'Bella' producer says THR put film on radar

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"Bella" breakthrough: Hollywood handicappers always think they know who stands to win top honors at film festivals, but as we saw in Toronto earlier this month surprises are always possible.

Going into the festival, absolutely no one, including the team of filmmakers that made "Bella," ever imagined it would capture the People's Choice Award voted on by festival audiences. Now in the wake of "Bella's" breakthrough victory, it's being screened for domestic distributors whose interest in acquiring the heartwarming drama is understandably greater than it was only a few weeks earlier.

Winning in Toronto can be the first step on the road to Oscar and Golden Globes success. "Bella" could wind up following in the footsteps of such past Toronto winners as: "American Beauty," which won five Oscars in 2000, including best picture and director, and three Globes, including best picture and director; "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which won four Oscars in 2001, including best foreign language film, was a best picture Oscar nominee and won two Globes, including best director for Ang Lee; "Tsotsi," which earlier this year won the best foreign language film Oscar; "Whale Rider," which received a surprise best actress nomination in 2004 for Keisha Castle-Hughes; and "Strictly Ballroom," which was a Globes nominee in 1994 for best motion picture - comedy or musical.

"Bella" marks the feature directorial debut for Alejandro Monteverde, who also co-wrote its original screenplay with Patrick Million. It was produced by Sean Wolfington, Leo Severino, Eduardo Verastegui, Denise Pinckley and Monteverde and executive produced by J. Eustace Wolfington, Ana Wolfington and Stephen McEveety. Starring are Verastegui, Tammy Blanchard and Manuel Perez, Angelica Aragon, Jaime Terelli and Ali Landry.

"Bella," which was shot in New York, is the first project from Metanoia Films, which was launched two years ago by Monteverde, Verastegui and Severino, who now call themselves "the three amigos." The independent production was financed equally by J. Eustace Wolfington and by Sean and Ana Wolfington.

"It's unbelievable," Sean Wolfington told me when I asked about "Bella's" surprise success in Toronto. "We all knew we had something special. We knew that for sure. But we didn't know for sure that everybody would agree. It's incredible. This is a first time film for all of us -- from the writer to the director to the producers and the director even decided to select a first time editor for feature films (Fernando Villena), a first time composer (Stephan Altman) and a first time cinematographer (Andrew Cadalago). So no one really knew what to expect.

"We'd heard about awards from different festivals, but we were so excited (just) to get into Toronto that we couldn't even think about awards. But then we thought, 'Well, what if we won?' We asked somebody and they said, 'It's nearly impossible because there's only one big award and you're competing with a lot of Oscar (contenders).' I can say that we were always hopeful, but we didn't really talk about it much because it was more of a dream than it was any type of realistic expectation. But the next thing you know! It was probably the biggest surprise of my life, frankly."

What does Wolfington think accounted for the film's surprising success? "I have to tell you," he replied, "your colleagues at The Hollywood Reporter, at least in our opinion, are to thank because we were nobody and I remember someone had interviewed me before the festival and I was so excited about getting into the festival I couldn't even see straight. He asked me a very sobering question. He said, 'With 350 some odd films from all over the world and such a large festival, are you concerned about getting lost and how are you going to make sure you don't get lost?' It kind of popped the bubble a little bit for getting into Toronto and I was like, 'Well, how are we not going to get lost?' The only thing that could come to my mind is, I told him, 'Well, if you write this article and we're included, hopefully, at least that will help us get noticed and people will come to the screening and, then, of course, the movie will have to do the rest. Who knows how it's going to pair up because I haven't seen the other films.'

"But the bottom line is the morning the boxoffice opened we went to buy tickets for our friends and family and it was sold out 30 minutes after (it opened). We asked ourselves, 'How did that happen?' The only exposure we got was through The Hollywood Reporter -- and fortunately it wasn't just his article that we were included in, there were actually two other articles (in THR) before the festival began. It was maybe a sentence, but it took us from obscurity to at least (being) on the radar. If it wasn't for that small sentence, we wouldn't have this big award. I just wanted to let you know that The Hollywood Reporter has a totally different meaning to us than anything else that is in the industry."

The film's victory in Toronto, he emphasized, is "a miracle, a dream come true. The whole thing that's unique about this film is that everybody who came to it had a better alternative and this was a long shot from the get-go. The common denominator is that everybody took a leap of faith. And the award was just a confirmation for what everybody really believed. I mean, all the key people on the film were all in Toronto because this was a labor of love. It was -- I know a lot of people say this -- like a child. But when you give birth to a child sometimes the family doesn't always get along.

"For us, the best thing about the film isn't just the film but that the family that created the film has become so close. And part of the family is our production company Metanoia Films, which the director, the producer, lead actor, myself and my partner, who helped finance the film, are all part of. The lead actress and the key cast (and others who worked on the movie) were all there in Toronto. While everybody was running around going to all these different fancy parties, we were just having a blast being together. Every day we joke around and call each other and we say, 'Did we really win?' Now it's become a joke."

The next step for "Bella" is putting together a domestic distribution deal: "What's really great is that before we won there were a lot of very reputable distributors who were very, very interested. We had already scheduled screenings in New York and L.A. after the festival for them to get the rest of the team and people higher up in the decision cycle to see the film. We want a partner who sees the value in our film and will put the right resources behind it to make sure it's as successful as it should be. I will say, once we got the People's Choice Award, those people talked to many others and there was a lot more urgency and a lot more interest.

"And now we have screenings going on in L.A. for a number of distributors because we couldn't get the print out to as many as requested it. There's going to be one in New York (which should have taken place by the time you read this) for New York distributors. And we're also doing a screening in Miami for some distributors that happen to have some people down there who want to take a look at it. Once we do the screenings, we're going to narrow it down to the people that we think would be the best partners and we plan on selecting (a distributor) within the next two weeks."

Metanoia Films doesn't "want to rush," he added. "We financed the film ourselves. We believe after seeing the audience's response that it's something audiences love. We just want to make sure we have the right distributor who will put the right p and a and resources (into it) to make sure that enough people see it."

Asked about the criteria for determining who would be the best distributor for the picture, Wolfington explained, "For many people it's who's going to give them the most minimum guarantee up front. For us the only reason we want a minimum guarantee upfront is not because we want our money out -- we are confident after seeing time and time again how consumers love it -- it's because we want the distributor to have enough of an investment in the film that they have the incentive to put more of an investment in the p and a and in the right release to recoup what they put into it. But otherwise, if we were assured that the distributor would put in all the right resources to market it properly and to reach as many people as the film should, frankly I'd prefer to get a better back-end.

"We've had the privilege of seeing the audience's personal responses. I can't (talk about the reaction from) people in the industry because I wasn't even in the press and industry screening, but regular people (are touched) deeply. They laugh hard. They cry hard. So we want the right partner that will put the right resources in up front. We want to make sure that we have the right balance of upfront minimum guarantee and fair share of the backend profit. But really our primary objective and why we made the movie is not just to make money, but to make a difference. The film is a beautiful story that will touch the hearts and minds of people. And in the end, if you told me you have a choice where this makes a lot of money but it has a limited release or this has got as broad or a broader release than any film like it, but you actually didn't make a dime, I would take the latter without hesitation. And that's not just not me. My partner would take the latter and so would all of our partners."

By way of explanation, Wolfington said, "Fortunately, at least in my career (in real estate, finance and the Internet) and in my partner who financed the film's career, we've been blessed to be able to make enough money to realize that money isn't all that matters in life. If we can tell a story that gives (people) hope and has a positive impact on the world, that's the profit that really you can't count. That's our main objective now. It's not something that we advertise because a lot of people who work in this industry probably wouldn't appreciate that mentality. I don't judge their money motive because obviously we want to make money (in order) to be able to make more films like this. And if we don't make money, we're not going to be able to (do that). But it's a means not an end."

In focusing on how they made the movie, I observed that in most cases first time feature directors are surrounded with experienced production veterans -- especially when it comes to key areas like cinematography and editing. With "Bella" there were first time filmmakers in virtually all the principal departments. "I'm going to share with you this story," he noted, "at the risk of knowing that if I heard this story my conclusion would be that these people are maybe nice and overly optimistic, but unwise. Because if you hear the story I'm going to share with you, it's definitely going to be risky and anybody with common sense would say even imprudent and unwise.

"Everybody's wired differently and I'm definitely wired as a business person to be a man of the numbers and to minimize risk and maximize opportunity for growth and profitability and everything that you need to do to survive as a business person. But the greatest things that have ever happened to me did not come from my mind. They came from my heart and my gut. There have been business moves that in the moment I evaluated them I could write a business plan on why they wouldn't make sense, but for some reason my gut said go. And I've found in my life when my gut says go and I follow it, it works out."

And that's what happened with "Bella." "I was out in Los Angeles visiting a friend of mine who is a producer and a number of people told me to meet (someone), so I went to dinner with these guys that we (now) call 'the three amigos,' who are our production partners," he said. "And literally, three to five minutes into the meeting my gut was so strong -- and I only get it every once in a while -- that there was something here. I hadn't heard a pitch. Now the one thing we identified with was our mission. They wanted to make films not just to make money, but also to make a difference. And that's my philosophy in everything I do in all my businesses. So I just knew there was something there. The next day they gave us a pitch. My wife, who's also the executive producer, was with me. I found myself laughing and crying in a verbal pitch and I'm not overly sensitive. So along with my uncle (J. Eustace Wolfington), who's my partner, we decided in our first meeting to green light the film.

"Now keep in mind, I don't know what I'm doing. So I called my (producer) friend. He asked me five or six questions and at the end of those questions his quote to me was, 'Run for the hills.' First of all, he said, 'Have you read the script?' I said, 'No. I heard the pitch.' He said, 'Do they have a fully finished script?' I don't remember what I said. I may have been embarrassed and said, 'Yeah, I think so.' Frankly, I didn't know. Then he said, 'What has the screenwriter written?' I said, 'I don't think anything.' He said, 'Well, what has the director directed?' I said, 'Nothing.' I did share with him the (fact that) the first time he picked up a camera in his first film class at the University of Texas at Austin he won four film festivals. The second time he picked up a camera he won seven film festivals. And now, we're happy to say, the third time he picked up a camera it was for a feature film and he won in Toronto, which is just amazing. The guy definitely has 'it.' And when you meet people with 'it,' you know they have 'it.'"

Wolfington's producer friend then asked what talent was attached to the project? "Well, we've got the Brad Pitt of Latin America -- Eduardo Verastegui -- and other than that we don't have anybody else attached," Wolfington replied. "He said, 'How popular is he in the U.S.?' I said, 'Well, he's done 'Chasing Papi,' which did about $6 million domestic. But other than that he's just getting started in the United States.' After hearing all this, he said, 'Well, really, Sean -- have you given him any money?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Okay. Run for the hills.' My uncle and I had already given our word (that they'd finance the film) and beyond giving our word it was one of those things that at the gut level even though all common sense said no it was something that both of us knew we had to do."

Wolfington pointed out that he and his uncle have different styles when it comes to making business decisions: "He's older. I'm younger. I'm quicker. He's longer (to decide). And we meet in the middle and it works out. But he'll take six to 12 months many times to make a decision. I've never seen him make a decision on the spot -- and he did. So, fast forward -- we gave the director creative control. As we went through production, I couldn't tell you how many people we met as we were trying to study the industry. We knew that we didn't know it. At least we're smart enough to know that we're dumb. So we became students and met a lot of people who were intelligent. We were asking a lot of questions and with every question we asked we realized how unintelligent our decision was.

"Yet, as we moved forward, we continued to feel this was the right thing. It's amazing whether it be getting into Toronto, winning the Toronto Film Festival, there's 15 other things like it that happened before that were just little signs along the road that we were heading in the right direction. What ended up happening was that we gave creative control to the director and he chose the cinematographer (Andrew Cadalago). He's a very loyal guy. It's the same cinematographer he used for his two shorts at the University of Texas. He's a first time cinematographer. But (Monteverde is) such an impressive human being. His philosophy is, 'If I got a chance, why can't I give him a chance?' He did the same thing for the editor (Fernando Villena) and the same thing for the composer (Stephan Altman). He appreciated the fact that they hadn't done it before because he liked having a team around him that didn't know that certain things weren't possible."

What's amazing, he continued, "is that these guys went into New York City (to film). I was told my producer friend and by many others, 'There's no way you can shoot this film (in New York on a very low budget). In a general way, it was squeezing blood from a stone. Everybody told us New York is a great city, but it's impossible to shoot in because it's so uncontrollable. So many things can go wrong and your shoot time can double in the blink of an eye. We had planned to shoot eight to 12 pages a day. They said, 'There's no way you can shoot that many pages a day. You can't shoot in New York and you can't make it with that budget. You need to go to Toronto. You need to cut (the budget).' It was all these things we can't do.

"Now, they were right. We showed up in New York and it's true we didn't make a lot of the days where there were 12 pages a day. But there were many days where we were shooting up to eight pages a day in New York City. And they finished on time in 24 days. Incredible. What's really funny is that after we were done and sharing this with more experienced filmmakers the (thing the director kept hearing was), 'You can't do that. That's miraculous.' His response is always the same, 'You know what? I didn't realize I couldn't do that.' I think none of us realized we couldn't do that. And that's why, maybe, we were able to do it. The teamwork on the set and the chemistry with everybody there was amazing. It was just such a special thing to be a part of and I'm most happy for this award for all of the people that are now our family than I am for myself."

In a number of cases, people who worked on "Bella" had bigger offers on the table for other projects, but turned them down. "The director had another film with a bigger budget," he said. "And he gave that up because he didn't want to make films that just entertained. He realizes that he's got a gift and he wants to use it and he doesn't want to compromise his commitment to the art and to excellence. He had a bigger budget film right out of film school and had the potential to work with an incredible celebrity and he passed because he's always known he didn't want to compromise his commitment to the art. And the lead actor (Verastegui) did the same thing. As a matter of fact, (he) passed on two years worth of work (in order to do what he wanted to do)."

Looking ahead, Wolfington said that spurred on by "Bella's" success Metanoia Films is "going to be doing six other films. We're creating a film fund and talking to different studios about a co-production partnership. We've become a family. The director, since the day I met him, has always talked about this director (he admired) -- Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who) made '21 Grams' and 'Amores Perros' and now 'Babel.' If I told you how many times I heard about this guy and his films and his style, it was to the point where I (felt that) I knew him. I call (the director of 'Bella') Alejandro the Second because the first Alejandro is the veteran and the second is my partner, who considers Alejandro the First a living legend. So when he got into Toronto, he wasn't just excited about getting into Toronto. The thing that made him the most excited was that he got into the same film festival that Alejandro the First got into with the film 'Babel' that won at Cannes (where it won Best Director, the Ecumenical Jury Prize and the Technical Grand Prize for editing and was a Palme d'or nominee).

"What Alejandro the Second is the most excited about and blown away by is that he met Alejandro the First at our hotel and ended up speaking with him for about 15 minutes. And our lead actor and producer, Eduardo, met Alejandro the First, as well, and got a chance to speak with him for 25 or 30 minutes. What happened was, Alejandro the Second said, 'You guys are not going to believe this. I'm at the elevator and guess who walks up?' And it was him. He gave us his play by play. Now, frankly, based on his story it seemed like he was there with him for an hour, but I think realistically he was there (for maybe 15 minutes). He said the elevator kept opening like two or three times and they didn't get in because they were talking and connecting. He met his childhood hero. Some people want to grow up and be a football player and they want to meet Joe Montanna. He grew up wanting to be a filmmaker and (met his idol).

"Alejandro the First is from Mexico and he didn't know (when he got started) how films are made because in Mexico there's no real industry. It wasn't until Alejandro the First and a few others really exploded (that moviemaking got started there). So here are two Mexican directors -- one the student, the other the mentor; the rookie and the veteran -- and they win the two biggest festival prizes (Monteverde in Toronto and Inarritu in Cannes). I just thought that was cool."

But unlike the Cannes Film Festival, "Toronto didn't have a physical trophy," Wolfington told me. "So we're going to get our own trophies and give them to everybody (who worked on the picture). We're just going to call it the Toronto People's Choice Award, but on the bottom I would like to put something that really labels the personality (of those who made the film) -- maybe just a little message like, 'Thank you for taking a leap of faith.'"

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Mar. 9, 1988's column: "If a new advance ticket sales computer program wins the same acceptance in America that it already has in Europe, distributors won't need to drive around on opening nights to check out the lines because there won't be any lines to check out.

"The program, which is called Computerized Automatic Ticket Sales or CATS, for short, enables movie theaters to sell 100% of their seats in advance of a performance. As a result, moviegoers are spared having to queue up in front of movie theaters to buy tickets.

"CATS was developed in Israel five years ago by a team led by Israel Greidinger. A native of Israel, Greidinger is a third generation exhibitor whose family owns the largest circuit of cinemas in Israel...

"What does CATS enable a cinema to do? 'The difference between this system and any American system available today on the market is that this system offers the possibility to sell specific seats and advance booking of tickets,' explains Greidinger. "Now there are other systems which also have advance booking, but this is the only system which offers advance booking with specific seats. We are rewarding customers who buy tickets in advance by saying, 'First come, first served...'

"'What is happening is that the system is helping to attract good customers to cinemas. What we are trying to say is that the way the cinema industry is operating today, it is losing potential customers -- the upper-market customers -- because there are long queues around the cinemas so people are staying home. They have to wait in line to get a ticket and then in the end are getting the answer that there are no tickets left. Even if they get tickets they have to run into the auditorium to be the first to grab good seats or to find seats next to each other, which is not always easy. We're saying that because of this there are people who are not going to cinemas at all and that the people who are going are not getting the best service that they can be given...'

"Will we see CATS in the United States soon? 'We haven't made final deals,' replies Greidinger, 'but you can expect that you will see one or two systems installed in Manhattan around June, maybe a month later two or three systems installed in Los Angeles and hopefully one system also in Boston. We tried to go to places where there are upper-market people.' He adds that in New York, where some circuits raised their ticket prices to $7, CATS would provide exhibitors with a good excuse for the higher prices since it would improve service to moviegoers."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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