An Interview With Michael Ellenbogen

At the time of this writing, Michael Ellenbogen informed me that Margarita Happy Hour, his latest feature film, had been held over in New York City. This is good news, and difficult to achieve for an indie producer. [It has gone on to open in Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Gainesville, Florida; Austin, Texas; Los Angeles; and Albany, New York, and was released on DVD/video by Wellspring on August 20, 2002; it has also just completed two screenings in the Cannes 2002 market sponsored by Orange World Film Sales of The Netherlands.] I spoke to him at Swift's Tavern on 4th Street, just past the Tower Video in the East Village.—RF

SHOOT ME: What enabled you to make the educated choices about your career?

ELLENBOGEN: I'd like to think they're educated, although I do sometimes have second opinions about that.

What really got me settled in this business was reading Larry Fessenden's script No Telling. I was visiting a friend down here and he was on a job one day, working as a production assistant on an independent film. I was just kicking around his apartment and I found the script, so I took it up to Central Park, lay down, and read it. It was a good script, and later I asked him if this guy needed anybody else working on his movie. I was living in upstate New York, trying to find a building in which I was going to open up a pizza restaurant, café, art gallery, and cinema. But I figured I might as well give this a shot. And when Larry and I met we immediately hit if off. I spent from 1990 to the middle of '93 working with him on No Telling, which didn't get a distribution deal, so there was no money coming in. My time with Larry kind of came to a halt. Not the friendship, we're still good friends today, but I felt it was time to do something else.

I got a 16mm projector and a screen and asked Limbo Café (which is no longer here) on Avenue A between 3rd and 4th Streets, if I could set up shop in there one night a month and show short movies. Jack of Hearts was the name of a short film I did in '92. So I called this event "Jack of Hearts: Full House." It was a night of movies. I brought three or four short films in once a month with the filmmakers, and they'd talk, and I'd always pack the place. It gave me the sense that people really do enjoy spending the night out watching short films.

And, of course, three months later, I went completely broke, because I'd pass the hat around and get $25-$30 on a good night.

So I moved back upstate, taking with me this idea of doing the short films, which immediately expanded into putting listings in the magazines and getting people to send in films, and traveling around the northeast with the program. I would book it at the colleges, making it into an evening event where I would show the films and discuss them afterward. I didn't bring the filmmakers to these; it was just an informal discussion with me and whoever wanted to stay behind. I was doing SUNY Albany, St. Rose, this old place in Saratoga where Bob Dylan started—Café Lena's, and several others. It was still called "Jack of Hearts" at this point. And I would keep coming down to New York, doing Limbo, a gig at Fez under Time Café, and a place in Williamsburg called Bar 612.

So I literally had the cinema in the trunk of my car, and every month I would put together a new show. I have an entrepreneurial mind, but not really a business sense. I remember keeping these little accounting books, and writing down $7.63 for gas, et cetera. And I would see if what I was spending every month would balance out what I was selling in tickets. And it came pretty close a few times, but it never actually broke even.

In '94, a year into doing this, I started a film festival in Albany. I originally called it the Albany International Film Festival, but then Metroland Magazine, an alternative newspaper, came in and wanted to give a lot of support for the festival, and they convinced me to call it the Metroland International Film Festival, that being the historical name for Albany. We wound up doing it at the Palace Theater, which used to be an RKO cinema, an old movie palace built probably in the thirties.

Everybody, at that point in the mid-Nineties, was talking about short films. It started to become the hip new thing. Short films, it seemed, were going to break out and be on all these new cable channels that wanted to get creative with their programming. There was talk about bringing them back before features. It never happened.

But at the time, with that first festival, I put out the call for submissions, which brought in about thirty-six films, out of which I picked about half. For what it was, it was a great event and it showed Albany that somebody was doing something. I still lost money on it but it wasn't about making money. I was thinking about building the audience and showing people the concept would work. So they went, though not in droves, and of course we're sitting in a theater that has 2,500 seats, and you're in there with 120 people, which would have actually been a great show anywhere else in the city.

