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. “Thunder Soul” is the second 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.
Writer/Director: Mark Landsman
Producers: Keith Calder, Mark Landsman, Jessica Wu
Budget: Under $1 million
Financing: Equity financier
Shooting Format: HD (Sony HDX 900) to DVCPRO
Screening Format: 35mm
World Premiere: 2010 SXSW
Awards: SXSW – Audience Award (Lone Star States); Heartland Film Festival – Crystal Heart Award; Hot Docs – Audience Award; Los Angeles Film Festival – Audience Award; Dallas International Film Festival – Audience Award; Aspen Film Festival – Audience Award; Indie Memphis – Best Documentary Feature; Pan African Film Festival – Best Documentary Feature
“Thunder Soul” follows the extraordinary alumni from Houston’s storied Kashmere High School Stage Band, who return home after 35 years to play a tribute concert for the 92-year-old “Prof,” their beloved band leader who broke the color barrier and transformed the school’s struggling jazz band into a world-class funk powerhouse in the early 1970s.
Development & Financing
In the fall of 2007, Mark Landsman was in his LA office listening to NPR’s All Things Considered, when he was struck by “a wall of incredible funk music.” He was hearing the 1972 Kashmere Stage Band, an all-black high school funk band from Houston that became a national sensation, winning festivals and competitions and producing eight studio albums, all under the tutelage of their extraordinary teacher, Conrad Johnson. Before the radio story had ended, Landsman was searching the internet for Conrad Johnsons in Houston, Texas, and had telephoned the first one he found—who turned out to be the son of the legendary band master.
It took Landsman another week to gather the courage to call the elder Johnson but once he did, the two hit it off right away; Mark paid out of pocket for a plane to Houston immediately afterward, certain there was a cinematic story there. Hoping to gather material for a narrative feature, Landsman arrived to find Johnson’s home filled with his former students, two of whom quickly informed him that a reunion concert was in the works. Suddenly, it seemed very clear that his film should be a documentary, and Landsman set out to gain Johnson’s trust. “Access is the first hurdle that any documentarian has to get over.” He shot a mini-doc during his weeklong visit, cut a short trailer, and within a month he had secured Johnson’s life rights.
Back in LA, Landsman was already scheduled to meet with Snoot Entertainment’s Keith Calder and Jessica Wu, who had been highly recommended to him as producers by friends from AFI. Calder and Wu responded to Landsman’s documentary pitch—and the trailer he’d cut—immediately. He submitted a cursory budget in November of 2007, and Snoot signed on to finance the project in its entirety. “Then everything spun into high gear,” Landsman remembers.
The reunion concert had been planned for the summer of 2008, but with full financing available immediately, Landsman pushed to have the date moved up, attempting to convince Johnson’s foundation that the potential in the documentary was great enough to merit the change. After difficult negotiations, the concert was rescheduled for February of that year.
Landsman’s prior documentary work had all been tightly budgeted with firm ceilings, but for “Thunder Soul,” “we sort of built the bridge as we walked across it,” says Mark. The budget shifted and changed throughout the eight-week filming process, during which Landsman, his single camera, and tiny crew returned repeatedly to Houston. They arrived at one point to find that Johnson had been admitted to the hospital after a heart attack, and were shocked to be granted immediate access to the facility.
The weekend of the concert, Landsman set up junket-style interviews with all the band members in a single hotel, working all through each day and well into the night. Multiple cameras were used to film the concert itself, and local crew added to the roster. Landsman spent the following evening at a dinner to celebrate Johnson; sadly, by the time he’d landed at Burbank the following day, Johnson had passed away. Johnson’s family immediately urged Landsman to return to Texas to capture the memorial service, as well as the dedication of a statue at Kashmere High School the following month. Calder and Wu supported the additional filming without question; once again the story had taken on new proportions.
Festival Preparation and Strategy
“Thunder Soul” was submitted for the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and for Sundance 2010; it was rejected from both, and the team had to recalibrate. But they quickly found an enthusiastic supporter in Janet Pierson at SXSW, and realized just how appropriate the premiere in Austin would be, considering the film’s Texas setting and musical subject.
Preceding SXSW in 2010, Calder reached out to a connection at Concept Arts, a high profile, LA-based film poster design/marketing agency and pitched him on the story. The artist was inspired and created the film’s iconic poster, which paid homage to the classic Verve jazz record covers of the 60s and 70s. Snoot then made another strategic investment, purchasing the ad space on the back of the festival’s program and literally placing the memorable image in the hands of every festivalgoer. Landsman, Calder, and Wu also formed a “guerilla street team,” that spent a night plastering every available surface surrounding the festival with the poster, absolutely inundating potential audiences. “It created this visibility that was really effective,” Landsman recalls of the creative marketing. “This is where producers really show their true colors and really step up.”
Wu and Calder also made the most of publicity opportunities—not only with larger publications, but with the active blogosphere in both the local film and music communities. The Austin Chronicle picked up the premiere story and invited the Kashmere band to headline the festival’s opening party, and ran full page spreads in both the paper’s film and music sections. The movie played to packed houses and tremendous response, and garnered the Audience Award (Lone Star States). The reviews were glowing. “It was everything you would want as a filmmaker from a festival.”
