The Secret Cinema
The Reel-Life Struggles of Independent Filmmaking in Nashville
By Jim Ridley
One Thursday night last fall, a small crowd of skatepunks, riot grrls, Vandy students, and middle-aged film buffs wedged in together on the floor of Lucy's Record Shop on Church Street. Earlier in the week, a poster in the window had announced an "open-screen" night. After only a few days, the store had amassed a boxload of 8mm films and videos, and a small screen had been set up on the stage. As the lights went down, the room fell silent except for the clicking and whirring of a projector.
There was a 10-minute action movie cast entirely with GI Joes. There was an intense, impressionistic mood piece about marriage and femininity that used mirrors and atmospheric shadows. There was a skateboarding montage that seemed to be modeled on the diving sequence from Leni Riefenstahl's 1936 documentary Olympia. At the beginning of the evening, the young film directors were nervous, but when the screenings were over, they were excitedly exchanging compliments and phone numbers. "Nobody's doing 'zines anymore," explained Mary Mancini, owner of the indie record store. "Everybody's making films!"
But Nashville's new film directors are not all teenage kids with camcorders; their ranks also include thirtysomething directors, middle-aged screenwriters, and established production companies. Sparked by the independent-cinema revolution of the past decade--which reached its peak with the success of Fargo, The English Patient, and Shine at this year's Academy Awards--local filmmakers are forging ahead. More than 10 indie features--films produced, financed, and often distributed outside the major-studio system--have been started by Nashville production companies in the past two years. Several more have used Nashville crews, locations, or equipment. This is promising news for the city's burgeoning film industry, which has subsisted on music videos and occasional crumbs that have fallen from Hollywood's table.
According to Vicki Oglesby of the Nashville Film Office, feature-film productions have spent $6.5 million in Nashville since July 1, 1996. That figure includes camera rentals and crew salaries, but it also includes money spent in local hotels, restaurants, and stores. The experience of other similar-sized cities suggests that a thriving Nashville film industry could eventually be pumping 40 times that amount into the local economy, providing steady employment for local crews. Middle Tennessee actors and locations, appearing onscreen in movie theaters, on video, and on late-night cable, might raise the city's profile for something other than country music.
The majority of these projects, like most studio movies in development, may never get off the ground. Despite its many years of music videos and less frequent feature work, the Nashville film industry is in its infancy. It takes more than directors and production crews to build an industry; it takes producers, agents, distribution contacts, dealmakers, lawyers, and an experienced investment community--the complex puzzle that Nashville is just beginning to piece together. Coke Sams, a veteran writer, producer, and director, likens the current state of Nashville film production to "the music industry without studios or record labels, just a handful of songwriters and musicians."
Nevertheless, for the first time the majors-or-bust mentality of Nashville's film community is changing. Local filmmakers say they have realized they will starve while waiting for Hollywood to come knocking. "We don't need to sell Nashville as a fun place [for the major studios] to shoot," one director said, "because everyone'll just be unemployed again in five weeks." And, while production companies once relied on country videos to fill their plates, the boomtown days of music-video production are over. As a result, several directors, producers, and writers have begun to initiate their own projects, banking on accessible new technology, new avenues for distribution, and the peaking visibility of independent features. The independent-cinema movement has been on the rise for the past 20 years, ever since John Carpenter's 1978 thriller, Halloween, parlayed a $600,000 budget into blockbuster international business. Halloween spawned countless hack 'n' slash imitators that were cheap, easy to make and sell, and often profitable. They constituted the bulk of indie releases until the market glutted and dwindled in the early 1980s. By 1986, though, the modest but encouraging success of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise and Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It--coupled with the overnight boom of rental stores and VCR sales--had cracked open a door for ambitious young filmmakers with offbeat, uncommercial projects.
However, apart from the venerable Sinking Creek Film Festival and occasional ventures such as Tom Neff's Running Mates, indie fever largely bypassed Nashville. Five years ago, Nashville's idea of a film industry was a succession of big-budget Hollywood productions passing through town. That dream never became a reality, despite the fact that Nashville has all the tools in place to produce and complete motion pictures.
