Thursday, October 13, 2011
Following the uncertain reception accorded to my first feature "Cafe Society", we returned to New York--somewhat dispirited but still essentially optimistic. After al, Roger Ebert had really liked the movie. Others had too. It was as if nobody wanted to be the first to come out and say that they loved it. I sensed (and believe I was correct in this) that the finishing of the film was partly to blame--it was still overlength and under-scored musically (by which I mean NOT scored--I tried to do with period records only which is a lovely conceit--Woody Allen does it all the time--but wasn't really right for this movie).
At that time, Showtime had gotten into the "made of cable" movie business in earnest. One of the ways to do this with some efficiency was to not just make their own movies, but buy already finished movies that had trouble securing domestic distribution. The movies needed to have recognizable cast elements, elegant production values and some sort of "hook" to capture their audience.
And boy, did "Cafe Society" fit that bill. Showtime made a handsome offer to debut the film on their channel, promoted it heavily and made the producers happy by at least confirming that they hadn't made a mistake in making the film in the first place. The film was scheduled for showing, a few alterations were made (music was added) and that should have been the end of that.
But I was a young man with a mission and my mission had not been to make a film for Showtime. It had been to make a kickass
indie film that would be seen in theaters and get me noticed. I say that with just a tinge of embarrassment from this distance. Just a tinge, though. For anyone who goes into the racket has to start with a fairly healthy ego and inflated sense of self worth just to get to the starting gate. I hadn't waited those five years since my short film to make my first feature and have it air a couple of times at 10PM on cable. No. That wouldn't do.
It took a couple of years, but in early 1997 I'd made some money writing scripts and decided that, rather than investing in the stock market (as my now wealthy friends did back then) I would spend the money releasing "Cafe Society" in theaters. Or in A theater--one would be all I could afford. I looked around New York (where I lived and where I felt the movie truly belonged) and found a lovely little theater called The Screening Room down on Canal Street and Varick. The theater had a lovely bar/restaurant attached to it and the whole thing had a vibe that felt incredibly correct for my movie. What I didn't know at the time, though, was that you don't just go out and rent a theater. The theater owners need to want to show your movie and believe that there's some profit in them for taking the trouble to do so. A lovely guy named Henry Hersowitz, had opened the theater with his partner. They listened to my proposal, watched the movie and then decided that yes--there was something potentially in it for everyone to open "Cafe Society" in New York. But certain things had to be agreed to. For one thing, I had to agree to pay for a minimum amount of advertising space. And we had to reach gross receipts of a certain number for them to agree to hold the film over past the initial one week run. Nothing deterred me. I assured them I would handle it all and that we'd be in for a long run. Jesus, what happens to our confidence as we grow older?
I hired a publicist, an art director and made up a rigorous schedule. I reached out to all news outlets with the story I thought would sell--the true story of the Jelke/Ward scandal. Some bit. Others were more interested in the story of me releasing my own movie. I put together a proper premiere using sponsorship from Mercedes Benz and other vendors to cover the costs. (Mercedes delievered a 1957 Mercedes to the front of the theater for the premiere. I remember a very young Gretchen Mol posing on it on our premiere night). John Harny of the New York Daily News wrote the best article--click here to read it.
And then we opened. The first reviews I read were in the tabs as the New York Times hadn't hit the stands yet. They were both poor. Weirdly they also both used the same "joke" headline: "So Noir Yet So Far". I remember, in those pre-internet days, reading them at the newstand on the corner of sixth avenue and fourth street and going right back to bed. It had been the fastest fifty thousand dollars I'd ever lost.
And then I got a call from my publicist, Alicia Goldstein. "Congratulations on your New York Times review", she said. I hadn't
even bothered to go back out for it, so convinced was I by the other notices that the whole thing had been a huge miscalculation. But in fact Stephen Holden's review that Friday morning saved the movie's life. Our opening weekend was actually quite busy--and all of that times review. The following week, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel reviewed it on TV. I wish I had the video of it. It made me cry when I watched it. Good cry, not bad.
To sum it up, "Cafe Society" had a life beyond what anyone had thought it was destined to have after its initial showing. Another small releasing company came along and booked the film in art house theaters in Philly, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and DC. I did interviews galore talking the film up and dutifully saved each and every clipping and review we got. (I've since misplaced the folder completely). But the best prize of all--at least for me--came after the New York Times review appeared.
I got a call Friday afternoon from Henry Hersovitz saying that the theater had been called by Woody Allen's assistant. He read the review and wanted to see the film. They were thrilled and invited him to come down to the theater and see the film off-hours. No, that wouldn't work the assistant explained. He had his own theater and needed to have a print sent up for him to see it. Unfortunately, we had only one print of the film which made letting it disappear for the day incredibly dangerous--especially on opening weekend. Once this was explained, the Woody camp came back with a solution. If we could deliver the film and have the messenger stand by, Woody would watch the film immediately. Jesus, I thought. He must really want to see this thing. So that's what we did. I never heard weather he liked it or not but a few years later I offered him a part in a movie and the response I got back from his reps was a polite no with an acknowledgement that he liked my work.
So that was that. My first film cost me every dime I'd initially earned on it and more. To this day it remains unavailable on DVD and only rarely turns up on cable. You could call this a story of disappointment but somehow--I don't know how--I saw the whole thing as a terribly promising start to things. What the fuck was wrong with me, you ask? Simple. To paraphrase Richard Brooks (see previous previous post), I had decided that I wanted to make movies enough to eat shit unsalted. All things being equal, there was salt on the table at the end of the day.
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 11:50 AM