There are quite a few good reasons to see the movie “Shortbus.” For one, it’s a comedy about relationships in a season when there’s very little in the way of romance on screen. For another, it was directed by John Cameron Mitchell, the creative force behind “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a much-praised musical about a transsexual rock star. But so far, the main thing attracting audiences has been its billing as a non-porn film that features a lot of real sex: straight, gay, group and dominatrix.
No wonder the movie went out unrated to avoid an NC-17.
At 6:45 p.m. last Thursday, a couple hundred kids with lots of nose rings and purple hair packed into an auditorium in Greenwich Village to see an advance screening of the movie, and though most of them were film majors from NYU, many admitted that their main intention was to see a whole bunch of good-looking young people get it on.
Some people associated with the film might find this disheartening, but Mark Urman of ThinkFilm, the distributor, is not one of them. “The sex is fun to watch,” he said. “Between the acrobatics and the pyrotechnics, no one is going to fall asleep watching it.”
This is a good thing, because in Urman’s world, the gravest sin is putting an audience to sleep.
In the last two and a half years, he and ThinkFilm have emerged as significant players on the independent film scene largely because they take on small, button-pushing films, the kind that other studios don’t want to touch. Though the company began to garner acclaim in 2003 for “Spellbound,” a documentary about a spelling bee, the splash happened a year later with “Born Into Brothels,” a documentary about the children of prostitutes in Calcutta. It won the Oscar for best documentary.
The following summer, Think put out “The Aristocrats,” a documentary produced by Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) that features 90 comedians telling 90 versions of what may just be the dirtiest joke ever. Other movies that year included “Murderball” (a documentary about a team of quadriplegic rugby players) and “Where the Truth Lies” (Atom Egoyan’s noir-ish thriller about a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis-like showbiz team who orchestrate a cover-up of their homosexuality). Neither of those did particularly well, but “Murderball” later scored an Oscar nomination in the Best Documentary category. In August, Think released “Half Nelson,” a low-budget drama starring Ryan Gosling as a junior high school teacher with a crack problem.
“He’s going to get an Oscar nomination,” said Urman.
Such a trajectory seems unlikely for Think’s next documentary, “F–k,” which is about the cultural development of the f-word. It comes out next month and might cynically be described as a blatant attempt to repeat the success of “The Aristocrats.”
“We wanted to do it because nobody else can and we learned a lot on our adventure with the ‘Aristocrats,’” Urman explained. “One reason we return again and again to films that may be frontier crossing, edgy, maybe even a touch beyond the pale, is because the studios can’t.
“Our culture works in one of two ways,” he continued. “People either want that which is comfortingly familiar or they want that which is bracingly new. Comfortingly familiar is presold, it’s sequel, it’s adaptation of best-selling novels, it’s big stars, and identifiable genres. All the things Hollywood stands for that we love when they’re done well. We don’t do that. We do the bracingly new.”
He was sitting in his office on New York’s 22nd Street, with the shades drawn, blocking out the sun. Urman, 53, is completely bald and was dressed all in black — down to his glasses, which are sharply rectangular, Mod and totally befitting a man who runs an independent film company. He has a little hoop earring in his left ear, wears a watch from Movado and has a thing for hematite rings that he buys every year when he goes to Cannes, which is just one of many festivals Urman attends in search of films he can buy.
Unlike the major studios (and even Miramax), Think is largely in the distribution business, which means Urman spends several weeks a year away from his wife and kids, hopping from festival to festival, bidding on films that have already been completed. He buys them for a lump sum (generally less than $1 million) and then works out a low-cost marketing strategy that involves little conventional advertising and much free publicity, which he gets in places like The New York Observer and the culture pages of The New York Times.
Since he spends almost nothing on TV advertising and opens his films in a small number of theaters, he sees smaller returns, but also smaller losses. When a movie does succeed, the filmmakers are often disappointed that they don’t see more money.
Such was the case with “Born Into Brothels,” which Urman bought for “very close to $20,000” and went on to make a respectable $3 million at the box office.
“Documentary filmmakers are passionate people,” said Ross Kauffman, the film’s producer. “We don’t make films to make money, but when they do make money, you hope that you’ll see some of it….So far, that’s yet to be seen.”
“Even on a film that does well, the profit margins are small,” Urman claimed.
Which might explain why his company has remained tiny; there are about 15 people in New York, in addition to the company’s chief executive officer, Jeff Sackman, who is based in Toronto.
Urman described Think’s business strategy like this: “We do not have a human resources department, and I keep on saying that I only want to work at a company that doesn’t have a human resources department because those people exist to do nothing but hand out pink slips. So you eliminate the danger of a pink slip by not having the person who issues them.”
This is demonstrably true — Urman does not have an h.r. department— but it is also public relations speak, the kind Urman is good at, having begun his career some 30 years ago as a publicist at United Artists.
But first, some backstory: Urman, who grew up in Brooklyn, was the child of two holocaust survivors. His father was a tailor and his mother was a bookkeeper at a fabric company. As a kid, Urman spent his weekends in the city, visiting dilapidated revival houses as well as the Museum of Modern Art, which was one of the few places you could go to then to view an old film.
“I fell in love with a new movie every Saturday,” he recalled. “I gravitated towards old romantic comedies with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, big hollywood musicals. I liked glamour and I was very, very big on specific filmmakers. I went nuts for Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Orson Wells.”
As a student at Union College (where he met his wife) he interned at Variety, then went on to a string of publicity jobs. First he worked at United Artists, then he moved to Columbia, and went from there to run the domestic division of Dennis Davidson and Associates, a international publicity firm that specializes in independent films. In 1998, he went to Lions Gate, a nascent indie where he worked as the head of U.S. theatrical. In 2001, he and Sackman started Think, where he occupies the same position.
The ability to generate heat for its movies is his strongest asset, Urman said. “When it comes to publicity I think we are without peer. It’s the area of the business I was born and raised in and I have an enormous skill set and an enormous appreciation for how important that is.”
Because of his publicity skills, he avoided questions about the size of his business and how much money it had at its disposal. And he certainly never mentioned the not insignificant fact Think is on the block.
But according to three sources, the company has approached several other independent studios over the last year in what looks like an attempt to build a bigger international presence. Right now, the most likely scenario involves a link with David Bergstein, a financier and movie producer in Los Angeles who recently acquired Capital Films, a large international distribution company that puts out movies by prestigious filmmakers, among them Robert Altman. Think’s management would remain in place, but the deal would give it room to grow.
“It gives Think access to bigger films while giving Capital the added value of having films with built-in U.S. distribution. It’s a win-win situation,” said one source, who requested anonymity because he does business with the company.
The additional funding would also enable Urman to play in the bigger digital world the main studios are chasing like lions after a gazelle. In Urman’s view, the film world has changed seismically in the last five years and those changes will continue. “In order to capitalize opportunistically, one has to be nimble,” he said. “Small equals fast. Small equals unencumbered.
“In order for a studio to show on your cell phone, they basically have to own the phone company. They’re tied up with sister companies and output deals. I can sell my film to anybody. You come up with a device to stick something up your a– to show a movie, I’ll be your film proctologist.”
Until that happens, there’s plenty for him to do.
Next Friday, Think will release Terry Gilliam’s new movie, “Tideland,” about a young girl who is forced to live with her father following her mother’s heroin overdose.
“It’s a very specific movie, but one wants to have it in one’s library,” Urman said.
(Note to reader: “specific movie” is probably p.r. speak for borderline unwatchable.)
After that comes “F–k,” and then “Candy,” a love story about two heroin addicts that stars Heath Ledger. And there will be Oscar campaigns, too, and a considerable amount of attention devoted to “Half Nelson.”
But “Shortbus” has been the studio’s biggest project this fall, and marketing it was more difficult than one might think. Sex may sell everything from Victoria’s Secret underwear to Madonna albums, but if a film does not get an R-rating, it’s pretty much guaranteed that thousands of theaters won’t show it. To date, “Showgirls” (which grossed $20.3 million) is the only film that has received an NC-17 or been unrated because of explicit sex to have passed the $15 million mark in domestic box office receipts. And the most commercially successful “independent” films of the last few years have usually been distributed by “specialty films units” within the major studios, like Warner Independent Pictures, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features, which is owned by Universal.
When these films have succeeded, they have tended to be family-friendly documentaries like “March of the Penguins,” films with religious undertones (i.e., “The Passion of the Christ”) or $8 million to $15 million movies like “Gosford Park” and “Brokeback Mountain,” both of which were directed by big-name filmmakers, and both of which starred famous actors in leading roles.
Then there’s the issue of marketing the DVD of “Shortbus,” which is also problematic, given that Wal-Mart accounts for over 60 percent of the DVD market in the U.S. and does not sell NC-17 or sexually explicit, unrated films. It is probably not a coincidence that, to date, Think’s most profitable film is “Spellbound,” a PG-rated documentary about a spelling bee.
But Urman is increasingly confident about the outlook for “Shortbus.”
“Did you see the review in The New York Times today?” he asked Wednesday, sounding almost amazed.
It was a rave. “We’re going to make a lot of money,” he predicted.