In the peak years of the 1980s, high-profile films such as Sweet Dreams and Starman regularly shot in Middle Tennessee. That steady activity stands in dire contrast to 1996. Of the seven features shot locally in the past 12 months, only one--Barry Levinson's political farce Wag the Dog--qualifies as a major-studio release. And Wag the Dog spent exactly one day in Nashville shooting second-unit footage. Meanwhile, local crews and suppliers gaze wistfully at Memphis, where big-budget John Grisham adaptations continue to lure other prestigious major-studio productions--and major-studio money--to town.
Many observers say the recent doldrums are the result of the local film industry's own complacency. When the city was swamped with lucrative video work, Nashville directors put their feature-film ideas in cold storage. Now the number of videos produced each year has been significantly reduced, and budgets are tighter. "The foundation's being laid right now for everyone to move into features, because videos are downsizing," says Thom Oliphant, cofounder of The Collective, a Nashville directors' partnership. "Now that the industry's reaching a plateau, we have time to do other projects."
"The producers and directors coming here from New York and L.A. already have an interest in indie films," says Bill Filipiak, whose weekly fax newsletter The Flipside has become Nashville's film-industry trade paper. "Everything is here for film production--it's just a matter of taking advantage of it."
The state of Nashville's production industry is at once enormously promising and enormously frustrating, according to Andy van Roon, whose newly formed company, International Cinema Partners, was formed to align Nashville filmmakers with out-of-town money and distribution contacts. But Nashville is a "contract town" where production companies are accustomed to bidding on projects and getting paid a flat fee for their work, Van Roon says, and that system has little to do with the way movies are actually financed and shot. What's more, he says, Nashville is also a director-driven town, and the indie-film market is largely driven by producers, who finance features, and by distributors, who buy and sell them.
Still, van Roon notes, Nashville is well-positioned because some of its best-established video directors already own their own production companies. Several major production companies in Nashville--including High Five Productions, The Collective, and Pecos Films--have at least one feature-film project in the works. In August, Coke Sams of Studio Productions will begin filming Existo, a "Marxist/existentialist musical comedy" cowritten with Bruce Arntson. It takes place during the third term of President Newt Gingrich.
While promising, this activity probably won't make Hollywood or New York quake in terror. Randy Patrick, a screenwriter whose novel White Trash in a Trailer Park was just optioned by HBO, doubts that Nashville will ever make it to the big leagues in film production. "People here confuse music videos with the film industry, and they're not the same thing," Patrick says.
If Nashville is to overcome understandable skepticism and become a full-fledged center for independent filmmaking, several pieces of the puzzle will have to be put in place. There will have to be access to distribution. And there will have to be reliable sources of financing. Most important, Nashville will have to produce at least a couple of critical and commercial successes if two skeptical groups--the East and West Coast movie industry and local investors--are to be convinced. Meanwhile, for better or worse, many local auteurs are rushing to make their baby the first and the biggest.
Jonathan Shockley, a young Nashville filmmaker, says that "indie films are like punk rock." And he's right. In the indie film movement, as in punk rock, anyone can have access to the tools of creativity, and an amateur's direct self-expression is valued above professional slickness. But the connection between indie films and punk goes even deeper. Million-dollar ad campaigns now use spiky-haired junkie waifs to sell jeans. In the same way, indie features are infiltrating the mass consciousness, and the commercial mainstream is aping the very qualities that made these films unique. The marketability of the indie tag has created two distinct groups of moviemakers--those who make independent features to get Hollywood's attention, and those whose intensely personal projects would never get past the desk of a major studio.
Nashville musician Eddie Reasoner is definitely among the latter. As an infant, Reasoner was abandoned by his parents in a church on the bank of the Cumberland River, and he grew up fascinated with the dying river culture. Seven years ago, he decided to pursue his lifelong obsession--to chronicle the Cumberland's history on film. Friends and historians alike told him he was crazy, pointing out that he didn't have any experience making movies. He forged ahead, spending weeks, months, and years in archives throughout the South. The result, Once Upon a River, is a robust, engrossing account of the booming river trade and the colorful riverboat captains, frontiersmen, and loggers who led the city in its various forays into vice and virtue.
Reasoner understands that his chances for distribution are slim. His best hope for making back his money will be showings on public television in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Arkansas, but he's had little luck finding corporate sponsors who will help him get the documentary into schools in Tennessee and Kentucky. Nevertheless, he insists he made the movie just because it needed to be made. "Through natural selection, the towns and families are starting to die out," says Reasoner, a tall, rail-thin man whose graying blond hair stands up like a rooster's comb. "Somebody needed to preserve them."
On the other side of the indie divide are filmmakers like Marvin Baker and Ann Gillis, who hope to parlay their first film, an inexpensive thriller called A Letter From Death Row, into a career in bigger features. Baker and Gillis are at the forefront of a group of Nashville music-video makers who have become involved in every aspect of feature-film production. Not only did they finish their first project, they actually sold it. They even made a nice return on their initial investment.
From the outset Baker and Gillis had to tackle the classic first-time-filmmaker woes. The budget was low, and the headaches were constant. The screenwriter/star, rock singer Bret Michaels, changed the script--including the movie's surprise ending--several times in mid-filming. As draining as the shoot was, though, the movie came in on time and on budget. Baker and Gillis say they learned a lot from Michaels and from Charlie Sheen, who bought 40 percent of the film after completion and now makes a cameo appearance. (Sheen's father, Martin Sheen, was drafted to appear in a scene as Michaels' father, adding marquee value needed to boost foreign sales.)
Michaels and Charlie Sheen "taught us it's all about publicity," says Baker, an affable movie buff. At one point Sheen and Michaels bought 5,000 tickets to a televised major-league baseball game and refused to let anyone else sit in their section. It was an expensive stunt, but it was a cheap way to get a half-million dollars' worth of free exposure on network TV. Sheen and Michaels convinced Ann Gillis Productions to spend money on a top-of-the-line New York promotion firm, which got A Letter From Death Row a lead segment on Entertainment Tonight and coverage in Entertainment Weekly and other magazines.
"We spent more on publicity than we spent on 35mm film stock," Baker says with a laugh. But the investment more than paid off. The morning after the ET segment ran, there were calls on Gillis' answering machine from New Line Cinema, Miramax, Samuel Goldwyn Films, and other distributors. The Showtime premium channel eventually picked up broadcast rights to A Letter From Death Row, and the Disney affiliate Filmwave purchased overseas rights--a deal that netted Gillis and Baker a return on investment several times their six-figure budget. That's the kind of talk investors like to hear.
The biggest compliment she got, Ann Gillis says, was from a veteran producer who told her A Letter From Death Row had too strong a buzz to be a Nashville movie. Regardless of where it was filmed, it was now an L.A. movie. At the same time, Gillis learned a bitter lesson from the vice president of acquisitions for an Oscar-winning East Coast distributor, who bristled when she called herself an independent. "You're not an independent," he said, "until we make you one." In both cases, the meaning was clear: The coastal film centers are the industry's gatekeepers. If you want to get in, you have to go through them.
But the gate swings both ways. It controls access to money and promotional muscle, and it controls access to audiences. Distributors, after all, are the ones who get movies booked into theaters, and theaters deal with distribution companies, not with filmmakers. Indie success stories such as Slacker, Clerks, and El Mariachi may have been made outside the Hollywood mainstream for minuscule budgets, but if they hadn't been bought by established distributors--who built ad campaigns, promoted them nationally, and booked them into theaters--these films would have ended up molding in their makers' basements.
Filmmaker David Wall ran into a brick wall when he tried to get his movie Joe and Joe booked into a national theater chain headquartered in Boston. At first the chain refused to take his call. When he finally made contact, the chain demanded $10,000 just to show the movie in a single theater, and Wall would have had to shoulder all the costs of publicity. According to Dan Norem, general manager of Ingram Entertainment's Monarch Home Video subsidiary, this process--"four-walling"--is how most low-budget films get theatrical screenings if they don't have a distributor.
Wall declined and stuck to his guns. On a whim, his production partner, Sean Brennan, called the home office of Carmike Cinemas in Columbus, Ga. He didn't get far at first--perhaps because he asked to speak to "Mr. Carmike"--but when Carmike bookers saw Joe and Joe, they were impressed enough to book it into five Nashville theaters. At the end of the two-week run, the cost of making five prints at $1,500 apiece had eaten up what money the movie had made. Just getting the movie booked, though, was a major victory for the underdogs.
Filmmakers have to be obsessed about distribution. "Distribution is everything," says Doug Morris, an account executive at Music City Digital who turned movie producer this spring with the horror movie Lycanthrope. Distribution not only offers an outlet for the finished film; it provides investors with concrete returns for their money. When Wall, Brennan, and production partner/costar David Wysocki go hunting for financing for their next picture, a ghost story called The Mirror, their company, Little Horsethief Films, will be able to show investors a finished movie that was actually shown in commercial theaters. They have something few budding moviemakers can claim in Nashville: a feature-film track record.
