Monday, June 17, 2013

FRAMELINE 37: PIT STOP (2013)—The Evening Class Interview With Producer Jonathan Duffy

It was my honor to write the Frameline 37 program capsule for Yen Tan's Pit Stop (2013) [Facebook], especially after having been so enamored with Tan's earlier effort Ciao (2008), and which I replicate here for easy reference.

It might be difficult for urban gays to relate to the circumscribed lives of their small-town brethren, where options to assuage loneliness narrow down to limited or missed opportunities. Then again, loneliness is a universal animal, heedless of specific geography other than the vast terrain of the yearning heart, and when the "right one" finally comes along, it doesn't matter whether it's among the throngs of San Francisco or at a pit stop in Texas.

With his third feature, director Yen Tan joins forces with David Lowery (St. Nick, Ain't Them Bodies Saints) to craft a charming romance characterized by Variety's Dennis Harvey as "low key but ultimately deeply satisfying." B. Ruby Rich adds: "Yen Tan's gift for long takes and his comfort with silences makes demands on the audience that films ought to make—and pays them back with a surprising happy ending."

Construction contractor Gabe (Bill Heck) and forklift operator Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda) are caught in compromised relationships: Gabe with his ex-wife and young child whom he wants to responsibly raise, and homebound Ernesto with a young lover anxious to start an independent life in the big city. Despite both being handsome and available, Gabe and Ernesto are insecure about their future chances for love. With heartfelt nuance and patient observation, Tan captures honest performances from an accomplished cast.

Pit Stop was, likewise, one of the twelve films chosen by the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) to participate in their inaugural A2E Direct Distribution Lab. It was in that context that I met and interviewed Jonathan Duffy, one of Pit Stop's producers. My thanks to Bill Proctor for setting us up to talk.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Jonathan, can you speak to how you became involved with A2E? Are you from Austin?

Jonathan Duffy: I am from Austin but I moved to San Francisco shortly after filming Pit Stop. I came into A2E because we all know that technology is changing and—after hearing all my filmmaker friends discuss their experiences with distribution, some positive, many not—I knew that I didn't have most of the answers. I knew that I needed to know more. A2E sounded like a really great opportunity to listen to the questions other people were asking and maybe pick up a few answers.

Guillén: How did you first hear about A2E?

Duffy: Through Alicia, who invited me to participate with Pit Stop. I'm one of the 12 films invited to the lab, by way of an email they sent out. Pit Stop is an authentic portrayal of two working class gay men in a small town in Texas. There's Gabe (Bill Heck), recently left behind by a lover who was a married man, who's now hanging close to a relationship with his ex-wife. They're working on being parents together. Then there's Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda) who's at the end of a relationship with a younger man and still involved emotionally in a way with an ex who's now in a coma. Both characters are experiencing heartache in one way or another; but, they have eternal hope that someday they will find somebody who will love them like they want to be loved.

Guillén: What most impressed me about Pit Stop was the suggestion that a gay person would want a life other than a life in the big city. It feels almost like a new narrative idea because the cliche is that every young gay man runs away to a big city to find themselves. Yet in Pit Stop you have two strong characters who choose to remain in a small town, even though it complicates and frustrates their search for love. But the truth is that running to the city doesn't necessarily mean they will find love either.

Duffy: Yen did his research. He talked to a lot of people who specifically made the choice to stay behind in small towns. He drove back and forth between major cities in Texas, passing through these small towns that made him wonder if there were gay people there and, if so, why? Why would they be there? Through social networks and message boards he contacted such individuals and asked them that specific question. Yen maintained journalistic integrity in his research and he genuinely cared about the results. We all see these movies where a gay person is beat up or terrible things happen to them, but several of the individuals Yen interviewed had a live-and-let-live attitude, some weren't even necessarily "out", and they were just living in a small town because the people they loved were living there and this was the only life they knew. They already seemed to have a sense that running off to a city was not going to solve their needs.

Guillén: Exactly. Pit Stop also shows that many of the characters and scenarios depicted in all too many GLBT films advocate a certain romanticized irresponsibility. Pit Stop offers responsible, nuanced characters. Gabe's unwillingness to abandon the responsibility of helping his ex-wife raise their child, for example, strikes me as a fresh (and welcome) characterization of a gay male. Several of the films invited to A2E were recommended through cultural agencies....

Duffy: Our's was not. Pit Stop was simply invited by Alicia. I had just moved here and she knew I was interested in having a relationship with the San Francisco Film Society and in meeting more filmmakers. The Pit Stop team were asking questions about distribution, both locally and globally. We wanted men like the characters of Gabe and Ernesto to have the chance to see this movie wherever they lived. That was very important to us but we didn't quite know how to do that.

Guillén: What distribution model did you initially have in mind to get Pit Stop out and about? Was it to circulate the film in niche film festivals?

Duffy: We intended to have a festival run. We had the great fortune to premiere at Sundance, and then got into South by Southwest. We've been fortunate in that festival programmers have welcomed us. But what most consultants will tell you is that most filmmakers are reactive and—after gaining entry into festivals—will wait to see what comes to them. Do people come and offer to buy the film or are they forced into other choices? So what excited me about the A2E Lab was that they were going to talk about tools that can help filmmakers make a plan from the very beginning based on real knowledge about the various platforms and what they offer.

Guillén: They've offered that, I understand, through a kind of "speed dating" process where each filmmaker sits down for 20 minutes with each technical service or launch pad. Are these sessions done separately; the tech services distinct from the launch pads?

Duffy: I can't speak to the launch pads so much because a lot of those groups we haven't intermingled with much except during happy hours; but, the tech platforms we've talked to have basically outlined their levels of expertise, whether international and domestic, or just North American, whether DVD or VOD, some with a semi-theatrical component. I might have had ideas about each of those forms of distribution, either through my friends' experiences or what I've read about online, but what was great and what came out of each conversation was the personification of each organization, which for me matters. It's not some faceless company who's talking about taking 30% in a transaction where the filmmaker has to do this or do that. A film is your baby, you care about it, and you don't want a merely transactional relationship; you want somebody to hold your baby and to show it off to a lot of other people.

Guillén: How many tech services have you spoken to so far?

Duffy: Roughly somewhere around 15.

Guillén: They're tossing ideas at you, possibilities, game plans. Do you feel that any of these suggestions are actually going to help you with distribution for your film?

Duffy: Yeah. Being my first project, I've just been thankful up to this point. I'm really happy that people respond to the film and I feel confident that we'll get a positive result for our stakeholders and all the people who helped us make the movie. What's been uncertain for me is the future life of the film after the festivals and how all of that will take shape. Coming out of the lab, after talking to these services, I feel we have a little bit more of the answers because, for this film, it's a global question. I certainly didn't have answers about how we were going to distribute in the UK or Latin America, what platforms would allow us to do that, and which platforms were really good at doing that. I didn't know if we had to get the film dubbed or subtitled and I've learned that certain countries like certain things. In Germany, for example, they want the film dubbed. Knowing that requires an investment on our part if we want to sell Pit Stop in Germany, which I believe would be a great film for German audiences.

Guillén: Not only is direct distribution one of the suggested tools coming out of A2E, but emphasis on ways to return investment to stakeholders. Have you learned anything at A2E to do just that? Anything to suggest to future investors for future projects?

Duffy: We have definitely learned that there are choices; but, the thing is, though, that it's different for each project. Each project has their own reality. Each project has their own team and you have to know what your team is capable of and willing to do. If we're going to embark down certain paths, you're going to have to keep inspired to do what's necessary. You can't just rely on someone to handle those things for you, which is what has traditionally been done for filmmakers. What's been discussed in these sessions is that frequently when it's done for you—we used the holding the baby example—people are protective of their projects and then let down about the results. What A2E has done is to empower us to not be scared to explore these alternative options. We all know how hard it is to make a movie. Everyone in that lab knows that. They've gone the rounds trying to get investors to believe in their project. Once they've got past that, they have to make the movie, edit the movie, and all of it each step of the way is hard. Even Troll 2 was a hard movie to make.

Guillén: And just as hard to watch!! [Laughs.]

Duffy: But the point is that even these bad movies are hard to make. To make a great movie is even fucking harder. Now we're aware that this other step of direct distribution is equally hard, but rewarding.

Guillén: I know that you're still in the process of assimilating the information you're receiving and recognizing the potential of the tools being offered to you so I understand that anything you say is evolving; but, I'd like to know if there's anything specific you've learned from the A2E lab that you will apply to the future distribution of Pit Stop?

Duffy: For our next step, we have to really think about our audience in a way that goes beyond tailoring it just for gays, and to reach out to our straight constituency. Fortunately, so far, straight audiences have responded well to Pit Stop. Some of that has to do with avoiding stereotypes not only for gay characters but straight characters as well. We don't have the angry straight guy threatening gays, for example. There's also no reliance on dumb country people. Audiences like the characters in Pit Stop. They like them as people, gay or straight, living in the country, or living in the city. I want real people, all kinds of people, to see this movie. So we have to think about audiences, about our initial audience and our projected audience, and we have to think about how our key art is going to catch their attention. Several of these tech providers have talked to me about how we can improve on that.

Guillén: What do they feel is wrong with the poster art as it stands?

Duffy: This is a very touchy subject because Yen is the graphic designer. He's a well-known, effective graphic designer and I think he's made a pretty image that I'm attached to in a lot of ways. But what they've told us is that we're not taking advantage of the good looks of our actors. I don't want to presume what Yen was trying to do with the poster image but what I saw in his work is that he took our ensemble cast and showed how together they are, how interwoven their lives are, do you know what I mean? And I loved that. I think it's brilliant. But from the perspective of someone who wasn't part of our team, they didn't necessarily get that. They said that they couldn't really tell what the film was about from looking at the poster. Whether I like it or not, as the producer I have to listen to that. I had multiple people in that room tell me that they were at Sundance—where we had a good run and a decent amount of coverage—but they didn't even know we were there. And why is that? Was the poster ineffective?

Guillén: Were the colors too muted? Was it not sexy enough?

Duffy: I, for one, loved the colors because we wanted it to be subtle.

Guillén: There's certainly nothing wrong with starting out with one idea and graduating to another. I consider that critique a very important one. By way of example, there's a film production in Idaho that I'm monitoring—Smoke, written by Alan Heathcock and directed by Cody Gittings and Stephen Heleker—that recently applied grant funds towards a competition for local graphic artists to create a poster for their film. They held an event where six or seven of these artists displayed their posters to the public and it was fascinating to see how people reacted, which posters were favored over others, and which were bought at auction. As a film journalist maintaining a blog site, poster art is very important to me. Finding appropriate images to supplement my text is one of my favorite efforts and I especially enjoy looking at poster art, particularly when a film has trafficked internationally. It intrigues me how posters vary from country to country, emphasizing one element over the other. This advice you've received to reconsider your poster art reminds me there's an actual mercantile effect to graphic design with a measurable economic reception. I'd always just thought of movie posters as aesthetic.

Duffy: Which is how I've always thought of movie posters as well.

Guillén: I frequently lean on old French movie posters because I find them colorful and dramatic, and I like that sense of international penache.

Duffy: But as a technical point, I would say that to extend the life of the film we would like to do some kind of theatrical, possibly in tandem with or in front of our DVD and VOD release, and there's a lot of things I didn't know about with regard to the rules of how theaters respond to that. Some theaters don't like simultaneous distribution. Others are okay with it. We talked to TUGG who partner with filmmakers to set up theatrical releases in cities only if there's an ambassador there or an organization who will help sell a minimum number of tickets to break even to cover the theater cost. If they can get to that point, they'll do it, and then they split the profits with the filmmaker. That's an exciting way to get the film, let's say, to gay Modesto while not taxing the film's limited resources. For me that's an exciting partnership because it means we can get the film to people without jeopardizing the investors' money and being responsible in spreading the word.

Also, since this was my first film to produce, I didn't know if showing a film in a theater would cannibalize my DVD/VOD release? Apparently, that's a silly question because each of these tech services have claimed the opposite, saying no, it doesn't, it helps it, it accentuates, it builds.

Guillén: It gains pedigree.

Duffy: Yeah, but I was worried about it. I was worried that if we showed Pit Stop in a theater, we would only be getting 35% of the screen fee, that it costs money and we'd be losing money, but if we just sell it on DVD we might get a lot more of that percentage, and isn't that better in the long term? What I heard in the lab is that if you do all of it well, it's better. More people see it, it gains pedigree as you say....

Guillén: Let alone that it creates a complexity in reception; the reception becomes diverse.

Duffy: And, apparently, as part of that process of gaining pedigree, some people want to know if a film has shown first in a movie house before going straight to DVD / VOD.

Guillén: Absolutely. I can only speak for myself, but I am less prone to watch a film that's gone directly to DVD / VOD for fear that it is somehow not as good a film as one that has had a theatrical release. If a film has gone straight to DVD, it tells me that there is something lacking in the film. I may be completely wrong, but that's my impulse.

Duffy: Right! Going straight to DVD is like the scarlet letter. When you make a movie, one of the first things you're always asked is: "Did you get distribution?" Bringing together all these really smart people at this A2E conference has changed the phrasing of that question and taken the "did you get?" out of that question and added instead, "What is your plan? How are you going to be empowered to make this happen?"

