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Picture Imperfect.

Getting second movie made is tough

During the golden age of Hollywood the studio system reaped millions by placing A-list stars in priestly vestments and nun habits. In 1938, Spencer Tracy stepped into the role of Father Flanagan in Boys Town, proving that morality meant money. Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Frank Sinatra and Charlton Heston all followed, earning kudos as men and women of the cloth.

The system revolves around money, and whoever can make a profitable film, even a nonprofit, can succeed.

Initial success in the movie business wasn't easy for the Walls, Miss.-based Sacred Heart League. The follow-up effort to its surprise 1996 moneymaker The Spitfire Grill has proven to be just as arduous. Rather than becoming a perennial independent movie force, the most recent project has been in development for the past five years.

After deciding to pursue the film option of Osha Gray Davidson's book The Best of Enemies, a story about the relationship between an African American activist and an Exhalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, the organization found it was in a bidding war against a significant Hollywood star. That actor was Nick Nolte.

"Nick Nolte has a penchant for doing movies that he believes in. He's interested in causes and stories that he thinks have societal value," said Roger Courts, executive director of the Sacred Heart League. "We arranged a meeting in which Nick described the story that he saw and I described how I saw it and we had the same vision. So Nick said, 'Fine, I will advise the author to give you the literary option providing that you sign a contract with me stating that if you make this movie, I'll be the star in it."'

Even with story rights and star actor in tow, the film continues to be weighed down by an insufficient script. The process is one with which Courts is now familiar and he is more than happy to pass along his experience to other nonprofits.

"There have been a lot of nonprofits that have come to me, religious and otherwise, and what I've said repeatedly is, don't get stars in your eyes," he said. "The genius of making a film, in my view, is the screenplay. This is where most projects fail. They fall because there's a lot of pressure on the producers to make the movie before they have the screenplay right."

Even before thinking about delving into the medium, a nonprofit should re-examine its mission. Years ago, many insiders of the Sacred Heart League believed that they were built as a Catholic direct mail organization. Only after much thought did they determine that they actually served as religious communicators, Courts explained. That redefinition of purpose led to the first stages of what was to become a successful production company.

For the Sacred Heart League, breakout success came in the form of The Spitfire Grill - the story of a female ex-convict trying to right her life by starting over in a small town. The struggle to get the film made was almost as taxing as the main character's fictional life.

"It took me 20 years from the conception to the actual making of The Spitfire Grill," explained Courts. "Everything was difficult. We had no 'in' in the industry. We had no friends. Obviously we had no reputation, except as a Catholic charity and a lot of people found the idea that we were contemplating making a feature film ludicrous and comical and didn't take it seriously."

After unsuccessfully searching for five years for the proper story concept to bring to the big screen, Courts approached MacGuyver creator and writer Lee David Zlotoff with his dilemma. Courts was looking for a story that embodied Judeo-Christian principles, such as love of God, love of fellow man and love and respect of creation.

"I told the writer, no gratuitous sex, no profanity, no violence and he laughed and said, 'But you want it to be commercially viable?"' recounted Courts. Ziotoff, a devout Jew, agreed to the terms and was paid $10,000 to compose three original story concepts.

When one of the ideas pitched by Zlotoff turned out to be the genesis of The Spitfire Grill, the task of getting the movie made had begun - along with an on-the-fly "how to" education on producing films.

"There's a stepped process defined by the Writers Guild of America," said Courts. "First you do a story concept, then there's usually a treatment outline and then there's a first draft and any of these things can have revisions. So we had a treatment outline and then we had a revision to it where we had a lot of input. So we went through- this writing process. Then a first draft, second draft, shooting script and then by that time we were ready to make the movie."

Despite Zlotoff agreeing to work for the minimum salary allowed under Writer's Guild rules, the writing process had racked up a bill of $120,000. For Courts, it was money well spent as the script attracted top-level talent including Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn and Marcia Gay Harden, who won her own Oscar years later. With an eye on the budget, principle photography wrapped well within the lines of the organization's $6 million budget.

"There were many, many instances where people - they're very artistic, very talented and all that - wanted to deviate from the budget," Courts remembered.

