The Small Picture
Two Local Filmmakers Backed Into An Audience And Hollywood Buzz Via Podcasting--And Now They May Not Need Hollywood Anymore
Sitting at an outdoor table in front of a Charles Village coffee shop, Jay Kristopher Huddy practically has aspiring filmmaker tattooed on his forehead. The 30-year-old commercial artist sports the stylishly mismatched slacks, oxford shirt, and sport coat business casual of the creative sort. A light five o'clock shadow covers his slender face. A bottle of beer sits adjacent to his pack of smokes on the table. His cell phone never leaves his hands for too long. The setting sun is finally letting night inch into the sky at 7:30 p.m. on this August evening, and his sunglasses ride atop his head in his slick, straight dark hair.
"If we have to do the Hollywood pitch, it is the story of the greatest film never made," he says of his current project. "I'm probably going to screw this up, but it's about how the Hollywood corporate monster just devoured this one man's career."
"Yeah, you screwed it up. I'm going to have to rewind this," his filmmaking partner Paul Weiss says as he reaches toward the tape recorder seated between them on the table.
The stout-voiced, bespectacled Weiss, also 30, and Huddy have known each other for more than 10 years, having met during their first year of the film school at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York. They've been working together ever since. And like any pair of young men who form a close college bond, their friendship exudes the intimate partnership bonds of the heterosexual male couple. They verbally spar. They agree to disagree, sometimes even congenially. They know the same jokes. One can triangulate the punch lines to jokes the other is forming--and they're cracking jokes constantly--even though they couldn't be more unlike the other.
Weiss--whose organized, confident calm personality is so persuasive he could probably talk the pope into a weekend of what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas--unwinds personal anecdotes and comic tangents in practically fully formed three-act arcs, as if hard-wired to self-edit before thought becomes speech. Huddy erupts forth with effusive ideas, tossing off jokes and casual observations in the middle of conversations and moving on. Yes, the pair share that most clichéd of intimacies--the ability to finish each other's sentences. But they go a tad further: Together their conversation forms whole distinct paragraphs, as if each was a different hemisphere of the same brain.
It's why they're both personally invested in Written Off, the working title of their currently in pre-production animated feature about the making of the 1996 The Island of Dr. Moreau, but explain it in different terms. Written by and originally slated to be directed by 1990s South African horror rising star Richard Stanley, Moreau--Stanley's dream project--was eventually helmed, with fascinatingly abysmal results, by Hollywood journeyman John Frankenheimer. That was one of many unfortunate turns of events for the production. Star Marlon Brando's daughter Cheyenne had committed suicide in April 1995, shortly before the shoot began. Co-star Val Kilmer learned of his then-wife's Joanne Whalley's decision to file for divorce via TV. And after production company New Line replaced Stanley four days into the shoot, he hung around as a makeup-covered mutant extra.
But it wasn't just the backstage shenanigans that fueled Moreau's fall. "The Island of Dr. Moreau remake took place at this very specific, tumultuous time in the mid-'90s when the independent movie world was really shifting," Weiss says. "That was the `year of the independent film' at the  Oscars. You had Shine, you had Secrets and Lies, you had Jerry Maguire. Basically, it was such an abysmal year for Hollywood movies that they couldn't really find anything. So it was billed as the `year of the independent movie,' even though just about every one of those movies was funded by a studio through some subsidiary."
The business side of this story is detailed in David Hughes' 2002 The Greatest Sci-Fi Films Never Made. In brief, Moreau producer New Line, previously content to finance modestly successful genre pictures, had started to see good box office from fare such as 1990's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and 1994's Dumb and Dumber. Kilmer and co-star Rob Morrow were hot properties thanks to 1995's Batman Forever and Northern Exposure, respectively. (Morrow eventually dropped out of the project.) Makeup FX star Stan Winston was on board to create Moreau's beast people. Co-star David Thewlis' breakout performance in Mike Leigh's 1993 Naked had led to more critical art-house attention for his turns in Total Eclipse and Restoration. And, of course, there was the not so insignificant Brando factor, who still raised eyebrows even after sleepwalking through the likes of Don Juan DeMarco and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. Suddenly, the pet project of Stanley, at the time the mind behind horror gems Hardware and Dust Devil, found himself with something he didn't need: expectations.
"I'm a horror guy," Weiss says. "And when I read in, like, Fangoria that Richard Stanley was doing Moreau I knew it was something he always wanted to do. And then we kept reading new things--Marlon Brando is going to be in it. Marlon Brando and Richard Stanley. It's one of those things where if, in the early '90s, you told me Peter Jackson was going to make the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Sam Raimi was going to have one of the highest-grossing Hollywood movies ever, I would have laughed at you.
"That was the beginning of the end of his film," he continues. "And I'll say it on the record: At this point I know more about the making of this movie than anyone involved with it. I guarantee it. We've been researching this for years. We're steadily moving ahead."
