Little Movie, Big Splash?

Short films have always been the medium of student, experimental, and underground filmmakers. But producer Michael Genett and director David Agosto hope their 15-minute narrative Big Canyon will catapult them from the Chicago International Film Festival to the west coast. The film, about a man and woman involved in a telephone calling-card scam, screens this Saturday at Water Tower Theaters with the feature Afraid of Everything. Big Canyon was one of only seven shorts shown last month at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival; according to Genett it will be one of only four shorts included in the Hamptons International Film Festival on Long Island later this month.

For Genett and Agosto, both in their late 30s, success has been a long time coming. Agosto came to Chicago from New Jersey and got his degree in filmmaking from Columbia College; since then he’s taught screenwriting at the school and slugged it out as a director of industrial films and low-budget music videos. Genett, a native of Wisconsin, has worked as a carpenter and done part-time production design. The two began collaborating when Genett asked Agosto for help with a script he’d been writing; they spent years saving enough money to make Big Canyon and months polishing their nine-page script.

Despite the recent explosion of interest in low-cost video and digital filmmaking technology, he and Agosto chose to shoot their movie in 35-millimeter, just like the big boys. In October 1997 they started filming near Peru, Illinois, enlisting actors Pat Healy (who’s made guest appearances on The Practice and NYPD Blue) and Gwendolyn Whiteside (from Lookingglass Theatre Company’s acclaimed production Metamorphoses) to play the two con artists. A fluke snowstorm added two days to a five-day schedule and doubled the cost of the film. Genett and Agosto had to take out short-term loans from their parents, and their final cost was just shy of $100,000.

After being screened at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival in April, Big Canyon was picked up by Atom Films Inc., a new Seattle company that specializes in distributing short films. Financed by Hollywood backers with deep pockets, Atom shows complete films on its Web site ( and sells shorts to airlines to be screened with in-flight features; recently it packaged Big Canyon with a selection of other shorts to be sold on DVD. Genett and Agosto have found Atom to be much slicker than what he calls the “ma-and-pa operations” that typically distribute shorts; the company has helped them promote Big Canyon and come up with press materials. Genett hopes this is just the beginning. “We’re working on several scripts right now and have meetings set up on the west coast already.”

Joffrey’s Nasty Surprise

While the Auditorium Theatre Council struggles to keep the landmark venue lit, one of its key tenants is upset over a ticket surcharge that could wind up costing it nearly $25,000. Jack Lemmon, the new executive director of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, learned late this spring that the Auditorium Theatre was increasing its restoration fee from 35 cents per ticket to $2, beginning with the 1999-2000 season. Many theaters levy such a fee to fund building renovation; the Chicago Theatre charges $1.50 per ticket, and the Shubert charges $2. According to Lemmon, the council says it notified the Joffrey of the increase last fall, before he was hired. But Lemmon didn’t get wind of it until he received the rental contract for this season, and by that time the company had already sold more than 14,500 subscription tickets. The Auditorium, he says, is insisting that the Joffrey come across with the surcharge for those tickets, a cost not anticipated in this year’s budget.

“We have agreed to do that,” says Lemmon. But the surcharge seems pretty hard to swallow, given the fact that early this week the Auditorium had delivered less than half the tickets the Joffrey must mail to its subscribers before the fall season begins on October 14. Jan Kallish, executive director of the Auditorium, was out of town and did not return repeated phone calls for comment, but ATC president David Smerling confirmed reports of a shake-up in the theater’s box office. Another source familiar with the situation says that heads rolled after a recent concert by Harry Connick Jr. was plagued by ticketing problems. And what will the financially strapped theater do with the money pocketed from the Joffrey? Smerling says the council has $6 million worth of restoration work planned, but at the moment none of it is being executed. He stopped short of confirming that the restoration fee might be used to cover operating expenses, but he did indicate that monies could be temporarily diverted from one fund to another if the need arose.

OprahWatch: Food for Thought

“Dynamic,” “adorable,” and “very quick on her feet” were words one student used to describe Oprah Winfrey, who on September 28 began teaching the course “The Dynamics of Leadership” to some 110 graduate students at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management. The class, which Winfrey is teaching with Stedman Graham, was of greater interest to women than men: about two-thirds of its enrollment is female, though Kellogg’s student body is two-thirds male. Kellogg dean Don Jacobs showed up to introduce Winfrey, and during a class break the profs and their students were treated to a lavish buffet of hors d’oeuvres. Rumors that the teacher received 110 apples could not be confirmed at press time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ameeta Ganju.