By Brian Hieggelke
“Jan, did you hear the bad news?”
Very, very early on an August morning, Jan Hieggelke got a call from Ketki Parikh: “Shabanaji contracted conjunctivitis and they would not let her board the plane in Dubai! She convinced them to let her fly but she won’t be ready to shoot on Sunday.” We had rearranged our entire production schedule of “Signature Move” due to the nightmarish peculiarities of U.S. Immigration, and already lost a day of shooting with Shabana Azmi, the legendary actress of Indian cinema and our only movie star. Now we’d have to do it again. But we were running out of options at our Humboldt Park location, a home where Azmi was shooting most of her scenes. The plan for the producers and director to go to Ketki’s house, where Azmi was staying, for an introductory dinner on Saturday night was scrapped, replaced with a Sunday morning brunch at the home of executive producer Nabeela Rasheed, which would precede a rush to the set by producers and director afterwards, where we’d shoot two-person scenes that Azmi is in with the camera only on Fawzia Mirza, who was playing her daughter. In some cases, a shoulder double from the crew was used for over-the-shoulder shots. (Fortuitously, Azmi’s eye cleared up quickly and did not affect shooting, with the exception of a falling out with a makeup artist and the slight remaining redness works in the film’s favor in one of the most moving scenes, when her character discovers the watch of her recently-deceased husband in a bedroom drawer.)
Lesson learned? Making a film is the choreography of dozens of dancers doing their own thing, but all moving in the same direction: precise choreography that has to make way for improvisation at a moment’s notice.
Making our first feature was a whirlwind education, one far from finished as I write. “Signature Move” is, briefly, the story of a closeted Pakistani-American lawyer, Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza), who is living in Chicago with her recently widowed mother, Parveen (Shabana Azmi), who hopes to find her daughter a husband. Meanwhile, Zaynab meets and falls for Alma (Sari Sanchez), a Mexican-American bookseller who has a very different relationship with her own mother Rosa (Charin Alvarez), a former luchadora. (Professional-style wrestling drives the action in “Signature Move.”)
The Los Angeles theatrical engagement begins February 9, synchronized with our launch for rental or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and FandangoNOW. Four days later, we debut on DVD and at the end of the month, we stream on Amazon Prime. And we have not even tackled international distribution. But here is our story so far, right up to this moment, in the form of lessons learned.
We approached the project like “Deadline USA.” Too many would-be filmmakers are “Waiting for Godot.”
When I met Fawzia and Eugene Sun Park, the producer who brought the script to us, and we committed to the project in June of 2015, I half-jokingly asked if we could shoot that August. In our business of publishing, we’re used to the constant presence of deadlines. Deadlines are the immovable force, and everything else in our lives bends around them. I thought we could the same discipline to filmmaking, and was concerned that the absence of a firm deadline would lead to more talking about making a movie than making a movie. So we said, no matter what amount of money we’d raise, we were going to make a movie in the summer of 2016, about a year after getting involved. And we did.
Many of even the greatest movies made since the end of the studio system took forever to see the light of screens, which is little-recognized outside the industry. It’s typical to meet filmmakers and producers whose projects took them years and years to get made (if ever). The greatest recurrent obstacle is when projects get hung up on perpetual chicken-and-egg game of “attaching” talent in hopes of seducing those who could finance your dream. The game goes something like this: X as writes a great screenplay and a producer friend agrees to help get it made. With stars in their eyes, they try to get someone considered famous, at varying levels of celebrity and currency, interested in the project. Not fully committed, but interested enough tell people that Mr. Famous is attached in hopes of getting financing to move forward. One in a million times, it all comes together. Most of the time it turns into that vicious circle, talking about making movies, not making them. Meanwhile, we march steadily toward the grave….
Great movies can be made without stars, and iconic films are often filled with unknowns when they were produced. Who had heard of Jennifer Lawrence before “Winter’s Bone”? Who hadn’t, after she did? One of Chicago’s greatest assets for filmmakers is the depth and breadth of its acting pool, and you can make a great film with a Chicago cast. If it’s truly great, it will find an audience. This does not mean famous actors are not worth anything; they are. But making the work should come first, and if you can’t get someone famous, or can’t afford them, find someone else who can play the role and make your movie. They may turn out to have been the best choice of all. At least that’s my philosophy.
It will take much more money than you planned, and infinitely more time.
Raising the money for “Signature Move” was far easier than expected. Why? The project—the story of a Pakistani Muslim woman who meets and falls for a Mexican-American woman—was relatable and particularly timely (and to our chagrin, would become even more timely with the results of the 2016 election). Plus, I’d spent a career building to this, and it was the first time in almost twenty years I’d asked anyone to invest in anything. And, finally, movies remain our culture’s magical medium, and being a part of one holds cachet far greater than investing in almost anything else. Or maybe it was the wrestling.
