AT THE INTERSECTION OF MICKEY Avenue and Dopey Drive, Darryl and Frank Kuntz carefully set their heavy burdens on the side of a newly painted curb. The wire handles of the four silvery octagonal canisters are eating into their palms. The weight of ten reels of film means that they walk fifty feet, rest. Walk fifty feet, rest. It’s slow going.
But the break gives the two brothers and their respective wives, Lynn and Sandy, time to gaze around, to soak it all in. Everything is meticulously groomed: the grass uniformly clipped, the hedges shaped, the profusion of flowers orderly and neat. The buildings, though old, seem to have been painted in creamy pastels only last week. People with cheerful faces stride purposefully around them; some ride old balloon-tire bicycles. It’s all so clean, wholesome, ordinary in a magical way. It’s so… so… Disney.
“Isn’t this wonderful,” murmurs Sandy, “to come here on business.” She gazes up at Mickey Mouse waving from a water tank towering above the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. The other three nod, the import of the moment silencing the usually garrulous quartet. Disney. But not the tourist’s Disney, where bullhorned guides push and pull gawkers along from sight to sight. This is the place where the work gets done, where blue-ribbon family entertainment is conceived, put together, and released to movie theaters and televison sets all over the world.
After two long, arduous years, they’re here. It’s beyond their wildest imaginings, but it’s real. Darryl and Lynn, Frank and Sandy Kuntz: parents, churchgoers, moviemakers. As the principals of Kuntz Bros. Inc., a Dallas-based independent film company, the four have arrived, at least on the periphery. The dream hangs in the flower-and smog-scented air. Darryl and Frank pick up the canisters, which contain their first feature-length movie-a wholesome, Disney-esque film called Dakota-and the four collectively square their shoulders and walk down Mickey Avenue to find out if their dream might come true.
On this beautiful spring day, the first day of their attempt to sell Dakota, they’re alternately nervous and confident. They arrive in Los Angeles on a Sunday, taking two different flights so that if one plane crashes, at least two of the four will survive and know what to do with the film. They’ve made similar travel arrangements since beginning work on Dakota. With five children and seventy investors depending on them, they want to leave nothing to chance.
The week stretches before them- screenings of Dakota have been scheduled for executives of most of the movie studios in Los Angeles: majors such as Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, 20th Century-Fox, Universal Studios; mini-majors like New World, which produce their own movies as well as distribute films for others; and independent distributors, like Vestron and Cinecom. Chris Zarpas, vice-president of production and acquisitions at Disney, has been calling them for four months, asking when he can see it, demanding to be the first on the list. Many others have been keeping in touch with them in Dallas by phone from Los Angeles, wanting to know when their movie will be ready for viewing. If any of these studios offers to pick up the film, it will be a coup.
But for their movie to be released under the Disney imprimatur would be a validation, a stamp of approval on the collective Kuntz ambition. They realize it’s a long shot, akin to getting discovered on a stool at a soda fountain. Buena Vista, Disney’s distribution arm, picks up very few independent films each year. But who knows? They’ve got an ace in the hole, the reason all the studio execs have been calling: hunky young star Lou Diamond Phillips, hot from his successful portrayal of rocker Ritchie Valens in La Bamba, which made $54.2 million in 1987. The weekend they arrive in Los Angeles, Phillips opens in Warner Bros.’ Stand and Deliver. And the grapevine is already carrying positive noises from the Santa Fe set of Young Guns, an ensemble Western Phillips is shooting with Brat Peckers Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, and Emilio Estevez.
Phillips is their big draw, but they’ve got other things going for them too. Dakota cost about $1.1 million to make-a garage-sale ticket in Hollywood, where the average movie costs at least ten times that. They own all the distribution rights and can cut a deal without worrying about another producer, distributor, or studio demanding its say and cutting its slice. And they’ve got a movie they think is pretty good.
Besides, the two East Dallas couples see themselves as Walt’s heirs apparent. Their only goal: making clean-scrubbed, uplifting, family movies.
But in Hollywood today, clean and uplifting are not considered assets.
