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Toolkit Case Study: Director/Writer Kyle Alvarez & the Road to Making “Easier With Practice”

Toolkit Case Study: Director/Writer Kyle Alvarez & the Road to Making "Easier With Practice"

After a solid international festival run that included screenings in Edinburgh, Ireland, Montreal, Mumbai, Thessaloniki, Estonia, Kyle Alvarez’s “Easier With Practice,” was released domestically on DVD and VOD in late April 2010 shortly after Alvarez nabbed the Someone to Watch Award at the 2009 Film Independent Spirit Awards. Although his film found its way to audiences and received notices in the LA Weekly and The New York Times, the film’s journey was not a clear cut one as Alvarez revealed in a Case Study of his film last weekend at the Film Independent Filmmaker Forum.

Participants at the Filmmaker Forum were given printed material with details on the road to distribution with details from the filmmakers. A group of participants in the case studies agreed to share portions of their experiences with their projects with indieWIRE, including “Easier With Practice.” More will be published on iW in the coming days.

“Easier with Practice” follows Davy Mitchell – a writer in crisis – and the unique relationship he develops with a woman through long-distance phone calls. Alvarez was inspired to write the script after he stumbled upon a GQ article by Davy Rothbart entitled, “What Are You Wearing?” He was determined to option the material and turn the story into a feature film.

The following profile of “Easier With Practice,” reformatted for publication on indieWIRE‘s Filmmaker Toolkit, is one of the filmmaking case studies featured in the case study book handed out to participants of this week’s Film Independent Filmmaker Forum in Los Angeles.

Dramatic Feature
Writer/Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Producer: Cookie Carosella
Financing: Private Equity
Production: 20 days/New Mexico/April 2008
Shooting Format: RED Camera
Screening Format: HD Cam; Blu Ray; DigiBeta
World Premiere: 2009 CineVegas International Film Festival
Awards: CineVegas International Film Festival – Grand Jury Award; Edinburgh International Film Festival – Best New International Feature; Spirit Awards – Winner, Someone to Watch Award/Nominated, Best First Feature; Memphis Indie Film Festival – Special Jury Prize

Case Study for “Easier With Practice,” with information provided by the filmmakers and courtesy of Film Independent

Development and Financing

Without an agent or lawyer of his own, Alvarez had a friend make a call to Rothbart’s agent on his behalf. Soon after, he was on the phone with Rothbart pitching his angle on the script, and almost immediately, they were in agreement and started negotiations.

Unfortunately, Rothbart’s agent was in no rush to move the option along. For about five months, Alvarez worked the script while waiting for the deal to close. Eventually, he optioned the article for [a given amount] for the first year (all of his savings at that point), and later, a second year for [an additional amount].

Alvarez finished the first draft in April of 2007. He aggressively pursued several agencies in town through his personal contacts, and while he received mostly positive coverage, he couldn’t get a meeting. In hindsight, Alvarez wishes that he’d submitted “Easier With Practice” to screenplay competitions too.

After taking Film Independent’s business plan workshop with Stu Pollard, Alvarez created a business plan that he used in pitches with potential financiers. He gradually assembled a collective of investors all negotiated to receive their return on investment plus a standard (15-20%) premium. After they recoup, profits are then divided 50:50 between investors and filmmaker. Alvarez didn’t mislead investors; he told them that it was a high-risk investment and they shouldn’t go in if the only reason was to make money.

As investors came on board and money started to trickle in, he brought producer Cookie Carosella on board and got line producer Chris Stinson to draw up a detailed budget. Kyle had drawn up two budgets for investors: one [higher], and one for much less. He just showed investors the top sheet, but he had the detailed budget available if they asked to see it.

By February 2008, the filmmakers had raised their budget and were ready to go into production. “Easier with Practice” started filming in April of 2008 as one of the first independent features shot on the RED. It was a union production lasting 20 days (four 5-day weeks), the majority of which were shot in a motel in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They rented out extra rooms to use as production offices and dressing rooms for his actors (in lieu of trailers). They leveraged the state’s generous tax incentives, which netted them 25% in rebates.

