Let’s Make a Deal

There are few moments sweeter than the one writer and producer Ytasha L. Womack shared last weekend with her coproducer Jumaane N’Namdi and Jonothon Woods, director of her inventive and funny first film, Love Shorts. When the trio of fledgling filmmakers took the mike to answer questions after a screening at the DuSable Museum, the audience gave Womack’s fast-paced string of tales about troubled relationships a warm reception–despite a sound track that had slipped out of sync. But once the love fest was over Womack would have to get back to the quest that consumes the days and mind of the independent filmmaker: chasing a deal.

She at least understands that the deal is what it’s all about. As a graduate student in arts and media management at Columbia College four years ago, Womack drafted a thesis on how independent filmmakers could jump-start their careers. “People were still thinking there’d be this huge distribution outlet for independent film on the Internet, with audiences downloading movies on their computers,” she says. “I didn’t think that would pan out. The technology was too slow, and the way computer screens looked then I didn’t think people would want to watch movies on them. I came up with a plan to shoot inexpensively on digital video and do straight-to-video projects.” The idea was to bypass the expense of theatrical releases and use festivals and nonprofit screenings to build an audience that would help land a sale to a DVD distributor. “It wasn’t totally novel,” Womack says, “but it wasn’t something a lot of people were doing.”

Womack, an editor at large for Upscale magazine and occasional Reader contributor, had written a few screenplays and some fiction. When she showed three of her stories to N’Namdi, an aspiring producer, he suggested they’d make a great movie–and Womack saw a chance to turn her theory into a real-life project. She dashed off a script that padded out the existing vignettes with five more, and they drew up a production schedule, recruited a bare-bones crew, and scheduled auditions.

“We didn’t have a budget,” Womack says. “We had a general concept of what everything would cost. It was so depressing–if we looked at it in bulk we probably wouldn’t do it. But we thought we could rehearse and shoot each story in a week, and we decided to look at it as a weekly payment. We’d rehearse for two days and shoot on a Saturday or Sunday.” They paid the nonunion actors and crew out of their pockets, with some help from N’Namdi’s father, art dealer G.R. N’Namdi, who signed on as executive producer. The total cost for the 80-minute film, including postproduction and marketing to date, was a relatively minuscule $20,000.

The biggest challenge, according to Womack, was keeping everyone motivated over the four-month shoot. “It was important to stick to the production schedule. I knew if we stopped our crew wouldn’t believe in us, and then maybe they show up and maybe they don’t. I’ve worked on projects where the schedule’s not clear or you don’t get paid or the takeoff doesn’t happen. I knew how disappointing that was, and I didn’t want anyone on our crew to experience that because of our mismanagement. We wanted them to feel like this was their project, to provide opportunities for everyone involved to say ‘Look, this is what I can do.'”

Love Shorts screened at the American Black Film Festival in Miami and the local Black Harvest Film Festival over the summer, and it has Detroit and Atlanta showings and a college tour on its fall and winter schedule. Womack’s still-unfinished thesis calls for companion products to boost exposure, and she says a Web site, CD sound track, and novelization are in the works. She thinks all that will help with the major goal: snagging a distributor for the DVD. “Within the next few months,” she says, “we hope to have a deal.”

Another Small-Screen Success Story

Last time the Reader talked with Ronn Vrhel, five years ago, the Berwyn entrepreneur and filmmaker was going by the name Ronnie Lottz and basking in the glow of a $2 million budget for his biggest-ever film project, Blackstone, a fictional JFK assassination-plot feature to be shot in Chicago. But things change: his name, for example, pretty much shucked along with a career as a wrestling promoter; his business, a cigar shop that’s evolved into a bar and soon-to-be restaurant; and the budget for his film, which disappeared–along with dreams of stars like Harvey Keitel–when his largest investor was sent to the pen for securities fraud.

Vrhel and his partner–actor, writer, director, and coffee-shop entrepreneur Vito Brancato, who’s also a former wrestling honcho–weren’t able to find other backing. “Everybody wants to know who’s attached and how much is in the bank,” Vrhel says. “They’d pony up if I could bring in a name, but that’s where we run into a wall.” The pair, who in the early 90s worked together on Brancato’s “modern Fonz” cable series On Edge With the Razor, had collaborated on two self-funded films by Brancato before: a $65,000 mob story, The Deal, and a 90-minute comedy, The Life and Tales of Tony D, which was shot in 16 millimeter for $25,000. With those two projects languishing in the can, they decided to turn Blackstone into something simpler–a half-hour video cast largely with people who walked into the coffee shop–that might attract an investor for the longer version. They shot it in two weeks last year, and after Brancato did the editing Vrhel began marketing it. He was bitter when the Chicago International Film Festival sent it back unwatched after they missed the deadline by a day (“No support there,” he says), but “next thing you know we’ve got Channel 11.”

Vrhel, who tackles promotion like an opponent in the ring, sent tape after tape to 160 or so PBS affiliates, following up with a bombardment of phone calls. In the end, he says, the National Educational Television Association took the show, put it up on satellite, “and everyone else picked it up.” Whatever’s left after they cleaned up the blood, booze, smoking, swearing, and romance for the NETA audience will appear on WTTW and about 120 other public broadcasting stations around the anniversary of Kennedy’s death next month. It’s gratifying, Vrhel acknowledges–but it’s still not the big bucks. He says the worst part is that people he approached for backing are sending other people in need of investors to him: “I feel like there’s this hopeless circle of people in Chicago pursuing independent films. Everyone says, ‘If you ever get the money give us a call.’ It’s so frustrating. We’re so close.”

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