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Toolkit Case Study: How Mike Ott’s “Littlerock” Got Noticed and Won a Gotham

Toolkit Case Study: How Mike Ott's "Littlerock" Got Noticed and Won a Gotham

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.”Littlerock”is the fifth of 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.

Mike Ott

Producers: Sierra Leoni, Laura Ragsdale, Frederick Fulton, Henry Thornton
Budget: Approx $40,000
Production: 26 days, June 2009
Financing: Filmmaker, Donations
Shooting Format: HD (Sony EX3 camera)
Screening Format: HD Cam, Blu-ray, DCP
World Premiere: San Francisco International Film Festival

Awards: Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You, 2010 Gotham Awards; Someone to Watch Award, 2011 Film Independent Spirit Awards; Audience Award, 2010 AFI Fest; Grand Jury Prize, 2011 Independent Film Festival of Boston; Audience Award, 2010 Reykjavik International Film Festival (Iceland)

Official Synopsis

When her car breaks down on a sightseeing tour of California, a Japanese student winds up stranded in a small desert town. Exhilarated by a sudden sense of freedom, she extends her stay and finds friendship, romance, and what promises to be a new home.  But as she pulls back the layers on this unlikely paradise, she discovers a different America than the one in her dreams.

Development & Financing

Mike Ott’s first film, “Analog Days,” premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2006 and was well received by both critics and audiences.  Ott participated in many of the filmmaker programs the festival offered, including Kodak Speed Dating, which paired the festival filmmakers with producers, financiers, agents, publicists, and other executives, in short ten-minute meetings. 

At the Kodak Speed Dating sessions, it became apparent to Ott very quickly that none of the people he met were interested in making the type of film that interested him as a filmmaker.  For his next film he wanted to explore themes of language and being a foreigner stuck in small town, so out of frustration he decided to simply go out and make the film himself, using funds he’d saved from his work, along with money donated by the lead actress’s uncle.  Ott had approximately $12K to begin shooting.

Ott had written the screenplay for “Littlerock” with two collaborators, including Atsuko Okatsuka who played one of the leads.  Ott chose Littlerock, CA as the location as it was relatively close to his hometown of Valencia, and locations cost him very little, often as low as $100/day.  The town also had a weird, desolate [David] Lynchian feel to it, perfect for the atmosphere and mood Ott wanted the film to have.  He used the Valencia junior college where he taught to hold casting sessions, casting mostly local (Valencia and Los Angeles-based) actors, including some of the cast from “Analog Days.”  Many of the extras were Littlerock locals. 

The Production

“Littlerock” shot for 26 days in the eponymous California town in June 2009.  It was an ultra low-budget shoot, with a crew of five: Ott, his DP, two sound crew, and one PA.  Everyone worked for free, with the small budget paying for necessary expenses such as food, location fees, and gas money.  After the first day of shooting, Ott made the decision to shoot the film in sequence, aiming to get one scene in the can each day. The cast was encouraged to improvise, as Ott was a great believer in Robert Altman’s attitude that “my favorite parts of my films are all the parts I didn’t come up with.”  Ott would set up the scene and situation and just let things happen organically.  For example, the two party scenes in the movie were shot at real parties; Ott bought kegs of beer, so the actors and extras were often genuinely buzzed (or even drunk) and it gave the finished scenes far more realism than if the actors had tried to “act drunk.”  Sometimes the cast would take it too far, and fights broke out between couples, or extras would have to run to the bathroom suddenly to vomit.  Ott was very happy with the results, but next time he films a party scene he will hire an assistant director to help manage the set and prevent the chaos from getting out of hand.

Festival Preparation and Strategy

Once the film wrapped, Ott returned to Los Angeles to begin editing “Littlerock” in August 2009.  By February 2010 he was close to locking picture and he began to screen the film for friends to get feedback on what did and didn’t work for them. Ott’s stepfather owns a post-production house and through him he was able to get great rates on sound editing and mixing.  While he was completing post on the film, Ott sent a copy of “Littlerock” to Rachel Rosen, Director of Programming at the San Francisco International Film Festival.  Rosen had been one of Ott’s biggest champions, having previously selected “Analog Days” for its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival (when she was programming that fest).

