It's a problem all indie filmmakers have to confront at some point - how to get a major studio to sign them up.Tim Cooper reveals how a stand-up comic,a street hustler, an injured ballerina and a lapsed Mormon preacher joined forces to beat the Hollywood system and get their film seen... well, almost.
No one at the studios knew it at the time but over the President's Day weekend in February, Hollywood came under attack By a combination of stealth and subterfuge, and after several months of meticulous planning, a small unit of four highly motivated individuals mounted a covert paramilitary-style operation to penetrate every single studio. Each of the executives, when they returned to work after the long weekend, found a mysterious package on their desks. Addressed to them personally and delivered by hand the 150 identical packages contained a DVD and video trailer. Each package bore two words in black felt-tip pen, Abby Singer. Soon the phones began to ring. In Hollywood, where no one takes calls, hears pitches or watches films from strangers, the intruders had already caused a quiet revolution. All these strangers
`' wanted was for the studio executives to watch their movie. And buy it. And put it on in the cinema where people could watch it.
Beverly Hills, January, Sunday 10.45pm In the lobby ofthe Beverly Hilton you can't move for Hollywood royalty. As the audience files out of the Golden Globes ceremony, you're literally bumping into the A list: Sharon Stone with tousled hair and a black leathery dress, Lara Flynn Boyle in an ill-advised tutu; Cate Blanchett and Kate Hudson in comple- mentary Valentino outfits. Strange things happen: a large black man surrounded by half-a-dozen security men signs autographs before being escorted by his minders to a waiting limo; half an hour later he comes back, alone and unbothered. Who can he be? Stranger things are about to happen up in the penthouse suite, where the champagne is flowing at the Paramount party following the studio's success with The Hours. Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman saunter smilingly past with their statuettes: Among the tuxedos and borrowed ballgowns, an incongruous figure stands out from the crowd in his open-necked shirt and grimy combat pants. Shamelessly bumming cigarettes and liberally helping himselfto cocktails, he looks as if he has wandered in off the street. Which he has So how did he get in? `I told them I was a fire mar shal from the Beverly Hills fire department,' h grins amiably. `And they just waved me through
In case of trouble, he is equipped with a cluster
of laminates around his neck, proclaiming him to be Ryan Williams of Wembly Hall Theatre Com pany. Whoever and whatever that is. On close inspection, the laminates suggest he is an important executive at various different studios. Key words like 'CEO' and 'producer' and 'director' pop up alongside names like Paramount and Universal and 20th Century Fox. They are all obvious fakes but, in a town ruled by the 'Business' - no one ever qualifies it - and on a night when the executives are on parade, it's a ruse guaranteed to get past security. Nobody wants to lose their job stopping an industry bigwig on his way to a party. Npr will they dare question a fire marshal's credentials. Ryan Williams has only been in town a few weeks, but he already knows how LA works. And he intends to use that knowledge to sell his movie.
'I've just sold my movie to Dreamworks!' he announces, instantly ingratiating himself because everyone in Hollywood likes to be in on the discovery of hot new talent. Like his credentials, this claim will turn out to be entirely false. Indeed, at this stage we only have his word that he's even made a movie, although he happily hands out business cards, apparently cut from a sheet of paper, citing him as the director and producer of a film called Abby Singer. What's it about? 'A schizophrenic Mormon casting director from Salt Lake City wh goes to the Sundance Film Festival and decides to commit suicide,' he recites with gusto. `It's kind like Taxi Driver meets The Player.' Approving nods; are mixed with wry smiles from his audience. And who's in it? 'Jodie Foster, Robert Redford, Patricia. Arquette, Carrie Ann Moss,' he says, `have all done cameos:' Oddly, this turns out to be true although the actors concerned may not know it yet: Suddenly Mr Williams's phone rings - one of his associates is having trouble getting into the
Star quality: (from top) Jeff Goldblum, Jodie Foster and Brad Pitt all played unwitting cameos in Abby Singer. Right: (from left) writer and director Ryan Williams, Kamell Clauson, leading actor Clint Palmer and Jonathan Black,
party. Apparently it's very crowded and they need to be careful as there's a fire marshal inside.
Hollywood, February, Thursday 6.30pm Three weeks and a flurry oftransatlantic emails later, I'm drinking margaritas by the pool of the Standard Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, waiting to meet Ryan Williams again. I've taken the precaution of having him screen a rough cut of Abby Singer for my LA-based friend Heddi: not so much to gauge its merits as to confirm its existence. She attests that there really is such a film and reviews it favourably (`quirky scenes, well styled, very watchable'). Ryan has emailed me about an impending highly secret action he has planned, which he has codenamed Operation Night Hawk. I am invited to join him. He says he cannot tell me much about it for fear of jeopardising its security, but convinces me that, by the end of the President's Day holiday weekend, every studio executive in LA will know about Abby Singer. What's more, they will each have a trailer on their desk. By targeting all the executives at the same time, he explains, he will create a buzz that will be impossible to resist, resulting in a multimillion dollar bidding war for Abby Singer. That, at least, is the plan.
It's intriguing enough to persuade me to take the next available Virgin Atlantic flight. Now, three hours after landing at LAX and conspicuously alone by the pool, I'm beginning to worry that I am the victim of a hoax. Ryan Williams is running late; very late. Finally, just as our LA-based photographer Alex is about to go and watch some Mexican wrestling instead, a familiar figure strides through the door. Ryan Williams and three associates-two men and a woman - walk self-consciously across the terrace in sunglasses (it's 9pm now and pitch dark) and the sort of ear pieces favoured by secret service agents. They look like extras from The Matrix: Reloaded, but introduce themselves as Ryan's fellow producers Clint Palmer, who is also Abby Singer's leading man, and Jonathan Black, with their blonde miniskirted assistant Kamell Clauson. They conspiratorially hand over a folder marked `confidential' which bears an inspirational motto for Operation Night Hawk. Inside the folder is a hectic schedule of visits to every major studio in Los Angeles, complete with maps of each lot and the names, telephone numbers and office numbers ofabout 150 executives. They brief me in military language: we are going to `hit' the studios, sneaking in through previously identified `leaks', in order to `drop the eggs'. The eggs are press packs containing trailers on DVD and video, a synopsis of Abby Singer and the story behind it, profiles of the cast and crew and a contact number for Wembly Hall Theatre Company in Salt Lake City. This, in fact, is Ryan's mobile phone number. They show me the trailer, which looks authentic enough to keep me interested, and promise that a car will be sent to collect me in the morning.
The car is a battered green Honda Civic well beyond its sell-by date, with Ryan at the wheel, chainsmoking other people's cigarettes. We drive to Sherman Oaks and park up beneath a stuccoed apartment block dose to the freeway, then walk up the stairs to the second floor because the lift is broken. Their flat, comprising two tiny bedrooms really does look like the headquarters of an under
cover operation - if movie buffs ran undercover operations. The walls are covered with huge magnified maps of the studio lots with potential `leaks' highlighted in bright colours; a bookshelf bulges with internal studio directories and multiple photo-laminates hang from pegs for each of the quartet. On the back of a door hangs a map of Los Angeles with studios, agencies and `hot spots' - the Sky Bar, the Lounge - marked in different colours. Numbered bins are filled with press packs and Abby Singer trailers; security vests hang from the wall next to pegs from which dangle a vast collection of official-looking staff laminates from every studio. In one bedroom, Jonathan has made a miniature shrine to the operation's success, full of motivational slogans. `I can do anything that I dream about,' says one. `I own LA' screams another. `I am a great person who can do anything!' At the bottom it reads: `I will sell Abby Singer for $5m. Goal: $10m The other bedroom, where Ryan edits and occasionally sleeps, is taken up by a mass of digital editing equipment and a projector focused on the wall above the solitary mattress.
The four of them arrived here in December after driving for three days from Salt Lake City with 100 hours of digital film footage - shot guerrilla-style on borrowed cameras with no script - and a trail ofunpaid debts. Most ofthe furnishings in the flat are the result of, well, let's just euphemistically call them `donations from sponsors'. For example, the plastic bins bear a dose resemblance to baskets from the local grocery store, while the projector looks a lot like the one at a Utah university that was taken away by some official-looking'clean-up men' after a lecture. Stationery, including letterheads from most of the studios, was `borrowed' during reconnaissance trips and the videotapes and print cartridges were procured through what we'll call a trading exchange. `It's not really theft,' insists Ryan.
Staff perks: (above) over several `reconnaissance' missions, the team assembled a host of fake IDs. Right: Ryan Williams commandeers a studio buggy and poses by the Bates Motel
I'M BRIEFED IN MILITARY ` LANGUAGE: WE'RE TO `HIT' THE STUDIOS USING `LEAKS' BEFORE DROPPING THE `EGGS'
`We borrowed them from the studios and now we are giving them back with something on - so they get something out of it.' I think he believes it, too. `Everyone,' he adds, `is broke.'
Salt Lake City, Utah, May 2001 Ryan Williams, a stand-up comic, scriptwriter and sometime director of commercials with no home, no car and no telephone, is talking to an actress friend about ways to get his scripts turned into independent movies. And that's when I got the idea for Abby Singer,' he recalls. `I said to her: why can't I just get a bunch of actors in an acting class studying their craft and get them to do it for nothing? I'll hustle a camera and we'll make it up as we go along.' So he did, shooting experimental scenes on a borrowed camera with Clint Palmer, a theatre graduate from Utah State University, and some of their friends. Clint plays Curtis Clemins, an overly religious casting director undergoing a mental breakdown. Ryan, who directed, photographed and edited Abby Singer, plays his oldest friend, Kevin Prouse. Of nearly 100 speaking roles, fewer than 25 are played by actors. No one received a fee. `We were shooting one or two days a week, while I tried to earn enough money to buy food and gas and more digital tapes from doing stand-up comedy on the road,' recalls Ryan.
Culver City, Los Angeles, Valentine's Day, 1pm Ryan parks the Honda outside the vast studio complex of Sony/Columbia Tristar Pictures. Jon calls security on his mobile, telling them he is Columbia vice-chairman Gareth Wigan and he is expecting visitors for a meeting. Meanwhile, Ryan delivers a pep talk for the photographer and me. `Always know your purpose on the lot. No one stops a per. son with a purpose: ifyou say you've got a meeting with someone important, they are unlikely to argue.' Five minutes later we walk up to the doors and into the visitors' office where the boys make polite small talk with the friendly security lady, inquiring about her Valentine's Day plans. We show our ID and she hands us guest passes with a smile. It could not be easier.
At the Thalberg building, we explain we have a meeting with Mr Wigan and are directed to the lift. We walk through the corridors of power lined with film posters and past a trophy cabinet laden with Oscars. Jon and Ryan leave press packs on each desk and, in some cases, hand them over to the executives in person. But there's trouble when we move on to the Jimmy Stewart building. They are stopped and accused of 'soliciting'. Luckily the lady they buttered up earlier in security comes over to smooth matters, and they escape unpunished, but are photographed and escorted off the lot by six security guards, with instructions not to return. Ryan remains jubilant. 'We dropped all the eggs.'
This incident, Clint explains over lunch in a Cuban diner around the corner, demonstrates the importance of 'BRT ing' everyone they encounter - building a relationship of trust. It's based on the principles enshrined in the Mormon 'commitment plan', which Clint previously employed to net new recruits during his two years as a Mormon missionary in the ghettos of Philadelphia. A fervent believer until the age of 30, when he finally lost his virginity, Clint has adapted the commitment plan for the purposes of marketing his film. 'It's effectively a sales technique,' he explains. 'Step one is to prepare them for your message by building a relationship of trust. Step two is to invite them to make a commitment to you, which you usually do by sharing a story and, at the same time, presenting your message. Step three is to follow up by closing the deal. It's brainwashing one-on-one.'
Park City, Utah, January 2002 Jodie Foster is leaving a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. She is talking to a man she thinks is a journalist. In fact it's Clint, in character as a smalltown casting director who wants her to appear in his movie (Misdemeanour 2) and she's being filmed for an unwitting cameo in Abby Singer. Once she's in the can, it's a piece of cake for Ryan to get other celebs - some of them even agree to be filmed for his underground movie. After all, the more famous they become, the more they like to think they are still in touch with the grass roots of movie making. This is Ryan's masterstroke. He has gone to Sun dance to make contacts, capture star cameos and use the festival as the pivotal point ofhis film: the point at which the increasingly disillusioned Curtis loses his girlfriend and his sanity and turns his thoughts to suicide. Neither Ryan nor Curtis has invitations to any screenings or parties, and no money to buy them. Pretending to be reporters, barmen, caterers and even filmmakers - Ryan crashes one party by pretending to be Red Dragon director Brett Ratner ('He was a hot name at the time, but nobody knew what he looked like') - they infiltrate parties and even the awards ceremony itself. The camera goes everywhere with them. Clint, in keeping with his Method approach to acting, remains in character at all times.
The eminent US film critic Roger Ebert is persuaded to shoot a scene on his way into a screening and delivers a word-perfect monologue from Citizen Kane. Patricia Arquette joins in with gusto after popping out for a cigarette and running into Ryan and Clint. Encouraged by their initial successes, they film more celebs at other festivals like Slamdance and Tromadance and return to Park City in June when Clint gets an acting job in the Sundance Filmmakers Lab hosted by Robert Bedford. It gives Ryan a chance to shoot the film's final scenes in a forest, including an impressive 'helicopter' shot that is actually taken from a ski lift.
