Winning at Independent Filmmaking

It’s been a really great year for my friend and long time independent filmmaking comrade, Anthony Lucero. A year that was a decade in the making.

A decade of hard work, sacrifice and most notably very little encouragement or indication he was going to succeed. Anthony wrote, directed, edited, financed, distributed and finally sold a feature film. His first feature film, “East Side Sushi”.

His film did not get into Sundance, Cannes or Toronto; it did not have a single well-known actor in any role; and it was made entirely with his friends in East Oakland. With all that, the film scooped up 10 audience prizes and 3 jury prizes on a year-long, whirlwind festival run.

The film sold out multiple screenings at the jewel of Oakland’s historic movie houses, the Grand Lake Theater (where it had two more return engagements). Now, Anthony gets stopped in the street and in restaurants in Oakland, recognized as the director of the film. Our town loves the film, and loves the director who grew up here.

Over the last year, somewhere between the VOD deals, an HBO pickup, a distribution deal with Samuel Goldwyn, and a 90 screen run in Mexico (where it got a separate distro deal with Cinépolis), Anthony not only broke-even on his self-funded film, he made a substantial profit. And the money and opportunities keep coming.

I interviewed Anthony, in the Fruitvale District of Oakland, near his mom’s house and close to where I live. We tried to make sense of the decade that led up to the film, and how much more work happens once you lock picture. The truth is, we don’t have a friggin’ clue.

Success in making a film is irrespective of how hard you work, or how much you believe in your movie. It’s like predicting lightening strikes or earthquakes: you know it will happen, and most likely not where you’re standing. The process is a reward in and of itself. It boiled down to Anthony having a film inside him he needed to get out. All he could do was hope other people would want to hear what he had to say.

What follows is a highly edited version of our conversation on a sunny afternoon in East Oakland.

Hometown hero

EE: The city of Oakland loves this film. I’ve never seen a film screened as many times as at the Grand Lake Theater.

AL: Yeah, I know.

EE: You had the initial run, and then two more return engagements, and you had sold-out screenings.

AL: We also played at the Oakland International Film Festival, where it was the opening night film and sold out. Then we came back later for the theatrical run, and then, yeah, they brought us back two more times.

EE: People I’ve known for years, who don’t know that I know you, will come up and ask me, “Have you seen East Side Sushi?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure, that’s Anthony’s film,” and then it’s like I know David Fincher or something [laughter].

AL: I wish I knew David Fincher.

How it started

EE: When did you write the screenplay for East Side Sushi, and how long did it take before you went into production? 

AL: I didn’t start writing it probably until 2007. 2009 I had the first finished draft, 110 pages or something. So, yeah, 2009. I wrote it, then I stopped writing for a year. Put it on the shelf, and then pulled it back and started writing for another year. And that was 2011. 2012 it went into production.

EE: And what happened that year that it was on the shelf? What changed? 

AL: Beginning 2010 I went to some pitch fests. Nobody liked it.

EE: Nobody? 

AL: Yeah [laughter]. I mean, really. If you pitch that story there’s like, ‘where is the action?’, ‘We need franchising and there’s no franchising here.’

EE: There’s nothing about your film that Hollywood liked, on the pitch side.

AL: Nothing. The lead’s female, the lead’s Latina. The second lead is Asian. There’s nothing there, no explosions, no visual effects, nothing. So I knew, at that point, the film’s not going to get funded. I could just tell.

EE: You could just tell, right away?

AL: Yeah. So I put it on the shelf, and then took it down. And then I decided I’ll just save my money for the next year, through 2011. 2012, maybe I’ll be able to make it. So I saved my money, and just kept writing and revising all through 2011. 2012, I think around March or so, I quit my job and decided to do East Side Sushi.

EE: So you’re working a full-time job and then also, still, writing the script that no one said they liked and you knew they wouldn’t fund? What keeps you going in those moments when you’re like, “I’m writing this thing. No one’s going to want to make it but me”?

