MCOF’s ‘Best of the Best’ thrive on low-budget passion

"Man in the Chair," directed by Michael Schroeder, is the MCOF opening night film.

The second annual festival features films made with a

heart and creative financing.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Like the trend established by last year’s Academy Awards, which saw independently produced films dominating the nominations, it seems that the “Best of the Best” honorees for this year’s Malibu Celebration of Film come from hard-scrabble beginnings and a great deal of faith, without the mega-budgets and assured distribution inherent in productions from the big studios.

“Studios are run by committees,” said filmmaker Michael Schroeder, whose film “Man in the Chair” is opening MCOF on Sept. 28. “And committees, well… a camel is a horse designed by a committee. But people still want a horse.”

Schroeder described the plight faced by thousands of writers/directors holding a great script that touches those who read it, but who are loathe to let the studios mangle it through focus audience management. Schroeder believes the plethora of endless sequels and films playing to the lowest common adolescent instincts represent studio fear of relying on the creative.

“Audiences are starving for a good movie,” he said. “They want some meat with those potatoes.”

The downside, of course, is the lengths one goes to scare up funding for a pet project. “I went back to my roots in Idaho, where my sister is a mortgage broker,” Schroeder said. “Thanks to her contacts and a new law that allows a 100 percent tax write-off for film production investment, I was able to meet the budget.”

With a modest budget secured, Schroeder was able to attract the talents of actors like M. Emmet Walsh and Christopher Plummer. The movie centers on a young filmmaker who persuades old Hollywood veterans who live in the Motion Picture retirement home to help him realize his dream of directing, giving the retirees a chance to relive their days of glory.

“I got in this business to make movies like ‘Man in the Chair,'” Schroeder said, who wrote and directed the film. “All my actors had great stage training and brought such light to the script.”

Of course, the challenge after the film is made is to secure distribution. “Yeah, the good news is that we had total autonomy,” Schroeder said laughing. “And the bad news is that we had total autonomy.”

Fortunately, Schroeder made a deal with Outsider Pictures to distribute and his movie has gone on to win six international film festival awards. “We are the ultimate independent film,” Schroeder said.

Malibuites pitch in

Malibu resident and board member of Women in Film Candace Bowen found the script for the award-winning film “Cuttin’ Da Mustard” at the biannual International Women in Film summit.

“This was written by the husband of one of our colleagues, Neema Barnette,” Bowen said. “Neema was the first woman of color to direct prime-time TV, so I wanted to support her. After I read the script, I couldn’t wait to call her and say ‘I love it. How can I help?'”

“Cuttin’ Da Mustard,” which screens Sept. 29 at MCOF, is an autobiographical story of how writer/director Reed R. McCants got through high school and into college while being functionally illiterate.

Bowen said, thanks to her contacts with Women in Film, she was able to find modest funding in about 15 minutes. “We had a 10-day shoot on location in New York and most of the crew were members of Women in Film,” she said. “Women in Film got us permits and helped get people like (Oscar-winning actor) Lou Gossett behind us. This movie would’ve gotten made regardless, but it happened to filter through me and WIF.”

“Cuttin’ Da Mustard” won the Festival Choice Award for Best Feature at the Pan-African Film & Arts Festival in sold-out screenings and will be playing the Harlem International Film Festival at the Apollo Theatre as well as the Hollywood Black Film Festival in October. “This was such a little, little film,” Bowen said. “But it’s moving faster than we are!”

Some films end up resonating on much larger playing fields than the filmmaker originally intended. Canadian Rob Stewart, a wildlife photographer and biologist, started out making a documentary about sharks with his film “Sharkwater” (closing the festival on Sept. 30).

“It became a story of murder, government corruption and perpetuation of the human species,” Stewart said. “Sharks have been on earth 400 million years, since before the dinosaurs. But because of human predation and government cooperation, sharks as a species might cease to exist within 100 years.”

“Sharkwater” has won more than 20 film festival awards and Stewart hopes it will lead to “making conservation cool.”

Malibu resident James Kleinert will show a short version of his documentary “The American Wild Horse” at MCOF, just after he screens it for members of Congress in Washington.

“At the turn of the last century, there were two million wild horses in America,” Kleinert said. “Today, there are maybe 30,000. The Federal Bureau of Land Management wants public lands to be available to oil and gas exploration, but not to horses. I’m hoping to change that with this film.”

Kleinert enlisted actor Viggo Mortensen, singer Sheryl Crow and Malibu’s Rick Allen of Def Leppard to help with the soundtrack. Even so, he does most of the hand-held camera work himself and the film is “entirely credit card-financed,” he said.

A complete line up of MCOF’s “Best of the Best” screenings Sept. 28-30 can be obtained online at Tickets to the festival can be purchased online and at Malibu Inn and Diesel, A Bookstore in Malibu.