A decade ago I fairly called out the Nebraska independent filmmaking scene with this story that bemoaned the lack of home-grown feature filmmaking here. I used the example of locally based Oberon Entertainment completing a feature of some size, Full Ride, and with a distribution channel in place as being a great depature from what had been happening and what was happening at the time. Sadly though, with the exception of Nik Fackler taking things one step further with his Lovely, Still, in 2008, nothing much has changed. Oberon hasn’t made another feature. And whatever features Nebraskans have made here have apparently not gained much traction. No Omaha native filmmaker has yet broken out the way Alexander Payne has. Fackler’s come closest and I would still bet he’s the best candidate of the filmmakers who’ve emerged here the last decade to do so. Charles Fairbanks may be another. That’s not to say there aren’t some terrifically talented folks making shorts and even features here or that one or more them couldn’t break out. I just don’t know about them. I hope someone does if for no other reason then I’d like to write about them and their work being discovered and embraced by the masses. I must add though that the prospects for this happening have brightened because the film culture here has much become richer since this story was first published in 2012. The Omaha Film Festival and Film Streams are longer overdue and welcome additions to growing the film culture.
When Omaha Independent Filmmaking Took a New Turn of Did It?
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Filmmaking is a lot like sex. There are the wannabes who mainly talk about doing it and those who really get it on. With the exception of Alexander Payne, whose Hollywood-financed films place him in a special category, Omaha has had its share of cinema wet-dreamers. A few, like Steve Lustgarten, Dan Mirvish, Dana Altman and Shawn Prouse, managed scraping together tens of thousands of dollars from local investors and, by hook or crook, realized their grassroots indie aspirations using almost entirely local casts and crews. Until recently, though, no one succeeded in raising really serious money for a native-born production. That is until Oberon Entertainment Properties hit the scene.
An Omaha film production company formed in 2000 by Mark Hoeger, Andy Anderson and Thompson Rogers, Oberon’s partners quickly separated themselves from the local cinema pack by not only setting ambitious production and distribution goals but by doing enough homework and opening enough doors to actually reach some of those lofty goals. In researching the biz, including such centers of indie filmmaking as Austin, Texas and Charlotte, N.C., Oberon’s principal players say they found plenty of data to support their contention that homegrown movie-making could be a going concern.
Displaying a business acumen unseen before among area filmmakers, the three men went about doing exactly what they set out to do, including acquiring a marketable script and hot lead actors, lining-up investors to bankroll the $1.84 million project, securing a major distributor for the property before filming even commenced, completing their teen romance film, The Full Ride, without incident and attracting major players to represent their product around the world. Now, they are in the midst of raising a film financing pool, which they hope will total between $10 and $40 million, to help fund future Oberon projects.
While the company is still “pushing” to net a theatrical release for Full Ride, that prospect dims as time goes by, meaning the film will likely find exclusive distribution via home market venues (cable, video, network TV). With one major foreign TV sale already inked and other overseas-domestic sales in the works, Oberon has leverage on its side. The only thing left unproved is whether it returns a profit to investors and has any legs or staying power as a boutique film business. While Oberon seeks to avoid being a flash-in-the-pan, it should be noted no Omaha filmmaking venture (other than Payne’s) has followed-up a first pic with anything more than unfulfilled promise.
“When we started putting this company together it wasn’t to make a film, it was to create a film business. We don’t want to play at this — we’re too old,” said Anderson who, along with Hoeger, headed Full Ride’s 40-something creative team, with Anderson serving as cinematographer and Hoeger as director. It may be Oberon that is part of a Nebraska New Wave given that indie hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding was financed by Gold Circle Films, a division of Omaha-based Waitt Media.
The story of Oberon offers an insider’s-look at how things work in an industry predicated on gumption, guile and glad-handing, but also bottom lines. In an unprecedented move for local filmmakers, Oberon sold itself and its dream, in the form of a well-articulated business plan, to deep-pocket money-men. The journey began when Hoeger, former executive director of the Omaha Theater Company for Young People, was approached by Omaha author and ex-UNL football player George Mills with an original film story. The story concerned a troubled star high school football player, Matt, who is pressured by an ambitious coach and smitten by a small town girl, Amy, whose perfect facade hides an ugly truth.
With Mills bringing the project’s first investor aboard along with him, Hoeger agreed to film an 18-minute “pilot” or teaser to test the investment waters. Needing someone to shoot the pilot, Hoeger collaborated with Anderson, the maker of scores of TV commercials via his Anderson Productions. Each man had flirted with the movies before, Hoeger as a sometime filmmaker and film instructor and Anderson as a second-unit cinematographer on Hollywood export pics (including Payne’s Citizen Ruth andElection) and as cinematographer for omaha: the Movie.
The pair next approached Thompson Rogers, an Omaha entrepreneur and investor. It turned out their timing was right, as Rogers had already begun looking at film as a business opportunity. Rogers joined the team, but demanded his partners gather more facts and figures. “The great thing about having Tom on board is he put us through our paces in getting us to prove that we had a good idea and that we had the capacity for doing it,” Hoeger said. Anderson said the process “helped build our credibility in the business world because we approached it from a business standpoint rather than as, ‘Oh, we’ve got a great idea for a movie.’ We looked at the independent filmmaking business…at what independent films are doing domestically and internationally through all the different distribution venues.”