“Thunder Soul” moved on to a very healthy run on the festival circuit (including Dallas, Hot Docs, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Thessaloniki), gathering enthusiastic audiences and seven additional awards along the way.
Despite the film’s promising premiere, Landsman was disappointed when there were “no serious bites” at SXSW. Josh Braun from Submarine signed on to represent the film domestically, with London-based Hanway handling foreign sales, and the team strategized that industry screenings back in LA might net better results. Howard Cohen and Eric D’Arbeloff of Roadside Attractions spotted the film at one such event at the Pacific Theater in Culver City and were immediately moved. They began negotiations with Calder and Braun, but were only interested in an exclusive service deal; intent on finding just the right fit, Landsman, Calder, and Wu decided to hold off, but were met with more passes over the course of a year of industry screenings. Landsman was confused, particularly after the extraordinary festival response. “I think the sad fact is that it was a real indication of the marketplace right now for theatrical docs, which is fairly dismal. But not impossible.”
Throughout the period, however, Roadside Attractions showed consistent interest in the project, demonstrating their commitment, and Landsman and his team eventually realized this might be the right offer after all. It took a year to complete the deal, however, during which the director worried that heat on the film might peter out. But his impatience gave way to confidence in the distributor. “These are people who are taking risks and putting out films that are out of the box of what Hollywood thinks will work, and they’re having success with it.”
Anxious to move forward with the Roadside deal done, “then we made a mistake,” Landsman says. The team decided to qualify the film for an Oscar® in 2010, without realizing that they would need a significant theatrical run to create enough buzz to have a shot at a nomination. They four-walled “Thunder Soul” at one theatre each in New York and LA for a week, keeping the run under the radar to avoid media attention, but discovered that they were easily overshadowed by the buzz of a number of competing high-profile docs that did see theatrical release (and critical attention and acclaim) that year. They sacrificed their chance at an Oscar®, but were nominated for a 2011 Independent Spirit Award.
In the fall of 2010, Jamie Foxx, whose producing partner at the time, Jaime Rucker King, had caught an industry screening, expressed interest in meeting with the team. As a classically-trained musician Foxx identified strongly with the story and fully endorsed its message and soon offered to come aboard. It took months for Snoot, Roadside Attractions and Foxx’s camp to hammer out the arrangements, but Foxx eventually signed on as a presenter and executive producer.
Foxx brought higher visibility to the project, but Snoot had already hired independent strategist Kimber Smith to take a grassroots approach to the film’s marketing. Smith forged partnerships with the National Educational Association, Americans for the Arts, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the United Negro College Fund, among others, and the film has now been positioned as an advocacy tool for arts education lobbying. Roadside Attractions embraced Smith’s contributions, and brought Marshall Mitchell of Different Drummer on to target the faith-based community as well.
Roadside’s full slate made their initial plans for a June 2011 release impossible, but with growing momentum behind it, “Thunder Soul” received a platform release in late September 2011, opening in New York, Houston, Atlanta and Cleveland, and expanding to more than 30 cities in the following weeks. The film was critically acclaimed–garnering Critics Picks from the New York Times and Washington Post–and maintaining a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Ginsburg/Libby and Jackie Bazan-Ross handled publicity in LA and New York, respectively.
Braun is still at work on cable broadcasting rights, and dates for DVD and VOD have yet to be announced, but plans for a narrative feature adaptation are already in the works. Frank Marshall, who saw the film (and the band) at LAFF in 2010, will produce along with Jamie Foxx, Jaime Rucker King, Calder and Wu, and Landsman plans to direct.
Advice from the filmmaker
“Never underestimate the power of grassroots support and the connections you’ve made along the way at every screening and festival–from programmers who might e-blast updates on the film to their large lists to fans who might blast it out across their social networks.
“Don’t be afraid to express your opinion about anything with regards to the marketing and promotion of your movie, even the theaters you’d love to see it in. You’re entitled to that, you just ran the marathon with your film. You’ve lived with it the longest. You’ve thought a lot about how you want to see it represented. I say, even though you might be intimidated by a distributor’s experience, don’t hold back from making your opinions known. For example, we had some discrepancies on what the poster would be. The producers and I stood our ground firmly on the art, and ultimately I’m glad we did, because that’s the poster we went with–the one that we all felt nailed the vibe of our movie. We were vocal about it with the distributors, and adamant we wanted to keep it, and that was a good thing.
The other thing I would say is celebrate your film’s successes and don’t look to box office to represent that. Sure, it’s great if the movie packs houses and makes money in the theaters, but the truth is most don’t, especially indie feature docs. So much is out of your control at that point. It’s really easy to get bummed out if the numbers are low. But that’s when I think about the real reasons why we made the film; how audiences and critics have responded to it; and the long life it will have far beyond the few weeks it’s in theaters. It’s a great moment to finally say, ‘I’ve done everything in my power to make this things fly…and now I’ve got to let go, let it do its thing, and turn to what’s next.'”