Film Independent hosted last month’s Filmmaker Forum at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles, an annual event spotlighting the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. As part of the weekend program, FIND published case studies of various projects, giving an insiders view on what worked or didn’t quite so. “Terri” is the first in five Indiewire will publish this week, taking a look at what decisions the filmmakers took to bring their project from the idea stage to screen. IW thanks the filmmakers and FIND for sharing their insight with Indiewire readers.
Azazel Jacobs’ “Terri”, a comedy about an overweight teen and his relationship with his high school’s vice principal, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January before receiving a limited release this past July. The film grossed more than $650,000 at the box office and was released on DVD this past October. In this case study, learn how Jacobs and his team financed and produced “Terri.”
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Writers: Patrick DeWitt, Azazel Jacobs (Story)
Producers: Alison Dickey, Alex Orlovsky, Lynette Howell, Hunter Gray
Budget: Under $2 million
Financing: Private Equity, Pre-Sale, Tax Credit
Shooting Format: 35mm
Screening Format: 35mm
World Premiere: Sundance 2011
Development & Financing
Novelist Patrick DeWitt (“Ablutions,” “The Sisters Brothers”) was working on a new idea and he handed the manuscript for it to his friend Azazel Jacobs. Jacobs couldn’t get one of the characters, Terri, out of his mind and suggested to DeWitt that they develop one of the stories into a screenplay with Terri, as the protagonist. Jacobs pitched the story of “Terri” to a producer friend, David Guy Levy, who liked the idea and put in a small amount as development money. Jacobs then enlisted the help of producer Alison Dickey to help them develop the story into a screenplay. They had long wanted to work with each other and this project was a good fit. He also thought there was a great role in the movie for her husband, the actor John C. Reilly, but understood they would have to cross that bridge when they came to it. They began to push forward developing the screenplay (DeWitt was living in Oregon at this point, Jacobs was in Los Angeles).
About four months later they had a first draft ready and Jacobs and Dickey decided to send it to producer Alex Orlovsky with whom Jacobs had worked previously on “Momma’s Man.” A table reading was arranged in November 2009, which Orlovsky flew out for, officially becoming part of the project. By this time John C. Reilly was interested enough in “Terri” to commit to the table reading.
Many of Jacobs’ actor friends read for the (much younger) parts of the high school teenagers. The reading and the lively discussion afterwards were a great success, encouraging everyone to move forward, and galvanized John C. Reilly’s interest in the project.
Soon after the reading, Alex Orlovsky reached out to producer Lynette Howell, whom Azazel had recently met at the Sundance Labs where they were both advisors, Howell (who had just worked with Orlovsky on “Blue Valentine”) came on board, and soon after, Hunter Gray and Tyler Brodie (producers on “Momma’s Man”) joined the project too. By now Terri had picked up momentum, and within a short space of time, the financing fell into place, aided by John C. Reilly’s firm commitment to the project.
Sarah Lash had been aware of Jacobs when she was at Cinetic selling “Momma’s Man,” and she brought “Terri” to the attention of her colleagues at ATO Pictures. The company came on board and bought the U.S. rights. Orlovsky and Gray also brought private equity investors to the table; the balance of the budget was made up from rebates from the California tax credit—worth $200K.
“Terri” shot for 23 days in June 2010, on location in Altadena and San Gabriel, California. It was a union shoot, but as Jacobs had surrounded himself with a small, core group of regular collaborators, he felt completely at ease. It was the first time Jacobs had shot a film out of order, but this wasn’t a huge issue for him thanks to his “invaluable” script supervisor and the fact that they scheduled the shoot so that certain sections could flow with a natural progression.
“Terri” editor Darrin Navarro had been assembling the footage during the shoot, so once the film wrapped in July, it was only a matter of weeks before he had his first, albeit it very long – over four hours – rough assembly of the film to show Jacobs and also a shorter version to show the bonds company that everything had been shot. They continued to work cutting the film down, with the Sundance deadline of early September looming fast. The filmmakers got a short extension from Sundance, and submitted a rough cut (with incomplete sound). Sundance accepted the film, and Jacobs and his team worked quickly to finish sound, just in time for the film’s debut in Park City.
Festival Preparation and Strategy
In preparation for Sundance, the producers brought on publicist Susan Norget to handle publicity—she’d previously repped “Momma’s Man” for Jacobs. As ATO Pictures already owned the North American rights, the filmmakers didn’t need a producer’s rep at Sundance, but once there, they would begin the search for a foreign sales agent.
“Terri” was playing in the U.S. Narrative Competition section, so there was plenty of attention on the film, and the added element of John C. Reilly (who was unable to attend Sundance due to filming commitments) guaranteed that “Terri” would not be a title that got lost. Norget arranged many interviews for Azazel Jacobs and his young star Jacob Wysocki, but the publicist was keenly aware not to hype the film too much, which can lead to disappointment among critics and buyers.
During the festival, the filmmakers were approached by Coach 14; the foreign sales company was so keen to acquire the film that they paid an advance (undisclosed) to rep foreign territories.
Following Sundance, ATO Pictures and the filmmakers planned the domestic release. ATO wanted “Terri” to open in the summer as counter-programming against the summer blockbusters; they used the interim period to slowly build buzz as they selectively rolled the film out on the festival circuit, including Nashville, Florida, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle.
“Terri” opened on July 1, 2011 in six theaters in NY and LA with a per-screen average of $16,649. Susan Norget handled publicity for the release. It expanded over the next few weeks, playing 36 theaters by the end of the month. Box office to date is $655,802.
Jacobs has traveled to Europe with “Terri” as it has begun to play European festivals, including Locarno, Deauville, and London. Coach 14 continues to handle foreign sales (France has sold to Pretty Pictures).
“Terri” was released on DVD in the U.S. on October 12, 2011.
Advice from the Director
Try and get paid upfront; don’t expect your share later on. “It’s important that I’m able to make a living…it’s a great thing when you’re able to focus on just making your work, and not think about the other jobs. Luckily, it’s not what I think about at all when I’m making a film. For me, making ‘Terri’ or making ‘Momma’s Man’… that’s the only time that I feel that I have an idea of what I’m doing. I feel very sure about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”