Changes in the Weather

As Burnt Orange cools, the UT Film Institute heats up

Alex Smith
Alex Smith (Photo by Mary Sledd)

Bryan Poyser was driving to the wrap party for The Cassidy Kids in 2005 when the tears started to flow. They were tears of joy. Everything he'd worked toward was coming true. He'd made a real film, the kind with a cast and crew he couldn't count on one hand, the kind of film that would perhaps screen in the local megaplex and mark his career as legitimate to family and friends. "Finally, after 10 years of struggling and having small successes and meeting incredibly talented people, we were making a movie, and everyone was getting paid," he says of that golden moment. It was all the more special because the film was produced by Burnt Orange Productions, a grand for-profit experiment aimed at teaching students at the University of Texas – Poyser and filmmaking partner Jacob Vaughan's alma mater – about the realities of the business behind making a movie.

Flash forward almost 2½ years, and the reality for The Cassidy Kids is a scant three film-festival showings (including a well-received opening at the 2006 South by Southwest Film Festival) and a possible deal to send the film straight to DVD and cable television likely to be announced this month. "Making movies is like alchemy – trying to make things into gold that are not made of gold," says Poyser, who is now director of artist services for the Austin Film Society. "I know the movie we made is a good movie, though it may not be a great movie. It's gotten a raw deal in terms of interest, and I think it deserves to be seen more widely than it has so far." The lowered expectations for the film are shared by Burnt Orange, which itself is officially in "hiatus" after making four films, according to Tom Schatz, the longtime UT film professor and former Radio-Television-Film Department chair who championed the notion of connecting film academia with film business realities. "What we hoped to do we've pretty much done," Schatz says. "The question is whether we can produce films that are significantly successful enough to continue. Until we see revenue from our projects, we won't make more."

Instead, look for the University of Texas Film Institute to fill the void by shooting an entirely student-made film this coming summer as part of the Feature Film Lab, which has been expanded from a two-semester program to one that lasts two years with a new film starting the cycle each year. Schatz believes that by totally using UT resources, UTFI can create the equivalent of a half-million-dollar film, but it will do so without much of the real-world component of Burnt Orange. Leading the new UTFI charge is Creative Director Alex Smith, a Michener Center for Writers fiction grad whose 2002 film, The Slaughter Rule, rated Film Independent's Spirit Awards and Sundance Film Festival nominations. "The biggest difference [from Burnt Orange] is it's nonprofit, so we're not dependent on investors," Smith says. "We can afford to take risks and tell raw stories. It's okay if it doesn't sell, as long as it tells a good story."

The project comes with the aid of UT's Michener Center, which is funding course instruction – the filming itself will be part of a course – and potentially all tuition and fees for students who work on the feature during principal photography, as well as teaching-assistant pay. Schatz says the Michener commitment is multiyear, with additional funds coming from the dean of the College of Communication and the UT provost's office. Schatz says there are "no strings attached" to the Michener funding, with possible film scripts for features coming from Michener Master of Fine Arts students and from the RTF Department's production and screenwriting MFA students.

Burnt Orange and UTFI opened for business in 2003 but were in the planning stages for years before that, Schatz says. The idea was to utilize a tax-code loophole that allows a nonprofit organization to operate a for-profit company if their basic goals are in line. UTFI was formed as the nonprofit research unit, operating separately from UT's RTF program, while Burnt Orange would serve as the profit-maker with an original goal of raising enough capital from about 20 silent partners (all but one with strong Texas ties) to make eight low-budget, independent films in three years, some in the $1 million to $3 million range, others shot digitally for less than $1 million. The more expensive projects would come with outside partners who would come in with both projects and partial funding. William Morris Independent was recruited to seek distribution for the films, and Carolyn Pfeiffer, an experienced producer and former vice chair of the American Film Institute Conservatory, was brought on board to lead Burnt Orange.

Schatz, who was among a new guard that came to UT's fledgling RTF Department in the mid-Seventies and helped build it into a program with a national reputation, encountered one seemingly insurmountable problem: Film programs at California and New York schools could rely on geographically available industry pros to come in as adjunct instructors in narrative film and give students a dose of film-biz reality, while UT's rep was primarily built on documentary filmmaking. And film-industry leaders remained forever skeptical that a college degree prepared students to work in the business. Burnt Orange, born out of Schatz's conversations with former Universal head Thom Mount, was designed to fill the gap. It took almost three years for the Internal Revenue Service to approve nonprofit status for UTFI, followed by fundraising that fell well short of the original $8 million goal. "We raised several million dollars from serious investors who were excited to see the University of Texas try something bold like this," Schatz says. "At the same time they expected it to be run as a serious business venture."

