— by Shawn Adler
SANTA MONICA, California — In July 2004, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck plucked two writers and a director from relative obscurity and named them and their film "Feast" the winners of "Project Greenlight: Season 3" — the Bravo show that gives lucky filmmakers the chance to make their own independent feature.
Two years later, that seems like ancient history.
"I can't tell you how many people have come up to me over the last year, people that are huge fans of the show or huge fans of the horror genre," recalled "Feast" castmember and comedian Judah Friedlander. "They all want to know, 'When can I see "Feast" '?"
The answer, finally, is this weekend — "Feast" will have a limited release starting Friday. The film had screenings in October 2005 at the Chicago, Savannah and International Horror and Sci-fi film festivals, and John Gulager was named Best Director at the 2005 Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.
According to the flick's official MySpace page, "Feast" will be shown for only two evenings in selected cities, mostly at midnight or late-night screenings. The horror movie will then be released on DVD October 17.
"I won a contest on the Internet and I was able to direct a movie, and it's actually coming out in theaters. I'm truly the luckiest guy in the world," Gulager exclaimed. "That said, I wish it were playing longer. People are [only] going to get a small window to go see this movie on the big screen, and I just urge everyone to do it."
All of which raises an obvious question: Why isn't "Feast" being given a wider release?
To understand why, we must leave the firm foundation of fact and travel into Hollywood conjecture.
Maybe 'Feast' Is Bad
"Feast" is the product of a trio of first-timers: Gulager and screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. "Three years ago I was working at a video store and stocking the previous 'Greenlight' movies," Dunstan joked.
Sure, it worked for Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, but can lightning strike not twice but three times? Can another ex-video clerk make a quality debut?
All indications point to yes. Early buzz surrounding the movie has been mostly positive. Tim Basham at MovieHole.com, for instance, gave "Feast" three and a half out of five stars and wrote that with this film, Gulager proved himself a "winner."
"We have a movie that works as a successful horror entry as well as a successful film," Dunstan announced. "Just on its own as an entertainment entity — this works."
So critics like it and the filmmakers like it. According to Dunstan, audiences that have actually seen the movie seem to overwhelmingly like it too.
"The best compliments we've been getting [are from people who say], 'I hate horror movies, but this one works. I like this,' " Dunstan said. "When we watched it the other day with a crowd that didn't know what they were walking into, they broke out into applause three times throughout the movie, and at the end they cheered like it was the winning touchdown of the Super Bowl."
Still, "Feast" has the stench of a film being dumped to DVD, and, fair or not, audiences tend to think direct-to-video features are, well, generally stinkers.
"I [would] agree that 99.99 percent of the movies [released directly to] DVD are bad," Dunstan said. "I'm the sucker that rents all of them. If 'Feast' was going direct to DVD, maybe audiences would be more inclined to think [it's bad]. Fact is, they are letting it out there. They are letting it play in theaters. I don't think that's been done before where a movie this hard has been given any theatrical window prior to its splashy DVD release."
And therein lies the rub. "Feast" is being released in theaters across the country, even if the window is limited. The Weinstein Company, which produced the film, is giving it a chance. And that takes more effort than most casual fans are aware of.
"It's a hell of a lot of money to make all the prints and do the color timing and transfer the digital to film just so these screenings could happen," Dunstan asserted. "It's a big investment on their part just to give horror fans a chance to check this thing out big and bad."
Dunstan, by the way, has another movie deal at Dimension for a script he wrote called "The Midnight Man." Not exactly the type of opportunity they give to screenwriters who write bad films.
Let's say, then, that "Feast" is as good as advertised — and there is no indication from anyone who's actually seen the movie to think otherwise. Why isn't it playing on more screens?
"That sums up show business," Friedlander contended. "Quality doesn't have much to do with show business. I mean, does anybody actually like Paris Hilton's new album?"
Friedlander — who knows a thing or two about quality movies (he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his role as Toby Radloff in "American Splendor") — is absolutely right. Bad movies get released all the time.
But unmarketable movies? These are the films that really get lost in the shuffle.
Maybe 'Feast' Is Unmarketable
Nobody at the Weinstein Company would go on record regarding the lack of publicity for "Feast," and most of the research and many of the interviews for this article were arranged and finalized through MySpace.
"MySpace is really the biggest champion for 'Feast' right now," Dunstan remarked. "As of today, I think MySpace is the only entity that has an accurate theater list. The 'Feast' Web site doesn't even tell you all the theaters it's playing in, but MySpace has it right. It kind of hamstrings the effort to have misinformation out there or a lack of information."
The cast and crew of "Feast" have been more than happy to fill the publicity void. Dunstan, for instance, is conducting his own online mini-campaign.
"We've been able to contact and use our MySpace pages to inform friends and family members of when and where this sucker is going to roll," he said. "I was on MySpace sending literally hundreds of messages telling [people], 'Hey, this is where [the movie] is in your town. Please tell your folks. If I genuinely didn't think this movie was worth your time I wouldn't even bother you, but damn it, this [movie] rules.' "
Viral marketing campaigns for films have a spotty track record. Some, like the one conducted for "The Blair Witch Project," work. Others, like the recent campaign for "Snakes on a Plane," prove that what the Internet cares about isn't always in sync with the general public's interests.
But why a viral campaign in the first place? Why not commercials and trailers and billboards and junkets? Could it be that "Feast" is too "hard"?
"This is a vulgar, fast, muscle-car kind of a movie, with a righteous amount of obscenity and mayhem," Dunstan boasted. "It's got a velocity and ferocity to keep people awake and engaged in its bloody, nasty thrill rides. It's kind of out there to satiate the hunger for that drive-in, grind-house sort of a film."
Perhaps, like Oroborus — the serpent that eats its own tail — "Feast" is its own worst enemy.
" 'Feast' is like the guy that has to spin all those plates on 'The Ed Sullivan Show.' It's constantly keeping different strings pulled and sensations going and pummeling the audience in order to maintain a roller-coaster effect," Dunstan observed. "One second we should have you laughing, the next second you ought to be scared sh--less and the second after that you've got to be thrilled and adrenalized by the action. How do you market a movie like that?"
Well, you could just sell the horror element. Or you could pitch it to audiences as a humor/horror mix (à la "Snakes.") Or you could use it as an opportunity to do something totally unique.
"This is America, you can sell anything," Friedlander said. "This film is totally marketable."
And if you buy that, and there's no reason you shouldn't, that still leaves the question of why the film hasn't been given a wide release, except if ...
Maybe This Was The Plan All Along
After all, it's not like any of this is at all unique. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, "Stolen Summer," the inaugural "Project Greenlight" winner, was initially released on five screens. Its widest release saw it play on 13. Thirteen also happens to be the number of screens season-two winner, "The Battle of Shaker Heights," played on, according to the same site. Both films made less than $300,000 in theaters. That's nothing. Then there's the curious fact that Gulager was staging reshoots as recently as this summer.
And the late-night screenings?
"It's kind of a midnight movie," Gulager admitted. "I grew up and they used to show 'Eraserhead,' 'Pink Flamingos' and 'Chainsaw' over the weekend at midnight. This kind of has a bit of that quality."
The fact that the DVD is coming out so soon after the theatrical release isn't that odd either, since the theatrical release is a launching pad for the DVD.
"I think we are on a cusp of an evolving way of how people can catch entertainment," Dunstan said. "If you want to see a film, you can wait till it's on demand, or you can rent it. Or if you're so inclined, check out that late-night show this weekend. So, yes, I wish that 'Feast' had an opportunity to find the audience that I think is out there waiting for it, but the modern-day drive-in is the DVD. That's going to be an unrated, unadulterated piece of entertainment."
"Making a film is like falling in love," Gulager said. "It's like the biggest thing that's happening to you that you're involved in, and it's the best thing possible."
And if you can only share that thing with a few people over one weekend? Does that change anything? Not to Dunstan.
"We're just thrilled that it has been given an option to be seen," he said.