Universal City, Valentine's Day, 6pm We move on to Universal Studios where Jon and Ryan have already established from previous reconnaissance missions that passes are only issued at the gate if the call is made from an internal phone. A little more subterfuge will be needed so Ryan uses a pass for the adjoining theme park and, once inside, leaps off the skyway before scrambling down an embankment. He hurts his knee, but limps on to
THE SECURITY LADY INSISTS THAT RYAN SIGNS INTO THE STUDIO. WITH A FLOURISH, HE WRITES'O WELLES'
a soundstage, where the TV series Dragnet is being shot. Announcing that he is Gavin Feinberg, vicepresident for marketing and distribution, he demands a phone to summon two more people - Alex and me - on to the set.
Ryan, smiling broadly, meets us at the wheel of a golf buggy, and decides to give us his own unofficial studio tour while we wait for the executives to leave their offices for the weekend. Then, with the buggy making us look as if we work there, we simply walk into the Cecil B DeMille building and ask every available employee for directions to the 20 offices on his hit list. When we find that the offices of Universal Focus - the studio's independent wing - have moved, Ryan BRTs an attractive female employee who checks her computer for the new location, and even pulls up a map to help us find it.
It's dark by the time we hop back on to the buggy, and we have to cross a busy main road to get there, but the security man waves us out and the
Focus security man raises his barrier without even asking our identities. At the office, the security lady glances at the day passes of Alex and me, waving us through, but insists that Ryan, who has no pass (because he had sneaked on to the lot), must sign the visitor book. With a flourish, he writes a name: `O Welles' and follows us into the lift. A minute later he walks right into the office of Jason Resnick, head of acquisitions, and interrupts a meeting to hand over his film to the bemused boss. But just as we seem to have got away with it, another executive's suspicions are raised by Ryan's insistence on handing out packages to everybody in sight and he threatens to call security. We amble slowly but purposefully towards the lift and, once out of the building, run back to the golf buggy.
As he turns the key, there's a call on Ryan's mobile phone - the `office' number for Wembly Hall Theatre printed on the press pack. It's the suspicious man from Focus and he wants to know who the hell Abby Singer is. Ryan explains, truthfully, that Abby Singer is a veteran TV production manager whose name is movie slang for the penultimate shot of the day and that it's also the name of an independent film he's directed. `Well,' yells the caller, `If you want people to see your movie, you're not gonna do it by ramming it down their throats.' With the phone held to one ear, Ryan drives the electrically powered buggy towards the security booth where the guard raises the barrier for our exit and we wave a cheery farewell. `We have Jodie Foster in it,' he says, seeing a chance to pitch his movie to someone important. `She's done a cameo. And so have Patricia Arquette and Robert Redford.' `I doubt it,' comes the scornful response. `Watch the trailer,' retorts Ryan. `You'll see for yourself.' As we approach the main road Ryan suddenly stops the buggy, hurls the keys into a bush, and advises us to start walking - fast - in case the studio has alerted security to look for three men in a buggy. It takes an hour and a half to get back to Alex's car, but by then Ryan has had his first bite. In an inspired move, he calls Jason Resnick from his mobile phone to complain about the rude call he has just received from one ofhis employees. Not having a clue who he is speaking to - and believing the caller is in Salt Lake City - Resnick hears out an apology for the unconventional methods used to bring the film to his attention. `We are using an experimental kind of marketing campaign,' admits Ryan, `because it's an experimental kind of picture. I apologise if the people we've been using went too far.' Mr Resnick's interest seems to be piqued. He stays on the phone long enough for Ryan to pitch the film again and elicit a promise that he will have the trailer watched.
Salt Lake City/LA, December 2002 Ryan and Clint decide to move to Los Angeles in a bid to sell their movie. They take with them Jonathan Black, who has a history ofhustling - from selling perfume in the street to running pyramid schemes. Because they figure that a cute girl will aid their strategy, they also recruit I9-year-old ballet student Kamell Clauson, whose ballet-dancing ambitions have been dashed by injury. They have combined savings of less than $ioo and a shared ambition to break down the walls of Hollywood in order to sell Abby Singer. They rent a two-bedroom apartment by the freeway in Sherman Oaks and Ryan takes a job in an Italian restaurant, Jon in a pizza parlour, Clint in Starbucks; Kamell (whose name is pronounced `Camille' - this is LA!) becomes a supervisor in a department store. The boys work part time: Ryan is editing the movie into the small hours while Jon, Clint and Kamell spend nights and weekends reconnoitering the studios and working out ways to infiltrate them.