We originally hoped to make a film for $100,000 or so, but had no real basis for that number. We quickly raised our goal to $200,000 as we gained a better sense of what we were dealing with, as well as the scope of our ambitions. For example, when we met with Christian Litke to discuss the pro wrestling elements, he came prepared to outline our stunt needs. Wait, we needed stunt actors? We’d naively figured Fawzia would do her own wrestling until Christian pointed out the effect on the production if she broke an arm. An early version of the script had a night scene with the two main characters crossing Lake Shore Drive on foot while dodging traffic. Stunt drivers. So Christian, a professional stuntman, came on board as our stunt coordinator and stunt doubles were sourced for the cast members who were expected to wrestle. The Lake Shore Drive scene was soon scrapped entirely for now-obvious budget reasons.
Filmmaking has its own byzantine budgeting process, with a central focus on getting the movie shot. We had eighteen days total. The budget is divided, archaically and somewhat arbitrarily, into “above-the-line” and “below-the-line,” with above-the-line supposedly referring to the “creative” expenses, even though many creative elements, such as production design, reside below the line. Added to this is that most productions use an industry-specific budgeting program called Movie Magic, which integrates with its scheduling software but has an extraordinarily archaic and clunky interface, and does not integrate at all with accounting programs like QuickBooks.
Movies typically have a “line producer” who is primarily charged with creating the production’s budget and then being on set and assuring that it stays on course. Our line producer was Angie Gaffney, the founding executive director of Stage 18, a film and television incubator at Cinespace. Her approach was to ascertain what funds we had in the bank and craft the budget for the shoot within those limits. And we did shoot the film within the money we had in the bank. The problem is that line producers—not singling Angie out here as my sense is that this is not atypical—are focused mostly on production and don’t have the experience to see the film through post-production and other expenses that follow the shoot. So while our budget did include funds for post-production, and we’d thankfully won a large post-production grant at Labodigital in Mexico City so that our color correction, sound mix and deliverables were all covered, we were still woefully short of reality. Micro-budget and ultra-low-budget indie films are built upon a mountain of favors, of professionals helping out in their downtime, of compromise, compromise, compromise. The problem is that this is not a viable, sustainable approach. At the other end of the spectrum, the city is full of post-production houses addicted to resources that big corporate advertising clients bring, so most are not mentally or structurally equipped for indie work.
And then there was music licensing.
A music supervisor was not among anyone’s existing contacts, so I set out to find one, Chicago-based. To my pleasant surprise, my web search turned up Groove Garden, not only Chicago (and Brooklyn)-based, but started by women! And our experience with them was superlative. The soundtrack to the movie is one of its many highlights, and they guided us through the challenging waters of rights and licensing with patience and finesse. But because we were first-timers, the only licensing opportunity offered to us was a one-year festival license which, according to conventional wisdom, was all we needed to worry about. That would prove to be a mistake, which I will explain momentarily.
The final number for “Signature Move” is just under $300,000. Any further expenses will come out of revenues. And the amount of time we’ve invested, in exchange for a miniscule producer’s fee and a glimmer of potential for back-end return, approaches infinity, or so it seems. One metric: My “Signature Move” email folder contains 17,255 messages. And that does not include hundreds of texts and Slack messages. And phone calls and meetings that add up to weeks of time alone. Just count it as reasonable tuition in the in the College of Filmmaking.
Crowdfunding is not for everyone. Me, for example.
My fellow producers, Fawzia and Eugene, had done crowdfunding, and wanted to raise some of the budget this way. The prevailing theory was that we’d not only generate funds, but create a deeper connection with potential advocates for the film. Part of my mission in producing a movie was journalistic, a mission that fell far short of my expectations for myself. I had envisioned a real-time “Project Greenlight” for Chicago. What I had not reckoned with was the burden would fall entirely on me, and that adding a film production on top of my responsibilities as a magazine editor and publisher would not leave time to write. (Especially since my standards as a writer, and the expectations of others, are elevated because of what I do.) Good writing takes enormous amounts of time. So I wrote a few things, then we decided to harness the new platform of Facebook Live to document the making of the film every day from the set. And then there’s this article. But still… So I wanted crowdfunding for money, yes, but for journalism, too. It was to be a major part of the indie filmmaking conversation.
We enlisted IFP Chicago as a fiscal sponsor, which meant they received and processed our donations in exchange for a modest fee. This made donations tax-deductible, which they ordinarily would not have been for a for-profit film. Both Indiegogo (IGG) and Kickstarter have active filmmaker programs, but we decided to go with IGG because they reached out to us personally and also because, unlike Kickstarter, they’re not an all-or-none platform. Since we knew we were going to also raise private equity for the bulk of our financing, we did not want to make our crowdfunding contingent on hitting a number. IGG turned out to be a mistake. Because we were working with a fiscal sponsor, they arbitrarily limited our payment platform to Paypal. And Paypal repeatedly failed to process thousands of dollars of donations. The customer frustration was of a level I’ve never known before, and our internal contacts at IGG collectively shrugged over email rather than getting it fixed. Some of our donors eventually found other ways to donate, sending us direct checks, and so on,. but some donations never arrived. (I’ve heard IGG later discontinued working with fiscal sponsors rather than fix this platform problem.) If I was to crowdfund again, I’d work with Kickstarter or maybe Seed & Spark, a well-regarded platform specializing in film.
