Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fantastic Fest: Gil Kenan's CITY OF EMBER

It's always a bit distressing when a good film fails to find an audience - because, in theory, good films should always make money - but it's even more distressing when it fails to find both and audience and critics to help support it, and that's what's happened with Gil Kenan's CITY OF EMBER, which is tanking big time when it really shouldn't. The reviews keep going back to the movie's length (only 95 minutes) to insist that it got hacked up in the editing room, and while I did feel like it could have been given a bit more breathing room, it's still a good story that's quite well told. You really feel like you're in this world, and I think it's the realization of the world of Ember that gives the film its spark of life. By realization, I'm not merely talking about the huge, incredibly impressive set, or the costumes or the visual effects (all equally impressive), but realization in how Kenan allows us to see and even understand this world so well. It's only his second feature (after MONSTER HOUSE), but I can already tell that Kenan has the eye that's required to be a great cinematic fantasist, one that combines suspension of disbelief with giving the audience a world that they can touch and feel, which Ember certainly is. I was as taken with the environment as I was with the characters and their plight, and that, to me, gave the film more heft. There's a feeling that Kenan truly believed in this story (I understand he was a huge fan of the book) and there is a passion to be found here, which is what it truly needed to succeed. Many will say that's he sacrificed the story and characters for the sake of the design, but don't believe them; all these things are interwined, and it occurs to me that they've said the same things about Gilliam and Burton and those naysayers have been long proven wrong. Add to that that it's a pretty good fantasy/adventure story, and you've got a picture that can (and should) be taken in by families that are looking for something that will entertain and enlighten both kids and their folks, so it's definitely worth seeing. But if you want to see it in a theater (and you should), you better go fast. Too bad.

Strange thing for me is, I only saw CITY OF EMBER just this past Sunday afternoon, but it's a picture that I've had on my mind for the past few months. One of the worst-kept secrets of Fantastic Fest 2008 was that CITY OF EMBER would be screening at the festival, which it did as our closing night show. It was the last of our secret screenings, though everyone pretty much expected it, since an EMBER ad graced the back of our program guide, while EMBER posters graced our lobby and the EMBER logo was prominently branded on all festival materials (ads, banners, ect.). I have to say that of all my 2008 sponsorship duties, it was EMBER that went how I wanted it to, took the most work and went the best in the end, except for that whole bombing at the box office bit. Having gone through a bit of work on its behalf (not nearly as much as its makers and the Fox Walden folks), I think have a decent understanding of the disappointment they're all going through there.

Given pretty much a wide berth by Fantastic Fest head honcho Tim League, I made a concentrated effort to find sponsors who would appeal to our core audience of film geeks, those being the upcoming releases of movie studios. I got in touch with pretty much everyone (their DVD divisions, too) and spoke to a lot of good folks, but things did not quite go as I really wanted them to. While some gave me a flat-out "no", others would cite budgets or time lines (I started in May and had a mid-August deadline, still not enough for some studios to get approvals), and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't discouraged any. But the good folks at 20th Century Fox saw the light and were extremely supportive; they got what we were all about and said yes when others said no. In talking to one of their marketing reps, I asked about CITY OF EMBER - knowing only that it was a fantasy film that was opening in October - and was referred to the crew at Fox Walden, an in-house sub-distributor for films produced by Fox and Walden Media. The Fox Walden crew also understood the festival's importance, and while it didn't seem like there would be any kind of huge investment, I would have been more than happy just to get an ad for the program guide. And that might have been the case, if it wasn't for the fact that Tim League likes to think big.