The cranes are flying A Nashville film crew readies a crane shot at a location near Third Avenue South during a weekend shoot.
Nashville is used to big talk and little action where film entrepreneurship is concerned. Local investors have been burned time and time again by grandiose, high-profile production schemes. Several local filmmakers say that, when they asked area bankers about financing, they were haunted by the name of Wayne Mooneyhand, a would-be mogul whose attempts to launch a Nashville movie studio in the late 1980s drained and embittered his backers. Mooneyhand's failure and other disappointments--including the poor box-office showing of Bat 21, a 1988 war drama with Gene Hackman and Danny Glover that was backed by singer Jerry Reed--helped poison the well for local film financing. Local moviemaking's most recent big announcement, the opening of a $5 million facility in Orlinda, Tenn., has likewise resulted in little good news thus far. Last fall, the studio's founder, David Heavener, maker and star of late-night cable cheapies like Fugitive X, announced that he would begin filming a sci-fi thriller called Escape 2020 in Nashville in November 1996. Seven months later, there's still no trace of production, although Heavener is reportedly shooting a movie in L.A.
Heavener may get his local film projects off the ground--he does have a string of low-budget action flicks to his credit. But a single failed effort makes it that much harder for every aspiring filmmaker to raise funds--even when the amount they're trying to raise isn't much.
For that reason, indie filmmakers can leave nothing to chance. Before the first foot of film rolls, they must have everything nailed down--the cash, the script, the locations, and the "bankable entities" such as letters of intent from stars or distributors. Even the choice of cameras and film stock can alter a budget substantially. Most big-budget films, for example, shoot in widescreen 35mm format, and one 35mm camera package can cost $2,500 a day. A 16mm package may rent daily for $1,500 to $2,000. That doesn't sound like much difference. But 10 minutes of 35 mm film costs $500, while the same length of 16 mm runs only $130. For four hours of film, that's already a cost difference of nearly $9,000. These considerations all must be worked out if investors' fears are to be assuaged.
"The money's in town, but it's scared," says Ken Goddard, a former NationsBank executive who left to join Andy van Roon in International Cinema Partners. "But it's starting to ask intelligent questions." Goddard cites such questions as: Do you have a business plan? Do you have any bankable entities attached to the project? Do you have distribution lined up? And above all: How and when will I get my money back? For investors, a producer's passion is a poor substitute for collateral.
Several Nashville directors have learned the hard way not to begin filming without all financing and distribution in place. First-time writer-director Stuart Cave had completed 75 percent of his noir drama, Pleasantville, when the Screen Actors' Guild threatened to fine his actors because he hadn't negotiated a union agreement. Then he ran out of funds. That was two years ago. Since then he's been making the rounds in New York and Washington, D.C., in search of completion money. The search has been tough. If he can raise the cash, Cave hopes to hire a name actor for a juicy cameo. But he doesn't have a distribution deal to show potential investors, and distributors want to know why he hasn't completed the film. He keeps banging his head on the Catch-22 of independent-film financing: "You have to make movies to make movies."
Armanda Costanza was luckier in some ways. Perhaps the best-known name in Nashville's film industry, Costanza graduated from MTSU's now-defunct film program in 1982. Her graduation gift from her parents was a 16mm Arriflex camera. As music videos boomed, she rented out her camera and her services as a camera operator. The camera paid for itself in three years. Her company, Armanda Costanza Inc., now has 15 Arriflexes--as well as a second office in Memphis and a reputation for supporting indie features across the country.
In the spring of 1996, when local film work was at its lowest ebb, Costanza decided to make a fast, cheap film that she could use to raise money for subsequent features. She convinced Tim Ormond, whose family was making indie exploitation films in Nashville 30 years ago, to write a script. She raised money from friends, family, even T-shirt sales, and she cashed in favors all over town from equipment houses, restaurants, and crew members. Shooting commenced in an abandoned church tucked away in the industrial section of Third Avenue South. Jim Varney showed up just long enough to get gutted by a make-believe stalker's harpoon.
Unfortunately, while all these favors were essential to getting the movie made, they killed Costanza's schedule. Any time someone found paying work, the film went on the back burner. Although shooting was completed last June, Costanza's movie is still in the final stages of editing a year later. Because of its exploitable elements, it will probably find a home on cable or video, but Costanza doesn't want to make another movie without completion funds and a distribution agreement in hand.
