February 1st, 2007
By DAVE MCNAIR DAVE@READTHEHOOK.COM
In yet another Dave Matthews/Coran Capshaw success story, the duo's ATO Pictures wowed audiences and studio fat-cats at the Sundance Film Festival Saturday, January 27 with their feature film, Joshua, staring Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga. In fact, by Monday, ATO had inked a deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures for $4 million.
"We found out we got into Sundance the Tuesday before Thanksgiving," says ATO executive producer Temple Fennell. "Then we found out we got the 8:30 Saturday night screening... which was the perfect time."
Joshua, an original script by novelist David Gilbert and director George Ratliff, tells the story of a brilliant, precocious nine-year old, played by Jacob Kogan, who wreaks psychological havoc on his family, especially his father (Rockwell) and mother (Farmiga), after the birth of a new sister. As one reviewer explains, "It's a total horror film in the vein of The Omen, but without the supernatural elements. It's all very realistic and plausible.
"Not to spoil too much, but you should expect to see many poisoned animals, parents being driven to the point of insanity, and many attempts at killing a baby. This is the film to show your wife or girlfriend if you want to convince her to never have children. It's frightening as all hell, but also a wonderful drama about a child feeling neglected and dealing with it in the most evil, bizarre way."
According to Fennell, still flush from the Sundance excitement, selling the film was nothing less than remarkable. As he points out, of the approximately 3,000 films submitted to Sundance, only about 120 are screened, and only 5 to 10 are bought. Still, he admits that ATO's strategy of approaching major distributors beforehand may have helped.
"We find scripts we like, then go to a distributor and ask them to 'pre-buy' it," says Fennell. "Basically, we're asking the distributor to take a bet with us on the picture."
However, getting into festivals like Sundance is key, he says.
"If you don't get your film in one of the the big festivals, of which there are only about five or six, you won't get the film distributed," he says.
Of course, it also doesn't hurt that one of the country's biggest rock stars is behind the picture.
In fact, Fennell, Matthews, Red Light's Chris Tetzeli, and producer Johnathan Dorfman shared a condo during the festival, entertaining such luminaries as pitcher Barry Zito and actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman at their after-screening party. When the studio suits came around, however, it was back to business. According to Fennell, he spent 10 hours in a room with Fox Searchlight executives until a deal was hammered out.
"It definitely raises our profile," says Fennell, who maintains an ATO office in Charlottesville, while his counterpart, Michael McDonald, maintains one in New York. "And it helps with our bigger plan to start a distribution company. If you don't control distribution in the independent film world, you get screwed. Distribution is everything."
Fennell says Joshua will probably be released in August. In the meantime, ATO is busy developing a script based on Don Delillo's novel End Zone and several other projects, as well as reading new material.
And for all you would-be screen writers out there, ATO offers a carrot.
"We read everything that's presented to us," says Fennell, "although we're so overwhelmed it takes us a while to get back to people."