Huddy and Weiss have completed their Written Off script and are in the process of voice casting, aiming to begin production in the beginning of 2007 for a completion date by the first quarter of 2008. They're self-financing the project to retain creative control and working in animation to introduce some more fanciful elements to their version of the drama.
But, really now, that probably makes Huddy and Weiss two of a million filmmaking hopefuls. Throw a screenwriting book in any coffee shop, bar, or library and chances are you'll hit some young filmmakers who have devoted years of research and personal energy into making their project a reality. What's the adage--in Hollywood even the waiters have a script in a desk drawer at home?
What puts Huddy and Weiss in a slightly less populated sect is that they're not complete amateurs. Weiss edited "Ponkutsu Park," a Baltimore-produced short that screened in the Short Film Showcase at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, and is working as a freelance producer on Slipping Off the Map, which is being shot in New Jersey. Huddy is the creator of 1998's Los Disneys, the downloadable shooter video-game patch that gleefully lets you tool around armed at a Disney theme park of the future, a modification that earned him coverage in Entertainment Weekly, Details, Wired, and elsewhere. And his films have appeared at various festivals--the Carolinas Film Festival, the Johns Hopkins Film Festival, the Not Still Art Festival, the Chicago Underground Film Festival.
But Huddy and Weiss have almost no control of what puts them in a very unique filmmaking position right now. They were most recently featured in the spring future-of-filmmaking issue of Movie Making magazine in an article about podcasting. In 2004 the pair self-produced two episodes of an irreverent comedic television series called Dollar Theater to pitch to production companies to shop around to networks. After playing the waiting game with a few networks, they posted the episodes online last fall as free downloads, just to see if anybody would even want to watch.
To date, more than 50,000 users have. "People are watching it, and that's what's important," Huddy says. "Obviously, we know a lot of filmmakers. We went to school with them, we met a lot of them down here, who independently produce and put their lives on the line. They'll put their money on the line. They'll break up with their girlfriends to get their films made, do whatever it takes. And, ultimately, that is a challenge--but the real challenge is getting someone to watch it after you've done all that.
"The important thing is not that we made Dollar Theater but that people are watching it, in no small part due to just the audience that is out there," he continues. "The audience is almost more responsible for the attention that we've had for Dollar Theater than Dollar Theater itself."
Huddy and Weiss recognize the score here: The technology is the story right now more than the content. A decade back, video downloads took forever and, once loaded, looked like clumsily rasterized images not much bigger than the average dialogue box. Even more noteworthy, a year and a half ago, nobody had really even heard of YouTube.com.
Today, YouTube states that visitors watch more than 70 million videos through the site a day. Something strange is afoot in the nascent community of online delivery of televisual content. The question is what.
Rewind real quick to early 2004. Weiss had moved to Baltimore in 2001 for a job, Huddy was living in Rochester. (Huddy moved closer to his filmmaking partner last year--as in, almost directly across the street closer.) They both graduated from RIT in 1998 with the idea to continue working together, but they didn't really have a project.
And, like the best friends they are, they were fighting over the phone. "So it's probably about 3 in the morning, and I'm probably drunk," Huddy says. "And I was just, `You're throwing your life away.' I'm getting into a crazy, parental kind of berating. And I go to bed, frustrated, and I get a phone call at 8 in the morning. And he was just like, `Check your e-mail. You've got your script. I'm going to bed.'"
That script turned into the debut episode of Dollar Theater, a half-hour-ish sketch comedy-qua-satirical live-action cartoon set in a discount movie theater in Harlem. A few rewrites, a second-episode script, and some $5,000 in savings later, the pair were ready to shoot in an old movie theater outside Rochester. They could only shoot between midnight and 7 in the morning.
"Three grand actually went into just getting the theater," Huddy says. They had originally scouted an Albany, N.Y., megaplex, but it didn't fit the run-down vibe they were looking for. "It was privately owned, so easily accessible, and it just looked the part. You could literally just throw the actors on a set, flip a switch, and, just the natural lighting, you're ready to shoot. So it was well worth the three grand that we spent on it for the three days we had, which actually boiled down to about $2 for every minute we were there. I actually did the math. It was a basically very expensive long-distance phone call."
Working primarily with New York City-based actors, they rehearsed as much as possible over the telephone. The pair shot over three nights around Thanksgiving 2004 and started editing almost immediately afterward, bouncing edits off each other via e-mail. By the year's end they were close to having a finished pilot.
