For sale: Large dose of 'Escrow' realty reality

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The housing bubble is bursting, with the subprime mortgage business in a meltdown, properties taking months to sell and new home starts in decline.

The real estate market might not be anything to laugh about, but writer-director Armen Kaprelian remains bullish on the scene as Magnolia Pictures releases his new independently produced comedy "Closing Escrow" in limited markets Friday, followed by a near-simultaneous DVD release Sept. 4.

The film, a mockumentary that follows three Southern California couples as they plunge into a home-buying frenzy, was filmed in 2005 during a tight 14-day shoot in Santa Clarita, Calif., completed in 2006 and officially unveiled in March at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. Shortly thereafter, Magnolia picked it up for distribution.

"I had some angst as the market started to turn," Kaprelian says of the time it took to get the project to the screen. "But it's not a film about the market conditions; it's a film about three families. Initially, when we were filming, it was a buyer's market. But now it's even more interesting. Houses that sold in two days are now staying on the market for a national average of 81⁄2 months, so people -- both buyers and sellers -- are spending a lot more time thinking about real estate."

A graduate of the film school at California State University, Northridge, Kaprelian entered the business as an intern at "House Hunters," one of HGTV's signature series, in which home buyers scout potential properties. He eventually worked his way up to become one of the series' producers for several seasons.

"There were so many goofy things that happened on that show, but we didn't usually include them because we weren't on Comedy Central," he says. "I was always trying to inject a little more humor into it, but after a few years, I thought, 'What if I take some of these scenarios that I find entertaining and put them into a film?' "

So within two weeks he knocked out a script based on his experiences. And because real estate was running hot, he turned to the real estate community in his search for funding -- eventually, he says, finding 11 investors nationwide who came aboard the $600,000 project.

In effect, the production, which Kaprelian co-directed and co-wrote with Kent Llewellyn, was structured almost like an actual reality-TV real estate shoot. The cast, with credits ranging from "Reno 911!" to "Mad TV," were encouraged to improvise; their reactions to the homes they were visiting were caught on the fly.

The results play somewhat like a Christopher Guest comedy; Wendi McLendon-Covey, for example, plays a New Age-y, politically correct Realtor who is only one step removed from the psychics who offer blessings on the homes up for sale in Bravo's real estate saga "Flipping Out." When a seller's agent makes the mistake of mentioning "plantation shutters" in front of the black couple that McLendon-Covey's character represents, she flips out over the perceived racial insensitivity. In the process, she also picked up a special jury award for comedy at the Aspen fest.

"Escrow" will hold its first open houses this weekend, as it bows in limited engagements in such cities as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Denver and Tempe, Ariz.

With its relatively unknown cast, it's probably fated to remain a specialty release. But Kaprelian is hoping he finds a captive audience in all those real estate agents whose listings aren't moving. "There are 500,000 agents in California," he says. "It's kind of like shooting fish in a barrel."
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