‘Grassroots’ Effort Could Be Start of Something Big

“Grassroots,” starring Jason Biggs, Tom Arnold and Cedric the Entertainer, has the right idea, if it can steer clear of indie-killing deals and distributors

I had the pleasure yesterday afternoon of chatting with producer Peggy Rajski over at Boom Noodle on Capitol Hill. (More on Boom later.) Peggy produced a set of John Sayles films in the 1980s, including my favorite Sayles, "The Brother From Another Planet." (Babyfaced Fisher Stevens’ magic trick on the A train is worth the price of admission.) She also produced "The Grifters" and Jodie Foster’s excellent "Little Man Tate." More recently, she exec produced "Towelhead."

Peggy is here in Seattle shooting her latest film, “Grassroots,” directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal and starring Jason Biggs, Cedric the Entertainer and Tom Arnold. In spite of the actors’ pedigrees, the film is described as a buddy movie/coming-of-age film in the style of James L. Brooks so we’re likely to see actual acting with some depth of feeling and genuine emotion. (Actually, I’m a big fan of the high-strung Arnold, who constantly works and frequently manages to land pretty interesting roles. I assume this will be one of those.)

“Grassroots” is based on a memoir by former Seattle Stranger writer Phil Campbell, who managed fellow ex-Stranger writer Grant Cogswell’s campaign for Seattle City Council in 2001. It’s a story about idealism and activism and people who actually lead rather than follow (which fits right in with my rant from the other day).

The really exciting thing about “Grassroots” (an appropriate title not just for the story but for the production itself) is that it contains all the right ingredients to have a major positive influence on the independent film scene.

From my conversation with Peggy, they’re making all the right moves. If they continue along the path they’re on, “Grassroots” might well become the elusive finance/production/distribution blueprint the community’s been groping for. It’s a pretty big IF, but I’m rooting for them as hard as I can and so should you.

The first thing they did right was maintain the integrity of the story by budgeting appropriately. The movie is called “Grassroots” for a reason. (It’s a low-budget film.)

Next, they didn’t spend forever in development. True, it’s based on a memoir, but there are no rules in development hell. The process moved along relatively briskly and momentum in anything is always good.

Casting is interesting. I’m going to assume that Gyllenhaal and Rajski have seen proof that Biggs and his co-star, Joel Moore, have the chops to pull off quirky roles with the necessary gravitas that this flavor of storytelling demands. (I know Tom Arnold can.) So granting that, it’s important that Biggs, Cedric the Entertainer and Arnold all have the juice to make social media pay big dividends.

Plus, the production recognizes how important a role social media can play here and they’re arming themselves with all of the appropriate in-production tools for both immediate and ongoing implementation.

Which is all well and good. But by far the most exciting tidbit Peggy shared is that she just secured a relatively sizable chunk of cash for distribution and marketing.

This is the one that nearly always gets away. It’s discussed incessantly on panels and at seminars. It’s the Holy Grail and Peggy’s got it – and it’s never been a more valuable or critical asset in independent filmmaking than it is right now. It’s freedom. It’s a get-out-of-distribution-jail-free card, and it’s going to allow the production to write its own ticket.

If a studio calls and wants to plunk down tens of millions to acquire and market the film, great. But if not, then the producers have the wherewithal to pick and choose their distribution "partners"; to decide how many pieces of the pie to cut and who, if anyone, will get a slice. They may decide to keep all rights, hire consultants for distribution and roll the dice. Or they may have to do it that way. Regardless, they now have the flexibility and enough fuck-you money to do what’s right and best for the film.

Of course, I made an impassioned argument for streaming day-and-date with theatrical. Wide or limited, it makes no sense any more not to make first-run streaming a central focus of any independently released film.

This is the issue that will determine whether “Grassroots” becomes a champion and firebrand for independent film in the 21st century or whether it’s just another indie thrown on the heap.

Only time will tell. Until then, I’ll keep a good thought.

Unfortunately and ironically, the only serious impediment to moving the community forward (besides general fear of progress) is Mark Cuban. Last I heard, he was telling filmmakers that if they stream their films along with theatrical, his Landmark Theatres chain – supposed champion of the independent community – wouldn’t book them. Nice, huh?

Cuban, of course, has his own little day-and-date play with Magnolia Pictures. Instead of streaming, though, it’s cable VOD that plays with theatrical.

If Cuban ever pulled his head out of his ass long enough, he’d see that day-and-date streaming would only have a beneficial effect on both his VOD play and Landmark Theatres’ box office.

Unless, of course, it’s all ego. (Cuban? Ego? Ya think?) Maybe it has nothing to do with dollars and sense. Maybe it’s that he wants to be the day-and-date guy and, like a spoiled, petulant child, he refuses to share the playground with any of the other kids. (Most if not all major exhibition chins have iron-clad policies against booking films that appear online or in any medium before or during first-run theatrical. But they’re not making their living on the backs of independent filmmakers the way Landmark is and has for decades.)

Peggy, don’t let Cuban or any other gatekeeper force their last-century, paranoid, tyrannical nonsense down your throat. Even if you want to go theatrical, there are still independents around the country who have a more progressive outlook. And you can always buy a NYC launch.

Light a 21st-century fire!

PS: If you live in Seattle or plan to visit soon, do yourself a favor and run, do not walk to Boom Noodle for the salmon tataki.