AL: Yeah, it was hard. In the Bay Area, that was the middle of the drought so it was sunny everyday. And I was home in my apartment thinking, “Damn it. Why am I here writing while it’s so sunny outside?”. I think the only thing that kept me going was you have this story in you, and you got to get it out, and you just got to get it on paper, and finish it. Otherwise it’s in my head, and I’m thinking about it all the time. It was just therapeutic to get it on paper and just be done with it.

EE: When did you decide, “I want to make a feature film?”

AL: It kicked in somewhere probably around 2006 or so, 2007, when I started writing the feature. And that was just because I had worked on so many features by that time that I hated– that I thought, “I need to do this myself.” I’ve worked on some bad films. I’ve worked on some good films.

*Note, Anthony has been a professional Visual Effects Editor for the last twenty years, working at ILM, Tippet Studios, The Orphanage and many others. He is also a freelance editor who has cut many indie film projects, including mine.

EE: You’ve worked on great films, but you’ve also worked on some terrible films.

AL: Yeah. It gets frustrating after a while when you pour so much time into these visual effects films that are just not very good.

EE: Well you poured much time into indie films that sucked too, but they’ll remain nameless.

AL: [Laughter] Yes.

Festivals as de facto distribution

EE: Where I just jump to now is that on an indie film, you typically you spend up to ten years making a film that then, no one sees. So, that’s really more of the case of what we know. Maybe it plays at a couple of festivals, but that’s not what happened to you. What happened to you is you started out by winning Cinequest, like every prize they have apparently. It’s like they ran out of prizes, then they come up with– oh, ‘films by guys named Anthony’ award. Could you talk a little bit about your festival run? Because it was epic.

AL: It started at Cinequest which is a very good festival. And then, we won the Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco, we went to Maui and then it was dead in the summer. No festivals in the summer. So, I’m thinking, “Okay. I think my film is dead at this point.” We won these two– well, we won that one festival. It was back to back, boom, boom and then it was dead and then I thought my film was going nowhere. You know you think at that point people are going to contact you, studios are going to be like, “We want to buy it. We want to purchase it” and they never did. 

And then I started to get people out of the wood work, like small distribution companies that I just didn’t trust were contacting me, and I thought, “You know, from the reaction that I got from these other festivals, I think the film has some legs in it.” So I decided, “I’m going to keep it on the film festival circuit until a bigger studio takes note.”

EE: So you’re like, “I’ll use the festivals as distribution.”

AL: Yeah. The festivals were going to be my theatrical run. After 2014, or going into 2015, I thought, “Okay, I’m not going to do a theatrical run. I’m going to say yes to every film festival, and that’s going to be my theatrical run, and that’s how I’m going to spread the word about the film.” But it kept winning these film festivals in 2015, too, and then finally, in March of 2015 at Miami International, HBO saw it and they took note and they wanted to purchase the film. So it’s a tough decision to keep your film on the festival circuit. Your film is going to age, it’s going to get old in a year, and then you’re done. So, luckily it just happened to work out for this film where I took that gamble.

Selling the film

EE: So at Miami, somebody from HBO saw it, took note, and said, “We want to buy this.” And what does that mean when they buy it?

AL: Not in so many words, but they saw it, they liked it, we met at the festival, and they said, “We really like it. We’re going to get back to you,” and that’s all. So they said, “You’re not going to hear from us in a couple months, but we are very interested in this film.” Okay, cool. So we kept on them and then they finally – I think it was end of summer 2015 – they sent me a contract finally. 

So it was months of waiting and checking in with them, and then finally they were like, “All right, we’re going to send you the contract.” But I think they just move slowly. 

EE: And the Samuel Goldwyn bought it and they’re your distributor.

AL: They were interested in it then they passed. Then I decided, “Okay, I’m going to do my own theatrical run.” They still knew HBO wanted it. I do this theatrical run because nobody wants to do a theatrical run on an indie film. They really don’t.

EE: Because it loses money.

AL: It loses. There’s just not a good profit there for the amount of prints and advertising and everything they have to do to get that film. It just doesn’t make much money. So I said, “Okay, I’m going to do a theatrical run with another business partner, Samuel Douek, who runs the Hola Mexico Film Festival. So we partner together and we do a theatrical run – small theatrical run – like 45 theaters or so. So we made a profit on that. 

Samuel Goldwyn sees my new Key Art for the poster for East Side Sushi. So we re-did the poster – re-photographed Diana Torres with– she’s holding the sushi.

EE: The iconic image, yeah.

AL: So Peter Goldwyn – at Samuel Goldwyn – sees it and it just catches his eye – the image does. And then he says, “Oh, my god. That’s the film I really liked that we passed on. Contact the filmmaker again to see where it’s at.” So they wanted to find out the other ancillary rights that I hadn’t sold off yet. 

They started talking to me– it’s funny because I had other distribution companies at the time that were also very interested in the film – bigger-name distribution companies. It’s just so weird. Nobody wants you till everybody wants you.

EE: Nobody wants what they can easily have, Anthony.

AL: Then Goldwyn got in touch with me, and I said, “Sure. If you want the other ancillary rights for North America, let’s do it.” So HBO had broadcast rights. Goldwyn wanted all rights, but I wanted to go with HBO. I wanted to diversify my distribution. So yeah, those three different distributions, like self-distribution for theatrical, Samuel Goldwyn for VOD, DVD, on-demand, all that other– and then broadcast was HBO.

EE: And for every single one of those you made money?

AL: Yeah.

EE: And we won’t get into specific numbers, but the film has made a profit.

AL: Yeah, and then I have a separate distribution in Latin America.

EE: You opened all over Mexico. And who handled that?

AL: Cinépolis did. It opened up in 65 screens, and I think in total there are going to be 90 screens.

EE: Are you kidding me?

AL: Yeah, yeah. Did I show you the big-ass banner?

EE: Yeah, you sent me a picture of it from your phone. I loved it, dude. That was just like, you are huge in Mexico. You were in the top ten.

AL: We were in the top ten. That’s right. Yeah, the first weekend. And that’s like films competing with films from the United States, like other films, like Hollywood films. Suicide Squad, Finding Dory. Even the person that wrote it a review in a Mexican film guide said, “Coming in at number ten, if you want  big blockbuster Hollywood films. And then if you want something a little bit more simple, a little bit more Indie.” 

EE: Like a real grown up.

AL: It was nice. I didn’t have to talk as much, because I’m always talking. I’m always doing these interviews, and then finally it’s in Spanish, and so–

EE: So it’s Diana [Torres] doing all the talking.

AL: Yup Diana.

EE: And she loved it right? They love her there.

AL: Oh my God. She’s like a star. She is a star there. So now she’s getting all these other offers for films down there. I’m so glad. Because Diana’s great. Super talented.

EE: For you It was like hero’s return to Mexico, right?

AL: It was.

EE: Every Chicano’s dream, dude — Red-carpeted in Mexico City. “I’m back! I can only talk to you in broken Spanish, carnales, but, I’m back!” [lots of laughter]

EE: All of that leads up to landing the coveted front door of Hollywood, which is the Directing Fellowship?

AL: Yes.

EE: You can’t go back to editing now.

AL: I love editing. Okay?

EE: No, you don’t.

AL: I do. No. I mean, sort of.

EE: You like directing more. Right?

AL: I like directing more.

EE: Please tell me you like directing more? You’re not just doing it on principle?

AL: No, I do. I like directing more. Of course. I love it.

EE: Is there anything about the process you learned that you’re like, “Oh wow, this is a thing I didn’t know, but now I really am glad I know it now?”

AL: God, yeah, so much. First off, distributors do not want to take your film unless you have a named actor in it. That is just number one. They’d much rather take a bad film with a named actor than a great film with no actors.

EE: Hence all the bad films with name actors.

AL: Yeah. And it’s even worse for foreign distribution because if you go to foreign territories, the definitely want somebody with a name that they can recognize.

EE: Let me change the question. What do you know now that is going to totally inform how you make your next film? 

AL: Don’t use my own money. For a first film, it was fine. You have to. Nobody’s going to fund your film. There’s so many jobs that I could not afford to hire that were so crucial, like casting director, location manager, things like that. But there’s so many things that I learned along the way, that these are jobs I need to have filled on my next project. Get a named actor, get in to top-tier film festivals, and… 

EE: [interrupts] This is terrible advice, ‘get a named actor’ and ‘get in to top tier festivals?’ [laughter].

AL: You wanted to know what I will do differently. Or is your question, ‘what I would do differently if I was doing it for the first time?’

EE: Yeah. 

AL: Don’t pay a sales agent. I made that mistake, and it held the film up for a year.

EE: Oh no!

AL: Circus Road Films. I paid them. They didn’t sell it, and I pulled it from them eight months later. So for eight months, it sat. That was a huge mistake. One of the biggest mistakes I made in the whole process. So don’t pay a sales agent. I’ve done this whole thing without a sales agent. Without any kind of agents involved in any of this. None of that apparatus was there. This sounds super arrogant, but I don’t know if…

EE: Say it! Say something super arrogant!

AL: First, you need to make a good film. Filmmakers, they just wonder, “Why is no one buying my movie, I worked so hard?” You have to make a film that’s going to win at festivals.

EE: That audiences are going to want to watch.

AL: We won 13 awards and then distribution companies said, “Oh, let me take a look.”

EE: Just to be clear, most of these awards were audience awards. That’s a huge difference, the fact that you have evidence that audiences loved the film. That, to me, seems more important than jury prizes.

AL: It is. Distributors want to know which ones won the audience prizes more. You have to have something that people want to buy because people want to watch it. I think you have to have one of three things: a great film, a named actor, or some kind of device.

EE: A device?

AL: Yeah, a gimmick. Like, ‘I shot it all on an iPhone.’


What we figured out

Independent filmmaking is a heart-breaking endeavor. The odds are never in your favor, and the competition for attention is fierce. The runaway successes, the handful of passion projects that come out of Sundance and Telluride every year , are a tiny percentage of the films that are made. We’re talking less than 1 percent. Of those select few, some will get distribution, some buzz, and count themselves successes if they land a deal that pays back some of the money it cost to make the film. Breaking even is a worthy box office metric nowadays. 

Those statistically insignificant wins gloss over the reality of trying to make a feature film outside of Hollywood. Close to 10,000 feature films are made each year. Most of them are not made in Hollywood. They exist independent of the mechanisms of film financing and professional machinery of the industry. These films are passion projects. The role of an outside voice that independent cinema once played, has long since been co-opted as a genre by the system. Studios produce interesting, cutting-edge movies and television shows, marketing and selling them. They’ll make them at a loss if it means picking up awards or advancing their brands.

It is a tough time to decide to make a movie with a bunch of your friends and expect it to wind up on movie screens, playing on HBO or *gasp* putting money back in your pocket. That is largely a fantasy image of independent cinema, perpetuated by a time, twenty years ago when things like that happened.

An independently produced and financed feature film is a calling card for a writer/ director. It is the thing that a great short film was a decade ago. A feature film is the entry fee into a very high-stakes game of career-building that can see dry spells of a decade, while a director waits to advance to the next round. 

It is Barry Jenkins making “Medicine for Melancholy” in 2007, so that in 2016 he gets to make “Moonlight”. It’s Lynn Shelton making three features in the 2000’s so she can direct acclaimed episodes of “Mad Men”, “Casual” and “Master of None” in the 2010’s. 

I have far more friends that have tried and failed to make careers as writers and directors, than the few I know who’ve successfully won the game. So anytime anyone succeeds in this business, it is worth celebrating and hearing the story of how they did it.

At the end of the month, Anthony will start as a fellow in highly coveted Directing fellowship in LA. The front door to a career as a television director in Hollywood. Concurrently, through out the year, the US State Department’s “American Film Showcase” will be flying Anthony and “East Side Sushi” around the world to share American independent cinema with audiences that rarely see that kind of movie export.

Like I said, it’s been a really good year for my friend Anthony.

Eric Escobar

Eric Escobar is an award-winning filmmaker and writer, living in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to writing and directing film, Eric has also worked on the other side of the compiler in software development.