Call it the film industry version of speed dating. On this side of the table sit eager suitors: writers, producers and directors with film projects in various stages of completion. Directly across from them are the gatekeepers and moneymen who control the avenues of distribution and finance. Can a love connection be made?
That's the hope of Film-Com, a new event attempting to turn Nashville into a one-of-a-kind film market. Starting Tuesday, April 13, and continuing through April 16 at the downtown Hilton, filmmakers from as far away as South America will be in Nashville to pitch their movies in private half-hour sessions with visiting industry bigwigs.
Many film markets exist throughout the world where movie companies can hawk their wares for theatrical and video distribution. This one, focuses on getting filmmakers a chance to snag that holiest of grails: the funds to actually finish their films. Announced by FilmNashville founder Andy van Roon and Mayor Karl Dean in December, the inaugural Film-Com will bring filmmakers face to face with keepers of the keys to domestic and foreign distribution, P&A (prints and advertising) capital, banks, gap financing, co-production partners, packaging agents and product integration specialists.
"Our basic operating theory is that a rising tide floats all boats," says van Roon, a stalwart booster of Nashville film who juggles a multitude of projects and enterprises. Extending his metaphor, van Roon compares the conditions for domestic and foreign distribution to sea level — the natural state in film centers such as New York and L.A. The Tennessee film industry, like most other states, is floating around "in a kind of reservoir a bit below sea level," van Roon tells the Scene. "So our goal is to bring our local reservoir to sea level via connecting our industry to international distribution."
As the 20 filmmakers whose projects made it through Film-Com's three-part judging process know all too well, that's much easier said than done. Local filmmakers who have chased funding halfway around the world — literally, in some cases — say that backing for indie films has dried up substantially as hedge funds have withered. Meanwhile, reports from formerly go-go festivals such as Sundance and Toronto show distributors clutching their purse strings with a death grip. In this climate, any shot at financing and distribution, however slim, is hard to dismiss.
That's why acclaimed Argentinean filmmaker Alejandro Saderman is flying more than 5,000 miles to grab at the gold ring with his work-in-progress Bad Weed, a drug-trafficking thriller based on a true story. Saderman has lined up a "dream team" of Argentine actors and an Oscar-winning Venezuelan art director. He says he has financial backing from the Argentine National Film Institute and Argentinean and Venezuelan co-producers, as well as a Brazilian distributor. But he's still looking for the final financial push to get the film made — and he's not a first-timer, either. Saderman's most recent film, the tango docudrama The Last Bandoneon, played numerous festivals and won honorable mention at the 2007 Nashville Film Festival.
"I am basically looking for financial backing, but this could include international presales or distribution," Saderman tells the Scene by email. "I have never been in this kind of situation; it's like exploring an unknown land. I hope it'll be fun."
Venturing also onto this unfamiliar terrain is Jay Carl, a Nashville ReMax agent who is also an avid arts patron and screenwriter. Carl is part of the team pitching Mud Dog Blues, a family movie set in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Nashville singer-songwriter and music-video director Marcel Chagnon is lined up to direct, and the project already has actors such as GregAllen Williams from Remember the Titans on board.
Making movies, Carl says, "is all about co-ventures. It's not just one entity that gets it done."
So what's in it for the Hollywood honchos, coming from companies such as Sony, The Weinstein Company, Newmarket, William Morris, The Panda Fund and Nu Image/Millennium (along with reps from LaVergne-based distribution giant Ingram Entertainment)? The movie executives are willing to leave the rarified world of Hollywood to attend Film-Com in Nashville because they "recognize Nashville as a place they can get a sense of Middle America," Carl says. Plus, as the exotic visitors they wouldn't be on the coasts, they'll be wined and dined and get a special concert of movie music at the Schermerhorn.
By timing the event to coincide with the Nashville Film Festival, van Roon hopes to create a synergy that will add "a pure business-market dimension of significant depth to the overall equation."
"The goal is to enable our community to collectively operate in the way that the American Film Market works in tandem with the AFI Fest in L.A., or the Marché du Film works in tandem with Cannes," van Roon says. This marriage of business and pleasure, he believes, will "bring us more in line with a Sundance, Toronto or SXSW."
Although the group also includes projects from London, New Hampshire, North Carolina and California, the majority of filmmakers taking the elevator up to law firm Bass, Berry & Sims' state-of-the-art screening room on the 28th floor of the Pinnacle Tower — where much of Film-Com's wheeling and dealing will take place —have roots firmly planted in Middle Tennessee.
Familiar names will be on deck. The dean of Nashville screenwriters, Coke Sams, writer-producer of the Ernest films and director of Existo, will be there; so will Bob Pondillo, an MTSU professor who had a short film shown at Cannes. Writer-director Steve Taylor, whose religious drama The Second Chance was released by an offshoot of Sony, returns with a project based on Donald Miller's acclaimed book Blue Like Jazz, while Chris St. Croix plans a follow-up to his recent thriller Shattered.
Dave Spring, president of Nashville's Doorpost Film Project, will make the pitch for two films that participated in the project's annual short film contest: "Butterfly Circus," directed by Joshua Weigel, which won the $100,000 grand prize, and the urban fantasy "Charlie Thistle," which placed third. Whether the films will succeed in getting the backing to take them to feature length "is the billion-dollar question," Spring says. But there's hope, he believes, because "L.A. has a love affair with Nashville."
The proposed films span virtually every genre. Former Nashvillian Steven R. Monroe, who's made several proficient low-budget horror films for the Syfy channel, has a new film on the table, as does Lone Wolf tattoo artist and convention mogul Ben Dixon, whose Bloody Moon Productions has carved out a niche for straight-to-video shockers. Two filmmakers are presenting animated projects: Tennessee Tech chemistry professor turned screenwriter Barbara Albers Jackson (with a version of the Hindu story of Rama), and Diane Cathey and singer-songwriter Dobie Gray (with the children's-story characters the Possum Twins). Wes Pryor and Greg Welsch will pitch a documentary, Nashville musician Tim Matthews has a comedy, and Emmy winner David Van Hooser comes bearing a true-crime project.
The last film to be certified, on April 6, was Union, a $12 million project to be helmed by Angelo Pizzo, writer and producer of the inspirational sports favorites Hoosiers and Rudy. The basketball drama is based on the true story of an interracial friendship between two high-school basketball stars at Union High School in Gallatin, Tenn., which closed in 1970 following desegregation.
"There are literally thousands of prospective film projects out there, and hundreds in Tennessee, so there is no shortage of concepts," van Roon says. "The shortage is in funding and distribution. A coherent distribution strategy is what gives those entities providing production funding reasonable assurance that there is a bona fide chance of seeing returns on their investment."
Of course, if the filmmakers somehow secure both completion funds and distribution, they've still got a long way to go. They'll have to face (among other factors) skyrocketing marketing costs, an uphill promotional battle, and the indifference of chain theaters, which have no qualms about pushing the little guys out of the picture to make room for five screens of 3-D.
But those are matters for once Film-Com's participants reach sea level. For now, it's full steam ahead, until the water runs out.
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