Three films were expected to test the model: The Quiet (originally titled Dot), country & western musical Austin Angel, and The Marfa Lights. The latter, which originally seemed pegged to be the first Burnt Orange film, grew from a project legendary film auteur Terrence Malick started with screenwriting students in UT's Michener program to adapt for the screen six works of fiction that had entered the public domain. Kathleen Orillion adapted George Sand's book Le Petite Fadette into the family saga The Marfa Lights, which Malick and Edward Pressman planned to produce. But Pressman's reputation as a "tough cookie" sidelined the project. "He has his own sense of what is reasonable," Schatz says of the producer, while adding that he remains hopeful the project will one day lens. Austin Angel also never came to fruition.

Schatz saw the goals of Burnt Orange as threefold: Make a strong film program demonstrably stronger, get academia out of its ivory tower and connected with the business world and the local community, and raise funds to support the university system itself. The latter concept was one pushed hard by UT's then-President Larry Faulkner in light of decreasing state support for higher education. It also has been the sticking point, and an even greater problem has been achieving financial success and quality films simultaneously. Burnt Orange's first film, The Quiet, premiered at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival and was snatched up by Sony Pictures Classics (whose Co-President Michael Barker is a UT grad) and provided both a boost in confidence for the program and a cash infusion. But Sony recut the film drastically and added voiceover narration before releasing it in about 350 theatres. "I would love to get the director's cut out there," Schatz says. "I'm proud of the film we screened in Toronto and delivered to Sony. With the rest of it, we'll just let the chips fall where they may." But The Quiet was on the film community's radar, made money both in theatres and on DVD, and inspired investor confidence.

Tom Schatz
Tom Schatz (Photo by Mary Sledd)

Next up for Burnt Orange was The Cassidy Kids, a project that hewed closest to the model of heavily involving UT students and alumni. Poyser and Vaughan had been stopping occasionally at Schatz's office and knew about plans for Burnt Orange, plans that Poyser admits they strongly doubted would materialize. Poyser and Vaughan also knew they were red-hot after Dear Pillow. The dark but engaging feature Poyser wrote and directed and Vaughan produced earned an Film Independent's Spirit Turning Leaf Someone to Watch Award nomination. Then the pair traveled overseas to show Dear Pillow at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and crashed at fellow UT grad Tasca Shadix's place. Shadix told them of a script she'd written with yet another UT alumnus Tom Willett. In it a group of young friends solve a murder and inspire the creation of a cheesy Saturday morning children's show. But the true-life crime solvers discover years later that they may not have gotten the facts right.

Vaughan and Poyser loved the idea and pitched it to Burnt Orange, which quickly bought into it with Vaughan directing. Poyser began script rewrites – at one point, turning out three rewrites in 10 days. Vaughan remembers stressful and heady times. "I was on a steep learning curve, and so was Bryan," he says. "The film is obviously not perfect – no film is – but I think the idea of Burnt Orange was fantastic. They were just very inexperienced, and we were very inexperienced." They weren't alone. Schatz recalls at the last preproduction meeting asking how many of the crew members were working their first feature film. "Two-thirds of their hands went up," he says. The crew of 111 included 62 students and 23 alumni. "We were making a quote-unquote real movie with more equipment than we knew what to do with, a real sound person, actors we'd seen in other things, and we brought our friends along," Poyser says. Those friends included such hot local names as cinematographer P.J. Raval and editor Kyle Henry.

Vaughan, who has relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a career concentrated on film editing (he both shot and edited Dear Pillow), says the film taught him plenty about the realities of helming a film. "I think, for me, I learned a little bit more about where to compromise and where not to," he says. "I didn't fight for some battles that I should have, and maybe I fought ones I didn't need to fight." In particular, Vaughan says he should have spoken up about efforts by Burnt Orange to aim for a PG-13 rating for the film. "The whole industry is about making sure you hold on to the center of your vision," he says. "Bryan and I had a concept of The Cassidy Kids. When we got in Burnt Orange, it got diverted to something else. Ultimately we learned something. I really appreciate having been given that opportunity, even if it was hard and painful at times, but now I know more about the types of films I want to make."

Vaughan also looks back with pride at the boost the project gave many students' careers. Some moved into key positions on the Austin-shot television series Friday Night Lights, while others are working in Los Angeles at Paramount or assorted production companies. "I'm very proud of the fact that of the four films made, ours was the one that truly fulfilled the mission statement," he says. "If nothing else happens with The Cassidy Kids – and it looks like nothing will happen – I'm proud of that."