But I doubt I’ll ever do it again. That approach is best suited to micro-budget films, those well under $100,000, and to younger filmmakers with lots of time on their hands. We raised $30,000 on the platform and while I appreciate each and every donor, instinct tells me I could have raised $300,000 or even $3 million in private equity with the same well of time and energy.
It’s easier to get money from Michael Shannon than time.
I met two-time Oscar nominee Michael Shannon a few years back when I profiled him for Newcity. He seemed to epitomize the best of Chicago theater: the kind of guy who can become a famous movie star while remaining committed to a home theater company, as he is with A Red Orchid, where he comes back to act in a show every other season in spite of his insanely in-demand status as a movie star. (He directed their current show, “Traitor,” and comes back to act on their tiny stage this summer.)
I wanted to share our plans for the Chicago Film Project with him, and our goal to truly champion Chicago actors on screen. I thought he was the kind of guy who could be an informal advisor to the project, or an ambassador of sorts from time to time. So we had breakfast and I told him about it. To my surprise, he offered to invest in “Signature Move” and became one of our executive producers. Since then, he seems to be in every substantial movie that comes out. We keep missing with his schedule and have not gotten him out to see the film. Not at our world premiere in Austin. Not in our New York premiere at BAM, near his Brooklyn residence. Not in Chicago. Here’s hoping for L.A.…
Chicago actors are just as great on film as they are on stage.
Since we were casting Chicago actors only (except for Shabana Azmi), we went deep into the local theater scene. The proof is on the screen: the acting in “Signature Move” is outstanding.
You usually cast people to play the roles you’ve written but sometimes the casting process convinces you to rewrite roles to fit the actor.
A few examples from “Signature Move”: Jayde, the wrestling coach, was written as a large, muscle-bound woman. Until we saw Audrey Francis audition, we could no longer imagine anyone else in the role. Alma was not half-Mexican, half-Jewish until we cast Sari Sanchez, who is half Jewish, in the role of the Mexican love interest. And, most significantly, Rosa was written to be Alma’s grandmother, but Charin Alvarez was simply too good not to cast, even though she’s too young to be a grandma. So we rewrote the role for her to be Alma’s mother. And so the story transformed into a look at the relationships of daughters to the mothers as much as it is a romantic comedy.
Don’t assume someone you want to work with is not within reach.
Just as some projects stall because their creators have outsized expectations for cast and budget, it’s equally tempting to forgo choices because you think someone is unattainable. If you believe something will make your movie better, more successful, then go for it. If you get a no, the worst you do is end up in the place you’d be if you had never asked.
Two examples from “Signature Move.” First, Jennifer Reeder, our director. We wanted a woman to direct this women’s film and we wanted someone from Chicago. The list of possibles was, alas, short. Fawzia brought up Reeder multiple times. I had met her a few times on Newcity photoshoots, as she was one of only a few Leaders of Chicago Culture two-listers. Reeder had been selected to our Art 50 and Film 50 in the same year, but I believed that her work was too experimental, based on what turned out to be the earlier work that fueled her Art 50 inclusion when she was making films for the galleries and museums. But after I’d seen her fantastic recent short films, including the Sundance-programmed “A Million Miles Away,” I believed she was likely too committed to her own narratives, stories she’d written for herself, to have any interest in doing this. When we landed in a pitch competition co-presented by the Chicago International Film Festival and IFP Chicago, Reeder was there with her own project, “As With Knives and Skin.” As a coda, Newcity is producing that film this summer. And at that same pitch, filmmaker Hugh Schulze committed to invest in “Signature Move.” We’re producing Hugh’s second feature, “Dreaming Grand Avenue” this spring. (A fruitful day!) Through the process, which included practice sessions, we got to know her better. So we asked her if she’d consider it. Reeder said yes without hesitation.
Second was the casting of Shabana Azmi. Though we’d mandated drawing exclusively from Chicago’s talent pool, Fawzia made the compelling case that, as a South Asian actor based in Chicago, she knew her peers, and there was not an actor of that age, with fluency in Urdu and English, who could play her mother. We’d have to go to Los Angeles or New York While I could not argue with the conclusion, I was committed to fight the gravitational pull of L.A. that is a constant temptation with filmmakers. After all, that was the essence of our project, to make something great that was soup-to-nuts Chicago. Based on the adage that good roles diminish as a woman ages, even for movie stars, I suggested we instead go to Bollywood, thinking that it also could help the film sell internationally. Of course, I knew nothing about Indian cinema or its stars, but Fawzia did. And she knew exactly who our number-one choice would be, Shabana Azmi. Azmi, who we came to shorthand as the “Meryl Streep of India,” is the most acclaimed actor in their cinematic history, ranging from their most important independent cinematic movements to big Bollywood; she’s won more of the nation’s Best Actress awards than anyone in history. Not only was her stature unparalleled, but she’d starred in the seminal film, “Fire,” the country’s first mainstream depiction of a lesbian relationship, and one that generated critical acclaim and public and political controversy upon its release in India. Further, she’s a major international activist on women’s issues and on poverty. She was our dream but how were we going to even ask her? It turns out, Ketki Parikh, the co-founder of the Chicago South Asian Film Festival had worked closely with her over the years and they were friends. Fawzia, of course, knew Ketki. Azmi was coming to the Chicago area on a Bollywood stars tour. Could Ketki help make an introduction? Before long, the script was in Azmi’s hands, and Fawzia and her girlfriend Nabeela Rasheed had a personal audience when the tour brought her to the Chicago area. After a spirited, probing conversation, Azmi was interested. She was not interested in money, but her character: she wanted Fawzia to rewrite her to make her more three-dimensional, more nuanced as a human being. And she shared her available dates. It took a couple of months to complete the courtship, but she made the film, and in making it, elevated everything about it.
