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  • Monday, Feb. 12, 2018
Mom is cut out of the picture and her daughters' lives in "The Sentence," winner of Sundance's U.S. Documentary Audience Award
A Sense of Purpose At Sundance
Documentary fare strikes responsive chord with filmmakers, audiences; episodic content also makes an impact

Park Pictures Features—the motion picture sister shop to commercial/branded content production house Park Pictures—has become a fixture at the Sundance Film Festival in recent years, last month breaking new ground at the indie showcase by extending its reach to a filmmaking discipline for the first time to tell a deeply personal, emotionally moving real-life story that resonated with attendees, winning a coveted Audience Award.

Since its launch in 2010, Park Pictures Features has produced 10 feature films, nine of which have made the Sundance cut. Three of the films were rolled out at last month’s fest: the closing night movie, Hearts Beat Loud directed by Brett Haley; the Jim Hosking-helmed An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, part of the Sundance Next Fest program; and The Sentence directed by Rudy Valdez.

The latter is the alluded to new groundbreaking company wrinkle—the first documentary produced by Park Pictures Features, and it’s a project that means a great deal to producers Sam Bisbee and Jackie Kelman Bisbee, the husband-and-wife team who are partnered in the company with filmmaker Lance Acord. 

Sam Bisbee shared that he and Jackie have known Valdez—who makes his directorial debut with The Sentence—long before he got into filmmaking. “It was back when Rudy was our daughter’s pre-school teacher,” recalled Sam Bisbee. And it was well before Valdez’s sister, Cindy Shank, went to prison, given an unjust mandatory sentence of 15 years.

The mother of three, Shank was imprisoned in 2007 for tangential involvement with a Michigan drug ring years earlier. She was sentenced even though her then live-in boyfriend drug dealer was shot and killed years earlier—and at that time she was charged with no crime. As the “girlfriend,” though, she eventually found herself targeted by prosecutors, Despite her alleged participation—she contended she was not involved in any drug conspiracy—and the nonviolent nature of the charges, Shank was subject to mandatory minimum drug sentencing of 15 years in a federal prison. 

Valdez spent about a decade shooting footage documenting his nieces growing up so his incarcerated sister could at some point see their accomplishments and personal milestones. But this project evolved into something much bigger, becoming an intimate portrait of the devastating consequences that a mandatory minimum drug sentence can have on a family. For Shank, this included her daughters, her now ex-husband Adam, and of course, brother Valdez. Adam Shank and Valdez fervently pursued clemency for Cindy which was granted as President Barack Obama prepared to leave office in late 2016.

“This family’s story captivated us,” said Sam Bisbee. “We had to make a film to tell this story. There was a great sense of purpose in telling this story.”

It’s a story that connected with Sundance attendees as The Sentence won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award. The film’s premiere screening elicited a tearful standing ovation, emotions churning in particular over seeing how the three young girls coped with their mother’s long absence, their relationship being reduced to phone calls and occasional visits, including one in which Shank makes Halloween costumes out of toilet paper so that her kids can go quasi-trick or treating in a secured area of the prison.

“I love to tell stories. That’s why we do all this,” said Jackie Kelman Bisbee. “But this story is the one closest to my heart. My family grew up having people out on parole coming to our home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was part of our life—and now it is for Sam. Mass incarceration, what’s going on in our social justice system and its impact on families all make for a story that deserves to be told—and hopefully will prompt some reform, having us question who goes to jail and who doesn’t.”

At Sundance, HBO acquired the U.S. television and distribution rights to The Sentence.

Asked if The Sentence whetted Park Pictures Features’ documentary filmmaking appetite, Kelman Bisbee affirmed, “Documentaries are something we plan on doing more of. This film has been a highlight of my career.”

There’s also the benefit of the crossover effect for Park Pictures, the spot/branded content company run by Kelman Bisbee and Acord. “Rudy [Valdez] will have a commercialmaking career with us,” she assessed, saying the same for Haley who directed the aforementioned Hearts Beat Loud, which was a Sundance Premiere film, exploring the budding strength and friendship of a father-daughter relationship through the power of music. Nick Offerman stars while serving as an exec producer on the movie which was produced by Park Pictures, Houston King Productions and Burn Later Productions. At Sundance, Hearts Beat Loud was picked up for distribution by Gunpowder & Sky. Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions nabbed international rights.

The remaining Park Pictures’ feature at this year’s Sundance Fest was An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn (produced in conjunction with Wigwam Films and Rook Films), directed by Hosking (whose spotmaking roost is Skunk). Starring Aubrey Plaza, Jemaine Clement and Emile Hirsch, the comedy showcases a one-night only performance from the mysterious Beverly Luff Linn, much to the woe of Lulu Danger’s (Plaza) strained marriage.

Generation Wealth
Director Lauren Greenfield also has a Sundance lineage, the latest entry being Generation Wealth, which screened in the Documentary Premieres program and is slated for theatrical release by Amazon Studios in July, with streaming availability likely to begin towards the end of the year. The documentary has been described as the filmmaker’s “postcard from the edge of the American Empire,” capturing a portrait of a materialistic, image-obsessed culture. Simultaneously personal journey and historical essay, the film bears witness to the global boom–bust economy, the corrupted American Dream and the human costs of late stage capitalism, narcissism and greed. 

