn’t good. Just before the lab closed they had sent notices to distributors with materials stored on premise to pick up everything within thirty days or it would be discarded. My film, stuck somewhere in a distribution no man’s land, had not been claimed. The original negative was now buried in a Pennsylvania landfill. All that was left of American Blue Note was a VHS cassette and a laser disc, reformatted for small TV screens with four minutes removed from my original cut. I resigned myself to the fact that my movie would never again be seen in the picture quality, wide screen format and length that I had intended. The dream was over. I gave up.
A year later I was asked to exhibit some photos I’d shot as a reportage photographer in Europe early in my career. Searching through my library of prints in a storage locker, I noticed two film cans, totally forgotten, hidden in the back. Inside, was a 35mm print ofAmerican Blue Note which I used for the festival circuit devoid of any distributor’s involvement. It was the lone remaining print of my film and it seemed to be in decent—though not perfect—shape. I had a choice: to do an expensive restoration and conversion to a theater quality digital file or to do nothing, letting the print image slowly fade away. I knew instantly that nothing was not an option.
Now, with a wide screen, 35mm quality, original cut of my film available once again, I started making the rounds to distributors. The response was invariably the same: we like the film but we don’t know how to market it. It’s old, it’s not a cult film, and DVD sales aren’t what they used to be. It was suggested I take my film to an aggregator, a term I’d never even heard before. But the aggregators, who pool together available films and offer them to DVD distributors like Amazon and Netflix, were not responsive.
I was tired and again. Discouraged. I tried to be satisfied with knowing that I had saved my movie from oblivion and could always screen it in my living room.
And then, the lights went on in the tunnel. A friend and documentary filmmaker suggested I get in contact with the people from the Reframe Collection at the Tribeca Film Institute. The mandate of the program was to digitize, market and sell films, videos and media arts using the Internet. I made contact and three days later, received an e-mail stating my film was a perfect fit for the Reframe program. I completed the attached paper work, sent over all the materials requested and was informed that Reframe would now handle the art, the jacket and the production of the DVD.
Finally, more than twenty years after its first release, American Blue Note is available in its original format, quality and length both as a packaged DVD and for streaming in HD through Amazon Instant Video. Thanks to the wonderful professionals at Reframe and the Tribeca Film Institute, American Blue Note has made the journey back from oblivion.
The resurrection of my film has not only rectified past setbacks, its also breathed new life into my next feature project. For the last three years I’ve been developing a production package for a script called Nothing Personal, based loosely on my early career as a reportage photographer working in Europe and my subsequent return to the States. But the recession took its toll on art as well as life, and the money which had been raised vanished. I put Nothing Personal on the back burner until I could figure out the next step.
Now, with American Blue Note back in the spotlight, opportunities are re-appearing to develop Nothing Personal. I’ve signed a deal with an agent to re-circulate American Blue Note and at the same time, raise financing for my next. Of course, as a long-time professional in the industry, I’ve learned to regard all of it with cautious optimism. Yes, the chance of failure is high, but people do succeed—or there would be no films. And even with the decline of art house theaters and studios absorbing small independent distributors, online distribution has presented a new world order where independent films can still find a substantial audience.
As an adjunct professor of Film Directing and Production at School of Visual Arts I’m always lecturing my students about the importance of understanding the industry they plan on making their life’s work. Everything they hear and read tells them it is difficult to impossible to make movies and luck plays just as important a roll as talent. I agree it’s true, and advise them to make peace with it or get out now. Worry is an enormous energy drainer and you need all your energy to persevere. Develop stories, write scripts, collect ideas. It’s the cheapest and only thing you can do on your own. Then, when you do get lucky you’ll have something to be lucky about. It’s happened to me more than once—and I’m hoping it will happen again.
To rent or buy American Blue Note, go to the Reframe Collection.
[Photos: Director Ralph Toporoff; stills from American Blue Note]