We get by with a little help from our friends. And festivals.
Early on, I had a get-acquainted coffee with Anthony Kaufman from the Chicago International Film Festival and when I described my somewhat unrelated desire to create a movie pitch event for filmmakers to meet investors (which eventually launched as Chicago Sessions), he told me they were doing one that fall as a new sidebar to the festival called Industry Days. So I backburnered my plans and we applied for “Signature Move” and got in. At the CIFF Pitch, we met one of the judges, Amy Hobby, from Tribeca All Access, a developmental program for “communities underrepresented in the film industry,” and she encouraged us to apply. (We got in). At Tribeca All Access, we met folks from Los Cabos International Film Festival and Labodigital, a post-production house in Mexico City. They were there to grant a $52,000 post-production prize to one film. We won it, and went to Los Cabos, where we met Janet Pierson, the head programmer of SXSW, who’d already seen our film but it never hurts, right? And we went to Mexico City for sound mix, color correction and final outputs. It meant we failed to reach our soup-to-nuts Chicago goal, but who would walk away from a $52,000 prize?
The screenplay is everything. And nothing. And everything.
When we were looking for a project that would be the ideal “Chicago film project,” we read a lot of scripts. We even pursued one or two only to hit walls built by lawyers rather than writers. But when “Signature Move” came in, I fell right away. Not so much for the story itself, but for the characters—a Pakistani Muslim family and a Mexican family, all here in Chicago. I liked the accessibility of the story, which had the potential to reach a wider audience. And Jan (for she had the ultimate greenlight authority as she had to want to do anything as much as I did) and I both were charmed by Fawzia Mirza’s presence in the web series and short films that Eugene had sent along with the script. We believed Fawzia would become a big star.
Fawzia had written the script with Lisa Donato; when it was submitted to us at Chicago Film Project, it was eighty-seven pages. As we pushed along, brainstorming on the story, Fawzia and Lisa kept revising. And lengthening the script. It’s a rule of thumb that one printed page of script equals one minute of screen time, but that’s based on traditional dialogue-driven movies of the studio system. It’s even less if there’s a lot of visual material (that is, images without dialogue). Our script kept getting longer, reaching at least 110 pages as we approached production.
Our director Jennifer Reeder was in Germany shooting her short film “All Small Bodies” and was not yet engaged with the screenplay. When she got back, days before we started shooting, she and producer Eugene took a chainsaw to it, bringing it down to seventy-three pages in a week. Reeder rewrote parts of it every day as we shot. The finished movie retains much of the DNA of that first script, but only some. Its final form reflects the evolutionary vision of the screenwriters, plus the imprint of the director, as well as all those situational improvisations made in the heat of production. And it’s better for all of that.
Diversity behind the camera is harder to achieve than in front of it.
Recent Hollywood conversation has focused on leading roles for people of color, reacting to the lack thereof (remember #OscarsSoWhite?), it’s not hard once you decide that an onscreen role could be, or should be, someone who is not white to work with a casting agent to achieve it. But it takes constant focus to do the same with many of the crew roles. (And this applies to women as well as POC; there is a dearth of female gaffers, for example.) On “Signature Move,” where our fellow producers were Eugene Sun Park, an Asian-American man, and Fawzia Mirza, a Pakistani Muslim lesbian, we unambiguously made inclusive crew makeup a priority. But we discovered that, once you delegate hiring to a line producer or a production designer, that person will tend to hire people they know, people they’ve worked with or people they went to college with. If that person is white, it’s likely that most if not all of their network is, too. And the more they work with their network, the more comfortable they are in doing so again. This is why it is so important to push this issue all the way through the hiring chain, to force people to rethink the entire process, rather just doing what is comfortable.
Even if you have one of the greatest stars in the world in your film, the United States Government will not care. (If you’re lucky, though, members of Congress will.)
You’d assume that if you cast one of the greatest actors in the world, one from a country whose population dwarfs that of the United States, and one who’d been both a member of parliament and a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, that getting her to set once she’d agreed to do your film would be a no-brainer. The joke was almost on us.
We finalized our contract with Shabana Azmi during the July 4 holiday break; she was due on set about a month later. She mentioned—not something we’d even thought about—that we’d now have to move incredibly fast to get her a work visa. We’d be applying for an O1-B visa, which applies to “Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement.” Pretty straightforward.