SANDY KUNTZ SITS CROSS-LEGGED IN THE middle of a double bed, phone to her ear, papers and notepads and a schedule the size of a computer spreadsheet surrounding her on the faded green flowers of the bedspread. It’s only the first day and already Sandy’s meticulously planned schedule of screenings is screwed up. Disney, scheduled for 11:30 a.m., can’t see it until 2 p.m. That means bumping an important independent distributor. She hesitates, then confers with the others. They’ve been told the pecking order is very important. They agonize and make a decision: accommodate Disney. That means eating the $180 it cost to rent the screening room for the independent.
They’re in L.A. for one week. During that time, they are trying to show their movie to as many people as possible. “We’re gonna book this thing and try to sell this in a week,” says Sandy. “We want to create a sense of urgency. We want to be subtle about it, but we mean business.”
That means a tight schedule, with the film being raced all over the city, sometimes by them, sometimes by a courier. They’ve picked a hotel smack-dab in the middle of Beverly Hills, easily accessible to the studios spread out around Los Angeles, Burbank, and Universal City. The executive screening room they’ve booked is a few blocks away. And the Beverly Crest hotel was only ￡70 a night; there’s not a lot in the budget for wheeling and dealing.
For independent filmmakers like the Kuntzes. simply making a good movie isn’t enough. Somehow, the filmmakers have to get it into theaters around the country. It’s no problem for big studios; they produce and distribute their own movies. But independents-’indies” in movie parlance-must find someone else to distribute their creations. In fact, most films are distributed this way. In 1987, of 328 films made in the United States, 229 came from independents; 99 were made by studios.
So the Kuntzes have to make the pilgrimage to Los Angeles to do the deal, to find someone-a studio or distributor-who can get the movie on screens in Manhattan, New York, and Manhattan, Kansas.
It’s a process that has its own protocol, etiquette, and language, and to them, it’s as foreign as Sanskrit, They’ve buttonholed movie-making friends, combed books and magazines for clues to the best way to sell Dakota. They think they have a hot property. But the bottom line is this: you don’t know how it works until you do it.
OKAY. CLOSE YOUR EYES. THINK OF a filmmaker. Got it? Now hold that thought.
Whoever you thought of-Stallone, Huston, Spielberg-you didn’t think of anyone like the Kuntzes. Friendly, down-to-earth, kind of ordinary, they hardly fit the glamorous image of filmmakers. Lynn and Darryl live in Lakewood with their three children. Frank and Sandy live in Forest Hills with their two offspring. When they talk about movies, it’s fan talk, not techniques employed by directors or nuances of cinematography.
None of them ever aspired to being a filmmaker. Frank and Darryl Kuntz grew up in Berea,Ohio. During their teen years and into college, the two brothers performed a comedy musical act at pizza parlors and nightclubs, Frank on piano and Darryl on bass fiddle. Frank eventually earned a doctorate in music; Darryl has a master’s degree in theater and speech.
Both brothers met their wives in the early Seventies in Durango, Colorado. Frank, now fifty, met Sandy, now forty-one, in 1971 at a family resort where the two brothers were performing together. Both couples bought Airstream trailers, and for the better part of 1974 they toured the United States. The brothers did an act that perhaps is best described as musical comedy vaudeville for the family, from Disneyland to the Delta Queen Riverboat on the Mississippi. From years spent together on the road, the four became so close that now, Lynn says, “We’re married to them and they’re married to us.”
They intended to find a part of the country to settle in, but no one could agree. In the winter of 1974, they ended up “by default,” says Lynn, in Dallas, where her parents lived. Broke and tired of battling cold weather, they decided to stay.
The Kuntzes backed into the movie business as well. In 1976, Frank and Darryl started a thirty-minute weekly children’s show on Channel 39 that became “The Good-Time Gang.” Frank, the straight man, would feed rubber-faced Darryl lines that would convulse the crew as well as the audience of youngsters. With what they learned from the experience at Channel 39, the family formed Kuntz Bros. Inc. in 1980 with the intention of producing short children’s films for the religious market. Devout Christians, they wanted to produce quality, G-rated fare that didn’t sacrifice entertainment for a heavy-handed message.
Since 1980, with no formal training in film production or screenwriting, Kuntz Bros. has produced five short features for the religious market; several won religious and secular film awards. But making a feature-length film had always been one of their pie-in-the-sky dreams. In 1986, when Darryl decided the time was right, the other three didn’t need much convincing.