Guillén: Namely, direct distribution in the hands of the filmmakers, granting them agency in their film's commercial success. Choosing to no longer play a passive role of waiting for someone else to distribute your film.

Duffy: But also, if you choose to create your own team to distribute your film, that's not a failure. There's proven success everywhere you look in film that self-distribution works. And we're trying not to even use that term anymore. "Self-distribution" doesn't express the team effort with all the different platforms you might partner with to get the distribution done. More now we're thinking in terms of alternative distribution plans that are still aimed towards commercial success. A small film like Pit Stop—with its human themes of looking for love—why should it follow a standard path?

Guillén: Yen's previous film Ciao didn't follow a standard path, yet the film achieved a theatrical run.

Duffy: You're right. Ciao was well-received. I mean, I'm a young straight guy and was fresh out of college when I saw Ciao and I loved it for the same reasons that you've expressed: there were these quiet moments that revealed a true humanity.

Guillén: Some connective tissue between Ciao and Pit Stop is David Lowery's involvement, whose own film St. Nick I deeply admired. Did Yen bring David in for this project? That wasn't a decision of yours? In fact, whenabouts did you become involved with the project as a producer? I first heard about Pit Stop when Yen launched his crowdfunding campaign to raise the seed money.

Duffy: I was involved even then. Basically, Yen had gone through the Outfest Screenwriting Lab a number of years ago and he had talked to James Johnston and Eric Steele, both who have helped produce Pit Stop, and both from Texas: James in Ft. Worth and Eric in Dallas. They were all working on different projects together, but for some reason, trying to find the right catalysts to make a film "go" just wasn't happening. We all started talking about working on Pit Stop together a short time before the USA Artists campaign happened. Kelly Williams, my producing partner, knew I liked Yen's film Ciao so all of us got on the phone and decided Pit Stop deserved the chance to be made. We all read the script and felt passionately about it. We wanted to get it made so we all made the commitment to do that. Right around that time, we got a Texas Filmmakers Production Fund (TFPF) grant from the Austin Film Society and so that built the momentum. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was a helpful amount. So then, as a team we were kind of like, okay, we've made this decision to go and now the Austin Film Society's behind us so now we really got to go. We committed to raise over $30,000 online.

Guillén: Which you did.

Duffy: We did!! We were successful. We were the number one project on the USA Artists website for the entirety of our campaign. That was great! Then we said, okay, we need to raise a little more money and we did that through a combination of grants and investors that we knew. We set about creating a cast and crew of people who we felt reflected the world of the story and that were just generally kind people, people that we liked to be around and either already knew or wanted to know, and they became the Pit Stop family. They all sweated in the Texas heat in the summer and we made the film together.

Then Yen edited the film with Don Swaynos, a talented Austin guy and a funny individual, and they both got in there and looked at all the pieces that we had and made what we all watch now. They did a great job. So that's basically my involvement with Pit Stop. It was my first film to produce. I'd been thinking about doing it for years and I had been reading scripts for a long time, but it was Pit Stop that really got me. I felt it was the right time with the right story.

Guillén: Then the film premiered at Sundance, where it was received well. You got a lot of good write-ups out of that festival.

Duffy: We did! We were very well treated. The write-ups were great, but what was really great were the things that people would come up and say to us. A 60-year-old straight woman came up to me and said, "I want to go home and make-out with my husband for an hour." Who knew this gay film was going to make her say that? It was so great. And then there were other people who loved pets and wanted to know more about Sasha the cat, and about the dog. They knew how important their pets were to them and they could relate to how important the pets were to Gabe and Ernesto.

Guillén: Clearly, being a producer on your first film has been a positive experience for you? You're not done with the Pit Stop project by any means, that's why you're attending A2E, and the film has barely started its festival run; but, I imagine you're going to want to produce again?

Duffy: Totally. Gearing up.

Guillén: Speaking of the film's festival life, Pit Stop will be at Frameline? You'll be accompanying the film in San Francisco?

Duffy: Yes, I'll be there.

Guillén: Yen Tan will be there?

Duffy: Yes, and we hope to have some of our cast at Frameline as well. One of the things I was most excited about in making Pit Stop was that it might play at the Castro Theater and it's made me very happy that Frameline has chosen to do that.

Guillén: I was certainly honored when asked to write Frameline's capsule for Pit Stop. I hope you like it and that it helps draw people in.

Duffy: Thank you for your positive affirmation of the film and your interest in it, and in our journey.


Amparo said...

This is cool!

Michael Guillen said...

Kind of you to say, Amparo. Thanks for stopping by to comment.