One of my biggest grievances about some of the companies I've worked for in the past is how you would suggest an idea to them that cost even a little bit of money, and they always come back to you with a no. The thing about Tim is, he's OK with big, crazy ideas that just sound like fun, like putting a 35mm projector on the back of a truck and showing movies in famous locations. So one's of Tim's big, crazy ideas this year was to hold our closing night party at Longhorn Caverns, a mile-long cave that's now a state park here in Texas. The place is about 60 miles outside of Austin, but who cares? Just put everyone on buses for a 90 minute ride, get some DJs, lots of booze, and you've got yourself a party. In theory, it sounds like a lousy idea, a recipe for disaster, but Tim knew what he was doing. He'd done events there (like a screening of THE DESCENT) and knew that it would be an incredible party, one to remember, one that would be talked about for a long time to come. This idea came to him well before EMBER was a glimmer in his eye, but when Fox Walden was presented with the concept, they got it, too, and with the proper pitch in place they came on aboard as the party's official sponsor, being the start of a unique, one-of-a-kind event to life.

Thing was, no one was quite sure just what would make it even more special. We talked about screening the film in the cave (an idea I pushed for), but that seemed to go against the party concept that Tim wanted, so out it went. We spoke of a bringing in a band, but again, it didn't get very far. Branding the cave with cool lights and whatnot was a given (party co-sponsors Red Bull and 42 Below made sure of that), so we all knew it was going to work as a party, but putting it over the top was what we all wanted. The elephant in the room was getting Bill Murray to attend, but that was an unknown element even to the studio, as they had little contact with him (Murray doesn't have a manager or agent). Gil Kenan was in, we knew that much, but what else? Well, it turns out that was all that was needed, since Gil had Bill's ear. And so it was on Thursday the 11th that I received and e-mail from Heather Philips in Fox Walden's publicity department that Bill Murray was indeed coming to the screening and the party that I knew we were going to have something here. And we most certainly did.

Of course, Bill Murray's appearance was not to be publicized (although we were going to have a camera crew there to patch footage over to Entertainment Tonight), so that became the secret within the secret, which thankfully didn't leak out before the show began. This was the first time I'd ever worked an event where a "star" was involved, complete with security and press and such, and I can easily understand why the likes of Murray don't want to work publicity on their movies, because you suddenly don't become a person, you become a commodity, bandied about from spot to spot until you're no longer needed, gawked at by strangers who take your picture without asking and talk about you behind your back. I also saw what the publicist and press people at work, doing their jobs the best they can in the midst of a sandstorm (and not even that big a sandstorm here), and I saw all the hard work and long hours that went into it. It was a bit disconcerting, but at the same time, that's showbiz, as the saying goes, and even though it's not quite right, that's the nature of the business and there's not much that can be done about it. But like anyone else who throws a big party, when you see people drinking, dancing, laughing and having a good time, you know that you've done your job, and by that account the party was a raging success. Having been there myself, I've got to tell you that it was an incredible party, and even though it was a major pain in the ass to plan and execute, I've got to give Tim props for his vision.

So I'd like to take a moment out to single out some of the folks who made this party so memorable, be they so who busted their ass on it or those who just showed up. There's Tim, obviously, and Henri Mazza, the Alamo's main events planner; the guys from Red Bull (whose names I don't recall, unfortunately) who did a lot of the lighting and the DJ set-up; Daniel Osbourne, the Alamo's roadshow manager, and Josh Jacobs, who set up the video in the cave; the Alamo crew who worked the party as bartenders and the Longhorn Caverns crew who gave us the clearance and worked with us to make the event happen (and never once complained); a huge thanks to Gil Kenan, for getting Bill to show and for making a good film, and to Bill Murray, of course, for coming on down and sticking around to make it an event to remember (sorry about all the douchebag party goers who insisted on getting their pictures taken with you). But the final thanks goes to the Fox Walden folks who understood what it was all about and made everything possible, those being Heather Philips and, especially Susie Hayasaka, who was a dream to work with. I can't stress just how much hard work Susie put into this event, and if it wasn't for her efforts this party would not have been as cool as it was. Thanks again, Susie.

So once more, ignore the reviews and go see CITY OF EMBER. It deserves your support.

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