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Theatrical run often a slow walk

Spirit nominees took long way to bigscreen

Just because a film doesn’t get acquired by a big distributor after its festival premiere doesn’t mean it can’t have a life.

While more than a half dozen of this year’s Spirit Award nominees didn’t get snapped up at fest, they’re still making their way to theaters; they’re just taking their time.

Goran Dukic’s post-mortem romantic comedy “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” nominated for two Spirits, premiered more than a year ago at Sundance. But it’s only now sealing a deal with After Dark Films. “I was never concerned about selling the movie,” says producer Tatiana Kelly. “My concern was that we would sell the film, but people would not get a real chance to see it. That meant being a little more patient and not operating out of fear.”

Patience is definitely a virtue for many of these filmmakers. When execs didn’t immediately come knocking, they steadfastly worked to raise the profile of their movies themselves.

“Everybody passed, but I kept going on the festival circuit,” says Ali Selim, director of “Sweet Land,” a Spirit nominee for first feature and female lead. After winning audience awards at various festivals from the Hamptons to Florida, Selim formed an arrangement with distribution vet Jeff Lipsky (formerly of October and Lot 47 films). “Jeff saw the film, and for him, it had a very clear marketing path,” says Selim. “The audiences might not be in New York or Los Angeles, but we focused on the center part of the country.”

Still playing in theaters around the U.S. from Aspen to Dubuque, “Sweet Land” will hit at least 300 screens, says Selim, with estimated grosses of $1.4 million so far. “Somebody might have picked it up and not given it that clear path,” adds Selim. “I could have had a week at the Angelika and that would have been it.”

Mike Akel, director of the mockumentary “Chalk,” admits he didn’t have stars or a Sundance laurel, either. “So we stayed below the radar, campaigning on the festival circuit,” he says, “plowing the field for a year.” After being accepted at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the filmmakers finally harvested a pact with Morgan Spurlock Presents, which distributes through Hart Sharp Video. A tentative theatrical release is also set for April.

Self-help ‘Eyed’

But the most unique story of self-distribution comes from “Four Eyed Monsters” duo Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, who are nominated for cinematography and John Cassavetes prizes. In 2005, “Four Eyed Monsters” had successful screenings at Slamdance and SXSW, but distribs stayed away. “It’s not a niche film you can just plug into an existing audience base,” admits Crumley about the pic, a digital exploration of his and Buice’s unusual courtship. “So to go beyond film festivals, we felt we needed to build our own community.”

Through a series of video podcasts, the filmmakers developed that fan base and, using viewers’ zip codes, plotted out the geographic demand for the film. With this information, they were able to book the movie in six major markets around the country, for Thursdays in September.

Though total grosses amounted to just $13,523, the “Four Eyed” team kept the momentum going with a one-week run in New York, which yielded valuable reviews from the New York Times and the Village Voice. Sundance Channel bought TV rights and, with a little help from the movie’s enthusiastic online following (its MySpace page has more than 12,000 friends), the film won a national distribution deal via IndieWire and Emerging Pictures’ Undiscovered Gems series.

Ryan Harper, producer of “Steel City,” also decided to go it alone. After “Steel City” premiered in the Sundance 2006 dramatic competition, the film received a couple of conventional distribution offers, with advances ranging from “nothing to $25,000,” Harper says. “I have been down that road before, and the money received by the filmmaker after expenses is just enough to have a cup of coffee at Denny’s two years later.”

For Steven Bognar, the producer/co-director of “A Lion in the House,” a 225-minute docu nominee about cancer-afflicted children, a significant theatrical release was never realistic, he admits.

And yet, critics at the film Web site Reverse Shot who moonlight at Magnolia Pictures wanted to give the film wider exposure. Booked in 12 cities before its PBS broadcast, the film’s total ticket sales amounted to only $4,500, but Bognar was pleased. “We crafted the film for it to be seen with an audience, and it meant the world to us,” he says.

“I think independent filmmakers have to strike a balance between hope and reality check,” Bognar adds. “You have to have that self-delusional hope to do those things to help your film, but for one’s sanity, you have to count yourself lucky that the film did what it did.”

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