In running a business for thirty-plus years, we’ve filled out our share of forms, government and otherwise. So we dug in. Even though the premise of the application implies something basic and straightforward—it seems to me that our application should have just been “Google her” and that would be sufficient for approval—the process was incredibly detailed. Our final application was almost an inch thick and cost hundreds of dollars, a not-insignificant sum for a small indie film. It also had murky requirements—“consultations” that ”must come from an appropriate labor organization and a management organization with expertise in the skill area involved.” No further detail was supplied, and when we tried to clarify this directly with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency presiding over the visa, they refused to do so. We were on our own. I knew a board member from the Screen Actors Guild and asked him to write us a letter to fulfill the labor organization requirement and he readily agreed. It was unclear what such a management organization would even be and USCIS was not helpful; they even refused to tell us IF we needed both consultations, and time was running out. We used our best judgment and filed an expedited application—with an even bigger fee approaching $2,000 in total—and then waited, fingers crossed.
After waiting the full amount of time, word came back: we were denied. We’d have to wait for the written explanation but when we got it, the consultations were cited as a problem. We were in a jam and decided to find a specialized law firm in L.A. to work with us. (We could not afford it, but at this point, could not afford not to.) They told us that, basically, those two consultations were boilerplate letters, one from a specific individual at SAG in L.A., and the other from AMPTP, the organization that represents the big movie studios (and thus entirely irrelevant to us). Oh, and each organization would charge us a fee for the letter. Eventually, we refiled a new expedited application, with another nearly $2,000 fee (plus the legal fee and the consultation fees), and waited.
Meanwhile, we were told to be prepared to manage this on the other side, even after we got approval, via the US Embassy in Mumbai, where turnaround times could be even longer. We’d have to hire a fixer to help move it through the bureaucracy there as fast as possible. (Azmi was ready to board a plane the day we got approval, and since we had to fly her first class, actually getting her was not a concern. Even though, as the issues with her eye would prove, it should have been.)
We needed this expedited even faster than the normal process or Azmi would not be able to get to the set in time, and her schedule was extremely limited. We risked losing her completely, which would be a devastating setback. We all started reaching out to everyone in government we knew, or that we had friends who knew. Several members of congress started to help, and eventually we reached U.S Senator Dick Durbin’s office.
Adding to the stress, Azmi was emailing indications that she did not think it was going to happen and would just pull out. We were already on set, in production, but Jan would come home and spend late night hours on the phone with India. Fawzia and Nabeela were calling in as many favors as they could. And then, finally, we got our approval and set the fixer in India in motion. He told Jan that we had virtually no window there, either, as a four-day national holiday was looming and offices would be shut down. Once Azmi got into the office in Mumbai for her visa, we were told, officials were aghast at the delay and apologized to her and sent her along. She was on the plane at last!
In retrospect, the process was insane and wasteful, wasteful of our money and wasteful of time, ours and especially our government leaders who had to divert attention from more pressing matters to help us. Our government should design forms that ordinary citizens can fill out, and should be responsive to our phone calls and emails for help. And the system should not be rigged to force producers to hire specialized law firms and pay fees to associations.
The final and most disillusioning aspect of this cautionary tale: All of this happened while Barack Obama was president.
If you produce movies, you might gain weight on set. And then get your picture taken. A lot.
Filmmaking has a culture of not only providing free breakfast and lunch (and sometimes dinner), but also of keeping a craft services table stocked with junk food like potato chips and candy. Since producers often stand around talking to others, problem solving, planning, and so on, much of that junk food might end up in your stomach. I gained ten pounds on set in less than a month.
And then, you get your picture taken. On set, in behind-the-scenes photos. And then at festivals and premieres, where step-and-repeat backdrops and photographers are part and parcel of the process. All the while, you’re thinking, “I wish I was ten pounds lighter.”
No matter how well you prepare, things will go wrong on set.
Although the issues around getting Shabana Azmi to set were the most stressful and dramatic, there were other moments of truth. Most notable was the loss of our most challenging location, the set for our “underground women’s wrestling club.” For this, we needed a warehouse-type environment with high ceilings: the wrestling ring took up space in all three dimensions. We’d looked into all kinds of places, from arts-oriented warehouse spaces to rock clubs like The Bottom Lounge, which already hosted a regular wrestling program. Adding to the challenge was that, as a small indie film, we didn’t have money for locations. So I worked my relationships around town. Eventually we settled on Mana Contemporary, a colossal former ComEd facility on the Near South Side. We’d have to build an entire imaginary environment there, and bring in as many extras as we could muster. This would be the most challenging scenes to create and film. And then, on August 9, with filming already underway at another location, I got an apologetic text from my contact there. They were not able to do it after all. We had ten days to lock in another place.
