Investing Adventures

The Chicago-based Great Sum Film Ltd. partnership, an investor consortium headed by Hal “Corky” Kessler and Donald Scatena, is anxiously awaiting the late-February U.S. release of The Sum of Us, an Australian film about the relationship be-tween a young gay man and his widowed father. Kessler, Scatena, and their investor group put up the seed money to develop the film’s script, based on a play of the same name by Aussie writer David Stevens. Directors Geoff Burton, an Australian cinematographer, and Kevin Dowling, a New York-based theater producer and director making his film directing debut, completed The Sum of Us last April, and it was screened twice at the recent Chicago International Film Festival. In January it will be shown out of competition at Sundance. Since its release several weeks ago in Australia, the film has been nominated for six Australian Film Institute awards, including best picture.

In addition to providing seed money, Kessler and Scatena also helped put together the $2.5 million in production financing, which almost collapsed when a major U.S. investor died before fully committing to the project. Finally the Australian Film Finance Commission and an Australian entertainment company called Southern Star stepped in and put up all the actual production dollars. Because of their early financial commitment, Kessler, Scatena, and their investors will receive a percentage of every dollar The Sum of Us takes in at North American box offices, as well as a percentage of everything the film earns internationally once its production costs are recouped.

Kessler and Scatena first surfaced on the Chicago entertainment scene as major backers of several plays presented by Cullen-Henaghan-Platt, the now defunct production company. During the mid-1980s they funded a Chicago production of The Nerd, a comedy originally produced in New York by Dowling. In 1989 Dowling acquired the rights to The Sum of Us, then passed the play along to Kessler. “I found it a very powerful story,” says Kessler. Along with Scatena, he quickly agreed to the development deal. The trio tried to sell the picture to a distributor before it was shot, but couldn’t cut an acceptable deal.

When the final product was screened for distributors earlier this year, there were plenty of interested parties. In the end, Kessler, Scatena, and Dowling went with the Samuel Goldwyn Company, which has an admirable track record with serious independent features. The Wedding Banquet, which cost $750,000 to film, has taken in $7 million at the box office, and another Australian-made movie recently distributed by Goldwyn, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, has raked in an impressive $10 million so far. Go Fish, which supposedly cost under $100,000 to make, has grossed in excess of $2.4 million. Eamonn Bowles, vice president for theater distribution at Goldwyn, does not expect the film’s gay subject matter (also a theme in all three of the above-mentioned releases) to be a drawback in marketing The Sum of Us. “The huge success of Philadelphia has proved there is a large market for gay-themed material,” he says. Meanwhile The Sum of Us has whetted the appetite of Kessler, Scatena, and their investors for more film deals. Their current project is Red Rain, directed by Quentin Tarantino and written by a San Quentin inmate.

Opening Numbers

The current favorite of film critics coast to coast, Hoop Dreams didn’t exactly prove a runaway hit when it debuted commercially on six area screens last weekend. Several weeks before the scheduled October 21 opening, Hoop Dreams distributor Fine Line Features doubled the number of screens in the Chicago market from three to six in response to the mounting critical hype. The nearly three-hour basketball documentary did great business at only one of the six screens: Old Town’s Pipers Alley, where it took in $14,000 in its first three days.

Elsewhere the numbers were only in the $4,000 to $5,000 range. At Ford City, usually one of the highest-grossing movie theater complexes in the Chicago area, Hoop Dreams pulled in $4,600. For comparison, consider that Pulp Fiction, playing on another Ford City screen, racked up $13,129 in its second weekend of release. Exhibitors are contractually obligated to run Hoop Dreams at least two weeks, but one local exhibitor doubted it would last on most area screens beyond the second week. Fine Line president Ira Deutchman did say the film’s grosses jumped 48 percent after an underwhelming opening at three screens in New York.

The Martini’s Back

Next Monday Dion Antic, proprietor of Iggy’s in River West and the north-side Pepper Lounge, opens his newest club, Harry’s Velvet Room, at 534 N. Clark. Antic says he designed the intimate, 1,200-square-foot space to resemble “an old men’s club with a 90s twist.” That means peeling plaster, velvet drapes, Persian carpets, big-band background music, and a drink menu featuring more than 40 different cognacs, single malts, and bourbons and more than 15 martini creations. “The martini is back,” says Antic, who claims to be selling a lot of them at his other 40s-themed club, the Velvet Dog in Kansas City, Missouri. Harry’s Velvet Room will serve light gourmet fare from lunch right through till the wee hours of the morning six nights a week.

The Bitter Truth

The folks at the Tribune Arts section must be so used to writing headlines for feel-good stories about the Chicago arts scene that they missed the grim realities in last week’s cover story, to which they applied the upbeat tag line “A Life in the Theater: Who says you have to move to New York or L.A.? Actors are making a living in Chicago, too.” Inside, Clifford Terry’s profile of local actors Martha Lavey and Steve Pickering didn’t paint such a rosy picture. In fact, their lives sound like one big long struggle to stay afloat. “In the past several years, as I’ve grown older, I haven’t liked the feeling that I didn’t have any money, ever,” said Lavey, who is 37. And Pickering, recently named artistic director of Evanston’s Next Theatre, said, “I’m not on salary yet as artistic director of Next. My predecessor, Harriet Spizziri, who founded the Next, never took a salary for, like, 13 years.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.