Sarasota 2008 | Anatomy Of An Opening Night Film: <i>The Deal</i>

by twhalliii
February 29, 2008 4:54 AM
4 Comments
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A lack of blogging? Embarrassingly true, but it has been a crazy few weeks of programming here in Sarasota. We're almost there; Our program locks tomorrow at the close of business and I am really proud of what we've been able to put together. I hope to post more about the festival in the coming weeks, because it has truly been my cinematic obsession for the past four months, but I wanted to take a few moments to respond to some of the feedback I received after today's Press Announcement, which featured our Opening Night, Centerpiece and Closing Night Films, Competitions, our Liv Ullmann/Ingmar Bergman retrospective and sidebars.


I got a call this afternoon from Mike Jones at Variety about the release, and he asked me about his perception of a conflict of interest in our decision to open the festival with Steven Schachter's The Deal. After a pleasant conversation, Mike posted a very fair-minded account of our conversation on his blog, which David Hudson picked up on GreenCine with the comment that "a question or two has been raised about the opening night film, The Deal." I think these ideas deserve a detailed response, and so I wanted to post my thoughts here in an effort to set the record straight.

All the way back in 2006, indieWIRE wrapped up our 8th annual festival with a discussion of SFF Board member Keri Nakamoto's involvement with William H Macy and Steven Schachter on their then-unproduced project The Deal. At that time, I said

"Both (Sarasota FF Executive Director) Jody (Kielbasa) and I recognize there are several ways to grow and improve, including trying to connect artists with investors interested in film projects, and I think we will be setting a precedent for regional festivals in the coming months in terms of new initiatives and film projects finding a home at the festival."

indieWIRE continued:

"One particular project on the horizon is The Deal, a film spearheaded by actor William H. Macy, television director Steven Schachter and Sarasota resident Keri Nakamoto (a Sarasota Film Festival board member) who will produce the film with Macy. He will star in the film and Schachter will direct, the two adapted the screenplay, and Nakamoto told indieWIRE that The Deal, which is a working title, is based on the novel of the same name by Peter Lefcourt...The $8.725 million project will begin principal photography in Budapest in August, with additional filming in Canada and L.A. 'I was turned on to this [story] by a script given to me by Jody [Kielbasa] and partnered with Bill [Macy],' Nakamoto told indieWIRE Thursday. '[We're] hoping to premiere the film at Sarasota next year.'"

I feel as though this decision and this process have been transparent from the get-go and that this screening is happening for all of the right reasons. But perhaps a detailed history would help.

Our festival's relationship with The Deal was set into motion back in 2005, when Macy brought his TNT film The Wool Cap to Sarasota for a special screening (a fund raiser for the festival which did not take place during our festival dates) in advance of the film's network premiere. 2005 marked Macy's fourth visit to Sarasota and as a friend, supporter and advocate for the festival he was very much a familiar face around our community. Soon after this screening, Macy sent Jody Kielbasa a script for The Deal, which Jody was eager to help produce, having been a theatrical producer for years prior to coming to the film festival. Jody contacted Keri Nakamoto, who was setting up her own film production company, and outside of the auspices of the Film Festival, began to work with Macy and Schachter to help raise money among investors for the project.

Before this happened, I sat in a Board of Directors meeting here in Sarasota where this arrangement was discussed in detail, and after a discussion, the Board approved the arrangement, with Jody and Keri both working on the film on their own time and without festival resources.

Then came the 2006 festival, when Macy made his fifth trip to Sarasota with his film Edmond and when the Festival thanked him for his friendship and support by honoring his career at our Tribute Dinner (which is the same time that Brian Brooks attended and wrote the aforementioned indieWIRE article.)

From 2005-07, financing was secured through the Peace Arch Entertainment Group as well as through investors that Keri and Jody brought on board and the film was completed in late 2007. The film had its World Premiere at Sundance in January of 2008, which is where I and my fellow Programmer Holly Herrick saw it for the first time. We bought public tickets for the film's first screening at The Eccles, sat in the balcony, and watched the movie. After the film, Macy and Schachter spoke to the audience:

The next morning, we sat down with Jody and discussed the film. Both Holly and I had gone into the film hoping it would be an Opening Night Film for Sarasota; We knew there was tremendous interest in our community from friends and supporters of Macy and Schachter who have constantly sold out their screenings here and from investors and, frankly, from Jody and Keri, who I know wanted to bring the film back to Sarasota as a source of pride for the community and a symbol of the emergence of investor interest coming out of Sarasota. Add to it our local media, who had been tracking the film for years and needless to say, we understood that interest was very high.

Having seen the film, none of this was an issue for Holly or me. We both thought The Deal would be well received by our audience and it was just the kind of movie with which we like to open the festival; A funny, romantic comedy about the movie business, it is the type of film that sets a positive, upbeat tone for the rest of the festival. In all of the years I have worked for Jody, the greatest compliment I can pay him is that he has always given us autonomy over the film program. I feel honored by our working relationship and very very lucky to have an Executive Director who respects our department's vision and expertise when it comes to the films.

