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'Strongman' Director on Making Sure His 2009 Slamdance Winner Wasn't a 'Disposable Art Film' and Taking It to the iTunes Top 10

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire November 7, 2013 at 10:56AM

Zachary Levy brought his film "Strongman" to the 2009 Slamdance Film Festival, where it ended up taking home the award for Best Documentary. From there, it had screenings at high profile fests like Hot Docs and SXSW, but never got a traditional distribution deal -- so Levy took it upon himself to get the film screened all over the country, at festivals and special one-off events.
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Zachary Levy brought his film "Strongman" to the 2009 Slamdance Film Festival, where it ended up taking home the award for Best Documentary.  From there, it had screenings at high profile fests like Hot Docs and SXSW, but never got a traditional distribution deal -- so Levy took it upon himself to get the film screened all over the country, at festivals and special one-off events.  

"Strongman" tells the story of Stanless Steel, one of the only men in history who can bend a penny with his hands.  Shot cinema verite-style, the film follows Stan as he juggles his strongman show, his love, his spirituality, and the family around him.

Four years later, "Strongman" is available via DVD and VOD through a distribution deal with The Orchard.  After years without a conventional release, Levy's digital release put him on the Sports and Documentary Top 10 charts on iTunes. Indiewire caught up with Levy to find out what led him to finally release the film, and what his experience so far has been.

So you've spent over four years taking this film all over.  What has made you stick with it for so long?

I think a lot of it is my feelings about the film.  It was doing something and saying something that was important to me -- trusting that it would be to other people as well. I wanted to make sure the film had a shot to be seen and to be appreciated that it deserved.  Once you spend so much time on something and you care about it, it doesn't quite seem fair to your own efforts to say I'm putting it on my shelf someplace.

On the other side of it, too, was the way people were responding to the film. Every time I showed it, I could tell people responded to it on a level that was meaningful for them.  A year later, I'd play the film some place and some of those same people would come back.  That's unusual.  This is a time period when films are more disposable, not less.

When there are so many films being made and released, to know you have something that people want to see again and again is special.  People wanted to gain new understandings of their own life when they see it again and again.  That's not something that there is a model for. With the festival circuit, you're there for a year.  After awhile, other festivals don't want to take it.  Eight months is considered old even though for most of those festivals' audiences, it would be new.  It may not be new to festival programmers, but you can't say that you had the premiere of it.  

So how did you manage to garner excitement for the film throughout those four years?  It seems like it would rely on you to really keep up the momentum.

There are plenty of films whose initial release was not 1000 theaters at once.  I kept on pushing and I did find places to play it.  As a result, that's why the film has lasted.  I saw someone on iTunes had put a comment the other day that they had seen the film at Slamdance, then they were watching it at iTunes.  It didn't seem that the person had seen the film in the intervening years.  If I had the choice that everyone embraced the film in theaters at once or what I did, it would be less work if it all happened at once.  Just for my life, it'd be much easier to just do that.  I think it did help in terms of the film standing out.  

Zachary Levy

I had an opportunity to see that venues would program it and they weren't playing it based on them thinking it was a quality film.  It wasn't based on the cocktail circuit, it was based on programmers/people who responded to the film.  In a lot of these cities, it was people who were very educated about film, but they weren't necessarily connected to the echo chamber of the indie world in a certain sense.  They were removed from New York and LA.  It was achieving a certain parity of appeal.  People who were really responding to it as a film first.  That really helped it to stay alive.

And so why was it important of you to do this yourself -- if you weren't going to get a traditional release?

As much as I became a full-time distributor in some ways, it wasn't what I wanted to do with my life.  Some of it's just the annoying stuff that's about a theater getting a print, tracking down where it got lost when they don't get it.  If it's playing in Bloomington, Indiana, who are the press people in Bloomington, Indiana?  How do you tell people in Bloomington about this film that they don't really know about?  

I'd love to believe it's super permanent.  You don't really know.  I'm ready and I also trust that it's now something that can survive. I was trying to get it to the point where it could live without me.  We don't know the great works of art we don't know.  All these things are sand on the beach.  

Did you get the exposure you wanted out of the festival circuit?

Part of the reason why it was so unknown on the industry side, even though it was celebrated by filmmakers -- I had strange luck of the draw for festival events.  When I premiered at Slamdance, I premiered on Inauguration day.  When I was at SXSW, it played Friday at 6pm or 7pm, just as people were coming to town, and then it played on Wednesday [after everyone had left].  A lot of industry didn't see it. That might have also been a contributing factor for the path that ended up happening to it -- it was less industry passing it along to industry.

What have you learned about the film taking it to audiences yourself?

It wasn't just art film folks that were pushing the film.... Some of the best runs I had were in multiplexes where the audiences weren't looking for "art" per se, but entertainment.  I remember one run in Columbus, OH where the film was playing next to "Alice in Wonderland" in 3D and "Shutter Island," and while the numbers didn't compare, the response of people leaving the theater absolutely did.

I think that was the moment when I realized that the film had potentially a broad appeal -- that it could appeal to both art filmmakers on its filmmaking chops and also regular mainstream movie goers who are enjoying a story about people that they could relate to in a very human way.  So I guess that was part of my faith too that if it got in front of people on a platform like iTunes that it could do well.

Part of that I'd guess you could say is the blue collar appeal of the film... last week at the release screening, an acquaintance of Stan from his scrap job, a rough around the edges world, came up to me and gave me a big hug, saying that he thought it was just going to be about strength, but instead found it a really moving love story.

So after many years with the film, why release the film now?

I was ready and felt like it had built up enough support and demand from various places that it could survive on its own.  And I guess too, I was getting tired of answering emails from people about where they could see it!

And what is your experience now with releasing the film out into the world digitally?

I have much less connection to the people seeing it.  At the end, I wasn't going to every single theatrical showing.  At a certain point, I would be cautious about going.  I wasn't going to California to lose money.  I had periodic contact with the audience. When I released to iTunes, I was a little bit surprised by the numbers.  It was up in the top five documentaries and sports films.  I knew that it is a film that people wanted to see.  I get regular emails with people asking if they could see the film.  I knew that there was a built-up demand for the film.  

If people like the trailer, then they'll like the film.  if they take the time with it, they'll get it.  It didn't surprise me, the response on digital.  In one sense, it did too.  This was a film that was never on the charts.  So that's nice.  It has exposed it to a new audience.  

And what made you go with The Orchard?

I had talked to a number of different companies, but The Orchard made a real commitment to put elbow grease into the marketing side.  That was really important to me.  I just didn't want to sort of dump the film out there online, the way it happens with a lot of films. I felt in some ways it should be like dealing with a new release, in sense that you have a film that people had been hearing buzz about, but didn't really know or hadn't had a chance to see  yet.  It seemed like it was an opportunity to make the digital release really special and stand out.


This article is related to: Strongman, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Filmmaker Toolkit: Distribution, Filmmaker Toolkit: Exhibition, ITunes