I’d met Kent Nielsen, the co-owner of the Fort Knox music studio and incubator space a year earlier, at a Lollapalooza event where Tony Fitzpatrick introduced us. In my role as Newcity editor, I try to check out as many things like this in the arts world, with no specific agenda or story planned, with the belief that you can never know when it might be helpful. So I accepted Kent’s invitation to visit Fort Knox and check it out. I then canceled on him twice, when more pressing issues surfaced. Finally, I decided I could not in good conscience cancel again, even though July, a month before we started our movie, was not a good time.
I was amazed at what I saw on my tour. Fort Knox was a musician’s dream, with nicely appointed, secure practice spaces for rent, recording studios, an incubator called 2112 in the process of rolling out and a big warehouse space for production of music videos and events called The Hangar. I mentally filed it away and went back to business as usual.
This serendipitous visit could not have been better timed when Mana fell through. I sent Kent a text to see if they would be up for us shooting there and he said come on over. We scheduled a site visit before the next day’s filming and headed over. We met Rob Tovar, The Hangar’s director, and he showed us around. He mentioned that it would be a bit more complicated because they’d just suffered a fire and a subsequent flood that week that had gutted the incubator and done a fair bit of damage. In spite of this, they were still up for hosting our shoot.
It turned out to be much better than expected. We liked shooting there so much that we extended our stay and canceled another location that was presenting its own scheduling challenges, converting the other side of the colossal space into the wrestling gym where our main character trains. Our misfortune turned out to be our good fortune. Fort Knox could not have been a better place to shoot. We even went back there when the film was finished to throw the opening-night party.
Generosity is a Chicago trait.
The city is filled with people like the folks at Fort Knox. People like Carmen Noriega, who had been renovating a two-flat in Humboldt Park for more than a year, was finishing up and ready to move in. She instead allowed us to use both apartments for our film, and pushed her move-in and rental of the second apartment back a month. Or like the numerous local businesses who opened themselves up to us and the great inconvenience of working around a film crew. Or the numerous extras who showed up and volunteered their time and sometimes special skills, like our friend Carol Saller, who’d played a skater in The New Colony’s production of “Down and Derby” and came out when we needed roller-skating vendors at our make-believe nightclub.
Who knows what the word “producer” means?
Producer. Executive producer. Co-producer. Line producer. Associate producer. The meanings around these titles are at once precise and fuzzy. And they mean very different things in television, just to make it extra-confusing. In movies, the producer is the main boss. Executive producer raises or invests a significant amount of money. The line producer runs the budget and the on-set production team. The associate producer is an investor, albeit smaller than the executive producer. Though we had three “producers,” we were not co-producers, as that is the title for an elevated line producer or junior producer. And so on. None of this was clear to us going in, and different sources indicate differences with some of these titles. So we often made our best guess, and sometimes guessed wrong. For example, Jan functioned as a producer but for some reason we gave her the title executive producer. I did both producer and executive producer functions but took only the title producer.
Within the producer’s role, however, there is just as much ambiguity. We started as a collaboration of three of brainstorming about everything, though by the late stages of the project, we needed to delineate who was doing what based on our relative skill sets and assets, but our failure to carefully outline this at the start became a source of unnecessary tension.
I went to the American Film Market in November 2017 and, in the orientation, AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf said something that I wished I’d understood at the outset. There are three kinds of producers. There is the sales-oriented, external producer who brings in money and sells the project, he said. There is the creative producer who works closely with the director on shaping the script, casting, etc. but does not engage the film externally. And there is the line producer, who runs the set. Though it’s rare, he said he’s seen some producers who can do two of these roles, but never all three.
The lesson? Do not bring anyone on in the role of producer unless you have a clear delineation of what they bring to the project and that they complement the existing team, not overlap.
If someone says, “That’s how it’s done in the film business” or some such thing, protect your wallet.
A recurring motif in the making of “Signature Move”: We’d question something unusual, usually something excessively wasteful or financially unaccountable, and someone barely more experienced in filmmaking would respond, “Welcome to the movie business” or “That’s how it’s done in the film business.” In every case, our initial instincts were right, and the accepted norms were indeed wasteful. Fortunately, on an ultra-low-budget indie, you’re talking about dollars in the hundreds, not millions.
People obsess over the tax credit, and deservedly so.
When you talk to film professionals, filmmakers, and would-be filmmakers, they always talk about tax credits. It used to drive me crazy, as it seemed like the tail wagging the dog. Location decisions should be made for artistic and logistical reasons more than anything, right? (And, of course, we’d planned to make our movie in Chicago so we were not shopping for locales.) Let’s figure out how to make a great movie first and foremost and the tax credit will be gravy, not the meat!
I was wrong. Especially as budgets grow larger, the tax credit has a substantial impact on your ability to make the best film possible. Illinois has a very good tax credit, though not the best. (Ever wonder why so many movies and so much television is made in Atlanta these days? Thank you, Georgia.) Basically, if you make your film here, you get a credit of thirty percent of what you spend with Illinois companies and on Illinois residents. And if you can’t use it, since your film won’t necessarily make money for a bit, you can sell it at a slight discount and raise cash. For example, “Signature Move” cost just under $300,000 all-in to make, including post-production, festival costs, some marketing, etc. Though we’re still waiting for our final number from the state, our projected credit is $56,000 and we have offers to sell it for 92 cents on the dollar, maybe more. We made the decision to bank our tax credit and get it after the film was finished, in part because we did not have the experience and connections to do otherwise, and in part because we wanted the flexibility to use the funds as needed to market and distribute the film. But experienced filmmakers, especially with larger budgets, often borrow against the projected tax credit and reduce the equity required to make the film.