"I would say no because I know how to manage a budget. Some people in the media would like you to think that what they do is so exciting and so esoteric and different, well it isn't different."

A film's soundtrack generally adds emotion and drama to the story but Courts learned that it was a bigger subtraction from the checkbook than he had planned. The organization had budgeted $50,000 toward the movie's score and that money quickly dried up, leaving an awkwardly thin soundtrack attached to the film.

With a screening for Hollywood studio heads approaching, a temporary track was constructed. A temp track contains bits and pieces of pre-existing works for the sole purpose of having a score for a screening. Courts feared that by taking the best works from composers such as John Williams and James Horner, the permanent track would never live up to the temporary track.

Horner, who would go on to win an Oscar for his work on Titanic, caught wind of the project and agreed to tackle the score. In addition, he agreed to a cut-rate fee, saving about $30,000.

As 1995 was coming to an end, postproduction was frenzied in trying to beat the deadline to enter The Spitfire Grill at the Sundance Film festival. The print of the Horner-enhanced feature arrived for viewing on Christmas Eve, but not without more problems.

"My heart just sank because they had the mix so off - the score that James Homer had written was so low that you couldn't hear it in a lot of places," said Courts.

With most of the industry shut down due to the holidays, the organization worked the telephones and surprisingly, everyone who was called answered and agreed to re-mix the project.

Now complete, The Spitfire Grill was entered into Sundance where it competed against 220 other dramatic entries for a coveted viewing slot that would serve as a primary showcase to prospective buyers. The film was one of 18 dramatic works chosen to run during the festival.

Standing room only crowds lauded the film at Sundance, but the film had yet to be picked up by a major distributor. The small, moral, Catholic-produced film was following a year that saw the big guns of Schwarzenegger and Travolta rule the big screen, not to mention the media attention given to the controversial film Priest. Some critics who had hailed the project began to balk when they learned that The Spitfire Grill was produced by a Catholic organization.

"The one time that you have a group of priests who own a production house and put out a movie and it's later found out, after people have enjoyed the movie, that hey guess what, Catholics are behind it ... that this now becomes a matter of concern to the people of The New York Times to me, is very troubling," said Dr. William Donohue, president of the New York City-based advocacy group The Catholic League. "It's an indication - a barometer - of just how deep the problem is."

While Donohue said, "In most instances people who approached the movie The Spitfire Grill did so unaware of the fact that it was associated with the Sacred Heart order of priests," Courts was not so sure.

"We didn't make a big show of saying that we are the Sacred Heart League - it was Gregory Productions," he admitted in explaining the for-profit company started so as not to endanger Sacred Heart's 501(c)(3) status. "(But) I think everybody knew that this was a project sponsored by a Catholic organization. When we entered into the Sundance Film Festival the executive director of Sundance knew that it was a Catholic-sponsored film."

Despite limited Hollywood acceptance for small religious-themed dramas, Castle Rock Entertainment paid $10 million during Sundance for the right to release the film. What followed were a number of additional costs assumed by the organization.

These costs, termed "delivery items," included making master tapes, NTSC-version for North America and PAL for the European release.

All told, the Sacred Heart League saw a handsome profit of approximately $3.5 million which paid for more than half of the cost of the building of a new Sacred Heart School.

"We hoped that we would get our money out of it and would have a film that would have a purpose and that it would be a blessing and a grace to people who saw it," Courts said.

"So we were more than happy that we not only got all of our money, including the interest on the loan that we needed to do the movie and to have a profit like that."

A profit is exactly what Hollywood bottom-liners like to see. With their first film achieving modest success the organization has become a different kind of "player" in the industry.

"Being a nonprofit does has its benefits," he admitted. "Our great advantage is that we don't have any employees for Gregory Productions. Everybody who does anything for Gregory here is a volunteer. They're people who work for Sacred Heart League. There's virtually no overhead - the only overhead we have is maintaining a corporate status for Gregory Productions."
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Title Annotation:films produced by nonprofits
Author:Causer, Craig
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 15, 2001
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