Napoleon Dynamite

Last winter I discovered a great secret: The best time to go skiing at Park City, Utah is the week of the Sundance Film Festival, when all the hotels are filled with moviegoers and no one is on the slopes. The mountains are a private little slice of heaven then. But when your son has films competing in two different film festivals that weekend, and one of them is “all the buzz” at Sundance, you join the lines of filmgoers. The slopes can wait for another visit.

This was our experience in January when “Napoleon Dynamite” premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Made by a group of filmmakers who have been working together for about five years, “Napoleon” is the quirky story of a high school geek living in rural Idaho who manages (okay, predictably) to come out on top. But how he gets there is so unpredictable that it is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish. As one reviewer commented, “Humor is in the details, and the details make this film.” Napoleon’s uncle, an Al Bundy-like former football jock, constantly steals glances at his own biceps, for example. And the different modes of transportation are a scream. The deadpan delivery and catch phrasese of the film’s two main characters are already beingcopied by insiders who have seen the film (including an agent from the William Morris Agency, according to Newsweek.) Judging by the growing lines of fans who have attended mulitple sneak previews this month, it’s a film that has lasting power.

But don’t just take my word for it; here are some comments from legitimate reviewers who saw the movie at Sundance:

“Far and away the best film of the festival!”

“The most hilarious movie this week–and one of the funniest to play here in years.”

“Gloriously quirky, hysterically funny ode to rural dullness…probably the fairest, most accurate representation that Preston, Idaho, will ever get.”

More recently, Newsweek called Napoleon Dynamite “our pick to be the season’s sleeper,” and rottentomatoes, an online filmrating service, gives it an 83% “freshness” rating. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and won first place at the U.S Comedy Arts Festival.

Our son Tim was First Assistant Director on the film, which means that he was in charge of coordinating the background details: lighting, sound, cinematography, set arrangement, extras and featured extras so that everything could be performed as efficiently as possible. Think of the Director as Architect and First A.D. as General Contractor, and you get the idea. So I was understandably proud when “Tim’s movie” received roars of laughter throughout the screening I attended at Sundance, and spontaneous applause before the film even ended. Halfway through the first screening, scouting agents’ cellphones began dialing out, summoning studio bigwigs, and by the movie’s end (greeted by a standing ovation) agents filled the back row, anxious to hear the buzz for themselves and meet the director and producer. Within days the film was sold to Fox Searchlight for $3 million, more than 8 times its production cost, with a 1200-screen guarantee. Yes, this was even better than schussing down an empty, powder-clad mountain.

That 1200-screen guarantee marks an important vote of confidence in the film, because each print will cost about $2,000, or two and a half million altogether. Add to that a few million in promotion, and Fox will have made a significant investment in this little film. By contrast, most independent films have “rolling distribution,” which means that the distributors will only print a few copies and then send them from city to city, usually showing in the small art-house theaters that I like to attend. This means that these films often come and go before word-of-mouth has a chance to spread, and they often head straight to the video stores. Napoleon’s 1200-screen guarantee gave it a better chance of opening to a big weekend with good reviews.

But director Jared Hess had a different plan in mind. Occasionally one of these independent films will make it big, as did “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” last year, sticking around for several months as interest spread. Hess knows his audience, and “Napoleon” is the kind of film that plays better to “in-the-know” audiences who like to discover their own underground hits via friends and websites. Indeed, when I attended a sneak preview of the film in New York this week, hundreds of people were lined up, circling the block, many of them sporting curly red ‘dos, nerdy glasses, and “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts. Many of them were attending their third, fourth, and even fifth sneak preview, even though the film does not officially open until June 11. (Over 600 people were turned away that night–including myself!) A canny promotion ploy, I would say.

What does all of this mean to the moviemakers themselves? First, and most importantly, it means more money to make more movies. Success breeds success in this industry, and this success will attract investors. The independent film industry is a great example of capitalism at work. The team will plow most of their profits right back into their business. They are already at work deciding which of their scripts will be made next. They’ll probably stay with a comedy, since that’s the “supply” that their current customers will “demand.” The core crew were happy to receive digital cameras and an iPod as bonuses from the movie’s appreciative producers, and they enjoyed the celebrity perks at Sundance, which included free clothes and other gear from sponsoring stores in Park City. But most of them will continue to live in their small apartments and condos, wearing last year’s clothes (okay, last decade’s clothes) and eating at Taco Bell, at least for now. Most of all, they are happy with the sweet assurance of being together for yet another project in this very tenuous business.

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