Going back to some of the people who invested in their Christian films, the Kuntzes rounded up a group of seventy who put up the money. They hired Fred Holmes, a Dallas director who had handled several of their other films. Lou Diamond Phillips had starred in several of their Christian movies. Though he was hot from La Bamba and had moved to Los Angeles, out of friendship he agreed to come back and shoot Dakota, That’s how they ended up with a star in a film budgeted at only $1.1 million.
The film, shot in Dallas in the summer of 1987, was a collaboration in the complete sense of the word. Everything-screenplay, production set-ups, casting, expenditures-was discussed ad infinitum among the four Kuntzes.
Selling Dakota began long before they ever made plane reservations for L.A., as the four made a series of difficult decisions. The first came during the shooting. Should they insert some off-color language, a few “shits” and “damns” into the script? Though the idea of dirty words in the movie makes them grimace, those few words can mean the difference between the kiss-of-death G-rating and a more marketable PG, (Any “sexually derived” obscenity gets an automatic R-rating.) They decide to keep it clean, figuring they can always dub in a few choice words later if the buyer insists.
Another question: should they hire a producer’s rep-someone who will take their film and get into closed doors, building enthusiasm for their product, getting some buzz going? Some friends in the business assure them that reps are absolutely necessary; others discount their value. Not surprisingly, producer’s reps they interview warn them that they are lambs walking into a den of lions; they need a lion tamer, or at least another lion who can roar back.
The Kuntzes are honest enough to admit they’re naive. But they finally decide against the rep. Main reason: a rep would demand up to $100,000, money they don’t have. Phillips’s name has opened many doors, and Sandy gets on the phone and begins knocking on others.
After months of editing, the film is the best they can make it. The story is compelling: a young man named John Dakota arrives in Texas on a motorcycle, running from something in his past. After getting into trouble, he ends up on a ranch with a foreman, his daughter, and young handicapped son. It’s a warm story, and Phillips gives a strong performance as Dakota. There are a couple of plot holes, a few rough spots, but on the whole, it’s an enjoyable film that leaves you feeling good.
At a screening at Las Colinas Studios, the Kuntzes meet for the first time their entertainment lawyer: Alan Katz of the New York firm of Bower & Gardner. Katz, looking every inch the sharp New York lawyer, quickly gets down to the nitty-gritty. Dollars and cents. Control. What they want and what they can expect as first-time filmmakers looking for a distributor. The Kuntzes hardly dare to talk about what they hope to make among themselves, much less outside the family. Without putting numbers on it, they will tell me they want a good up-front advance, plus a percentage of the adjusted gross (which can mean a lot of things). Everyone knows that a percentage of the adjusted net profit means they’ll never see anything beyond the advance; movie accounting is, let’s say, very creative.
What matters most, however, is that whoever picks up Dakota treats it with a little respect. Their fear is that someone will acquire the movie and dump it into the Bermuda Triangle of distribution: no ads, no promotion, a few weekend show dates, then video oblivion. They’re in this to build a business, not produce one movie. Their credibility as producers is on the line.
Katz does not go to Los Angeles with them; instead, he is on five-hour call. If a studio or distributor sees it or makes an offer, he’ll fly from New York to Los Angeles immediately. Until then, he promises to stay in phone contact, offering advice and interpreting each day’s events. He tells them tales of independent producers who have been cheated out of all profits on their films, even though they were hits at the box office. Frank arrives in Los Angeles on Sunday already angry about the ways potential buyers could try to con them.
THE FIRST DAY SEEMS ENDLESS, MAY-be because they all were up before dawn, due to jet lag and nervousness. After waiting an hour-and-a-half, wandering around the Disney lot, and peeking into soundstages, they pick up their film from Chris Zarpas, Disney’s production and acquisitions vice-president. They come out of Zarpas’s office surprised at how young and good-looking he is. (Frank deadpans as they leave, “Nice to meet you. I thought you’d be uglier.”) Later in the week, they realize that most of the acquisitions people they meet are like Zarpas: jetsetting young turks in their late twenties and thirties, holding the power of millions of dollars, sitting in the dark all day long watching movie after movie.
Zarpas is polite, but mostly noncommittal. He says he likes the girl lead (Dee Dee Norton), quizzes them about where they shot Dakota, says they got a lot of quality for their budget. He says he’ll present it to his marketing people to see if they are “passionate” about it, but adds that they have only fifteen or sixteen release dates this year and almost all are filled. Call tomorrow.
“We don’t know whether to be pleased or dismayed;’ Darryl says. Lynn adds: “Rationally, it was probably a good response. Emotionally, we feel a little let down.”
In a rented black Chrysler Fifth Avenue, they hit the freeway at 5:15. Rush hour. The film is due at New World at 5:30 and they’re not going to make it. They dash in at 5:45, shake hands with another executive in his thirties, and drop off the film. They forgo California trend cuisine in favor of comfort food at Marie Callender’s, then head back to the hotel and meet with David Garber of New World, which primarily produces and distributes horror movies like Hellraiser. Garber praises Dakota, but admits it’s not for his company. New World knows how to market blood and guts, not family entertainment.
It’s after midnight in New York, but they call Katz anyway. He’s reassuring; over the next few weeks, he becomes a good friend. But that night, they go to bed deflated.
The second day is devoted to the big boys: Warner Bros,, then Universal, then Paramount. They run from studio to studio, shaking hands, dropping off the print.
The feedback begins to trickle in. When they pick up the print after the first screening, the projectionist at Warner Bros, confesses that he loved the movie. But the responses from execs run like this: “It’s a good little movie. I liked it. But it’s not for us.” “Phillips is good; but we’re looking for one that can gross $30 million or more.” “Everyone knows family films don’t make big money, not unless they’re E.T.” One praises the music. Another hates the music. They hear from the independent distributor who was bumped for Disney. He hates the music and the movie.
But the most chilling response, which they hear over and over, is that Dakota has no marketing “hook,” no grabby concept that will sell the movie. It’s not a kiddie movie or a horror show. It’s not a teen romance, an action-packed adventure, a comedy, or a drama, though it has elements of all those. In short, it’s hard to sell Dakota’s subtle merits in a quarter-page newspaper advertisement or on a poster.
On the third day they hit Vestron, an independent that distributed one of 1987’s biggest hits, Dirty Dancing. Thursday brings a whole new approach: group screenings for smaller independent distributors. At a rented screening room, executives from f ive or six different companies sit in plush rocking chairs and view the movie together. The Kuntzes do not watch it with them; that’s simply not done.
The execs are quiet throughout the movie except for a few chuckles, a few scratches on a notepad. They leave, cagily guarding their remarks, as if wondering what the competition thought of it. But in the elevator going down, I run into Michael Spielberg, director of feature film programming with Prism Entertainment, a home video company. His assessment of the film is enthusiastic. “I thought it was a great movie. It was warm, upbeat, touching. I loved it.”
At this point, Spielberg can’t offer to buy video rights; that can’t be done until someone buys domestic theatrical rights. But that afternoon, he calls a company in New York that he has worked with in the past-a small independent distributor named Miramax- and tells them about the movie. If they pick it up. then he can get a shot at cutting a deal for home video rights.
Friday’s showings include Columbia, MGM/United Artists, Lorimar, and Skouras. The Kuntzes had planned to stay through the weekend, show Dakota to 20th Century-Fox on Monday, then go home. Though their lawyer warned it might take time, they admit they expected to have some nibbles by the end of the week.
Then, good news. Spielberg, the guy in the elevator, calls to tell them he loved the film. Miramax is interested in seeing the picture. Could they go to New York?
Why not? With L.A. screenings finished and no buyer in sight, the Kuntzes hop two planes to New York. On Tuesday they hold a group screening for Miramax and four other companies that had called expressing interest. Word of mouth is starting to flow. On Wednesday, they head home to wait to see what, if anything, they would reap from their week-and-a-half of screenings.
Back in Dallas, they busy themselves with kids, projects around the house, office work. But it’s hard to concentrate on anything. A few investors have called, wondering what’s going on. They don’t know what to say.
The weeks stretch out. Miramax’s lawyers taik to Katz. Katz is impressed. Miramax is known as an aggressive, up-and-coming distributor with a number of good films to its credit. It’s stable-meaning it can put some money behind Dakota-and its track record shows a commitment to quality. Miramax is interested only in domestic rights, which would leave foreign rights for the Kuntzes to sell elsewhere.