That year ended and I immediately started working on the next year, and new things started picking up regarding the concept. "Jack of Hearts" just kind of went away, and my uncle Dave [Ellenbogen], brother [Jeffrey], and cousins launched a short-film business; Passport Cinemas became the business name that we incorporated. We started looking for short films to distribute, with the intention of building up a library to satisfy the demand that was sure to grow with all the cable outlets and broadband channels that were hungry for "king content." Meantime, I'm still doing the film festival, and when my uncle suggested we package these shorts on video and see if we could get them into stores, I was totally not into the idea. I felt that if I would never rent one, nobody was going to rent one. The whole point is that people enjoy going out and seeing these things in a social environment. So the idea of distribution was eventually squashed due to this difference of opinion, I just took the name and ran the Albany International Short Film Festival under Passport Cinemas.

The second year, I got very aggressive with my acquisition process. I invested money into it; I got film festivals to send me catalogues, I had an army of interns, and I ended up mailing three thousand applications out around the world. We had four to five hundred submissions and wound up showing around 120 of them. And this time I moved it to a more impressive theater—actually three of them—called the Empire Center at the Egg, up in Albany. It became an extremely impressive festival that year, and I was shocked that out of the 120 films shown, 60 of them were attended by their directors, producers, and actors. Some came with a whole entourage from twelve different countries. I couldn't believe that anybody would even think of coming to Albany for a short-film festival.

It was a three-day event and it was well run, the shows went off on time, the films were projected correctly. The parties were fun: I had three every day, a party in the afternoon, a cocktail reception in the evening, and then a party in the night. To me, a film festival isn't right without a party, again going back to the idea that film has got to be social. The comments from the filmmakers were extremely positive because the way I programmed was very personal. I did not program with a committee. I sat and watched everything and made decisions without any other voice of reason. They told me the politics of the European festivals got in the way, unlike mine. So, that felt good. However, again that year, it was a complete financial disaster for me.

After three months of depression, I woke up one day and said, "Well, if I'm doing it, I gotta start." And the third year, almost 1,000 films came in from thirty-three countries. That year I took it to four days, showed 170 films, and over 100 of those were represented by talent, again blowing my mind. The audience also grew substantially. The shows had funky names like "Visions of the Apocalypse," "Eyes Bright with Wonder" for the kids, "Late Night Erotic Café" for the prurient crowd. And I remember at the Saturday night "Laugh Out Loud" show, I sold out the nine-hundred-seat theater. I'd never seen anything like it before in Albany, or anywhere else for that matter, at least for short films.

And while the local papers had always been very good to the festival, writing articles leading up to it, reviewing certain packets of movies, and running whole schedules, the television stations would not come down and cover the event. I was indignant: I had a filmmaker from the Republic of Georgia, who got there because everybody at the film studio that he worked at, who make ten dollars a month, chipped in five dollars—half of their month's salary—so that they could get this guy over to Albany . . . and the TV people didn't come down. On the Saturday night during the "Laugh Out Loud" program, I went out, took a walk around the theater, and said, "Fuck it, I'm outta here." It had been another financial disaster for me, even though the audience was building. The city wasn't giving any support whatsoever. Radio stations were throwing in their marketing sense; papers were throwing in their editorials; but nobody was really putting any money into the festival. People would say, "It's such a great thing you're doing," and then they wouldn't come. And afterward, they would say, "Oh, I'm really sorry I couldn't make it this year, I'm really busy, but next year . . ."

Larry Fessenden at that time had made his second film, Habit, and nobody had picked it up. We talked about how much fun it is to do what we want to do, and how impossible it is, how it really affords you no leisure time. He said, "What would you think about coming back to New York and distributing Habit?" He knew that I was an insanely intense marketing person when it came to generating promotional pieces and tirelessly getting them out there. And once again, it was an instantaneous decision. I was back the next week and we were setting up shop in his offices down on Lafayette and getting Habit off the ground, which we wound up doing an excellent job of, getting it into about fifteen different markets: Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Austin, et cetera.

It was during this time that I met Jack Foley, the head film buyer from City Cinemas. We went out to dinner one night and had a great time: two personalities that sort of came together, discussions were lively, and he liked the movie, which I was trying to get into his theater. He wound up agreeing to let it be one of the opening films at their Angelika on Houston, and put it in midnights. And he also introduced me to a lot of other film buyers at the other exhibitor chains, and that's how I was able to go to Los Angeles and, unlike any other self-distributed movie ever, without much of a budget, get it in five theaters on opening weekend.

