Indie Culture: Local filmmakers dream of hitting the big time
Cinematogapher Benjamin Eckstein on the set of Game Changers
If anyone knows about putting together a low-budget, star-free independent film, it’s Kevin Smith. The director famously shot the legendary Clerks for $27,000, and it grossed more than $3 million, launching Smith’s career and a cottage industry. He became a larger-than-life, indie film godfather in the process, to the extent that he now does successful question-and-answer sessions throughout the country.
Smith visited UB’s Center for the Arts for a crowded, fascinating chat on November 7, and one audience member, Stacy Werner, came prepared to make an impression. Werner is the marketing and production supervisor for TMR Productions, an Orchard Park production house that has produced two feature films in the past two years. The first, Pyro Smugglers, is in distribution and the second, Vacation Obligation, is in post-production. (Werner is joined at TMR by CEO/director/animator Rian Lehman and assistant director/animator Bryan Henschel.)
“I found out about Kevin Smith coming to UB and I just knew that TMR had to be there,” Werner says, a few weeks after the Q and A. “We’d watched several of the Evening With Kevin Smith DVDs before, and we knew it would be a great experience. I originally was just going to ask Kevin about his feelings on the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise, and who he would like to see direct the new films, but somebody beat me to it!” So instead, Werner took the plunge, stood up in the crowd, told Smith about TMR’s first film, and gave a DVD to the filmmaker to keep. “He was genuinely interested in the movie,” she says. “I was so happy that he was intrigued by what we had accomplished and wanted to know more.”
That’s true guerilla marketing, a necessity when you’re making an independent film. There are undoubtedly many projects in various stages of development right now in WNY—some completed (like Peter McGennis’s Queen City), some shooting, some being written, some rattling around in the heads of media study kids at UB—but two noteworthy examples are Game Changers, directed by Buffalo native Rob Imbs, and Vacation Obligation, TMR’s second release. Both projects are offbeat, unique, and, without a doubt, Buffalo-bred.
Game Changers: Rob Imbs, director
PLOT: “Game Changers is a film about professional gamers who are trying to reclaim the notoriety of their youth.”
IDEA: “The idea for the film came from a very personal place. While most kids were outside playing, I was playing games in my parents’ basement. As I got older, I met very competitive and talented gamers who went on to compete at a national level. I started a video game club when I was in college. The club was based around a Nintendo game called Super Smash Brothers, and it still exists. So the idea for this film came from a life of gaming and a reflection on how most of my friendships are because of video games.”
CAST AND CREW: “The cast is all local; we held auditions at Buffalo East on Main Street. My crew is all local except for my cinematographer, Benjamin Eckstein. Benjamin lives in Boston, and he flies in for shoots.”
WHY BUFFALO? “I chose to shoot it in Buffalo because it’s where I live. I think that there is a lot of talent here, and I wanted to showcase it. Plus I have a lot of friends here, which helps me get great locations.”
QUEEN CITY INFLUENCE: “I was born and raised in Buffalo, and most of my friends are involved in video production or the performing arts. Without my friends from Buffalo, I could not have made this film. We never actually mention it, but the film does take place here; some of our characters wear Buffalo-centric T-shirts.”
THE PLAN: “Once the film is finished, we’ll have a premiere at the Market Arcade theater. Then, depending on how much interest there is, I’ll hit the festival route and try for distribution.”
THE FUTURE: “I’m sure I’ll make another film, because it’s what I love to do. I make films where I live, so as long as I’m in Buffalo I’ll keep making them here.”
For more on Game Changers, see interviews with Imbs for Filmmaker Magazine on filmmakermagazine.com, or visit gamechangersthemovie.com.
Actor Joel Berger on the set of Vacation Obligation. All photos courtesy of the filmmakers.
Vacation Obligation: Stacy Werner, marketing and production supervisor
PLOT: “Vacation Obligation is about a college kid named Stuart who watched his snowbird grandparents’ house for the winter while they were in Florida. It is now spring, and Stu finds out in a voicemail that Grandma has broken her hip, and they will not be home anytime soon. In the same string of messages, he finds out that the girl he has been seeing doesn’t want to date him anymore. Stu’s friends find all of this out, and take advantage of the situation by taking over the grandparents’ house and deciding to turn it into a party house for the summer, both for their amusement, and to help their friend get his mind off of that girl.”
IDEA: “It mostly stemmed from our crew’s life experiences. We would talk and reminisce about our wild party days, and, eventually, we decided that we should take all of these experiences and roll them into one epic night. We also thought about movies like Clerks or Buried, and we were inspired to try to shoot a movie that is mostly one location. So, the combination of our house parties and a single location film were rolled into one idea for our second feature.”
CAST AND CREW: “Finding cast and crew is always an interesting ordeal. Pyro Smugglers was a bit easier because there were only three cast members and three crew that could fit into the van. Vacation Obligation was a different story. Our crew and even two of our cast members were flown in from New Orleans where most of them reside and work on several Hollywood films throughout the year. All our main characters were fairly easy to cast and, surprisingly, it was harder to find extras and supporting roles. Through many internet ad postings, phone calls, and emails, we found the final cast.” [Asked about the film’s budget, Werner replies, “Pyro Smugglers was made on a budget of roughly $5,000 and Vacation Obligation is looking to be around the same.”]
WHY BUFFALO? “The biggest reason to shoot in Buffalo is simply that this is where TMR is based. We also had a house here that we could freely take over for a few weeks, and the weather in the summer is beautiful. Also, Buffalo has a huge film community that we are proud to be a part of.”
QUEEN CITY INFLUENCE: “Both of TMR’s feature films are based off two very common Buffalo occurrences. Pyro Smugglers is about friends driving to Pennsylvania to buy fireworks, and Vacation Obligation is based off the idea that the grandparents have gone to Florida for the winter. Yes, these are things that are very Buffalo, but other people across the United States, I’m sure, are very familiar with these concepts.”
THE PLAN: “Once post-production is finished, Vacation Obligation will be made for retail sale and be entered into many film festivals. It will not be ready for submission to the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival next spring, but Pyro Smugglers should be on the schedule. Also, TMR is looking into distribution through iTunes and Netflix in the near future now that we have more than one feature film to offer.”
THE FUTURE: “TMR will most undoubtedly make another feature soon. We actually have a few partial scripts for a drama, and two interesting original horrors. Buffalo would be the planned backdrop for them, as well. When the TMR writers get together to write, we usually write based upon where we want to film the shots, and Buffalo is always first in line.”
For more information on Vacation Obligation and TMR Productions, visit tmrproductionstudios.com.