“One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart.”
Francis Ford Coppola
It’s hard to mark the beginning of the modern independent film movement. Certainly one could make the cases for the films of John Sayles, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino, but I mark the year of 1999 as the point when things really changed in the film industry.
That’s when a group of young guys in Orlando, Florida, created The Blair Witch Project. The graduates from the University of Central Florida shot with a mixture of 16mm film and consumer video cameras and made history. It is still the film with the highest ratio of profit to production cost of any film ever made.
One huge reason is that the filmmakers used the Internet to market their concept in a way that Hollywood easily could have afforded to do if they only had the vision. (They weren’t the only ones to miss the early boat. Bill Gates was not a cheerleader of the Internet at the start.) Hollywood caught the vision soon after the success of The Blair Witch Project, but they’ve been playing catch-up ever since.
I moved back to Orlando from L.A. at the end of 1988 just as the marketing campaign for Hollywood East was heating up. Disney and Universal were building production studios and Chapman-Leonard would follow suit.
Britney, Justin and Christina began doing their thing at Disney, and Nickelodeon found a new use for slime at Universal. Ron Howard’s Parenthood, Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57, and the building that blew up in the opening of Lethal Weapon III– were all shot in Orlando.
I wrote and directed a national radio drama at Century III (known as C-III) at Universal and received my first paycheck writing from Rick Eldridge who would go on to produce Bobby Jones Story; Stroke of Genius. I once was editing a video project at one of the suites at C-III while David Nutter (who I went to school with at the University of Miami) was editing a Super Boy episode he directed in the edit bay next to me. (Nutter went on to direct a Band of Brothers episode as well as some X-Files and has had quite a career in TV.)
Matchbox Twenty, Creed, and yes, The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync were on the Orlando music scene in the 90’s, Shaq was in command for the Orlando Magic, and Tiger Woods moved to town.
It was an exciting time to be in Orlando. But perhaps the biggest underrated event in that era was under most people’s radar. Valencia Community College lured film professor Ralph Clemente away from the University of Miami. (He still runs the film program at VCC that Steven Spielberg said was, “One of the best film schools in the country.”)
I had an editing class with Clemente at Miami and had gotten a good grade in part because I edited a montage of found rodeo footage with a Willie Nelson song. Who knew the German born Clemente whose accent sounds remarkably like Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s would be a Willie Nelson fan? Clemente enjoyed telling student to try new things.
Years later a couple of students would be inspired by Clemente to make a mockumentary that hit the Sundance Jackpot. Most people forget that The Blair Witch Project wasn’t even an official entrant. It was a special midnight showing that created the buzz that hasn’t really gone away.
It was as a giant step toward to prophetic words that Francis Ford Coppola said on the 1991 documentary Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse:
“To me the great hope is that now that these little 8mm video recorder and stuff now, some–just people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. And, you know, suddenly one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, and you know, and make a beautiful film with her father’s little camera-corder and for once this whole professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever and it will become an art form. That’s my opinion.”
I hope you’ve never been exposed to that quote before. It’s legendary in the micro-budget film world. If I was a fat girl in Ohio who wanted to make films I’d have that quote gold-plated and framed above my iMac.
I don’t know why Coppola picked Ohio as his frame of reference. Maybe he chose it for the same reason I titled this blog Screenwriting from Iowa. Ohio, like Iowa, represents the heartland of America and is more known for farms than film. And since I’m throwing around f-words, Ohio is quintessential flyover country.
But Ohio rocks. In part because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland. LeBron James does his magic in Cleveland. The kings of high-flying dreams, Orville and Wilber Wright worked out of a bicycle shop in Dayton. The list goes on. (Did you know that the Wright Brothers lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa at one time?)
And Ohio, like Iowa, has some interesting history connected to screenwriting and movie making: Sundance winner American Splendor, Major League, and the classic family film A Christmas Story. At the time of this writing the ever resourceful Internet Movie Date Base (IMDb) lists a tie for the top rated film ever by its voters as Coppola’s The Godfather and Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption.
The later having been shot in Mansfield, Ohio. That site is a character in the film. And you can still take tours there during the summer. (Mansfield State Reformatory in Ohio)
Antioch College in funky Yellow Springs can lay claim to helping to educate Rod Serling before he became an advertising copywriter in Cincinnati before becoming the famous writer & host of The Twilight Zone.
Speaking of Cincinnati, though its influence is probably small, it’s worth nothing that Tom Cruise (who Premiere Mag ranked as the #3 Greatest Movie Star of All Time) attended school briefly in Cincinnati and the highest box office money-making director of all-time (over $3.5 Billion) Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati. (And just to pile on George Clooney was raised just over the river in Kentucky.)
The former reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Joe Eszterhas, has returned to his Ohio roots but not before making his mark in Hollywood where he made as much as four million dollars a script. While no one would accuse the writer of Basic Instinct and Showgirls with writing regional Midwestern stories that doesn’t mean he hasn’t written any. In his book Hollywood Animal, Eszterhas mentions a distinctly Midwestern film he wrote that never got made because he was told, “Dirt don’t sell.” Most of the film F.I.S.T. written by Eszterhas (directed by Norman Jewison and staring Sylvester Stallone) was filmed in Dubuque, Iowa.
In his book “The Devils Guide to Hollywood,” Eszterhas offers advice to screenwriters such as “Move to the Midwest.” Talk about counter-culture? (And from a guy who once owed homes in Malibu, the San Francisco Bay area, and Hawaii–at the same time.)
Why would he give such advice? “You won’t be able to write real people if you stay in L.A. too long. L.A. has nothing to do with the rest of America. It is a place whose values are shaped by the movie business. It is my contention that it is not just a separate city, or even a separate state, but a separate country located within America. Real people live in Bainbridge Township, Ohio.”
(Perhaps that’s part of the success of Diablo Cody’s Minnesota-based Juno? Maybe she should write a tell all book and call it, Diablo’s Guide to Hollywood.)
But what does Mr. Eszterhas think about what that does for your odds of selling a screenplay? Glad you asked. These are the words every writer outside L.A. wants to hear:
“If you write a script anywhere and send it to an agent in Chicago or Detroit or Cleveland or wherever…and if that agent sends it to an agent in Hollywood who loves it…you can sell your script. You don’t need to have any connections, you don’t need to have an agent, you don’t need to live in L.A. All you have to do is send your finished script to an agent anywhere. That agent will know another agent in Hollywood and you’ll be in business.”
Keep in mind Eszterhas is talking about the conventional Hollywood agent route, not the additional opportunities wherever you live by various production people who will be attracted to your script.
While not being fat or from Ohio, Zana Briski took a giant step toward Coppola’s vision when the English photographer picked up a handheld DV camera for the first time and made a film in Calcutta’s red light district. Co-directed and shot with Ross Kauman, Born into Brothels, won Best Documentary Feature at the 2005 Academy Awards.
Some people have been asking “Where’s that little fat girl in Ohio?” I think he may have meant Iowa. People get those confused a lot, you know?
But wherever she is she’s on her way. Although she may not make her film using her father’s camera-corder as Coppola suggested, but using her cell phone camera and posting it on the Internet.
Rewind back to 1999 when Steven Spielberg told Katie Couric on the NBC today show, “I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines.”
As in Des Moines, I-O-W-A. I don’t just make this stuff up, you know? When Couric remarked, “Great, I’m gonna lose my job” (No comment.), ” Spielberg interjected, “We’re all gonna lose our jobs. We’re all gonna be on the Internet trying to find an audience.” (Speaking of the Internet, to see a fun and original five-minute film actually made in Des Moines view Mimes of the Prairie, which won the 2005 National 48 Hour Film Project.
As Morgan Freeman’s famous character Red says, “Hope is a dangerous thing.”
Cheers to the new Mozarts in Ohio and beyond.
Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith