Film Bucks Trend, and Hollywood Notices

HOLLYWOOD — Following an Academy Awards trumpeting family-unfriendly winners, Hollywood can look like an unstoppable Goliath to Catholics interested in the cinema.

Goliath, meet David.

The Basket, a family film produced by a group of Catholics in Spokane, Wash., is demonstrating the promise of the independent film market.

The movie, about World War I-era anti-German prejudice in a small town in Washington state, opened Aug. 20 to record-setting audiences in Spokane, where it played for 34 consecutive weeks, ending in March. The Register reported on its early success in September. A limited release last October in Denver and Colorado Springs proved that the movie could do well outside Spokane. Now, it is set for a national release on May 5.

Sharon Lester, director of distribution for Privileged Communications in Los Angeles, receives videotapes to look at every day in the mail. It was a call from her mother, Kay, in Spokane, that alerted her to The Basket. “She told me that there was this film playing in Spokane, that it was done by a local company, and that people were really liking the movie. Who says ‘no’ to their mother?” asked Lester.

After seeing The Basket, Lester, who has 10 years of experience in the industry, said she was “stunned” by the film.

“Not only was it an incredible movie with a fantastic story, but its production value was exceptionally high. It was very compelling,” Lester told the Register. Lester followed the film's progress in Colorado and then met with producer and director Rich Cowan over Christmas. “That's when everything came together,” she said.

Praise for the film has come from such diverse sources as film critics, the clergy, sportswriters, teachers, elementary students and senior citizens, causing many to wonder: What's the appeal?

Lester explained, “My family, from ages 5 to 65, watched the film together. The adults thought it was superb. What's more, the children under age 10 all wanted to come back and watch it the next day.”

Barbara Nicolosi wants to hear more words like that from Hollywood. “The only way to change Hollywood is to renew it from the inside out,” she told the Register. She is executive director of Act One, designed to teach aspiring writers with a Judeo-Christian worldview to succeed in Hollywood.

She thinks The Basket is a good example of what can be done, and is setting up a Los Angeles benefit for the movie.

Warren Stitt, executive producer of The Spitfire Grill, agreed. He is currently working on a motion picture adaptation of Catholic novelist Jon Hassler's North of Hope.

“Popular culture is no easy club to break into.” said Stitt. “The way to change popular culture is to compete directly with it.”

“Rather than complain about the poor selection of movies, we can improve the selection. Rather than bemoan the media's treatment of the Church, ministers and priests, we can create positive portrayals.”

The Spitfire Grill was another breakthrough story — an independent film with a Catholic message and box-office appeal, which won awards nationally, notably at the Sundance Film Festival, and was released in overseas editions as well.

Stitt said that with more theater screens than ever and an exploding “aftermarket” in video, pay TV, payper-view TV, hotels and an expanding foreign market there has never been a better time for the value-based film.

“If you can write the check, you cannot only make the movie you want to make, but also get it distributed and make money.”

He argued that audiences today don't care if a film, such as The Basket, is produced by an independent. “Theatergoers do not care or know an independent film from a studio film. Pope John Paul II shares this enthusiasm for using the movies to bring people closer to sound morals.

In a 1978 letter, the new Pope wrote to Father Lucien Labell of the International Catholic Film Organization.

“The challenge of evangelization … should also bring forth more numerous initiatives in this field of cinema,” he wrote.

“It is a question of creating films, even modest ones with a short running-time, to bear witness directly to the faith of the Church,” he continued. “Many interesting productions have already appeared — and we congratulate their authors. But Christian communities, in spite of the poverty of their means, should not hesitate to invest more in this important sector, at a time of the ‘civilization of the image.’”

The Pope concluded, “Shall we have enough spiritual strength and genius to create ‘moving images,’ of great quality, and adapted to the culture of today?”

Nicolosi's Act One, a nonsectarian organization, tries to do just that. It offers a month-long seminar, with the goal of placing Christian writers in the movie industry over the next few years. Already, Nicolosi has 14 different production companies asking to see the best work produced by her students. While the program began only last year, it has already had success.

“We are getting one call a week from production companies looking for writers from a Judeo-Christian worldview,” Nicolosi told the Register.

The Success

The Basket shares some similarities with other independent-market success stories, like The Blair Witch Project. A low-budget independent movie, it attracted its audiences through a promotion campaign based on word-of-mouth, advertising, glowing reviews, e-mails and a Web site,

Produced at a cost of $3.3 million, The Basket was born through the talents of writers Frank and Tessa Swoboda, Don Caron and Rich Cowan. “The writing team began working on the project nearly five years ago,” explained marketing director Marc Dahlstrom.

Once the idea was born, the team committed to regular evening and weekend meetings to see the project through. The film itself was shot in 1998 and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

Its production company, North by Northwest, enlisted local talent for the film. Several of the individuals, such as writer and musician Don Caron, writer and producer Frank Swoboda, baritone singer Jim Swoboda, and art director Vincent De Felice are alumni of Spokane's Catholic elementary schools and Gonzaga Catholic Preparatory school.

To date, the film has had more than 50,000 admissions and has grossed $300,000 in Spokane, Denver and Colorado Springs.

During its run in Spokane, The Basket grossed more than $135,000 on just one screen, consistently beating the industry standard per-screen average.

Buoyed by its success, North by Northwest took the film to Colorado Springs and Denver for a test run outside of its own locale. Again, the film out-performed major studio releases, scoring a first-place position in Colorado Springs, proving that it was something more than a regional phenomenon.

Add to that the various film festival awards the film has garnered and it was just a matter of time before a distributor took notice.

Said writer and producer Frank Swoboda, “Hollywood could redis-cover a way to make money. Parents are bringing not only their children, but also their grandparents. Many have said they've never been able to do that with a film before.”

He may be onto something, judging from the praise the movie has gotten.

“It's an uplifting film, virtuous in tone and beguiling in the home-stretch,” wrote Mike Pearson of Denver'sRocky Mountain News. “And guess what — not a swear word in sight.”

Dick Rolfe, president of the Dove Foundation, which endorses family-friendly films, said, “The basket is a story with integrity, artfully told, without jarring special effects, sex or violence. It is entertainment with a heart for the needs of the family.”

Privileged Communications plans to open the film on 100 screens in about 30 major markets starting May 5. The film will open in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Miami, Dallas, Phoenix and Chicago.

“I am passionate about this film,” said Lester. “Our goal is to eventually open it in every major city in the U.S. This film has so much merit that word-of-mouth will carry it if enough people go to see it opening weekend.”

Tim Drake can be reached at [email protected]