Their lawyers make Katz a verbal proposal. They tell Katz what numbers they are thinking about; Katz tells them the numbers the Kuntzes are thinking about. Because movie distribution contracts are so complex and so much is still up in the air, it’s hard to tell how far apart they are.
Then another company gets interested: MCEG, which heard about the film from the executives of Manson International, the company’s foreign distribution arm, who saw the movie in Los Angeles. The MCEG people tell Katz they plan to present a proposal for worldwide rights.
But time is becoming a factor. It is the end of April and the Cannes Film Festival is coming up in May. At Cannes, foreign distributors cut deals with distributors from all over the world. It’s an important market; as much as half a given film’s profits could come from overseas distribution. And more than 3,000 members of the world press will be there.
On April 22, MCEG makes a proposal to Katz. The Kuntzes set up a conference call with the attorney to hear the details, Then Frank and Darryl fly to L.A. to talk to MCEG. They come away with a good proposal; MCEG wants them to shake hands on it, but following a gut feeling, they don’t. They decide to wait.
A week later, Frank and Darryl arc in New York, talking to Miramax. The company is getting a name for releasing quality U.S. and foreign films with an arty edge; some of the most recent films they have distributed include The Thin Blue Line, I’ve Heard the Mermaid Singing, Crossover Dreams, The Working Girls, and The Quest. This summer and fell they’ll release Animal Behavior, with Holly Hunter, Armand Assante, and Karen Allen; and Riders of the Storm, with Dennis Hopper and Michael J. Pollard.
The ten-year-old firm is run by two brothers, Harvey and Bob Weinstein. The Kuntzes go into negotiations wearing suits; the Weinsteins show up in rumpled shirts with sleeves rolled up and no ties. Offer, counteroffer, back and forth. The MCEG offer is good, but Miramax’s is better. A week later, in mid-May, too late for Cannes, the Kuntzes make an agreement with Miramax to distribute their movie in the United States-all rights except foreign and sound track. Those will be sold separately by the Kuntzes. (I tracked Spielberg down in Cannes; he hopes to buy home video rights to Dakota from Miramax. “Since I found it and brought it to them, I want them to offer it to me first” he says.)
The roller-coaster ride has ended. Dakota is sold. None of the principals would talk specifics about money, but a New York-based industry analyst, who asked not to be identified, implied that the Kuntzes would not be moving to Beverly Hills or Beverly Drive on the strength of Dakota. “Miramax is mainly an art house distributor,” the analyst said, “and those are not big-grossing pictures” He estimated that Dakota would gross $1 million to $2 million dollars and that the Kuntzes probably received something in the neighborhood of $1.1 million up front to cover their costs. Any actual profits will come after distribution fees and print and ad costs have been deducted from gross receipts. The analyst also predicted brisk home video sales of around 10,000 units, which should bring in another $200,000 to $300,000.
Despite their initial fantasies about going with Disney or one of the other big studios, the Kuntzes agree that Miramax is probably the best company to distribute Dakota. For one thing, there’s not as much bureaucracy-in other words, less overhead that comes out of their profits. They’ll get more personal attention. They’ll be aware of the marketing and advertising plans.
And the Weinsteins are pleased. “It’s a good story with good values, rare in these days of Rambo,” says Bob Weinstein, co-president of Miramax. “We felt it was enjoyable and entertaining and will please an audience, a family adventure like Black Stallion.” And having Lou Diamond Phillips in the lead role is an added plus. “We feel there’s an audience who knows him and is coming to know him.”
The next steps include making a few changes, such as cutting a few scenes more tightly and adding a rock song. The Weinsteins don’t think obscenities are needed; instead, they’re worried about getting the harsher PG-13 because of an oblique mention of drugs. The movie will probably be released in late summer or early fall, following a Dallas premiere. They don’t want to compete with what are likely to be big summer movies like Rambo III and Crocodile Dundee II.
While they still plan to make inspiring movies, the Kuntzes will make more concessions to the marketplace next time. More hooks, more conflict. You can’t just have a nice story about nice people. They’ll look for a story with a harder edge, more spectacle, and more comedy.
“We got lucky this time,” Frank says.
Next time, they’ll know how the gameis played.