SHOOT ME: The virtues of networking.

ELLENGBOGEN: And after about a year it came to an end. It didn't generate much money . . . I think Larry did pretty well on a deal he made for home video. But it was a difficult time: I had just paid my last rent, and that was the last money I had. I was literally living out of a bucket of change. I had a lovely apartment in Brooklyn, brown-stone floor, living by myself. But I didn't even want to buy a subway token into the city, because I could either eat or take the ride into Manhattan. So, I just sat home and wrote for six weeks, started and finished my first screenplay, which I am still rewriting today. Then I met somebody from Italy. She was here for a short period of time and then was going back, and I came to the conclusion that I was going to move to Italy and live with her and, you know, pull one of those disappearing acts.

I called Jack Foley and made plans to have lunch. We met in the city, I think my first time being in the city in about four weeks, and I told him my plans, and he said, "I'm changing, too. I just was hired as president of distribution for October Films." I stopped for a second, then I said to him, "That's interesting . . . I'm coming with you." He asked me what I meant, and I said, "I need a job; it's either that or moving to Italy." He said he had to check on it, and I've been working with him now for four years at USA Films.

That was in 1998. And, at the same time, I went back to my database. I'd kept a pretty intense system evaluating every short that I'd seen in the three years of the Albany film festival, a system of my own invention, formulaically driven, with different types of value systems, for everything from acting, to energy levels, emotional tones, writing for different kinds of stories, et cetera. The database sorted the results from high to low, and I called the top ten filmmakers and asked, "Do you guys have any feature screenplays that you're ready to make?" I got about seven screenplays and picked Ilya Chaiken's, which was Margarita Happy Hour.

So, simultaneously with working at USA Films full time, I was able to produce this movie with Susan Leber, who had previously been working for Hal Hartley. We made Margarita on a shoestring that ultimately reached the tune of about $250,000. We had a $400,000 budget to start with, then we cut it back. And when we got $35,000 from private investors, I just decided to make the movie.

SHOOT ME: And, over the years, you'd learned a great deal more.

ELLENBOGEN: Made a lot of friends, made a lot of enemies. I've got it all: a list of friends, a list of enemies. A list of people that never want to talk to me; a list of people that I never want to talk to.

SHOOT ME: $35,000 is a huge cut compared with $400,000. How did you feel capable of making the film with such a reduced budget?

ELLENGBOGEN: The $400,000 had everybody getting something. Nobody was going to get rich, but then again, you were talking about people out of film school, et cetera. If they're making $300 a week, it's not bad. It was based on a budget like that. With $35,000, we had enough to buy film and food and rent the equipment. We had all the locations . . . the most we paid for one was $600.

Once we got accepted into Sundance, we were able to raise another $70,000, and that got us through the blowup, providing the finished print we took to Sundance. And that was because all the labs agreed to some form of deferment. DuArt gave us 50 percent on the blowup, with six months to pay the other 50 percent. And they didn't charge interest. Spin Cycle did charge interest, but they're a smaller business and their cash flow is probably not the same as DuArt.

SHOOT ME: What format did you shoot in?

ELLENGBOGEN: Super 16. And if you're asking me how it was, if I were to direct a movie tomorrow which format would I go with, digital, film . . . I would shoot on 35mm. I think messing around with 16mm is messing around with your budget. It's basically admitting that you can't raise the money to shoot on 35, 'cause I don't think there is an artistic reason to use Super 16. I think it's a medium that just says, "We can shoot on a lower budget and deceive ourselves long enough to get deep in debt and stay enthused."

Going to digital would be a directorial question. It depends on what medium the director is comfortable working in. Digital is obviously a viable media format now. I don't think the audience really is so savvy that they're going to go in there and complain . . . or even notice in many cases. I don't think I would tell the public that it was a digital film. But Ilya has an aesthetic quality—works with colors and light—that is film-oriented, and that's why I say it's a directorial thing.

SHOOT ME: Did USA help you with distribution, and what is it that you do there?