Festival Preparation and Strategy

After production wrapped, Alvarez started post in Los Angeles, cutting the film on his 4-year old laptop in his bedroom; the film had a lot of long takes, so editing took a relatively short two months, and was complete in May. Kyle pulled in a lot of favors to keep his other post costs down. Post-production sound was completed at Universal Studios.

The aim was Sundance, but in the end, they weren’t selected. However, the filmmakers were able to apply the New Mexico tax incentive monies they received towards additional festival submissions and future travel costs.

Though the Sundance rejection was crushing, Alvarez was later approached by Sundance programmers Trevor Groth and Mike Plante who also programmed the CineVegas Film Festival. They had both seen the film during the Sundance submissions process, and offered “Easier with Practice” a premiere slot in the CineVegas 2009 festival, and Alvarez gladly accepted.

Sales agent David Garber joined Alvarez’s team prior to the CineVegas premiere for a percentage of sales and no up front fee. He recommended publicist Mickey Cottrell who joined Garber, Alvarez and Carosella at CineVegas for a fee in the mid-four figures. Garber stayed on board for AFI Fest, Woodstock, Edinburgh, and a number of other festivals.

CineVegas ended up being a prime launching pad for the film, and when “Easier with Practice” won the Grand Jury Prize, they received the press they had been looking for.

Sale and Release

Despite the film’s festival popularity, the buyers weren’t biting. Some low-ball offers came in from reputable distributors but they were not enough, e.g. worldwide rights, but no guarantee of a DVD release for low-five figures. Kyle felt that “Easier With Practice” could have a better life than that. He spent the rest of 2009 trying to get decision makers at high-profile indie distributors (Magnolia, Oscilloscope) to see his film, but no one was biting.

But in the fall of 2009 Kyle sold international rights to Shoreline, who would take the film to AFM to sell. A few weeks later, around the time of the AFI Fest, Alvarez accepted an offer from a new company called Breaking Glass Pictures (started by two former executives from TLA releasing) for the DVD rights. In addition, Garber sold VOD rights to Warner Brothers.

In Dec 2009 “Easier with Practice” was nominated for two Film Independent Spirit Awards (Best First Feature and the Someone to Watch Award), and Kyle was convinced they needed a theatrical release to build on this. He four-walled the film simultaneously in Los Angeles and New York in late February 2010. The Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles was chosen for its prime location and marquee exposure (right on Sunset and Crescent Heights), and in the end, the release got them reviews in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, LA Weekly and more.

With so many Oscar®-nominated films in the theaters, it was a very competitive time to release the film. Kyle believes it was all worth it: “It was about marketing the film, not about box office profits,” he says. “…it brought awareness to the film.” Kyle also ended up winning the “Someone to Watch” award at the Spirit Awards a few weeks later.

After a solid international festival run (including Edinburgh, Ireland, Montreal, Mumbai, Thessaloniki, Estonia), the film was released domestically on DVD in late April 2010 through Breaking Glass Pictures. Garber brokered additional deals with Netflix Watch Instantly, iTunes, VOD on Time Warner cable and a sale to Showtime.

Kyle is expecting more revenue in the coming months from deals that haven’t paid out yet. There are also many more foreign territories still to sell.

Advice from the Filmmaker

“If I made this movie today, the cost would be much less,” says Kyle. “…I financed it at a time when people had money to lose.” While he urges filmmakers to be reasonable with their money, he also encourages them to be sure they’re making the movie they set out to accomplish.

“Know where that line is of where it becomes the movie you didn’t want to make, and don’t go beneath that line,” he says. “It’s better to make the film that represents you than to compromise because of a budget or by getting an actor you don’t believe in.”

“Don’t focus on the profits or on making the most sellable film,” he adds. “Make a film that will be the calling card for the filmmaker you want to be.”

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