The Sessions producer and Stage 32 member, Judi Levine, returns today to continue her exclusive series: Our Year of Living Famously. In this installment, The Sessions is accepted to Sundance. The hard part is over, right? Not so fast, my friends.
During production, we decided that going to Sundance would be our target. With a timeline to follow, at the very least, we would have to have a locked picture by early September. We finished shooting in late May and scheduled 6-8 weeks for the edit. Working from the garage at the back of our house, we just managed to finish in time to submit the film to Sundance in early September. Then we waited for the announcements in late November.
There was a great sense of relief and excitement when we heard that we had been accepted into the US Dramatic Competition category of the festival. 4,000 films apply to Sundance; of those, 2,000 are for US Dramatic with a final number of only 16 entrants! Those were very tough odds and we were honored to be one of the 16.
As the excitement settled, the reality of what was ahead began to dawn on us. Not only did we have to rush to complete all the technical aspects of the film, we had to look into the logistics of going to Park City, as well as taking some of the cast for the premiere. Suddenly the $$ started to rack up. Then the question of hiring a PR representative, sales agents and legal representation arose. It's true that you can go to the festival with nothing but your DVD and a backpack, but the competition for attention is fierce and we had concluded that we were going to give this opportunity our very best shot, even if it meant more late nights raising the money to do it. We were also advised that it would be important to have our cast attend the premiere in Sundance to show support for the film, and that it was protocol with an A-list cast to finance their travel and accommodation. Eek! More $$$. We also wanted our two older kids to come, and their partners, and a niece from Australia decided to come, and some friends and investors from Australia were coming, and a few other cast and crew. Of course, we didn't have to pay for all those people, but we did find that renting a large condo was the most economical approach for the family.
Negotiating with the sales agents, choosing a PR rep, coordinating all the travel and accommodation and trying to wrap our heads around the events surrounding our premiere was a mammoth task, and the earlier you get onto it the better. Cheap accommodation is snapped up early, as are the cheap deals on flights. There were certainly times when we felt it was escalating out of control but, with the incredible support and hard work of our small but determined production team, we pulled it all together and headed to Park City in January 2012 with no idea of what was ahead.
Our premiere had been scheduled for 12:15pm Monday at The Eccles Theater, following the first weekend of the festival. The Eccles is the largest theater at Sundance and we had been told that it was a good slot because, even though all the big films screen across the first weekend, most of the distributors and press are still in Park City on Monday. We had scheduled to arrive a few days ahead so we could get our bearings and that proved to be smart decision. Park City is not huge but it is wise to work out where the festival headquarters are, where the supermarket is, where the various cinemas are, how long it takes to get places and what the parking is like. You do not want to be struggling with a snowstorm and have no idea how to get around.
Until that Monday, the only people who had seen the film had been associated with it in some way - main cast and their representatives, technical post crew etc. Now, over 1,200 paying festival members, distributors and press were going to see it and we had no idea how the film would be received. We sat in the auditorium waiting with bated breath and wondering if the audience would get the tone of the film, laugh at the jokes or even walk out - festival audiences can be brutal. As time passed, they laughed, they cried, they stayed and, beyond all expectations, they gave us two standing ovations! Words cannot describe the emotion we were all feeling that afternoon as we stood on the stage watching the sea of people applauding. It felt even more wonderful that two of our three children were there to witness the profound acknowledgment of our work and Ben's talent, and that our cast and the two women who had known our main character and who made it possible for us to make the film (the real Cheryl Cohen Greene and Susan Fernbach) were with us to share that extraordinary experience.
Then the fun began!
A couple of days before our premiere, we had been advised that the buying atmosphere at the festival was conservative, that the days of bidding wars were over and that we should expect to spend a couple of days in negotiation before we might strike a deal with a distributor. Understandably, it is the job of the sales agents to keep the filmmakers' feet firmly on the ground and manage realistic expectations, but what happened was a surprise to all of us. As soon as the applause died down, we started getting frantic messages that we needed to get DVDs to various distributors who hadn't been at the screening. Our daughter Alexandra had to dash off to our condo to retrieve them while we went to do press interviews. Then we received urgent calls to meet with our sales agents and our sales attorney. By that time, a number of offers had already come in, most of them modest. We spent some time reviewing the offers - some were very low, some had deadlines. Fox Searchlight wanted exclusive negotiations and eventually we decided to take that path.
The negotiations with Fox Searchlight began in earnest late that afternoon. Our reps and attorney gave us a sense of what we were aiming for and then headed out the door to the Fox Searchlight condo, leaving us to ponder the surreal circumstances that were unfolding before us. I had been told that they would call me on my blackberry so I had left it charging and was afraid to touch it. While the others focused on their cell phones reading emails and Ben sat quietly trying not to stress, I decided to deal with the butterflies in my stomach by playing billiards on the small table in the condo. I figured just focusing on sinking the balls might be a good distraction, even if I had to play against myself.
At least a couple of hours or so passed by before we received the first call. It's no picnic trying to listen to a myriad of deal points on the speaker of a blackberry but we managed to make decisions about what terms to accept and what was still to be negotiated. It had been an expensive choice to take on the sales agents but their experience, negotiating skills and sound advice were worth every penny. They went back to the negotiating table, leaving us waiting for the next exciting installment and fending off text messages asking why we weren't at the post-evening party that was raging in our absence.
Another hour passed before the next call. We approved a few more deal points, bringing us closer to a final agreement and were told we should head off to the party but to keep my blackberry close at hand. I had it so tightly gripped that it was leaving an imprint in my palm! We arrived at the party and proceeded to mingle, all the while glancing at my phone and waiting eagerly for the vibrations of an incoming call. Then, huddled on a back staircase and listening intently against the noise of the party, we absorbed the last deal points and the final offer. When our attorney announced the final price, we could barely believe our ears and my stomach was doing somersaults.
We headed back to our condo to wait for the deal memo to arrive by email. By then it was close to midnight but there was far too much adrenalin pumping to feel any fatigue. Our kids and friends came back to the condo to wait with us but it was hard to relax. Finally, around 12:30am, the deal memo arrived, we looked it over for final approval and then we heard the words "we're sending a car to pick you up and bring you to the Searchlight condo to sign the agreement." This was going to be one memorable ride! We headed out in the snow in the middle of the night, met the team who had enthusiastically bought our film, toasted our collaboration and signed the deal memo.
I cannot describe the sensation of driving back through the snow and quiet of Park City at 1:30am holding a small document that was evidence that we had just sold our film after five years of hard work and commitment. We'd hit the jackpot of experiences at Sundance and it was exciting, overwhelming, emotional and surreal all at once.
I knew there would be very little sleeping that night and a lot of talking with press the next day. We called family and friends, many of whom were investors, and the emails and texts were already flooding in. 2012 was going to be an extraordinary year. This was just the very beginning of a new and exciting stage of the film process and, most likely, our lives would be changed in ways we couldn't even imagine. Since then, we've faced challenges and surprises we hadn't anticipated and are still experiencing - but that's a story that will have to wait for another time.
This past week John Hawkes (Best Actor) and Helen Hunt (Best Supporting Actress) earned Independent Spirit Award Nominations for their work in The Sessions. Our sincere congratulations to Judi and her husband, The Sessions screenwriter and director, Ben Lewin on the noms!