Dollar Theater is essentially the orphaned offspring of South Park and Mystery Science Theater 3000 as seen through the eyes of exploitation movie fans, a live-action brand of sketch comedy extrapolated into a cartoony world of saturated colors and stereotypes stretched to their breaking points. Set entirely in the titular discount theater in Harlem, the Dollar Theater's staff wards off bankruptcy foretold by the neighboring Sit-n-Watch megaplex (in the pilot) or recklessly navigates race relations in a second "co-pilot" episode when Tatiana Mocha (Jaime Skinner) gets ass implants and becomes the caramel sex lust object of her white manager Cecil (John Karyus) and the romantic fixation of house black nerd James (P. Xavier De Freitas), even though all she really wants is a smooth O.G. black man. Some of Dollar Theater's satiric jabs can feel downright offensive at first blush, but it soon establishes that its comedic universe isn't bigoted, it merely embraces the lazy thinking that goes into all reductionism to lampoon its absurdity. If you're not laughing by the time Cecil and James are wearing dueling dashikis in episode two, you won't be able to stomach James slave-whipping Cecil in the closing credits.
When it came time to actually shop the pilot around, Weiss and Huddy took the conventional approach. "We had actually read up on this," Huddy says. "You don't pitch to a network. You pitch to a production company and the production company pitches to a network, and we knew this. So originally, everything we read said you needed to send out hard-copy query letters to production companies. We did this for a while. . . . Fifty letters went out--nothing.
"As it turns out, this old formula does not work in the electronic age," Huddy says. "With e-mail--which we were told was a big no-no--that's when we got responses, even if was just notification that they didn't want anything to do with it. Still, to this day, we haven't received a single response from an actual letter in an envelope. And everyone says that's the way to do it and warns, Do not e-mail."
Eventually, Catherine Finn at Sergio Meyers' 7 Ponies Productions--the company behind MTV's Sorority Life, Fraternity Life, and a number of E! True Hollywood Stories--took a shine to the show and asked them to write out an entire season and, on the off chance, any other ideas they might have. With some RIT friends they banged out eight more episodes of Dollar Theater. Huddy and Weiss also worked up three-minute animated video-teaser pitches for two reality shows: Busted and Manhunt.
Busted is the one that looks like a cable-TV slam dunk. And the idea couldn't be simpler--parents pretend to go out of town for a weekend but are actually watching their teenage kids' every move. "Busted was basically this show where we would spy on teens and what they do when the parents aren't there," Huddy says. "And these are Maury Povich-style troubled teens, and we're going to let them have free rein for a weekend, deck out the entire house with hidden cameras and microphones. We're going to monitor their internet usage. We're going to monitor their phone calls. We're going to totally abuse their rights."
Sadly, MTV's Damage Control premiered during Busted's preliminary development. A game show that had parents wager on what their college-aged kids would do--e.g., "Will your son lick whip cream off the stripper?"--Damage Control wasn't the most well-received show, and while not exactly the same idea, it was close enough to Busted to leave its stink on it.
But for a while, the pair did hear back from networks expressing interest. "We eventually got some people who were interested in [Dollar Theater] who were actual Hollywood people who said, `We really want to shop this around,'" Weiss says. "So it went to various networks over the course of about a year, a year and half. Comedy Central, BET, Spike, MTV2. There were some others, but those were the main ones, and for the most part they all said, `We liked this . . . '"
"And then turned us down," Huddy interjects.
"They actually went up the development ladder," Weiss continues. "And for one reason or another they actually held onto our show for six months to a year, and they didn't bite for one reason or another. But it opened a lot of doors for us and it was a great experience. But then eventually it got to the point where, you know, we kind of do want people to see this."
They just didn't quite know how to go about finding people willing to watch. "Podcasting really wasn't around yet," Huddy says. "We just thought we'd put together a demo, something to show--the cardinal rule of film is always show, don't tell. So why not put together a demonstration clip rather than put something together on paper?"
They initially posted those clips on the Dollar Theater web site as an easy way to show interested parties what the show looked liked. For example, if they received an e-mail response asking for a show synopsis, they could direct the inquirer to a link with actual edited episode footage. It proved so effective they eventually posted both episodes online in their entirety. And they figured if industry people appreciated being able to watch the show, perhaps other people would, too.
"So we said why not throw it out there and see what happens," Weiss says. "So we posted the full episodes. And the idea was, we might get an idea of how many people liked them. We thought some people would watch them."
Huddy and Weiss posted both Dollar Theater episodes on LimeWire in February 2005, on iTunes in October 2005, and on www.dollartheater.tv since November 2005. And almost immediately, they started hearing back from people who had viewed them. People e-mailed them--and then started calling them up.
"The [Dollar Theater] web site was really for producers who might want to come and check it out," Weiss says. "But we started getting these drunken frat kids calling us: `Dude your show was hilarious, oh my god!' And it was kind of a shock. We got calls from Britain. We got calls from all over place. This is still happening. It was a weird wake-up call for us. We figured there was an audience somewhere. We just didn't know how to find it."