The old model for indie film is broken.
Over the last twenty years or so, a model for independent filmmaking developed and went something like this: raise the money, make your film, finish it to the point of being “festival ready.” Get into the best festival possible, and sell it to a distributor. Or shelve it (i.e. get an aggregator to throw it onto iTunes for you) and move on to the next one. If you had name cast, you might be able to pre-sell it in foreign territories before you even shoot it, and lock in recoupment of your investment. And so on.
Although the multimillion-dollar sales at Sundance, like “The Big Sick” and “Call Me By Your Name,” get most of the attention, the truth is that the vast majority of films, if they get distribution offers at all, are given low or no minimum guarantee (MG) of return and no consumer marketing commitment (P&A, short for “prints and advertising” in industry parlance), meaning they’re glorified DIY deals that exchange a substantial share of the movie’s lifetime revenue for routine mechanical things like getting digital files ready and out onto platforms.
With “Signature Move,” we were always prepared to DIY it if the big-sale-at-festival scenario didn’t work out. We did not get into Sundance, but did get into SXSW, one of the top four North American film festivals. We got distribution offers, but most did not include even MGs, and those that did included neither a theatrical commitment nor any P&A, and they seemed especially unattractive in the light of the blanket offer Amazon made to stream on their platform exclusively for two years for a cash bonus and a larger payout of the streaming royalties. We’d lucked out, as Amazon Video Direct launched this new program at Sundance in 2017. Its second iteration took place at the SXSW festival a few months later where we had our premiere.
We took the Amazon deal, which meant we retain all theatrical, transactional VOD rights (like iTunes) in the US and Canada, and all rights in the rest of the world. We had much more control over our own destiny. (And correspondingly, much more work to do.)
This meant turning Newcity into a film distributor as well as a producer, two major transformations rather than the one we’d planned, but I’m much more comfortable controlling our future in an industry in a state of disruption rather than handing it off to a glorified service provider who would almost certainly lock in a loss for our investors.
This, though, meant we’d made two major mistakes in our planning. One, in getting the film festival-ready, we’d only secured music rights for a year. The Amazon deal, or anything else for that matter, meant we’d need to lock them in for perpetuity. Though we’d thankfully negotiated this option up front, we’d done so with the assumption that some distributor MG would cover the tariff; instead, when the option alone cost us $35,000 or so to exercise, that consumed all the Amazon money and some of our festival exhibition fees. (After SXSW we’d turned the film over to the nonprofit The Film Collaborative to handle further festival distribution. They booked us into more than a hundred festivals and generated revenues in the low five figures for us, a welcome and unexpected revenue stream.)
The other and more critical mistake was that we’d not budgeted for any consumer-facing marketing. The reality is that when you hear about a classic Sundance fiscal legend like “Napoleon Dynamite” being made in 2004 for $400,000 and generating nearly $45 million box office (not to mention tons more on DVD, streaming, etc.), a distributor has put up as much as ten times the budget for P&A—for marketing. Nothing you can do if you make a bad film, but a good film, like ours, can be handcuffed by a lack of adequate marketing support.
Movie stars are people too, even if they scare the hell out of you.
After you’ve been in the business for a minute, you hear stories. “So-and-so celebrity is crazy and almost destroyed the movie”; “Such-and-such is so much more a diva than you’d expect, our budget for cappuccino makers in her trailer and on set almost broke us.” The reality is that they’re just people; some are assholes, some are mensches, just like the rest of us. The only difference is that they do have some special needs. Unlike the rest of us, every move they make is vulnerable to the frightening familiarity of strangers. Privacy is precious and scarce.
Nothing illuminated this for me more than Shabana Azmi’s appearance at our theatrical run at the Music Box. A hundred people had spent a hundred dollars each to see the film and then go to a small private reception where they could take a picture with her. In her presence, many of these affluent professionals lost their composure, pushing their way into photos, shoving mobile phones in front of others waiting in line, and generally making a powerful case for aggressive crowd control around celebrities. Eventually, it got to be too much and she left the event.
In spite of Netflix, the theatrical experience is still special.
Coming out of SXSW, the best offer we turned down, from Gravitas, included an MG but no plan for theatrical. They did not see “Signature Move” as a theatrical film. They were happy to let us do it ourselves, but cautioned we’d have to spend close to $100,000 on marketing and four-walling (theater rental) to do it. I love my Peak TV like everyone else, but a movie is not a movie if it does not play in theaters. It’s a special and different experience than even the finest home-entertainment system. And from a business standpoint, our culture still does not pay attention to movies that don’t play in theaters. Publications like this one rarely review them, fewer awards are available to them, and marketing becomes one-hundred-percent paid versus “earned.” (Netflix is learning this with releases like “Mudbound,” highly regarded but hardly recognized by awards groups.)