"Walking away, we learned a lot," she says. "We basically shot a 90-minute film with everyone's effort deferred. Our next film, distribution will be taken care of long before shooting. But we wanted to prove a film could be done here with no outside help. And we did."
Nashville's hopes for an independent film industry have been encouraged by the development of the Watkins Film School, which in a mere two years has attracted students from across the country. From the beginning, Watkins' boosters had argued that a film school would draw productions to the city. This spring they were proven right when, at a moment's notice, the horror movie Lycanthrope moved into the school's ground floor on Sixth Avenue North. The circumstances were a horror story in and of themselves: Two weeks before the werewolf thriller was slated to start filming in South America, director Bob Cook learned that his Colombian location had been overrun by thousands of government soldiers pursuing rebel forces. With his stars available only for the specified filming dates, Cook called Doug Morris at Music City Digital, which was handling the movie's post-production work. When Morris discovered Watkins' dank basement, with its cinderblock walls and exposed pipes, he saw a prime den for werewolves. The basement halls were lined with dolly tracks, and blood ran red on the school's institutional flooring.
The movie was provided with plenty of inexpensive student technicians, and Watkins students found themselves working on their first feature film. Not only were the student crews efficient, Morris says, they got to see the indie production in action.
"You can train your students to carry a cable on a Hollywood epic," Morris observes. "Or you can teach them to scrape together $500 for a camera and make a film. This is what they want to do." At the same time, even though Morris estimates about two thirds of the movie's budget will stay in town, more than one local industry professional wondered whether the film school was taking work away from the city's soundstages and technicians.
What may be more beneficial in the long run is the unconventional mix of creative talent Watkins is drawing to Nashville. Katya Maslova, a Ukrainian directing student, is currently filming an experimental drama that sounds something like Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers. Instructors and outsiders alike are excited by the work of Jonathan Shockley, whose short "Bittums Bites It" was one of the highlights of last year's Sinking Creek Film/Video Festival.
"Watkins is encouraging this whole indie mentality--their goal is for somebody to scrounge up money and shoot something here," says Shockley, who grew up without movies in a town of 900 people near the Alabama state line. "There are all these people [in Nashville] with really creative ideas. That's why it would be cool for something to hit--you could help all these people out."
The camcorder revolution has given almost any teenage kid access to the tools of filmmaking. The resulting creative energy is even spreading to Nashville's club scene. At the indie rock venue Victor/Victoria's, screenings of Jacob Young's acclaimed "Different Drummer" documentaries have drawn full houses, and Inside/Out promoter Christopher Moon has instituted nights of short films. Recently at Lucy's and Bongo Java, the newly energized Sinking Creek Film/Video Festival launched an ambitious series of film salons. This outreach program is designed to bring short, experimental indie films to a broad, untapped audience--including the punk kids with camcorders. "Those are just the people we want to reach," explains Michael Catalano, Sinking Creek's new executive director and the head of Watkins' Young Filmmakers program.
Producing experimental shorts as well as commercial features is vital to the growth of the entire film community, according to Brent Stewart, one of the organizers of the Lucy's screenings. "You can try techniques in lighting and film manipulation that are too expensive to practice on 16mm," says Stewart, a young filmmaker from Memphis.
These techniques often get absorbed into the mainstream, he says. And his point is well taken. Kenneth Anger's underground film Scorpio Rising may have caused a scandal 35 years ago, but its groundbreaking use of ambient pop music and jarring old-movie juxtapositions is now standard issue in commercials, music videos, and mainstream movies.
Stewart, like so many other Nashville directors, writers, and movie lovers, hopes that any film industry that develops here will absorb and promote the exchange of ideas between seasoned professionals and gifted amateurs. In this hope lies the promise of the entire independent cinema movement--the promise not only of new jobs and new money, but of new sights and new visions.
Nashville writer-director Peter Neff is fond of quoting Francis Ford Coppola's prediction for the future of movies. "Suddenly, one day," the director of The Godfather prophesied, "some little girl in Ohio is gonna be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father's camcorder. And for once the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever--and it will really become an art form." That little girl could be sitting today in a room in Belle Meade, an apartment on Jefferson Street, or a duplex in Bellevue, staring through a viewfinder. She could be crafting images whose like the movies have never known.
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