INTERIEW with Robert Bella & William H. Macy

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On Demand Weekly’s VOD Spotlight highlights stories in the On Demand industry.  Adam Schartoff interviews director Robert Bella and actor William H. Macy about the odyssey their film “Colin Fitz Lives!” went on following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997 to being revived by Sundance Selects On Demand, thirteen years later.

ODW: There’s been a lot of buzz about the movie “Colin Fitz Lives”. Like the dead rock star in the title, there’s been much mythologizing about this movie in the past 13 or so years. Now it’s finally been resurrected and is currently playing on VOD. Can you give us some of the story background?

Robert Bella: I had never made a feature film before but I just decided to go for it. And then to have people like Bill Macy, Matt McGrath, Andy Fowle, Martha Plimpton and John McGinley agree to participate was incredibly flattering, terrifying and just this amazingly fun roller-coaster ride. Just making the film was a fantasy come true but then when we got into Sundance and it just went to this whole other level.

DIrector Robert Bella

I was in our office with a few other people from the crew and we were literally packing, taping up boxes, closing things down, thinking, ok we’ll get back together in a few months after I get some money to finish the film. The phone rings and it’s Geoffrey Gilmore (then Festival Director of Sundance) and he says, “Congratulations, your film is going to Sundance!” After we talk a while, I hang up and say to everyone, “well, it’s time to unpack the boxes!”

ODW: And, Bill, how did you come to the project?

William H. Macy: Robert and I both belong to the Atlanta Theater Company. We are both founding members along with Felicity Huffman and Matt McGrath, one of the stars of Colin Fitz Lives. Being in a theater company is like being in a large extended family. When a member comes to you with a favor you can only say yes. It’s just the way it is. So, we’ve acted together and I’ve directed him.

So I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to see him direct. A good script, a great cast; it was a no-brainer. Aside form that, I love independent films and Colin Fitz Lives is a lovely script. I’m so glad people are going to get to see it.

ODW: Robert, what was the experience of coming from the theater and then going into your first film project like?

Bella: I knew from my stage directing background that I had to keep it simple. Both because of budget constraints as well as the limited time we had to prepare. A movie like “Clerks” was a great running off point. We were basically making “Clerks” with better equipment and better-known actors. It’s not like I had to make an “Inception” or some sort of Spielberg blockbuster. I had to get really good actors who could give really good performances, then get out of my own way as far as the equipment. And Tom Morrissey’s writing is still so funny.

I recently saw a screening and all the jokes still make people laugh. That’s not such an easy thing to do all these years later. You might think they’ve become dated but they haven’t.

Macy: There’s a serious side to the film as well. It’s definitely a comedy and fun but I love that it explores, with some degree of seriousness, our fascination —our obsession— with celebrity. Rock stars in particular; and even more in particular, dead rock stars. How we idolize them.

Cast of COLIN FITZ LIVES!

Macy: Yes, the myth. Sometimes it’s healthy and sometimes it crazy and wacky.

Bella: You can ask anybody where they were when they’re favorite rock star died. Everybody has a very personal relationship with that. To me, that’s a very key part of the film, hence those cut-in interviews throughout the film. I felt that was a universal that we could all understand and appreciate.

ODW: What do you think of On Demand as a distribution model?

Macy: As a fellow who has done a lot of independent films, its future is On Demand. The old model doesn’t work any more and that’s why in the past two years the independent market has absolutely tanked out. We’re making about 1/8 of the number of independent films than we used to. And that’s because the old idea that you make the film and it goes to Sundance, it gets some nice notices, somebody buys it and puts it in ten cities and in twenty theaters, it gets some more reviews, then people go to the video store, they rent it or they buy it, then everybody gets their money back. That doesn’t work any more.

You can now rent a video for 75 cents and that’s not gonna pay for an independent film. That’s not even gonna pay for “Colin Fitz”. So the future is going to be something like On Demand. The phrase that comes to my mind all the time is “Whatcha wanna do tonight, Honey.” “Let’s watch a movie.” You click on your TV, it goes online, brings up some sort of home page and you decide that you want to see an independent film.