Sherman Oaks, President's Day weekend, 2003 Over the course of the long weekend they drop the remaining `eggs' at the other studios - Paramount, loth Century Fox, Warner Bros, Artisan and Fine Line - focusing on their independent divisions. By Monday night the job is complete. It is time to celebrate by staging the world premiere of Abby Singer at the apartment in Sherman Oaks. Champagne is provided and by now I have learnt that it's better not to ask where it came from. There are no glasses so I am drinking mine from a measuring jug. Ryan, who has erected a makeshift screen in the living room, is making last-minute technical adjustments to the film. He says he has invited some `hot chicks' to add to the glamorous premiere atmosphere, but I'm not buying that. By 10.30pm it's just Ryan, Jon, Clint, Kamell and me. Then the hot chicks arrive. Nina, Margaret, Jamie and Rain are indeed hot and spend the first half an hour comparing diet tips while guzzling champagne as if it's tapwater because they are not yet 21 and therefore cannot drink legally in California. By midnight, when we are about to start the movie, the hot chicks are horrifically drunk and the projector blows up. Nina, who is the most drunk of all, finds a guitar and sits on a chair in the middle of the room, strumming tunelessly and wailing a grim self-penned revenge song about her ex-boyfriend. It's hard to imagine how the evening could get any worse. Then they all start singing Beatles songs.
IT'S MIDNIGHT BEFORE THE SCREENING STARTS. THE `HOT CHICKS' ARE DRUNK. THEN THE PROJECTOR BLOWS UP...
At 1am, we finally get to see the world premiere of Abby Singer. It's pretty good, too, with a mesmerising central performance by Clint, a distinctive visual style, sharp editing and a stirring score. By the time it is fully edited it could be very good.
Beverly Hills, Wednesday l0am With all the eggs dropped, we're on our way to a meeting with John Levin, an important agent at the Creative Artists Agency. But the Wembly Hall phone keeps ringing. Ryan is delighted with the response. Everyone is talking about his film and some of them may even have watched the trailer. We arrive at CAA half an hour late for a 45-minute meeting, which is probably the rudest anyone has been to Mr Levin for some time. He waves away the apologies and ushers us into an office before spending 45 minutes listening to Ryan, Jon and Clint pitch their movie. 'Gimme the scoop on everything!' he demands with an encouraging grin. 'Tell me where you got the money from!' He's taken aback when they explain that the budget was only $1,5oo but thinks it's an interesting time for low-budget independent films. 'I definitely would like to see the movie,' he adds. His verdict on the film is straight from The Player. ' I'm not gonna say it's Leaving Las Vegas with two best friends, but it's kinda like Leaving Las Vegas with two best friends.' He suggests that they submit it for Sundance 2004. Most of all, he likes the marketing angle of 'the plucky guys from Utah making a movie for $20,000.' When they correct him, he tells them to stick with his figure: 'If you say $1,500 people will say it's not possible.'
London, later Ryan has been emailing regular updates on the feedback from Operation Night Hawk. Paramount, he says, sacked their entire security staff as a result of the clandestine operation. Most of the studios threatened Ryan and Jonathan with arrest; one offered them immunity if they would come in and advise them on how to improve security. They attended the Independent Spirit Awards, posing as journalists, and filmed further cameos from Brad Pitt and Jake Gyllenhaal. They got evicted from the Sherman Oaks apartment and Ryan was sent to jail for shoplifting food. Editing was inevitably delayed until Ryan got out of j ail and got down to work.
In June, Clint parts company with Wembly Hall to pursue his acting ambitions. Deadlines come and go as Abby Singer is cut down to a more userfriendly 85 minutes. A screening in Salt Lake City draws promising reactions. Several studios have now seen the film but none, so far, has made an offer. There's talk of another guerrilla operation to get the film screened at next year's Sundance Festival and there are encouraging noises from the Slamdance people. Meanwhile, Ryan is hatching another audacious plan - Operation Night Gallery. He has identified a number of empty bungalows on one of the studio lots. He's thinking that if he could get on the lot, Wembly Hall Theatre Co could move in and set up business. They could order in some equipment and go out and make more movies on a real studio soundstage. It's not quite their own idea. They got it from another wannabe filmmaker who used to sneak on to the Universal lot pretending to be an executive. You'll have heard of him: his name was Steven Spielberg. OM
The Observer Magazine, September 21, 2003.