“It’s an essay film that became a personal film,” said Greenfield. “In a way it’s a combination of all my prior photography and documentaries, which told stories that examined popular culture, celebrity, self-image, materialism. The economic crash in a way caused me to see all these stories as a kind of morality tale about the way we’ve been living. It got me to think about my work in a different context. I started to wonder if the individual stories I had done somehow revealed a bigger story about how our culture had changed, our values had changed, how the American Dream had changed. It’s like my work dating back many years showed over time the major shift in our culture—from my parents’ generation when the American Dream was more about hard work, discretion, frugality, giving your children a better life to now when what started awhile back is reaching its zenith today—winning, celebrity, narcissism, and looking the part more than having substance. Fake it so you can make it. It didn’t matter how you made the money as long as you had it. I started playing with all these intersecting stories and characters I dealt with over the years, and started to realize a bigger story.”

Greenfield’s Sundance journey kicked off with Thin, her directing debut which made a major splash at the 2006 festival. The documentary was based on her book of the same title which chronicled four women as they struggle to fight eating disorders. Thin also resonated with the brain trust at Chelsea Pictures, which signed Greenfield for commercials and branded content, a relationship which continues to flourish today.

In 2012, Greenfield won the Sundance U.S. Documentary Directing Award for The Queen of Versailles, which tells the story of a couple losing their home amid the mortgage meltdown crisis—except in this story the residence is a 90,000 square foot mansion inspired by the extravagances of France’s Palace of Versailles, and the beleaguered couple consists of Florida time-share condominium entrepreneur David Siegel and his wife, Jackie. When the real estate bubble burst, the Siegels took a hard fall from their world of extreme wealth and privilege.

Both Thin and Queen of Versailles thus figured in the alchemy that yielded Generation Wealth. Asked if her lauded #LikeAGirl film for P&G/Always made its way into Generation Wealth, Greenfield explained, “Not in the same way, not literally the way my photography and documentary work did. But #LikeAGirl did figure symbolically in that it was a piece about gender and how human beings are turned into commodities.”

Greenfield described Sundance as a place “where I learned to be a filmmaker,” with Thin sparking the Chelsea Pictures connection, and The Queen of Versailles benefiting from contributions from advisors at the Sundance Lab. And while she didn’t work with The Sundance Lab for Generation Wealth, Greenfield noted that a couple of key advisors at Sundance helped as part of “an informal lab.” Those advisors, said Greenfield, were Rob Moss “who had been my teacher at Harvard way back,” and Mary Lampson, “an amazing editor who also helped me on The Queen of Versailles.

As for how Sundance has evolved over the years, Greenfield observed, “The festival has always made a stand for independent voices—and has been at the forefront of having those voices represent our culture even more in the past few years. This year, there were a lot of women directors, a lot of content about race, LGBTQ, kind of a celebration of different voices that felt very empowering. Still, there’s a lot of work to be done in the overall industry as the numbers in female representation are still poor and shocking. But those numbers are being turned into a catalyst for change. What has happened in the business relative to sexual harassment are other dynamics for change, with the development of initiatives like the #MeToo movement.

“What also struck me at Sundance is less about the festival itself and more about the business—this is a great time for documentaries. When I started out with Thin, there was HBO, some theatrical opportunities. But there weren’t a lot of outlets for documentaries. Now, though, there are so many outlets with platforms like Amazon, Netflix, National Geographic. There are so many players that it feels really exciting for documentary filmmakers.”

The Trade
Matthew Heineman made his first mark at Sundance with feature documentaries, starting in 2012 with Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare. Then in 2015 his Cartel Land earned him both the festival’s Documentary Directing and Documentary Cinematography Awards. And last year, Heineman’s City of Ghosts was nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Documentary Prize.

Cartel Land landed Heineman a Best Feature Documentary Oscar nomination, two primetime Emmy wins, and a DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary. He won the same DGA honor again earlier this month for City of Ghosts.

Last month Heineman returned to Sundance but not with a feature doc. Instead he made the cut in the Special Events section with The Trade, a character-driven verite docu-series which explores the opioid epidemic and drug trafficking from the highly personal perspectives of growers, addicts and law enforcement officials on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Produced by Heineman’s Our Time Projects, the series recently debuted on Showtime.

Heineman said that The Trade was inspired by and serves as a bit of a follow-up to Cartel Land, which introduced us to vigilante characters on both sides of the border. “I felt there was a lot more to be told in this area, that there were more issues to be explored,” said Heineman. 

A prime order of business was to find real-life characters for The Trade, casting a wide net to connect with people affected in different ways in different countries. “We had an amazing set of producers who hit the streets and found people,” noted Heineman. “News of the opioid epidemic is splashed everywhere. But we wanted to create a deeper understanding by looking at law enforcement, addicts, poppy growers, drug cartel members. It’s through these real characters that you can generate an empathy for what’s happening. And that kind of empathy promotes greater understanding of the issue as a whole.”

