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The Los Angeles Times

Waiting for a break? No way

Despite mounting debt, flaky actors and many rejections, Jerome Courshon never gave up on his film.

By Elaine Dutka, Times Staff Writer

The reels were to be shipped to New York on Sept. 11, 2001 -- seven years after Jerome Courshon, a Chicago native with no professional production or writing experience, knocked out the screenplay for "God, Sex & Apple Pie," a self-financed 35-millimeter film about nine friends wrestling with life and love during the course of a holiday weekend get-together.

Courshon managed to get the footage to the theaters in time for a one-week New York City run. But the biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history was only the latest in a series of setbacks. There were some no-show actors, a revolving door of directors, a production manager who bailed out two weeks before the shoot, duplicitous publicists who promised a Roger Ebert review. Unable to raise the requisite financing, the filmmaker charged everything on 26 credit cards, ending up $280,000 in the hole after film festivals and his do-it-yourself theatrical release were factored in.

"I was insane," said Courshon, sipping an iced cappuccino in a cafe near his Silver Lake-Los Feliz apartment. "Knowing what I know now, I'd never try to shoot a 35-millimeter movie for $100,000 -- it ultimately came in for double that. Nor would I try to peddle an ensemble movie with no names, box office poison in Hollywood's mind. This experience was my film school education -- a huge reality check."

Courshon, nevertheless, landed on his feet in this David versus Goliath matchup. Companies such as Miramax Films and Sony Pictures Classics turned down the chance to distribute "God, Sex & Apple Pie." But the film was picked up by InDemand Pay-Per-View, which aired it last fall. And, after interesting Manhattan-based Lightyear Entertainment, Courshon landed a home video deal with Warner Home Video, which has an "output" deal with Lightyear.

"Though the movie doesn't have the stars -- or the music -- it reminded me of a modestly budgeted 'Big Chill,' " said Arnie Holland, president and chief executive of Lightyear. "Though we have no lofty goals, it's a good film that deserves an audience. Jerome was very driven, determined to do the best he could for the movie. After watching it, I realized that he's not just the producer, but an actor S the one who gets the pretty girl. I guess he's entitled to it, after all that work."

The work began in 1994, when the former UC Santa Barbara acting student was tired of pounding the pavement. Taking matters into his own hands, he enrolled in a two-day production seminar and bought some books on moviemaking. His first project: a script he wrote about his "self-absorbed" generation -- one that never had to cope with a Vietnam or the civil rights struggle, he said. If "The Big Chill" dealt with selling out the ideals of the '60s, his characters tackled infidelity and insider trading.

Courshon first tried lining up name directors and stars for what he hoped would be a multimillion-dollar production. Though director Jeff Kanew ("Revenge of the Nerds"), Jon Cryer and Jennifer Tilly signed on, they dropped out after no studios expressed interest. Then, he chose the low-profile route, placing ads in trade publications and posting notices at Agape Church. In late 1997, 500 auditions later, he finally had his cast -- after considerable turmoil on the directorial end. One fellow totaled his car on the way back from a meeting and decided to back out of the deal. His successor called just before auditions to say he'd be house-hunting with his wife instead.

"I felt like Sisyphus," Courshon recalled. "That rock I was rolling up the hill kept rolling down and crushing my foot. Only then did I have a crisis of commitment. One thing I knew for sure: I knew I shouldn't direct the movie myself. One of the most common freshman mistakes is wearing too many hats."

Eventually, Courshon hired as director Paul Leaf, who'd produced the Peabody Award-winning TV docudrama "Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys." Leaf, who also co-produced the film, set the movie in Lake Tahoe, Nev., where the monthlong shoot posed challenges. Footage was shipped to Los Angeles for processing, so they couldn't see the film for days. When it arrived, images had to be viewed on a tiny moviola screen because there was no equipment to project "dailies." And every time the police drove by during shooting the filmmakers took a deep breath. Permits had gone by the wayside because of budgeting constraints.

While the $100,000 line of credit got the movie "in the can," it ran out before postproduction. One sales company put up $55,000 in exchange for some limited overseas rights. And more than 40 employees at HBO, where Courshon worked as a temp, forked out between $25 and $300 apiece for festival promotional materials. Penetrating the top three events -- Cannes, Toronto and Sundance -- was harder than he expected. "My movie is somewhat commercial," said the filmmaker, "and many of the movies programmed at that time were much less audience-friendly. Besides, they want movies with stars, people who'll fill the seats."

Entering 11 second-tier festivals in places such as Temecula Valley, Flagstaff and Atlantic City, Courshon sought positive reviews and honors with which to sell his movie. It worked. "God, Sex & Apple Pie" won three best picture awards, one best screenplay prize and was selected the "audience favorite" twice. "Totally enlightening and very satisfying," said ABC TV; "Solid performances," observed Box Office magazine, which gave it four stars. The producer received two phone calls -- from New Line and Orion -- after organizing a fall 1998 screening for the majors at Hollywood's Raleigh Studios. But without the requisite glibness and savvy, he said, he failed to parlay it into a commitment.

The only way left to generate interest, he was convinced, was to open the film theatrically, using the reviews to negotiate a box office deal. Even if a movie doesn't do well, he was told, it can become a "loss leader" for home video, cable, a host of ancillary businesses. Courshon would start in his hometown -- easier to get coverage with the local angle, he figured -- then move on to New York and Los Angeles with the $40,000 provided by private investors and a loan from two friends.

"I managed to convince the theater owner to split box office with me," the producer said. "But Chicago was a little bit of a disaster. Rather than Ebert, the movie was reviewed by a music critic, who gave it two stars out of four. Roger, when I e-mailed him, said he never heard of the film. And the poster art made the movie seem a little pornographic. Most of the audience was guys. Though we did OK, we should have done much better. Opening your own picture, as one well-known producer's representative told me, is always a big mistake."

In New York City, the film was turned down by the leading art houses before United Artists Theatres gave the thumbs-up. Booking the picture into a Union Square multiplex, they arranged for a Sept. 21 opening. And then came 9/11.

"I didn't want to open it in New York," Courshon recalled. "Bad to hawk entertainment in a time of tragedy -- wrong time, wrong place. Still, we did a respectable $5,300 for the week. Some theaters in L.A. were interested, but I didn't have the money for advertising and marketing support."

A pay-per-view deal closing in late 2002 raised his spirits considerably. But the breakthrough was an introduction to Lightyear Entertainment. Last October, the first DVDs hit the shelves. And Courshon received his first check from Warner Bros. in March.

"This was better than 'Living in Oblivion,' a movie about the trials and tribulations of making an independent film," said Courshon, whose next project, a supernatural thriller, was written by someone else. "For me, it was a long night's journey into day. I feel good about the fact that I wasn't a quitter, though we nearly crashed and burned a number of times. Still, it's nice to get back to life again. For so many years, I inhabited the film."

Having shipped 32,000 units in the first five months, "God, Sex & Apple Pie" is doing "relatively well" on home video, Holland says -- and, with a reduced price ($24.98 to $9.97) and a remarketing in June, "it's getting its second bite at the apple." Blockbuster, which turned down the movie the first go-round, recently reconsidered. Pitches are being made to cable companies and other pay-per-view operations.

"A lot of would-be filmmakers talk about making a movie for years, submitting scripts, waiting for development deals or someone to write them a check," Holland said.

"You could sit around forever becoming old and bitter. The lesson is that if you knock on enough doors, you need only one person to smile and say OK. Jerome not only got his film made but got it out there, launching his career. Next time, I hope, he'll have it a little easier."

Copyright, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission.