My SXSW Film Debut Was Canceled. Now What? (Guest Column)

Bernd Reinhardt
Filmmaker Maureen Bharoocha

First-time filmmaker Maureen Bharoocha was set to premiere her movie 'Golden Arm' in Austin last month, but as the coronavirus pandemic shutters much of Hollywood, she's reckoning with her options and her career ahead.

This was to be a month of celebration and joy.

Just a few weeks ago, I was supposed to debut my feature film Golden Arm during the first weekend at SXSW. I imagined sitting in a rowdy theater packed with comedy fans and movie buffs. Popcorn and Milk Duds in hand, I’d watch the audience glued to the flickering images onscreen. Cheers and big laughs emanating from their faces. I’d occasionally glance at the film’s stars Mary Holland and Betsy Sodaro, hoping they were as proud as I am about how incredible they are.

When the credits rolled, I’d walk up with the cast and crew (who all traveled to Austin to celebrate) and we do a Q&A. We gush about what a fun movie it was to make together — how we improvised a ton and overcame all the challenges of a low-budget, buddy/road-trip/arm-wrestling comedy in the heat of an Oklahoma summer. Then the Golden Arm crew would roll out to the afterparty that was planned and celebrate late into the night, continuing to talk about all the blood, sweat and tears that went into the movie and how it was all worth it for this moment.

But this story will stay in my imagination because that night never happened. Instead, the world was hit with a pandemic and life was canceled.

To be honest, I was devastated about not having this moment to shine. I left the best gig in town (directing segments on Jimmy Kimmel Live!) to direct this feature. And on top of that, Golden Arm was truly a tough movie to make. I am incredibly proud of the film and wouldn’t change anything about my experience, but SXSW was going to be the moment that I was finally going to be able to breathe. I feel guilty even thinking this in the landscape of our world today, but I also know I have to grieve and accept those feelings to move forward in this new world.

Hollywood as we know it is now changed. Every production has shut down and we’re all frozen. How will it be when we’re back to our regularly scheduled life? Will it be business as usual? Will it be a slow build back, or will we hit the ground running with an even bigger appetite? How will I get my next project off the ground? Are production budgets going to be slashed? Will there be directing gigs? I will have to adapt and might have to rebuild my career strategy. It’s also something I’m built for as a writer and director in this town.

After going to film school at Boston University, I shot my thesis in Pakistan and finished my MFA out here in California. I started in this town during the writers strike in 2007. I had a plan of how I thought my career would go back then, but that plan was immediately thrown out because of the strike. There were no jobs, no productions and no visible way to achieve my dreams. But I didn’t let that detour stop me. I managed to find an alternate way in — writing and directing shorts for Sprinkles Cupcakes, directing video content for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and eventually directing on Kimmel for three seasons. I see this moment as a chance to find a better (albeit different) path to achieve my goals.

Ever since Los Angeles shut down there has been a ball of fear in the pit of my stomach. It grows as the days pass. It’s actually a fear I know. It’s the fear of the unknown. It’s dread. It’s darkness and it does nothing but continue to eat my insides. But I cannot feed it, or it will continue to take over. So that means turning off the news more often, not obsessively checking the growing numbers and not letting the darkest thoughts about death seep into my mind. I instead choose to fill my mind with light. What do I dream of writing and directing when this is over? What stories do I have to tell? If this pandemic has shown me one thing it’s that time is precious, and life can change in an instant. It’s something I already knew but don’t remember to practice. It shifted my perspective instantly, and what matters and what doesn’t is now clearer than ever.

I like to throw myself into too many projects. It’s a coping mechanism to deal with the ups and downs that this industry brings. I also find it funny that people in our industry keep saying during this pandemic how things are so uncertain and unknown for us. But the reality is that it’s always been unknown. We are just forced to face how much we really don’t know about anything ever. No one knows what will be a success or a failure or why some movies become cult classics and others die in obscurity. Hollywood takes huge gambles all the time, but now more than ever it’s time to buckle in and dig deep. Tell the stories only you were meant to tell. Show the world what you can bring to humanity. Only we can save ourselves, and the only way I know how to weather any storm is to find another way to glory.

Right now, I am focusing on my writing projects, so I’m armed with the stories I want to tell when this is over. I’m writing a comedy pilot with my brother, Ahmed Bharoocha. I’m writing a horror-comedy with Mary and Betsy, and I’m writing a comedy-action movie with another writing partner, Ellen Huggins. I know when production comes back I will be directing again. My creative drive will always be there. I’ve sacrificed every part of my life to do what I love. I won’t let it all be for nothing.

As for Golden Arm, it is out to buyers as we speak, and we are still open to the opportunity to screen on the festival circuit — whatever that looks like now. The Amazon-SXSW collaboration is incredible in theory, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the right move for our movie. We want people to see the film, but we also want proper distribution and compensation for our hard work. And ultimately, film festivals are about the community. Sitting in a theater, talking to audiences, sharing battle scars and celebrating with fans. Moving to an online format you lose all of that magic. I know Golden Arm will find a home and it will get out to the world. It’s just about finding the right partner to distribute.

Still — before anything else can happen with Golden Arm or me or my career or anything — we must band together and ride out this virus. Things will change and it might get harder. We might take steps back, but guess what — we don’t know, and there is nothing we can do but wait and let time tell us what the future will bring. Through this all, I haven’t forgotten the people we should be celebrating are the real heroes fighting on the front lines at hospitals and groceries. People are sick and dying. I hope as a world we will all see how connected we are and how we don’t have time to waste. 

All I can do is keep being creative. Keep writing. Keep making art. And let the people I love know how much they inspire me. FaceTime, texts and email help stay connected. My mom is Irish Catholic and my dad is Indian-Pakistani Muslim, so there’s plenty of prayers to go around and extended family to call. I’m also grateful for the tribe of creatives I have found and I am never letting any of them go. We will continue to make cool shit.

Maureen Bharoocha is the director of Golden Arm.