Two years ago at SXSW, a pair of new entities emerged, both with Austin ties. Burnt Orange Productions, the University of Texas Film Institute's new for-profit production company has become an active entity locally, while the vertically-integrated companies owned by Texas billionaires Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner are poised to figure significantly in the specialty and independent business. Both were in the spotlight again here at SXSW this week, along with a number of other companies, people and films.
Wagner/Cuban Companies In Focus
Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban's group of companies were spotlighted during a panel over the weekend at SXSW. The "vertically-integrated" company, collectively now known as Wagner/Cuban Companies, the entity includes all three aspects of the film business: production, distribution and exhibtion, including 2929 Productions (which produced "Good Night and Good Luck"), HDNet Films (which produced "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and "Bubble"), while on the distribution side, they bought Magnolia Pictures, Magnolia Entertainment, their new DVD label (Magnolia Home Entertainment) launched last year, under the Magnolia Pictures unit, and Cuban & Wagner also own Landmark Theaters, America's largest art-house cinema chain with more than 200 screens.
The discussion included from various topics, including Landmark's recent venture enabling filmmakers lacking a distributor to invest in a theatrical release of through Truly Indie. "Part of what I want to do is listen to filmmakers and open up the system. If you believe in your project, [you won't be shut out]."
On the minds of industry-insiders though, was Wagner/Cuban's plan to greatly narrow or completely collapse the established industry practice to releasing a title theatrically and later via home entertainment. Wagner likened the current system to playing blackjack over time in a Las Vegas casino. "If we play by the rules of the house -- in this case "the house" are the studios -- then the house will always win. So, we have to play by different rules," Wagner said.
Wagner/Cuban's idea is to allow films to be released simultaneously through the various modes of distribution, hopefully providing greater profits by minimizing marketing costs and reaching a wider audience. The plan, executed recently with "Bubble", has faced tremendous opposition among Hollywood studio executivesm as well as some vocal opponents in the independent film community who fear the end of the wide window between theatrical and DVD releases will ultimately wound or even doom the theatrical distribution business. "Bubble" made a minor mark at the box office, but Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles said that it shipped more than 100,000 DVD units, with few returns.
"We want people to go to the movies," Wagner said at the session. "But the reality is that this is a digital world and we have to adapt to that reality."
A wave of excitement rippled through Austin's Paramount Theater Sunday night as writer/producer Bryan Poyser and director Jake Vaughan -- the duo behind the recent "Dear Pillow" -- unveiled their new feature film, "The Cassidy Kids." The movie is the second feature from Burnt Orange and stars Kadeem Hardison, Anne Ramsay, and Judah Friedlander and is described as "an offbeat mystery about five kids who solve a murder, the moronic children's TV show made about them, and the dark secret that tears them apart 25 years later." Made almost entirely by UT alumni and students, the project is truly homegrown and Sunday night at the crowded Paramount, friends and colleagues cheered enthusiastically as Vaughan and Poyser presented the film for the first time.
"I couldn't believe that the wanted me for this guy," explained actor Kadeem Hardison, "Because he is a complex kind of character (and) I always get to be the funny guy." Recalling the moment when he received the script for the movie, he added, "I pretty much was siging on because the students get to work on a real film," he explained, "But, then I read the script -- I thought it was a great character and a wonderful opportunity to do something I've really wantedd to, which is drama."
"I am so in love with Austin," Hardison enthused, "I am not a big Texas fan, but I am so in love...in a complete love affiar with Austin."
The evening was an emotional one for writer/producer Poyser, who wrote on indieWIRE's SXSW Blog this week, "During the tech check for 'The Cassidy Kids', I wept. Seriously. Standing on the upper balcony of the Paramount Theater, home to so much of my film education here in Austin through the Summer Film Classics series, seeing and hearing this movie we've been slaving over for months in a tiny, windowless cramped editing room suddenly alive on an enormous screen - words couldn't describe it, so tears did." He added that he cried again early on in the film when a scene elicited a reaction from the crowd and once more at the end of the night, relieved to have made it through the experience.
The Buying Tips
The state of theatrical acquisitions was in the spotlight this week at the SXSW Film Conference, featuring execs from film companies including Magnolia Pictures, IFC Films, THINKFilm, Wellspring, and Roadside Attractions. The topic is a popular one among aspiring and established filmmakers at various festivals, and certainly a focus of the discussion was the mechanics of finding a buyer.
"A way to approach [a buyer] is like dating someone," said Magnolia's Tom Quinn. "Know the person you're approaching." The group seemed to agree that blindly sending DVDs is not worth anyone's time and effort, but various members of the panel had various opinions about how they prefer or are willing to view work. Dustin Smith from Roadside Attractions promoted industry screenings in Los Angeles as an effective way to get to distributors, saying that people do in fact show up for them, while Quinn said DVD is ultimately not a bad method. "I know everybody is a big fan of the audience reaction, but if the audience doesn't like it, then I'll remember that."
IFC Films' Elizabeth Nastro relayed a common theme discussed in acquisition panels far and wide -- yet an integral piece of information that is surprisingly far from common knowledge -- be familiar with a company and the films it has distributed. Meanwhile, Wellspring's Marie Therese Guirgis also relayed practical insight with regard to publicists. She recalled the story of Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation," which played Sundance two years back. The film, which screened in the festival's Frontier section might have been passed over by buyers busy with competition films at the active festival, but she credited L.A. based publicist Mickey Cottrell with getting buyers and press to give the film attention. Although she acknowledged that unless a filmmaker, with little money, can convince a publicist to do it inexpensively -- with the promise of greater pay later -- it may prove impractical.
A Camp Film
A favorite SXSW doc this year is the world premiere of Bradley Beseley and Sarah Price's "Summercamp!" The film follows a group of children and pre-teens othrough their stay at a Wisconsin summer camp -- complete with the honest portrayal of the kids and their idiosyncrasies from homesickness to dealing with a lost parent.
"Bradley heard about a summer camp on NPR where girls stayed on one side of the lake and the boys on the other," said Price about the origins of the project. "But [a little while] before [shooting] they decided they didn't want a doc crew running around, but they gave the name of this other one in
Wisconsin." Beesley said that he had also contacted the summer retreat he had attended as a child for several years, which he described as a "Jesus camp," but they too had declined their offers. The film is a tender and often hilarious return to early youth.
The Life of Reilly
A sizeable crowd showed up at the convention center in Austin for the world premiere screening of directors Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson's "The Life of Reilly," a doc about the final stage performance of flamboyant actor Charles Nelson Reilly's show about the story of his life. A program he has performed over 400 times in five years.
The running joke at various stages of the performance -- which Reilly recounts his difficult days growing up through his career as an actor, director, and game show guest -- is that he is already dead. The performer recounts a dark moment of laughter at a grocery store when a woman recognized him as 'that actor with three names' and said she throught he was no longer alive...
"We heard about his live stage performance and the amazing reviews it had received," recounted Poltermann after the screening. The directing team then recalled how they went to Reilly's Beverly Hills home for an initial meeting thinking they would be there for a half-hour and ended up visiting with him for much longer.
"We were at his house for six hours and kept having Manhattans," the filmmaker said. Unfortunately, Reilly was not able to travel to Austin himself because of ill health. When Poltermann told the crowd that doctors wouldn't let Reilly travel, an audible sigh could be heard from the appreciative audience.