The irony is, even though the independent film has really tanked in the past couple of years, there are still people who want to se independent films. There are actors and directors who want to make them. There are even people who want to finance them. But there is just no way to get the films in front of the eyeballs. That’s where VOD comes in.

Bella: As a filmmaker it’s an amazing opportunity. Had “Colin Fitz Lives” sold all those years ago when we released it on 35mm in a more traditional format, it might have played 4 or 6 or, if we were lucky, 20 cities. Had people in those cities felt like driving to their local art house, they could’ve gone to see the movie. And that would’ve been its life until it went to Blockbuster.

But now because we have IFC and VOD, we have the ability to reach out to millions of people. If someone has the desire to watch an indie film, all they have to do is click on their television set. It’s really an amazing opportunity for film and an exciting time to be in the industry in that there is a new frontier out there.

Actor William H. Macy

Bella: For those who can’t make it to the city to attend the festival, this is a way for people to see those movies. And then for every movie that wins the Audience Award at Sundance there are 17 movies in competition that don’t win. Then there are the two thousand movies that got submitted that didn’t even make it into competition.

Then there are however many thousands of movies, you know the math just goes from there. Now you’re looking at the potential for the filmmakers to find an audience. Some of them are going to have a limited appeal, some a broader appeal. Certainly I hope that “Colin Fitz” is the most downloaded film of all time. [Laughter] The truth is, I’m just glad that it’s out there; I think there’s amazing work in it.

Macy: It’s a lovely film and people are going to have such a good time. And it raises the question: where has this film been and why didn’t it get a distributor.

ODW: That question has certainly helped propel the word of mouth.

Macy: That’s right and also, the answer why this film didn’t get a distributor is that the business model for independent films has changed. “Colin Fitz” didn’t get a distributor because there aren’t enough distributors and there aren’t enough theaters to put it in. And the big stumbling block right now is because people don’t want to pay for anything that’s online.

And we can’t make independent films if people aren’t going to pay for them. It doesn’t have to be a lot but it has to be something.

ODW: Robert, recap how you learned “Colin Fitz” was going on demand.

Bella: Arianna Bocco from IFC Films and I were hanging out right after the new year. She asked me whatever happened to “Colin Fitz Lives”. Half jokingly I told her that it was in my closet and asked her if she wanted to buy it. She looked at me and seriously said she was interested.

I couldn’t believe after all these years of trying to sell it, I just made a joke and here someone was ready to buy it. She then went on to explain the whole VOD model. She had seen the movie over the years and thought it could be a great match.

ODW: And you ran out of the meeting and headed right for the closet.

Bella: I literally had to dig it out of my closet. I had it in a box for years. I was sitting in the meeting saying yeah, but then you’ve got to go back and reconstruct so much, find all the paperwork, the contracts. A lot of them were on that old floppy FAX paper. They were literally decomposing and I had to PhotoShop them just so you could read then. And the negative hadn’t really been stored properly.

I took it to Deluxe New York and a friend of mine scanned the original negative and converted it into a digital asset. Without that there’s no way the film could’ve even come out because to go to a new 35 mm film would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But this way, with a couple of well placed favors and some help from IFC, I was able to inexpensively create an HD version of the film.

ODW: I thought maybe you had been fumbling for your cell phone after the meeting calling up Bill and saying “we’re back”!

Bella: Actually I didn’t call anybody until it was a done deal because I had come close any number of times in the past. I just thought I am just not going to float that balloon again. There’s only so many times you can tell people that I just sold that movie and then it doesn’t sell.

ODW: Did you hear back from any of the key players in the cast or crew

Bella: I’ve heard back from almost everyone and they’ve been incredibly supportive. I lot of people didn’t either didn’t know it was out there or in some cases even thought it had been released!

Macy: I told him I wasn’t in it. (They laugh) I told him, no, I never made that movie.

Bella: I have footage to prove otherwise.

ODW: Well, hopefully we can help get the word out, that a lot of people go on to watch it and enjoy it and that the movie continues to live!

Macy: Well, this is the “Citizen Kane” of dead rock star movies.

ODW: What would be the equivalent to Rosebud in this movie?

Macy: Colin Fitz.

Bella: Colin Fitz Lives!

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