One Indie Movie’s Hollywood Ending

Discover what happens to festival darlings that don’t find distribution

Blame Kevin Smith, or perhaps Edward Burns. They took their little indie films (Clerks and The Brothers McMullen, respectively) to the festival circuit in the mid-’90s, grabbed distribution deals and went on to fame and fortune. “The popular story that got everyone’s attention at the time was the young filmmaker who put the entire film on his credit card,” actor William H. Macy says. “His parents mortgaged their house and he sold his car, and it went to Sundance and Harvey Weinstein bought it for $8 million and everybody got healthy.

“But for every one of those stories, there’s a Colin Fitz. There are a lot of very expensive home movies out there.”

The long road for Colin Fitz, in which Macy co-stars, ended Aug. 4, when the film was resurrected as Colin Fitz Lives! and available on demand via Sundance Selects, a video-on-demand film label. For those keeping score, that’s more than 13 years after it premiered in competition at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival.

Colin Fitz is a witty film about two security guards (Matt McGrath and Andy Fowle) guarding the grave of rock star Colin Fitz on the anniversary of his death. Over the course of the evening, beers are chugged, epiphanies are had and a bunch of very familiar faces show up in supporting roles—in addition to Macy, there’s Martha Plimpton, John C. McGinley, Julianne Philips, Mary McCormack and Chris Bauer.

Shot over two weeks at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx for $150,000—and completed for an additional $100,000—Colin Fitz went from table reads to film festivals in six months. “It was pretty crazy how fast it happened,” says Fitz screenwriter Tom Morrissey.

But that was just about the only thing that went quickly: Despite the positive reception the film received at festivals—New York Times critic Caryn James called it a “deftly amusing dark comedy,” and it was named “Best of the Fest” at the Austin Film Festival—finding an acceptable distribution deal proved difficult. “Deals were offered,” director Robert Bella says in an e-mail to The New York Observer, “but unfortunately none of them would cover all of our finishing costs. … I tried for over a year after Sundance to try and secure a deal that would allow me to pay everyone back and get the film, as well as myself, out of hock.” For Morrissey, it was a hurdle he never expected: “It was terribly disappointing. It started to feel that it was easier to write and make a movie than it is to get it distributed. You have to answer the question from your aunts and uncles and everyone you know: When am I going to get to see your movie? It was very frustrating.”

“There can be bit of shame attached to [not getting a deal],” Macy says. “We went to Sundance and didn’t sell. It’s like when someone goes into rehab, you don’t want to go, ‘Hey, I heard you’re a drunk!’”

While the general public wasn’t able to watch Colin Fitz, the film had a loyal following. “There was a cult status that it went into—people writing about it online, scenes went onto YouTube,” McGrath says. “People were carrying this torch for this thing.”

Those fans and Bella’s persistence kept Colin Fitz alive. “For nearly a decade, I slowly paid down the debts and bought back the pieces,” Bella says. “Little by little, the total amount owed got smaller and the finishing costs were reduced, which ultimately made it much easier to sell the film.” That and some never-before-seen talking-head interviews, which fleshed out the film. “IFC (Independent Film Channel) felt that the new footage helped frame the original story … while allowing them to release a new film,” Bella says. Arianna Bocco, IFC/Sundance Select’s vice president of acquisitions and distribution, purchased this version of the film, newly titled Colin Fitz Lives!, from Bella over drinks.

“It just sounded like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ After 14 years—we made it in 1996—I didn’t even think Robert was still plugging away at this,” McGrath says. “I’m curious to see it, especially this version.”

Bella hoped that they would release both versions eventually. As for Morrissey, forgive him for still having a bit of trepidation. “Honestly, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I think after 13 years, I was entitled to think that. But now that it’s finally here … will I tell my aunts and uncles to go watch it? Definitely.”

A version of Christopher Rosen’s story previously appeared in the New York Observer.

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