The thing is, now that Dollar Theater has found a proverbial audience, Huddy and Weiss aren't entirely sure what that means. People are watching it, but they're not making any money from it, nor is it turning into funding for future episodes.
"The thing about podcasting is that a lot of network TV shows go out and find an audience, and when you have a podcast the audience finds you," Huddy says. "They come to you--if it's good, they come. But it's a weird thing. It is like this graveyard where many shows go to die and the lucky few are given a new life online. And hopefully ours is one of those.
"But people, I think, send podcasts now because they're a novelty," he continues. "They watch them and send them to their friends, because it's like, `Oh, look, you can look at moving pictures on the internet.' It's like when silent pictures came out you were content to watch a train come zooming at you. That was enough. You didn't need a story. You didn't need characters or settings or plots. You just were fascinated with the technology. That's where we're at right now with podcasting. So maybe ultimately where it will go is that it will become more sophisticated. It will evolve as every medium has that preceded it. And that's not a bad thing. But at the moment it's just very now."
Serendipitously, the rising ubiquity of the platform is coinciding with much tinkering with the modes of media delivery. Passed by the House of Representatives in June and currently awaiting Senate vote, the Communications, Consumer's Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006 has the potential to influence how cable and internet are provided to consumers--as in, creating competitive markets for who gets to charge what fees for what kind of access.
But regardless of telecom red tape, very simple changes are starting to influence traditional markets. With 2005's Bubble, simultaneously released in theaters and on DVD, Steven Soderbergh practically removed the critical stigma of direct-to-video releases. Some fall TV shows made their premieres available via exclusive Netflix rentals, just as On Demand has enabled IFC to make some movies available in the home while they're still in theaters and some shows available pre-debut air date. Speaking of Netflix, while its success has troubled the traditional video store, Netflix itself is vulnerable to online movie delivery--a strategy Apple is already exploring for iTunes.
The most interesting aspect of all these delivery experimentations is that they are, for the moment, proving resistant to absorption by traditional big entertainment companies. For just about every technological or business advancement in television and movie history, studios have proven flexible enough to adapt the changes: the advent of sound, television itself, the indie box-office boom of the 1980s, the explosion of home video. Hollywood has weathered every creative and business revolution because it has always been intimately intertwined with the eventual product delivery: TV networks, cable providers, and movie theaters.
The amorphous internet may prove to be a tougher structure to regulate, and you need not think too hard to cite the successful business model for how to achieve that. The porn industry recognized the web's potential as an ideal distribution system for original content long before anybody else. Conventional media, with its entrenched infrastructure, is actually moving slowly to the digital table.
"One trend I've been talking to people about and seeing more and more is subscription services," Weiss says. "Like David Lynch. If you pay a subscription, then you're going to get content that he makes [on his site]. And he gives you a lot of great stuff. And what I'm starting to see are enclaves of [filmmakers] starting to pool their resources, start a web site, and basically doing it like a porn site where you pay a subscription and you get all this content. And I can see that happening."
Weiss even very recently discovered that funding for straight-to-podcasting films might not seem like the fool's errand it sounds like. "As far as venture capital goes, I'm going through that right now with Slipping Off the Map," he says. "They are going for podcast. That is their distribution niche. They want to put it into a couple of festivals and stuff, but pretty much [podcasting]'s what they want to do. And they sought out and found guys who funds films and some investors and they presented. And I helped them with that whole presentation--we said it's podcasting, it's computer-only, it's computer delivery.
"I don't want to jinx it, but we found two-thirds of the funding already and we're looking for one more partner, and we're confident that in the next month that will fall into place, too. So it is happening. It's not a lot, it's about $40,000 to $50,000 [total], which is nothing in movie terms, but people are not afraid of it and are actually very intrigued by it."
Mini-success stories like that give Huddy and Weiss some hope that Dollar Theater might not be forever consigned to the podcast graveyard. "Certainly, every now and then, it goes through our heads," Weiss says. "It always starts the same way for me. I'll be reading Variety, and it'll say, `Blah blah blah and $200,000 down the hole for somebody's project.' And I'll think, Wow, that's like a million episodes of Dollar Theater. So when it comes down to that level, it feels rather realistic, like maybe we could dip into that."
But reality always come back to slap them in the face. Like many fledgling artists, they've enjoyed their close calls--nibbles on Busted, Manhunt, and Dollar Theater but never enough for somebody to want to gamble on them. "That's the story of our would-be careers," Huddy says.
"They say in art timing is everything, and that certainly applies to Busted," Weiss says. "But it happens, and it happens a lot in Hollywood."
"I don't even want to get into our script, Rats on a Boat," Huddy cracks.
"But you have to go out there and fall on your face a bunch of times," Weiss adds. "And we still have about 20 years of avid failure ahead of us."
"Yeah," Huddy concludes. "We just hope to live to see the day where we make a good movie."
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