For filmmaker Adam Rifkin, whose caveman comedy Homo Erectus was Burnt Orange's third film project, a young woman named Meriwether Tull personifies his experience with the UT film arm. Tull was hired as Rifkin's personal assistant during filming, a position often known as gopher, as in "go for" coffee or "go fetch" lunch. Rifkin was so impressed with her work that he and Homo Erectus producer Brad Wyman promised Tull a job if she moved to Los Angeles. Within a couple of months she was there, Rifkin says, and when the postproduction supervisor on their next film, Look, dropped out, Tull got the job. She was then hired to also handle ongoing postproduction on Homo Erectus, which resulted in a co-producing credit. "She embodies what Burnt Orange is all about – give students the opportunity to work on real movies with professionals in the field, and then let them try to parlay that into careers," Rifkin says. "It was a lot different from other experiences I've had making independent films. That attitude is so contagious and infectious. You can't pay people enough to fake that. It comes from youthful optimism."

Schatz and Pfeiffer say more than 70% of students working Burnt Orange projects continue to work in the industry. "I do feel strongly that the academic mission was successful," says Pfeiffer, who has left Burnt Orange and moved to Marfa, a city she fell in love with when scouting locations for the film The Marfa Lights. "Forty to 50 students per film got to work on these pictures and got more than a toe into the industry. Plus, they got very good evaluations and reviews from the professionals."

Pfeiffer says Burnt Orange's success – whether past or, if one is possible, future – comes down to money and the vagaries of the industry. "The market shifted from when we started this thing," she says. "It became more and more difficult to sell independent films without huge names attached. We did very well without a lot of money. If we had raised a little more money to start, it is possible we'd still be actively making pictures." She, like Schatz, also recognizes that Burnt Orange suffered from little control over the means of distribution. "If I were starting from ground zero today, I would want to figure out how to get films to the market and not be at the mercy of the buyers," says Pfeiffer, who is now producing projects independent of Burnt Orange, including a potential adaptation of former Austinite (and former Austin Chronicle contributor) Marion Winik's memoir, First Comes Love. "I don't think the history is totally written. I think what we did was very bold, and the university was fantastically supportive. I feel good about it, and I'll feel even better about it if one of these films makes a lot of money."

The future for Homo Erectus looks promising. National Lampoon picked it up after a showing at the Slamdance Film Festival and is expected to finally release it in March as National Lampoon's Homo Erectus, after a 2007 release was delayed in hopes of piggybacking on the interest in Roland Emmerich's bigger-budget caveman film, 10,000 BC. While Burnt Orange moved out of leased offices Downtown last June and is now back on the UT campus (in four offices in the UA9 building near the Radio-TV-Film Department), during its hiatus from production, Burnt Orange retains Sam Marshall as a full-time chief financial officer and business manager leading the Homo Erectus release efforts. Rifkin applauds Schatz and Pfeiffer for taking a big risk and letting him take the lead role in the film he also wrote and directed. "I think the whole Burnt Orange concept was a great concept," Rifkin says. "I wish they were making more movies."

The image that sticks with Will Geiger, writer/director of Elvis & Anabelle, the final Burnt Orange production, is of a group of students eagerly painting more than a thousand fake sunflowers needed for a scene in the quirky tale of a funeral-home worker who magically brings a dead beauty queen back to life. Geiger got his own film-school education at what he describes as a "poor man's film school" – a junior college that had some 16mm cameras and a couple of decent instructors. He tried to offer just as big of lessons to the student hired to drive him to the set every day. "I don't think of the University of Texas as a [University of Southern California] or AFI, but I think maybe it's becoming more of that," he says.

If that is to happen, it may be up to Alex Smith to lead the way through UTFI. He is the instructor for both the recently completed fall screenwriting class and the spring production lab, both modeled after the Sundance Institute Writer's Workshop and Filmmaking Lab (of which Smith is a graduate). The first film is expected to be chosen by April 1, with principal photography set for the summer. The next academic year will involve postproduction in the fall and a marketing and distribution class, perhaps the advanced producing class now taught by John Pierson, ending the process that spring. "Making a film is a complicated beast," Smith says. "It takes a lot of organization, cooperation, and a unified vision. I hope this will be a lovely evolution of what Burnt Orange started out to be."

Schatz sees the UTFI effort as one that can also be truly interdisciplinary, drawing in Architecture students to do production design, Theatre & Dance to choreograph, Michener Center students to produce scripts. "This is something no other film school or university has been able to do, and we fully expect it to further distinguish UT from all those other big dogs on the coasts," he says of film schools located closer to Hollywood and New York City. Whether it's the new UTFI initiative or new life for Burnt Orange, he says the program will push forward. "I remain optimistic about the viability of this idea," Schatz says. "It ate up a lot more of the last five or six years of my life than expected, but I learned a lot, and it's been an adventure."  

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UT Film Institute, Burnt Orange, Alex Smith, Tom Schatz, The Cassidy Kids, Elvis & Anabelle, Homo Erectus, The Quiet

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