Following San Francisco, Ott applied to many of the large festivals on the circuit.  He also received many invites from festivals worldwide.  Since its debut in San Francisco, “Littlerock” has played over 50 festivals, including Vancouver, Seattle, Dallas, AFI (Los Angeles), Montreal, Warsaw, Vienna, Turin, Cairo, Thessaloniki, Hong Kong, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Iceland, Argentina, and Melbourne.  In total, Ott spent between $1000-$1500 on festival entry fees (mainly in the U.S.), though these are generally waived by festivals that solicit the filmmaker directly. Thanks to the popularity of his film on the festival circuit, Ott has traveled the world in 2010 with “Littlerock,” with very little cost to himself.

The Sale

During its festival run, Ott was regularly approached by “shady characters” claiming to be producers or distributors.  They would hand out their business cards and quote ridiculous numbers, but when Ott checked their websites, often he’d see films listed that he’d never heard of.  Although he was working alone without a sales rep or producer’s rep, he would consult with Rachel Rosen (at SFIFF) for advice, or ask other friends if they knew of these distributors.  Ott was “in no rush…and wanted to wait until [he] met someone whom [he] trusted to give the movie to.”

In October 2010 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, Ott was approached by Dylan Marchetti of New York-based Variance Films.  Marchetti was on the jury that awarded “Littlerock” an award at the festival; to Ott, “he was the first real straight shooter… he said I wasn’t going to get rich from the movie, but it’s important to get it out there… There was something with his honesty that I truly appreciated.”

Ott eventually signed with Variance in January 2011.  Variance’s model bridges the gap between DIY/self-distribution and traditional theatrical, via a type of release they call DIWO—Doing it With Others.  Filmmakers can release their films theatrically without signing away any of their rights, and without the massive fees, P&A budgets, and compromises usually associated with traditional service deals [description taken from Variance Films’ website].

Ott receives no up-front advance, but a generous revenue split of the gross (undisclosed), after Variance recoups its expenses.

In February 2011, Mike Ott won the Someone to Watch Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, which came with an unrestricted cash grant of $25,000.  This sudden cash windfall allowed Ott to finally pay back some debts from “Littlerock,” and to pay for all the music rights for the release. The added attention that he received helped cement his reputation—as a result, he received a $75,000 grant from the San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation to make his next film.  He was able to hire a great casting director for his third feature, which led to securing actor Stephen Tobolowsky in one of the key supporting roles.

The Release

Variance opened “Littlerock” in New York on August 12, 2011 and in LA a week later. The film then expanded to San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, and other markets. Marchetti is confident that “Littlerock” will have a four-month life theatrically. Exhibitors screen from HD cam, DCP or Blu-ray format.  Ott provided Variance with copies of “Littlerock” in these different formats—he used the same post-house where he completed the film.

For the New York release, Ott used the PR services of Donna Daniels to help promote the film locally.  These came free as part of the ‘Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You’ Gotham Award which “Littlerock” won back in December 2010.

For the LA release, Variance recommended publicist Emma Griffiths to Ott.  For a very small fee (less than $2,000) paid for by Ott, Daniels “did an amazing job,” getting the film coverage in the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, a feature write-up in The Huffington Post, and front-page placement in the Los Angeles Daily News.  Ott was also interviewed on KXLU radio station and the film was eventually reviewed by Roger Ebert.

“Littlerock” is still in release, playing beyond the major markets. Box Office gross to date (Sep 21, 2011) is $13,927.

Ott has just sold DVD and VOD rights to Kino.Lorber Films.

In May 2011, Ott shot his third feature, and is currently completing post.

Advice from the Filmmaker

“It’s all about being self-motivated as an artist, figuring out how you can get your film made.  Don’t wait for someone else to do it for you because you could end up waiting for a very long time to make something, maybe even forever.”

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