The comic documentary "Exporting Raymond," which opened in limited release on Friday, is about a clash of cultures, as "Everybody Loves Raymond" producer/creator Phil Rosenthal went to Russia to launch a Russian version of his hit television show.
The humor didn't always translate, with Rosenthal running into problems with dour Russian network executives, writers schooled on soap operas and a wardrobe woman who thought his blue-collar comedy should somehow instruct Russian women about high fashion.
But there's another culture clash going on around the film as well – because the enormously successful television producer is a newcomer to the world of low-budget, independent filmmaking. After directing a breezy, entertaining film in which he's the main character and the butt of many of the jokes, Rosenthal now has to navigate unfamiliar waters that as he fights to make sure his movie gets even a modest fraction of the audience that regularly watched his TV show.
"I don’t know about this independent, small-film business," admits Rosenthal. But he's learning. Here are 10 things Phil Rosenthal says he's discovered about the indie film business:
1. EXECUTIVES ARE EXECUTIVES …
One of the lessons of the film, says Rosenthal onscreen, is that network executives are the same (i.e., capricious and difficult) in Russia as they are in the United States. After venturing into the indie film business, he has a corollary: film executives are the same as network executives.
"It's executives," he says. "The business mentality is affecting and infecting the creative mentality, and it's really at odds with it. I've found that the no you get creatively is the same in every language, and it's the same from TV to movies."
2. … AND NOT JUST IN THE MOVIE BUSINESS
Once he starts talking about shortsighted execs, Rosenthal gets on a roll.
"I's not restricted to the movie or television business," he says. "It's all the executives. What's wrong with our country today? I think you can point to the shortsightedness, the short-term, goal-oriented business mentality of 'get it now, screw later.'
"This happens in our government, it happens on Wall Street, it happens on the local level, it happens the way they think about the environment. It happens in every aspect of life today, and maybe it's a very pessimistic way of looking at things: It ain't gonna last long, so you better get it now. People think, I may not have this job very long, I better rape and pillage now and then get the hell out of town."
Yikes. And here we thought we were talking about a funny movie.
3. QUALITY DOESN’T MATTER
That's not really a lesson – actually, it's more or less a direct quote.
"One executive said to me, 'I love your movie, it's really very good. But I must tell you, in our business good doesn't really enter into it.'"
Rosenthal thought this idea was so striking that he says he's going to make it the title of his next book: "Good Doesn't Really Enter Into It: A Story of Hollywood."
4. THE PLAYING FIELD ISN'T EVEN
If there's one thing Rosenthal knows, it's TV. "Everybody Loves Raymond" played to between 10 and 20 million people per episode for nine years – and when it wasn't Monday night, ads for the show blanketed CBS so that viewers would be ready for next week's episode.
Now he's got a little movie, made at the suggestion of Sony Pictures co-chairman Michael Lynton and released by the Samuel Goldwyn Company, with a TV ad budget that will almost certainly not allow him to advertise anywhere near his old prime-time time slot. This is unusual to Rosenthal. Perplexing, even.
"It's really strange, because there is so little money for it," he says. "You won't see ads on TV. You won't see billboards. It just doesn't exist. And the odds are so stacked against you, because when you come out in the movie theater you're competing with people who have budgets to advertise their movies. Sometimes budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. So how can you compete?"
5. BEWARE OF THE D-WORD
To repeat that last question: So how can you compete, knowing that your movie won't get the audience that your TV show did?
First, you figure out what audience it can get.
"I think the first audience that you need to get are the people that would go see such a … real-life adventure," he says. It turns out that he's chosen that last phrase deliberately and carefully.
"I hate to use the word documentary," he admits. "I think it scares people away. It sounds like uh-oh, Nazis killing dolphins. So the first thing you want to do is tell people that it really plays like a comedy. It really does. It was a real-life comedy."
6. BIG FAT INDIE HITS ARE FEW AND HARD TO COME BY
And if you tell enough people that your movie is a real life adventure that plays like a comedy, he adds, maybe you can be one of the chosen few. "You're hoping to be one of the one or two movies of this size that cross over. It really is only one or two movies a year that do. 'The Kids Are All Right' was one last year. The one you really hope to be is 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding.' Little comedies that strike it big."
A grin. "So that is what I'm shooting for."
7. YOUR TRAILER IS YOUR BEST FRIEND
No money, no primetime TV ads, no billboards. What's left?
Oh yeah: the web.
"Thank God for the internet, which is cheap and easy," he says. "If you think about it, your trailer's actually way more available to people than at any other time in history. That really is the number one sales tool. It's a sample of the film. And we all know that free samples are what make the world go round."
How available is the trailer for "Exporting Raymond?" Here's how available it is:
8. NEVER MIND LESSON NO. 3 – QUALITY DOES MATTER
About 20 minutes after proudly talking about how he learned from the anonymous exec who told him "good doesn't enter into it," Rosenthal decides that the key is quite the opposite – that, in fact, good does enter into it. A lot. (Whether this will affect the title of his next book remains to be seen.)
"The only weapon you have is whether the movie's any good at all, so that people see it and tell their friends," he says. "That’s still the most powerful tool out there. We all see movies that have millions and millions of dollars in ad budgets tank. Why? Nobody likes the movie.
"So maybe we just have to get the word out. That's all."
9. EMPHASIZE UNIVERSALITY
So, on a day of interviews to sell the movie without spending money (except for takeout lunch from Mozza, where he gets a deal anyway), here is Phil Rosenthal's pitch:
"Am I hoping for the 'Raymond' audience? No, I think that's too much to ask. But I do know that whether you've ever seen 'Raymond' or not, I think the movie works.
"You don't have to have seen 'Raymond' to get the film, because I think it's very relatable, in that we all try to make ourselves clear to other people, whether they come from Russia or not. That happens in our house. And for the people who do like 'Raymond,' I think they'll like it especially, in that they know the show, and they’ll see that the main theory behind the show is also the main theory behind this movie."
10. HAVE A MAIN THEORY BEHIND YOUR MOVIE
"The theory is, Real life is funny enough."
(Photos by Nicholas Weissman/Samuel Goldwyn Films)