Steal This Movie

Studios don't get the Upright Citizens, which isn't funny at all

Here's how it works: Sundance programmers filter out the thousands of indie-film hopefuls to, oh, a hundred, who are then invited to the ball. At this particular mating dance, the men who actually carry the checkbooks--Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, say, or UA's Bingham Ray--will all sit in the same screening room and eye each other as often as they look at the screen. If one's hot for a movie, suddenly everyone's got to have it, to the point of paying millions for movies bound to make pennies on the nickel; Tadpole, for which Miramax shelled out 6 mil, is a good example, since it made about $80,000 in U.S. theatrical release last year.

"At those lesser festivals, you've got someone three down on the food chain who has to talk to their boss who has to talk to their boss," Roberts says. "Even if someone liked it, head-over-heels liked it, that's the beginning of, 'OK, now let me talk to my boss.' Then they tell you, 'We need you to do screenings in New York and L.A.,' which we do."

Everybody does, and it's one more waste of time. Like Roberts says, you'll invite 100 people, 50 will R.S.V.P, five of them will actually show up to the screening, and only one, if that, actually possesses the finger that could pull the trigger on a deal. Even then, they'll still have to go back and talk to a higher-up. If, by some stroke of luck a moneyman sees the movie and digs it, he'll likely say he doesn't get it. That's what Blume heard. All the time.

"Act like a mannequin": Matt Walsh, left, and Ian Roberts wrote and star in Martin & Orloff. This picture is about all you're likely to see of it any time soon.
"Act like a mannequin": Matt Walsh, left, and Ian Roberts wrote and star in Martin & Orloff. This picture is about all you're likely to see of it any time soon.

"You have a group of acquisitions executives at these small companies, and most of them are white balding Jewish guys in their late 40s and early 50s," he says. "They're not hip. They don't listen to hip music, they don't know what's going on in pop culture, and across the board, none of them had ever heard of the Upright Citizens Brigade. Seriously, none of them. None of them knew who David Cross was. They had no idea. So I would send them articles: 'Here's what we just got written about us in Variety,' 'Here's a full page in Time Out.' I was trying to explain to them who these guys are, and what I discovered was this sense that if they've never heard of it, they think it doesn't exist, and no matter how much press you give them, how many fan letters you give them, how long the line around the block is to the theater, to them it's an accident that doesn't count."

Blume, Roberts and Walsh know precisely how Martin & Orloff got stuck in the "passed" pile. They know because they've heard all the reasons from all the distributors in all the land--15 of them, give or take, from Miramax to MGM/UA to New Line to Sony Classics to smaller companies such as Magnolia. They've been told it's too edgy. They've been told it's too indie. They've been told there are no stars. They've been told it's too dark, it's too light, too smart, too dumb; the only thing they haven't heard by way of criticism is that it's too in color and too in focus.

"Nobody actually passes," Roberts says. "They all sort of give some excuse in case interest develops and they can say they're still interested." He laughs. "Everything they said had something in common. It was something about it being...I don't know, in my mind, I'd say original." Again, laughter. "I don't think anybody said they didn't like it or didn't get it. In fact, a lot of them said it was very funny but not mainstream enough. When they'd say it was funny, in my mind, well, that's the end of it. You kidding? Finally, a funny comedy!"

Last summer, Blume screened the film for his buddy, Go and Swingers director Doug Lyman. Over a beer, Lyman told him he had a problem on his hands: Blume had made a commercial comedy on an indie-film budget without a studio behind him from get-go. Lyman figured they'd need $10 million to open the film nationally, which was too expensive for an indie and too small-time for a studio to bother with. "You're stuck in the middle," Lyman told him. No shit.

Walsh and Roberts have pretty much given up hope of getting Martin & Orloff into theaters; they've already finished shooting a second movie, an official and all-improvised UCB production titled Wild Girls Gone. They don't have a distributor for that one, either. Blume's hoping a DVD deal, most likely with a record company, might pay for a small theatrical run. But there are investors to pay back, so he'll see.

"I would love to see the picture open very small," he says. "I would like the marketplace to prove me wrong. If we open it in a couple of cities and nobody goes to see it and we get terrible reviews, well, fine. At least we tried. But to never have the opportunity would be a shame, and I hope that doesn't happen."

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