ELLENGBOGEN: They're not hindering my efforts at self-distribution. As to what I do there, people have been trying to figure that out. Jack Foley is the only one who knows. He taught me what I know, which is to assist him in developing release strategies by studying the marketplace. So, I guess, I'm a market analyst. I do competitive studies, theater by theater, market by market. In a sense, it's demographics, knowing what neighborhood is going to play your movie. Every movie is going to play different: one movie might work at Sunshine, but the same movie might not work at Angelika. It literally gets that close: from the East Village to Greenwich Village, your audience will be different, and I have methods of studying this. I can paint a pretty accurate picture of where a film will work.

SHOOT ME: Which USA films have you tried out based on these demographic studies?

ELLENGBOGEN: Traffic, Being John Malkovich, Gosford Park, Monsoon Wedding. Whoever would have thought an all-ensemble period piece would do the kind of business Gosford Park has (as of this writing, it was up to $41 million). The Coen Brothers' black-and-white film The Man Who Wasn't There: That's about as niche an audience as you can get, and $7.5 million dollars later it's in the bracket where it's a successful art film. Monsoon Wedding is just expanding now.

SHOOT ME: Have you been able to apply what you learned at USA to Margarita Happy Hour?

ELLENBOGEN: I wasn't really able to because in order to do that you have to have not only a distribution plan, but a distribution budget. When you have no money to distribute, no money to advertise, no money even for a trailer . . . Then you really are at the mercy of what the theaters want to do with you, and when they're willing to do it with you. And that goes completely against what I've learned, which is to create your plan and stick to it. Because not only does it work neighborhood to neighborhood, but it's kind of like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There are telepathic lines of communication that run through this country . . . that run through any country. A movie opens in New York, and it sends out little signals, up to Albany, out to Chicago, out to L.A., down to Atlanta, out to Philadelphia. If people are going in droves to see your movie here, there's all this intense activity, people talking about it, and now with e-mails people can tell each other about it much quicker . . . witness The Blair Witch Project. Word goes out from those cores.

If you had only one print, the best thing is to open in New York, then to open in L.A., and then Chicago. We're opening in New York on March 22. I have my Chicago booking May 10. It's too much space, because the reviews from New York will be forgotten by the time we go into Chicago, so then it's all up to the Chicago reviews to do it, which means we lost the momentum. But we're giving it our best effort. We got the Dobie Theater in Austin, Texas, June 7. The timing is off, but it's a calendar house, which is good. Nonetheless, we are going to accomplish what we need to with Margarita to make it successful. It will have played in movie theaters and gotten reviewed. We've sold it as a premiere to the Sundance channel. We have a video/DVD deal. We have a foreign sales rep who took it to Cannes. It's played all the best festivals that you could think of. And that leaves Europe and beyond. And it's time to wash the hands and move on. I've been doing Margarita since mid-1998.

SHOOT ME: Are you getting your investors out on all these deals?

ELLENBOGEN: I think there's a good chance that we can make good on the investors in time, at least on getting them back to ground zero.

SHOOT ME: Many feel that would be good enough.

ELLENGBOGEN: It would be a good token. I mean they'll probably get back to ground zero on their tax deductions at this point, from the losses.

SHOOT ME: As a one-man distribution machine, you must have design skills . . .

ELLENGBOGEN: Not exactly "one-man," as it is always a team effort . . . with Margarita, it is Susan Leber and Ilya Chaiken. After Larry's movie I decided I would never self-distribute again, because I had hoped to never have to open Photoshop or Quark XPress again . . . So what have I been doing? Designing postcards, posters for film festivals, everything now, and it never ends!

I'm focusing more on the distribution and graphic design because I can do it. Susan is focusing more on the publicity end of it. We just basically came up with our list; we've been doing screenings. We did bring somebody in who wanted to get experience working. They were doing publicity for some toothpaste company or whatever. Susan had posted a note on, where people always look for jobs, saying "looking for publicist who wants to get experience in movies, no pay. Theatrical release coming up March 22nd, looking to do publicity in the New York area." And this woman came on for about two weeks, but then quit. She felt she had to spend her time looking for a job, which is totally understandable. But that's the way it's been. We had somebody doing our Web site free from the School of Visual Arts, in exchange for school credit. As of now, we've had about seven different people working on the Web site. Hey, at least we have one.

SHOOT ME: How effective do you think it is, having a Web site to promote films? Certainly since the Millennium, it's been a big thing.

ELLENGBOGEN: I personally never go to a movie Web site. I use the Internet for research purposes. But I also may be a different kind of Internet user.

SHOOT ME: Well, then how would you prioritize effective ways of promoting your film? And that includes festivals.

ELLENGBOGEN: Well, you have all sorts of different levels of art independent films now. You have art films with stars in them. Then the most effective way to advertise is put a big ad with their name in it. The audience is incredibly name-driven. Name- or concept-driven. You take a film like The Blair Witch Project, or Crouching Tiger, and it's not so much about the names as about the image that they created. The Blair Witch was a hard-won Internet campaign. They targeted the youth that's on the Internet with this compelling, riveting, offbeat horror concept, and it just went like rapid fire. With a film like Wendigo, or with a film like Margarita Happy Hour, I think publicity is our most important marketing tool. We're going to have an ad in the Village Voice and an ad in Time Out, but there's not going to be an ad in the New York Times. (At this time, after New York I can say this was a mistake, especially in second and third week, after getting very quotable reviews from most New York papers.)

As to festivals, when you go to Sundance, you hope that you're going to go there and make a deal. Same thing with Toronto. GenArt we did. I guess we just started doing it because we didn't make a deal and it's a good way to build recognition for your film. There's that plateau of people who follow independent film. And I'm not saying that's your core audience.

I think most people who make up the art audience these days are avid review readers. And it's important to have your name out there. I look at e-mail differently than I look at the Web because it's more like direct mailing. And as annoying as it may be to some people, it's an effective, inexpensive, grassroots way of getting people to spread the word, making them feel like, okay, I'm participating in this grassroots thing by sending this on to ten people. And it's not going to be the selling thing to get them going, I don't think, but at least something with the title Margarita Happy Hour passes across their eyes, even if it's just on the way to hitting the delete key. And then, when a review comes out, or if they pass a poster on the street . . . and for the record, I just got arrested again, for the second time, on Saturday, for postering. SHOOT ME: Where?

ELLENGBOGEN: On Houston Street. The other time, Larry (Fessenden) and I were postering for Habit back in '97. It was two o'clock in the morning and we were literally putting up the last poster. There wasn't even any glue left in the bucket, but Larry saw one pole that looked naked without a Habit poster on it. We were on Lafayette and Houston, and that was the one that clinched the deal, because no sooner did we slap the remaining iota of glue on the poster than the car pulled up and three policemen proceeded to get out. This was early Giuliani, when he was cleaning up the city. So, we got handcuffed and briefly imprisoned (see for photo of us in jail). And they were mocking us for being out there promoting our own movie, saying, "Guess you guys didn't get into Sundance." These were smart cops. However, this time that can't be said, because we did get into Sundance and I was still out doing it.

On the first one, we were booked and thrown in the tank with all the other drug dealers, murderers, rapists, and pimps. It was funny because Larry was handing them all postcards of the film. They were taking the postcards off to prison. We finally got out at 5:30 in the morning, after being photographed, fingerprinted, with a court date set, and we went back to court twice with a court-appointed attorney, and they got our sentence down to one day of community service. So we picked up cigarette butts in Tompkins Square Park on a beautiful day in the fall. Couldn't complain. However, this time around I did not get brought in to the precinct, or to prison. There weren't even any handcuffs. They just wrote me up a ticket for unlawful postering. I'm still trying to decide whether I'm pleading not guilty, because, technically, my staple gun did not work on the one I was arrested for, so they saw me attempt to put the poster up, and when my staple gun failed I started walking away, and that's when they came up. I tried plea-bargaining with them, explaining that even though I didn't actually put up a poster when they ticketed me, when I get to court I'll get the book thrown at me. I might as well have been holding an Uzi instead of a staple gun. And this was the East Village, a place of energetic artistic public expression. Throwing your stuff out there for the public to make a decision on is what the East Village represents, culturally speaking. And yet, I always get arrested in the East Village.

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