I believed that we could do a successful theatrical run. We would not four-wall anywhere, which meant that theaters would have to book us in partnership or, in rare cases, pay us an exhibition fee. I went to work on a booking in New York City, and reached out to the Music Box Theatre, Chicago’s premier house to play a film like ours. After weeks of beating my head against the New York City wall, I came up with a new strategy. We’d focus all our energies on Chicago, and see if we could do enough business our opening weekend to at least get noticed by the national trade outlets that report on the weekend’s box office. Maybe then I could lock down a New York City (and L.A.) theatrical run. Our entire team poured everything we could into our Chicago run, around which we structured special events. On Thursday night, Shabana Azmi would be in town via the South Asian Film Festival and would be available to us, so we’d build a screening around her, along with a VIP meet-and-greet, targeting Chicago’s South Asian community. Friday would be our big red carpet theatrical premiere—Thursday was officially only a preview— with an imaginative and elaborate after-party. We had two events on Saturday, and then two others, on Monday and on Tuesday.
We sold out Music Box’s 700-plus-seat theater on Friday and did great numbers all weekend. By Saturday, our opening weekend box office was already surpassed $18,000, which I knew would place us near the top when the trades came out. I made sure our numbers were reported and went to bed Saturday night, looking forward to Sunday’s reports and the call to action they would instigate.
On Sunday, Deadline.com’s specialty box office report came out and we were nowhere to be found. This in spite of the fact that our $18,873+ handily beat their anointed winner “Take Every Wave” at $13,819. Indiewire made the same mistake. I mobilized in a different way, tracking down the reporters and pointing out their mistake. I don’t know how they missed us, but before long they’d corrected the reports and put us on top: we were the number-one movie in America our opening weekend on a per-theater average.
The strategy worked. On Monday, I reached out to all my New York contacts with the news, and Village East in Manhattan’s East Village offered us a week, but it was less than two weeks away.
This was a concern but, as a journalist, I was confident we’d get reviewed. Though critics ae overtaxed by the number of openings, especially in New York City, and would have to make a special effort, how could they practice good journalism and not do so? After all, we were not only a woman-directed film about Muslims and Mexicans in the time of Trump, but we had already garnered a strong pedigree with our SXSW launch and highly positive reviews from two major newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. And now we were the number-one film in the country. It would be journalistically irresponsible to ignore us. And I’m a journalist!
They ignored us, and the lack of attention killed us in New York, at least compared to our Chicago run. Fortunately, Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles is giving us a chance, and we open our final theatrical run at their Music Hall in Beverly Hills on February 9. Los Angeles media is in the midst of a well-publicized state of chaos, but at least they can’t blame enough lead time. And we’re going to do everything we can to make L.A. a version of our Chicago experience.
In the end, the art is a very small part of filmmaking. It’s mostly running a small business.
Making a film is glorious fun. It’s a huge collaborative undertaking, and being on set is a whirlwind. But the whole thing is a business and the art is only the product design and prototype manufacturing part of the process. There’s financing, budgeting, hiring, contracting (oh, the legal fees and paperwork!), marketing and distribution. And so on. The future of indie film is going to rely on a breed of producers able to manage the whole process.
Sometimes magic happens.
At least it seems kind of magical now. Then, not so much. Our final day of shooting was one of our longest and busiest with three locations, culminating in a night scene of our two leads making out on the lakefront, a scene that takes place on their first date in the movie. We’d secured permission to shoot on the peninsula that connects Adler Planetarium to the Shedd Aquarium, one of the great views of the city, if not the greatest. And since we’d be shooting on a Sunday night after 9pm, we expected it to be nice and quiet, a perfectly pastoral place to shoot an intimate scene, and a sweet spot to finish shooting the film.
So after a smooth day of shooting in Little Village, we loaded up our trucks and piled into cars and headed for the lakefront. When we arrived, we discovered the opposite of pastoral. The access road going out toward the planetarium was bumper-to-bumper, with cars barely moving. What the heck was going on? Swarms of people were everywhere; it must be some huge event, like a concert on the scale of the massive eclipse gathering that would take place there the following summer. Eventually, we arrived at our designated spot along the planetarium’s south side and managed, thanks to producers and PAs standing in parking spaces, to get our trucks situated. We asked some of the crowd what was happening. Pokemon Go. A special event around the mobile game, which was then at the peak of its seemingly nonsensical public obsession? No, it seems that the Adler was just some kind of hot spot, an elevated get. These were just routine game players.
Fortunately we were able to find a reasonably quiet spot along the lakefront and, equally fortunately, we had no dialogue in the scene and were not recording sound. We got our final shots, and discreetly poured out champagne for the cast and crew (police cars were all over the place, thanks to the crowds). When you see the movie, you’ll see a beautiful romantic quiet scene with city lights glowing in the foreground, with no idea whatsoever that a world of insanity is taking place right behind it.