By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire September 26, 2013 at 12:19PM
"Good Ol' Freda" is an intimate portrait of an unassuming British secretary, Freda Kelly. By all accounts, in recent years, she has led a rather humdrum life. So how did this small documentary about a secretary go on to become a SWSW hit and get picked up by Magnolia Pictures for theatrical and digital release? That's easy to explain: Kelly wasn't just any secretary. She was The Beatles longtime secretary, telling her story in "Good Ol' Freda" for the first time in 50 years.
After being released on September 6, the doc has grossed $51,442 in domestic box office – after opening in one theater, it went wide to 11 theaters around the country. It's the #22 Top Independent film in the iTunes store where, because of its built-in appeal and fan base, it should have a long shelf life.
We recently interviewed the film's director Ryan White ("Pelada") about how he got involved with the project, what he expected from the film -- and how it exceeded his expectations. Of course, most filmmakers don't have a hook like Beatles music to count on, but White's story serves as a reminder that sometimes passion projects can attract attention because of a built-in hook. It's also a good example of how a film with this sort of built-in audience can fare well on VOD.
What prompted you to make a film about Freda?
I've known Freda my whole life, but I did not know she was the Beatles secretary. Freda was just my aunt's friend. She's reached this age and point in her life where she thought she might want to tell her story. When I began the film project, I thought it was more about doing Freda a favor. I thought I was going to go over to Liverpool and record some stories for her and print a DVD that she could give to her family members some day. The expectations of the film were really low.
When did you start to realize this was not just going to be a home movie?
I began doing more research and I was blown away by her stories and her storytelling ability and then I started to learn all of the facts – she was one of the very few survivors from the inner circle. Then I thought maybe we should do an actual film and not just a family DVD. Freda didn't really want to make a movie. She wanted to make a family DVD. She didn't want the attention or the recognition. Expectations from both of us were pretty low. Even going into film festivals, I didn't know what to expect.
How did you manage to get the rights to the Beatles music? That’s almost unheard of.
It took about two years from the time we first started the process of trying to get Beatles music until we got final approval. Everyone told us it would be impossible, but we decided it was stupid to throw in the towel without even trying. It's a total testament to Freda I think that we pulled it off, there's a lot of respect for her in those circles that still exist. But the process took lots of meetings, phone calls, submitting scripts, and showing the film. And we're very grateful in the end that everyone saw the value in getting behind our film. Shocked still, but extremely grateful.
Did having the Beatles music rights help the film get attention?
After we pulled off Beatles movie, that's when the film started getting a lot of attention. The market determined what happened with it. Freda didn't care. She was making the film for her daughter and her grandson. She didn't care if we made money. I knew it was about the Beatles, but it was also about a secretary. The market determined the distribution path. When Josh Braun with Submarine saw it, he said it was really good and really marketable. He’s the best documentary sales agent and when he said he wanted to sell it, then I started to entertain the option that maybe more than a few people will see it. It blows Freda’s mind that anyone is interested in it. I guess I drank Freda’s Kool-Aid and began to think that maybe people wouldn’t care about this story, but I think we’ve been proven wrong.
The film was released "day and date" so it was available on VOD at the same time as theatrical. Were you hoping for a theatrical release?
I think any filmmaker wants a theatrical release, but I didn't expect that for this film, so I was pleased when we started getting theatrical offers. I am a huge fan of Magnolia and I knew they were good with music docs and day and date releases. The idea they were going to release it theatrically was thrilling for me. I was hoping for maybe New York and Los Angeles. It's gotten a much wider release than I was hoping for.
Were you afraid that having the film available on VOD would cut into box office numbers?
I don't think any of us were hoping for a huge theatrical box office. I never really thought that would happen with our film – it was less about box office than about allowing as many people to see the film as possible in as many ways of possible. It's a film for the fans. I didn't want it to just be available to people in the big cities. A lot of Beatles fans have been waiting 40 years for Freda's story. We wanted it to be democratic with people able to be seeing it right away.
Check out a trailer for the film below: