ONE SUMMER, Adam Meyerowitz tried selling cars at a San Diego dealership. Hated it. No head for business, he says. But the salesmanship training came in handy when Adam figured out what he did want to do with his life: He wanted to make movies. To do that, he and his partners-in-film had to come up with money—lots of it.
How many 24-year-olds do you know who could raise half a million dollars from friends, family and utter strangers for a feature-length comedy about two guys named Stone and Ed— produced by three guys nobody has ever heard of? With degrees in film from UCLA, a script, a business plan and no shortage of chutzpah, the three young men did it. The movie, Stone & Ed, filmed in San Diego over three weeks in 2005, is aimed squarely at 20-something guys with a taste for zany chases, goofy characters, wildly twisted plots and some very non-PC humor.
“The first day on the set was incredible,” Meyerowitz says. “You know, to have this idea rolling around in my head for a couple of years—to see it actually happening, it was a magical experience.”
The finished film (and it was shot on film, not less-expensive videotape or digital cameras) has been in the can for six months. As of late summer, Meyerowitz and his partners were still in search of a distributor —or anybody else who would project their movie onto a screen. But nearly two years into their mission, they remain undaunted. They work at other jobs to pay the bills, and they keep pitching their movie to anyone who’ll listen. Oh, and they’re writing their next movie script.
“It has been frustrating, because I’m very much on the creative side of things—but not too patient on the business side,” Meyerowitz says. “But so many people just talk about making a movie. You have to go out and do it. Eventually it will happen.”
Such is life for today’s young filmmakers. And San Diego has no shortage of artists—of all ages —who want to turn their dreams of storytelling into moving pictures. A $500,000 budget seems like chump change in the world of $200 million blockbusters. But it’s a fortune to the vast majority of aspiring directors, producers, writers, photographers and editors who pack film schools like the San Diego State University’s School of Theatre, Television & Film (with some 500 majors). The best of them would do most anything to get where Meyerowitz (Torrey Pines High School, 1998), David Tal (Bonita Vista High School, 1998) and their producing partner, Dave Hellman (another UCLA grad), are now.
Farther down the education pipeline, hundreds of San Diego junior and senior high school students are grabbing cameras and using inexpensive computer editing to produce their own works, encouraged by such programs as the San Diego County Office of Education’s Innovative Video in Education. Many of them have reason for hope.
“Since the silent-film period, there have rarely been as many opportunities for emerging filmmakers as there are today, because of hundreds of 24/7 TV channels, targeted markets, diversified film companies and international distribution,” says Jack Ofield, filmmaker in residence and head of the SDSU Television & Film Department. And many have the skills to cope with an industry that is changing with staggering frequency, he says.
“They are extraordinarily plugged in to new technologies. They learn fast and are unfazed by new developments, which occur almost every week; indeed, most greet the new with curiosity and delight. For this generation, a phrase like ‘the shock of the new’ doesn’t apply.”
HOCK OF REAL LIFE might be another issue. Under the heading of “scrappy independent producer,” add the name Matthew Nourse, another 1998 Torrey Pines High grad who’s taken a more low-key— and low-budget—path to bringing his passion for storytelling to life.
The UC Santa Barbara graduate spent six months in a rent-free cabin near Lake Tahoe writing his drama about the death of a friend and the effect it has on a series of relationships. Then he went back to a bartending job he hated in L.A. while he saved money and finagled (through a friend) to get to actors with recognizable names for his young audience. Neither Dominique Swain (Face/Off, Lolita) nor Ryan Donowho (formerly of The OC ) is an A-lister yet. But they’re big enough names to help Nourse finally raise enough money through a private investor to make the film he wanted to direct.
“After we shot it, we had to raise more money to finish it,” he says. “We put everything into just getting the film into the can. [Raising money] was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Every step was a new step.”
This past summer, Nourse and his partners hired a company to help plan the strategy to get their movie into big-name film festivals, in hopes it will be picked up by a distributor. Meanwhile, he’s been working part-time at a production company and writing four hours a day.
The dream of the big score—or at least recognition —is always present with filmmakers. But it’s not all about fame and money. “I really love making small films,” Nourse says. “I like the idea of coming up with low-budget films that have as much as or more emotional impact than big-budget Hollywood movies.
“I’m interested in the way the industry’s changing. Film marketing is changing—it’s going directly to the viewers, like on broadband. And the way people view movies at home is changing. It’s an exciting time to be a filmmaker.”
Nourse, Meyerowitz and Tal had some luck, too. They got to make real movies, using real crews and the real streets of San Diego, just like the big guys do when they bring to town a Titanic or Antwone Fisher Story or any Stu Segal–produced TV series.
Ten or 15 times a year, the staff at the San Diego Film Commission spends days mentoring first-time filmmakers, teaching them how to make a movie on location in a big city, with rules and permits and traffic cops to go along with the lights, cameras, grip trucks and legions of people on two-way radios and cell phones.
“We think of it as having a unique opportunity to work with our future customers, and we’re training the very people who will be coming back with bigger projects someday. They’re learning how to do it right; they’re collaborating with the community; and we’re building an infrastructure so we can handle more and more production,” says Cathy Anderson, president and CEO of the commission, a quasi-public, nonprofit agency funded with city hotel-room tax money and grants from the county and the Port of San Diego.
The San Diego region is home to more than half a dozen film festivals that are valuable tools for getting a film in front of an audience. The 2006 BestFest America film festival, based in San Diego, drew more than a thousand student entries from around world for 65 screening slots.
The odds don’t seem to faze the most dedicated of the would-be filmmakers—ones like Matthew Nourse and Adam Meyerowitz, who’ve managed to take the first big step and completed a full-length feature through persistence and passion. Both believe they have something to say to audiences.
“I don’t know how you can be in this industry and not have something to say,” Nourse says. “I made a conscious choice to not try to break in with ‘genre’ films, because I didn’t want to get sucked into working the angles in Hollywood. I’d rather come from the side of making these small little art films and keep building on them.”
Meyerowitz has a slightly different view. “Obviously, I’d love to make big-budget films; it would be a ton of fun,” he says. But he too is still enamored of the storytelling possibilities offered by smaller films.
“I want to bring enlightenment to entertainment,” he says. “I want to go back to how films used to be made—with story and substance, not just a bunch of effects and expensive talent. There are a lot of people out there making films that matter.”