Hoeger said, “One of the pieces of data we found showed that films that get released are profitable overall, especially over their lifetime, but that the number of films released compared to the number of films that get made is very small. Because what we figured out was it’s easy to make a movie — it’s harder to get it out there. Now, one strategy is you make a film and then you try to get it into the Sundance Film Festival, where you hope to get a distribution deal. But out of the literally thousands of entries to Sundance, maybe only 50 films get shown and of those 50 maybe five end up in distribution. So, that’s a very high risk operation…it’s sort of the lottery theory of a business plan. We realized it was going to be hard to pitch that. We wanted something with better odds, which meant not starting production until we had some distribution channel in place.”
He said it turned out many of the 14 investors who signed on with Oberon have invested in films before or been approached to. He feels what aided Oberon in getting their support is the sober way it wooed potential backers. “I think the main thing is we didn’t oversell what the potential was. Most of the investors have been around the block enough times to know that if it sounds impossible, it probably is. It seemed the more honest we were…the more interested people got because then they began to take us seriously. Plus, it helped that Andy and I had a track record in the community. That opened the door for us.”
It didn’t hurt, either, that Oberon knew how the game was played and brought in some bona fide players on its side. In a classic case of it’s-who-you-know-in-Hollywood, Hoeger got an old college roommate, novelist-screenwriter-producer Don Winslow to rewrite Mills’s treatment for Full Ride. Winslow then pitched the script to Porchlight Entertainment’s Bruce Johnson, who bit on it. Winslow also led Oberon to former Universal executive Peter Heller to produce Full Ride and to prestigious Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to represent Oberon. “Don’s very well connected,” is how Hoeger describes Winslow’s influence. Rounding out the creative team were production designer Sandy Veneziano (Father of the Bride) and Oscar-winning editor Mike Hill (Apollo 13).
Even with this power package in place, Hoeger found the labyrinthian Hollywood system made it difficult to know whether their film was ever green-lighted “until we started shooting.” “You get yessed to death. The suits never want to say ‘No’ because nobody wants to be the jerk that passes up the next Blair Witch Project. So, you always get, ‘Yes, but…’ or ‘Yes, come back to me…’ It’s an odd thing to deal with.” If anything finally sold the film, Oberon’s partners say, it was the script. “What George (Mills) was really great at was an authentic rendering of the football experience. What Don did is he filled out the characters of Matt and Amy and their romance,” Hoeger said. In his hands, Anderson said, “the story became one of overcoming adversity or misfortune, which is sort of a universal theme, and the football aspect became the backdrop.” In turn, the meatier story of redemption and the solid parts attracted a top casting director and rising young stars in Riley Smith (Matt) and Meredith Monroe (Amy).
The May 2001 shoot, which unfolded largely in and around the Dana College campus in Blair, Neb., weathered the usual production burps, including rainy weather not called for in the script. “I thing the biggest challenge was staying on schedule and on budget,” Anderson said. “We were very diligent those two things happened and despite some hiccups we came in under budget and on time.” He equated filmmaking’s high stakes pressure to “being an artist with a gun to your head,” always ready to improvise when problems arise. Hoeger feels the process promotes more creativity, saying, “In some ways, the best stuff comes out of that problem solving.” Hoeger added it was not until post-production at the Gower Studios in Hollywood when he had an epiphany signifying his and Oberon’s arrival. “After working there awhile I’d drive on the lot and the guard would give me a little wave and the valet would get my car. One day, walking back from the commissary, there were wardrobe racks rolling by, film crew members sitting on cranes and stars walking around when I looked up at the big Hollywood sign on the hill and I thought, ‘Oh, wow, cool…It’s like we’re making a movie.’”
Hoeger said Oberon’s success in steering a film through financing, production and distribution has established the company in Hollywood circles. “That’s considered quite an accomplishment in L.A. because there are so many people who want to get that done but never do. To actually pull that off puts you in an amazingly elite club…” Interestingly enough, he said, in the entire three-year process Oberon has met no L.A. snobbery about its Omaha roots. “The industry is now so much decentralized — it’s moved all across the country and into Canada — that as far as they’re concerned Omaha might as well be Austin or Charlotte or Minneapolis or Vancouver. It’s all the same to them — it’s not L.A.”
The company is now weighing its second feature project. “We have boxes and boxes of new scripts that people have sent us, but we haven’t optioned any at this point. The next project will probably be a property owned by one of the production companies that have proposed doing a co-production with us,” he said, adding Oberon may one day be in a position to directly acquire scripts.” He said Oberon doesn’t so much pick scripts as pitch them. “When we go out to L.A. it’s with an armful of scripts and it’s up to the distributor to decide ‘This is the one.’”
Would-be filmmakers now come to Oberon in droves asking, How do you do it? The dreamers are told it takes preparation, knowledge, talent, guts and patience, lots and lots of patience. Hoeger said, “Anybody who dreams of becoming a filmmaker has to be prepared for the fact that it’s a pretty slow go.” Or, as Anderson likes to say, “sometimes you have to wait for the stars to align.”
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