Bright Lights, Little City
It's not difficult, if you'rean Austin resident, to fall into the habit of taking the River City for granted. And if you're a film connoisseur, as is so much of the population, it might occasionally slip your mind that not every city boasts such an explosively healthy film community. I suspect that in Amarillo, for instance, the natives' brains would be summarily sheared off at the what-in-the-world? lobe if Quentin Tarantino bopped into town to hang out and screen a healthy chunk of his personal film collection for nine days running.
Add to that the endless flurry of premieres that have increasingly become common practice with each new film from native sons Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater and adoptees Mike Judge and Tarantino and, alongside everything else, it's easy to see why so many people in the business of film treat Austin like a voluptuous mistress cloistered just out of sight of the Los Angelean wife. They fly in for the week, bask in the town's eclectic cineaste ambiance, and then jet out again, refreshed but underwhelmed to be returning to the front.
One new trend is the film distributors' emerging pattern of opening new releases exclusively or nearly exclusively in Austin. Smaller, independently produced films like writer-director Michael Davis' sly teen sex farce Eight Days a Week (which premieres locally this week) are initially sidestepping wider, national releases (a gambit admittedly not always available to diamond-in-the-rough indie films) and debuting instead in Austin -- and in the case of Eight Days a Week, corn-fed Omaha as well.
Eight Days a Week is a raunchy sweetheart of a date movie, filled with Davis' semi-autobiographical tales of teen hormonal angst. Josh Schaefer (johns, Untamed Heart) stars as a geeky high school senior who falls hard for the brazen sweet thang next door and spends one entire summer patiently standing beneath her window to prove his love and hormone-possessed desire. This not-so-bad girl (goofily religious zealot parents go a long way toward decoding her bubbly sexual personae) is played by Keri Russell, of the hit WB collegiate angst melodrama Felicity, though at the time the film was cast, the show had yet to hit the airwaves and Russell was just another set of pouty lips. Davis mixes in bits of everything from Don Quixote to Rear Window and never misses a beat, deftly switching from bawdy and irreverent libido-driven gags involving watermelons and Catherine Hicks of WB's 7th Heaven fame to surrealist gags and outright pathos. It's one of the most knowing and aesthetically uncompromising teen comedies to come down the pike since Eighties teen-flick auteur John Hughes went (one assumes) irretrievably mad in the wake of Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
After taking home the Slamdance Audience Award in 1997, Davis, who almost ruefully admits to financing his film via the credit card route ("I'm really not supposed to talk about that," he says), found his film on the fast track to distribution via Legacy Releasing and Warner Bros. Home Video, the latter of which was brought on board by Hollywood writer/ producer/mack-of-all-trades Jeff Dowd. From there on out, it was only a matter of scheduling the film's release, which perhaps not surprisingly given its indie status, landed it square in the Capital City.
Queried about his decision to open the film in Austin, Davis says, "There are really three reasons. For one, we wanted a city that had a population of teen and college students. Number two, the fact that Felicity does very well in Austin was a help, and I guess the third reason was that Austin is big enough to register on the radar, but the market is not so expensive that we couldn't buy TV and radio time."
Davis notes that after finishing Eight Days a Week he went to the majors' specialized distribution arms, such as October and Sony Classics, whose reps clearly enjoyed the film but regarded it as more of a "mass appeal film," and not something they were likely to pick up for distribution. It wasn't until "the teen movies started taking off, that the studios started really thinking about Eight Days a Week," says Davis. "We got Warner Bros. [Home Video] to step to the plate to do a theatrical release and do it in a big way both in Austin and Omaha. This is really going to be their reading as to whether or not they're going to go larger with this, so, you know, I have great hopes that Austin will come through."
Legacy Releasing is the sub-distributor set to handle Eight Days a Week's extremely limited initial release (they've handled local favorite Hands on a Hard Body, another movie that debuted in Austin prior to its New York and Los Angeles launches months later). The company has 50 years of combined experience between co-presidents Mark Borde and Gene Irwin, and though the pair only formed the company three years ago, they've already aligned themselves with not only Warner Bros. Home Video but also PolyGram Home Video, Largo, and foreign distributor Lumiere.
Borde is ebullient about the idea of releasing Davis' film exclusively in the Austin/Omaha markets, saying that he thinks the film's chances are "terrific."
Echoing Davis, Borde says, "We picked Austin and Omaha because they have colleges and because Felicity does good numbers in both towns. We're simply testing the picture and hoping people show up. If they show up in droves and the picture does well, then we're committed to opening the picture in the rest of the country including Los Angeles and all the major markets. If not ... well, there's Plan B."
"That remains to be determined."