As for what Sundance has meant to him over the years, Heineman—who’s handled by Superprime Films for spots and branded content—related, “I’m absolutely grateful to Sundance for having launched my career. It’s a launching pad to the world, giving valuable exposure to a film or show—especially for documentary content. I was honored and excited to have The Trade play at Sundance.”

Mr. Inbetween
New to Sundance this year was the Indie Episodic section, which provided a platform for such fare as Mr. Inbetween, a series written and starring Scott Ryan, with Nash Edgerton directing and serving as an EP. Edgerton directs commercials and branded content via The Directors Bureau. 

Mr. Inbetween introduces us to a gent who has tough roles to juggle in contemporary life—that of father, ex-husband and boyfriend. These multiple roles become even harder to fulfill when you’re a hitman.

The Australian series sprung from a low budget film, The Magician (2005), directed, written and starring Ryan. Edgerton produced and edited the fake documentary about a hit man, which was well received Down Under and in other international markets. “We’ve been trying to get it up for awhile as a TV series and to now have it gain exposure at Sundance is exciting,” said Edgerton.

While airing in Australia, Mr. Inbetween is seeking distribution elsewhere, with Sundance expected to help on that front. As for the biggest creative challenges posed by the show to Edgerton as a director, he assessed, “I’m such a fan of the original film that Scott made years ago. I wanted with this series to try to capture the feeling of that film but in a dramatized form. The other major challenge was this was my first time doing television. It’s a faster schedule than doing a feature film. I knew, though, that I had a great central character, with Scott in both the original film and now the TV show. I wanted to cast other actors who would balance well with his style of performing.”

Mr. Inbetween marks a return engagement to Sundance for Edgerton who won a Short Film Honorable mention at the fest in 2008 for Spider. Five years later, The Captain—which he and Spencer Susser directed—was nominated for Sundance’s Short Film Grand Jury Prize.

Another filmmaker from The Directors Bureau also made his way to Sundance but not in the official competition. Rodrigo Saavedra saw his branded short film—The Red Stain which he wrote and directed for The Family Coppola winery—screened as part of the Francis Coppola Director’s Short Film competition. Ten minutes long, The Red Stain is set in Italy and follows a longtime married couple with a dry-cleaning business as they swap sensational stories to explain a mysterious red-wine stain on the garment of their handsome young customer, Billy. As their debate progresses, the tall tales climb higher, until the couple is left with a mixture of awe and suspicion for their American visitor. 

Saavedra is known for crafting films that meld humor with brand focus, bringing a dose of smart comedy and narrative through-line to his work, and that sentiment is evident in The Red Stain. Saavedra is known for his artistic approach to brands such as Corona, Chivas and Volkswagen and Scrabble (which earned him a Cannes Lion). The Red Stain was one of five finalists in the Francis Coppola Director’s Short Competition; the winning entry was Sombras (Shadows) from director Jon Ayon.

JEOM
Among the animated shorts debuting at last month’s Sundance Fest was JEOM from director/screenwriter Kangmin Kim. It’s the first short film produced by Los Angeles-based stop-motion studio Open The Portal, Kim is an indie freelance director who takes on select projects via Open The Portal.

JEOM is a sequel to Kim’s previous films 38-39’C (2012) and Deer Flower (2015), which also premiered at Sundance. 38-39’C, kicked off the shorts trilogy and was created by Kim while at CalArts where one of his classmates was David Braun who went on to partner with Micah Cordy and Barrett Slagle in Open The Portal.

The Korean word “jeom” roughly translates to “birthmark” or “black dot” in English, and provides the film’s storyline. As director Kim explained, “Like my father, I was born with a big birthmark on my butt, which I was very self conscious of.  My mother told me that when I got older it would disappear, but it never did.” The film recounts the birth of Kim’s first child and centers around the jeom creating a special link between father and son. The film starts with an oddly humorous reveal of both birthmarks. Believing the two jeoms are connected, the son furiously attempts to scrub off his father’s blemish, with no success. The son then has a baby of his own, and its revealed to the audience if or how the jeom is passed on to the next generation.

Kim deployed a stop-motion technique perfected during his days studying experimental animation at CalArts. “Kim is a master stop motion animator,” said Open The Portal’s Cordy. “Almost everything you see on screen is made out of simple construction paper. This animation method is Kim’s specialty and has been his preferred medium for the last few years.” Open The Portal also utilized one of its founding partners, Slagle, who runs the in-house audio studio to produce the music and sound design. Working together closely with Kim throughout the process, they ensured that the visuals and sound would function as a cohesive whole.

“Having our first in-house original film featured at the festival is a surreal dream come true,” said Open The Portal’s Cordy. “Five years ago, we took a freezing bus ride to Park City and slept on friends hotel floors just to get into a few screenings.” 

Since then, the studio has invested time and resources to develop an infrastructure through commercial production and collaboration with artists and clients such as Katy Perry, Disney, Mattel, Starbucks and Quaker Oats. 

Cordy added that Open The Portal is currently working on its second original film, a seven-minute short slated for release in 2019.

Category: Features

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