So, in our conversation with Jody there were several factors that were discussed, but the most urgent issue was whether or not we could get the film for Opening Night. Because our festival is primarily held in a multiplex where our largest theater only holds 255 people, we have always held our Opening Night Film at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, which holds 1736 people. Everyone involved felt that the only way we could fit everyone who was interested in seeing the film in to the screening would be to have it as the Opening Night Film. After all of these years of conversation and media coverage, we knew that interest being so high, this slot was the only one that made sense.

A quick note about this: When I spoke to Mike, he seemed to imply that Opening Night was somehow a gratuitous slot. "Maybe a Gala screening or something like that?" he said. I am not sure which film festivals don't have this problem, but the Opening Night Film, while a high profile slot in terms of visibility, is without question the hardest slot to fill in our entire program. I never have the problem of multiple films that we feel are high profile enough to sell-out a 1736 seat auditorium beating down the door to take this slot in our festival. In fact, we usually have to work incredibly hard to find a film that will accept the slot. I have been rejected by just about every film company in America over the course of my career, and a majority of those rejections are companies and films declining our invitation for Opening Night.

Most films with distribution, films that carry recognizable faces or those that carry a tremendous amount of public interest for whatever reason are the films that are often "capped" by their distribution companies or sales agents, meaning they will set a screening and audience size limit so as not to "overexpose" the film (a philosophy I personally disagree with, but it is certainly a reality). The high-end number for a capped film is 500, and more commonly, 400. Opening Night is always a terribly difficult slot to fill; You need to find a film that sees the value in coming to Sarasota, that will allow us to commit resources required to bring in talent to attend, a film where schedules have to work for everyone, and that is a true crowd pleaser that will draw 1700+ film goers. The pressure is always on. Last year, I programmed In The Shadow Of The Moon for Opening Night and it was a big success when we had Director David Sington and Astronaut Edgar Mitchell in attendance, but without some incredible generosity and hard work from our friends at THINKFilm, that never would have happened.

So, when you have an old friend like William H Macy excited to attend and you have so much local interest in seeing this film they've heard so much about, being able to program a film like The Deal seems like good fortune. Of course, coming out of Sundance, there were several concerns; If the film sold, would the distributor agree to our request? If the film didn't sell, would the sales agents want to hold the film back to "help" with a deal (another bit of "strategy" that makes no sense to me)? Thankfully, Bill Macy and Steven Schachter wanted to come back to our festival along with SFF alum Jason Ritter to share the film as a "thank you" for all of the support the film received from investors and the community. And so, they were able to get the screening approved and each of them personally committed to attend. Holly and I were happy and, frankly, relieved to program the film for our Opening Night.

In the couple of weeks since we were able to secure the film, I have heard from a colleague at another festival who was inquiring about making contacts for the film so his festival could open with The Deal, and I know that other festivals have made inquiries as well. Were we lucky to have built this relationship with Bill Macy and Steven Schachter? Absolutely. Did it help our case that the film had raised a portion of its budget from local investors, some of who are affiliated with the festival? Sure. Did all of these factors make this selection a foregone conclusion? I wish. Am I proud we're opening the festival with this film? You bet.

I have always encouraged filmmakers attending our festival to interact with the locals. That said, the savviest filmmakers use our festival's events and parties to network because you never know what might happen. I know this happens at all film festivals and I am proud to work in a community where arts patrons are interested in supporting films like The Deal or, as Mike mentioned in his article, Joe Greco's Canvas. As I discussed with Mike for his article and as I said to Brian Brooks back in 2006, I really would love to see Sarasota establish itself as a destination for filmmakers who are looking to raise capital for their next project. I would also love for the festival to have the resources to establish an investor and producer's lab or institute, where we could formalize this process and distinguish ourselves on a more consistent basis. Unfortunately, we don't have those resources. Not yet, anyway.

That said, we're growing and I know there are successful models out there; Everyone knows there are big festivals with institute arms who populate their film festivals with works created in their own labs, works that are shepherded through the financing and production process, etc. I don't see anything wrong with any of it; I think it is important for movies to be made and seen. I am not sure why this film, in this slot, has raised a single eyebrow, but I hope this explanation of the process answers any questions.

I'm interested in your opinions; What do you think about this process? How could the festival better foster the relationship between artists and investors (aside from raising enough money of our own to establish an institute or labs)? I'll publish comments if you leave them below.

And, if you're interested, I hope I'll see you Opening Night, April 4, 2008.

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4 Comments

  • David Nugent | February 29, 2008 9:44 AMReply

    great post indeed Tom

  • David Hudson | February 29, 2008 8:47 AMReply

    It *is* a good post, Tom, and I agree that festivals can and should celebrate their communities' work. Many thanks for taking the time during what must be a hectic run-up to the festival to spell this out.

  • Michael Jones | February 29, 2008 4:55 AMReply

    Good post, Tom.

  • tully | February 29, 2008 3:41 AMReply

    what professional who is at least somewhat knowledgeable about the film festival industry would even conceive of this being a 'conflict of interest' issue? has anyone ever heard of Sundance? that's the fucking POINT. great response, Tom.