"When I first heard aboutthe film, frankly I was somewhat dubious because, you know, a lot of people make films about their own experiences like this that are all right but not really that good. When I actually saw it, I knew right away that this was something special: It both entertained and at the same time was deeply romantic, and was also very true to the reality of young love which is, you know, young lust."
That's Hollywood demi-legend Jeff Dowd speaking from his home in L.A. about Eight Days a Week. Dowd (who is heavily rumored to be the Coen Brothers' model for "the Dude" in The Big Lebowski) has a laconic delivery that's liberally peppered with "you knows," "likes," and more than a few woolgathering "uhs." He was cutting down the slopes of Park City, Utah (site of the Sundance Film Festival) with Warner Bros. Home Video acquisitions head Cliff Werber and managed to convince Werber that Eight Days a Week was in his best interest to pick up.
That's hardly a first for Dowd, who's had his hand in everything from Blood Simple to Zebrahead over the years.
"What we're trying to do in Austin," says Dowd, "is basically replicate a normal commercial release so that the folks at Warner Bros., who would like to believe in this, can do something that's very different than they ever do, which is to pick up an independent film. Studios are not in the business of picking up independent films.
"That's what's interesting about this movie, and what's unique to the Austin situation is this: There are a lot of teen comedies that studios put out that they finance and then -- for the most part -- stay behind. Teen movies like Scream or Varsity Blues. That kind of thing. There aren't many independent teen movies that studios pick up. The truth of the matter is that for a teen movie there's never been, to my estimation, a successful teen "art" film. I produced Zebrahead, which played extremely well. River's Edge, Tex, I can go through a number of them, but it has to be treated commercially and it has to be in a theatre near you. It's gotta be at the mall near you. And in order for that to happen you've got to spend TV dollars and radio dollars. And the studios' classics divisions aren't set up to do that."
Dowd, who began his career managing the Seven Gables Theatre Circuit in Seattle, knows whereof he speaks and frequently compares Austin to his old stomping grounds.
"There are two towns that kept rockin' when disco came in: Seattle and Austin, okay? Very specifically, on the more banal side of it, [for the release of Eight Days a Week] we needed towns that we could buy television in in their own distinct marketplaces that they could impact. In other words, you can't buy Chicago television for all the suburbs of Chicago without spending Chicago amounts of money. There are probably about 15 or 20 markets in the country that you can do that in that are distinct television markets, where you could spend a reasonable amount and get a little bit of television and radio play (which we felt we had to have), and Austin is one of them."
As far as Omaha, says Dowd, the thinking is, if it'll play there, it'll play anywhere. He's a firm believer in the fact that residents in the much-maligned "flyover states" aren't as stupid as the suits in L.A. would have us believe. "They read books, too," he offers. "And they go to college. And they watch the same MTV. And the same movies. And guess what? They bought R.E.M. They bought Nirvana. So I have faith in what's called the 'flyover states'. They're not to be looked down upon."
Davis' deal with Legacy getting the film to break in Austin and Omaha is something Dowd views as an inevitable extension of the studio's inability to set up a new release without cashing in millions in marketing overkill.
"Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, Paramount," says Dowd, "all these guys, they don't know how to put a picture out without spending six, 10, 15 million dollars. That's not how their system works. They would either have to take Eight Days a Week and spend $10 million or there's nothing. So within the corporate structure we're showing them how to do this. And hopefully they'll learn something."
And that's not all. In a last-ditch effort to salvage the box-office disaster Babe: Pig in the City (which garnered more than its share of kudos from the critical press despite doing negligible business), Universal Pictures has just chosen Austin as the city most likely to save the porcine hero via the unique tactic of turning the film into a midnight movie. At the Dobie, no less.
Says Dobie manager Scott Dinger, "They went to Landmark [the Dobie's new parent chain] and said they'd like to test it and Landmark chose Austin. I think that's because we do late shows every night of the week, we're right next to the University, and so on. The Dobie is noted as a midnight house, and I think it's a good idea, although even if the thing's successful, they're not going to make anywhere near the money that they really need to [turn an overall profit]."
Taken together, that's three separate releases set to open exclusively in Austin the next few weeks. Hardly surprising considering the city's theatre-on-every-corner status and Austin's longtime love affair with all things celluloid. Still, it's nice to know that when the suits in Los Angeles look eastward to figure out how to save their collective butts and/or break new, untested products, they look to Austin as the place to do it.
Eight Days a Week opens in theatres around Austin (and Omaha) Friday, February 26. Also on Friday, Babe: Pig in the City begins a midnight run at the Dobie Theatre. Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane is scheduled to open in late March at the Dobie.