There are 15 or so people already in the cobalt water at Ho`okipa Beach when the pretty blonde parks her beater truck on the lookout. Wearing shorts and a bikini top, she walks over to the green railing and watches the action, such as it is. There’s a light wind, but the wave sets are small. The blonde stands there a few minutes, watching as three guys try to ride the same wave—nearly crashing into a woman paddling out with a baby perched on the nose of her board—then returns to her truck and heads back down Hana Highway toward Paia.Ho`okipa is one of Maui’s most famous beaches, and it plays a central role in the new movie Keys to the Kingdom. An intense drama on the life of a troubled pro-surfer that’s based on the lives of several local pro surfers, Keys is the creation of Haiku-based Cutback Productions, Inc., run by Paige Deponte and Rich Foster. Finally coming out of “Development Hell,” as movie industry people call the years of scrambling for money and talent that might eventually give way to actual shooting, Keys to the Kingdom would be the first big theatrical release ever made on Maui. “We love living in Maui,” the filmmakers say in a release sent out to potential investors. “[O]ur families are here, and everyone loves the concept of filming here. What better promotional tool could the island get than a feature film with a worldwide audience?”“It’s not another hokie Hawai`i surf film,” Deponte told me recently. “It’s an intense dramatic action film. It’s an independent feature film with commercial value.”Deponte and Foster call Keys “an epic edgy raw action drama” that deals with substance abuse and the “disintegration of the family unit.” Two years into the project, Deponte and Foster have spent a lot more time scrounging for financing than actually working on the movie itself—to say nothing of actually surfing.Stuff like filling out tons of paperwork so their local investors qualify for the State of Hawai`i’s tax credits for film production. Or having to hire one of the best Oahu tax attorneys, just to keep it all straight.“That’s why they call it ‘show business,’” Maui Film Festival founder and organizer Barry Rivers said. “A little bit of show, a lot of business. It’s very challenging to do business from here, though it’s gotten easier than it used to be. It’s never an easy thing—certainly not when you’re 3,000 miles from the heart of the monster.”Heart of the monster. More so than any other industry in the world—except for perhaps music—Hollywood’s movie factories consume hopes and dreams by the planeload, then chop, mince, dice and slice them up until they’re transformed into an unrecognizable goo that’s then sold back to the theater-going public at 10 bucks a pop.Sure, Hollywood has released wonderful independent films like Sideways, Syriana and even Borat. But they’ve also churned out three Rush Hours, 10 Friday the 13ths and 21 James Bond pictures (though I must say, Casino Royale kicked ass).“The entertainment industry does not require anything of its inside people other than an ability to produce hit movies,” Charles Fleming wrote in High Concept, his 1999 biography of Don Simpson, who until his drug overdose death that year produced the blockbusters Top Gun, Bad Boys and Days of Thunder. “It doesn’t ask its employees to be intelligent, educated, decent, honorable, fair, good-looking or ethical or ethnical: It only asks that they produce income-generating product.”Hollywood is where, Fleming wrote most famously, that a person could walk though a place like the Four Seasons and hear the following exchange:“Man #1: ‘You’re lying! You’re lying to me!’“Man#2: ‘Yes, I know. But hear me out.’”This is where Deponte and Foster want to go. They’ve already spent two years of their lives trying to get there. And now they’re on the cusp of getting in. “Minimally, if you’re not prepared to make a five-year commitment from the time you get the idea, don’t bother starting the race,” Rivers said. “Richard Attenborough took 20 years to make Gandhi. It’s a super labor-intensive, passion-driven business endeavor.”
On Mar. 1 of this year, I met Deponte and Foster at Moana Cafe in Paia. Foster did marketing for the Professional Windsurfing Association, but he lacks experience with movies. Deponte, who sits on the board of directors of FM World Charities, is different. In fact, she meets Hollywood’s paradoxical top criteria for getting a movie made: already have a movie made.In her case, it’s Xai Xai, Voice of Our Ancestors, a 2004 short documentary on the San Bushmen of Botswana. Deponte directed and produced it, and it screened that year at the Maui Film Festival. It also won an Action/Cut Filmmaking Short Film Award for it.“I’ve talked to Paige for years about her project,” Maui Film Festival’s Rivers–himself a former producer–said. “She’s a character, and she’s got a great eye.”Wearing a well-worn bush hat and a lot of colorful jewelry, Deponte was scheduled to fly to New York the next day for more investor meetings. Foster arrived a few minutes later.“Hollywood doesn’t really know surfing is mainstream,” Foster said. “Paige has grown up here, lived on the North Shore.”Deponte and Foster have already hooked up with some intriguing names in the business—most notably, producer Gill Holland and writer/director Tim Kirkman. In 2005, Holland and Kirkman released Loggerheads, a thoughtful, critically acclaimed drama about a troubled young man in North Carolina, told from three different perspectives in three separate time frames. Loggerheads won the Audience Choice Award at the Nashville Film Festival and the Grand Jury Award at LA Outfest. At the time of our meeting, Deponte and Foster said they were “polishing” their script with the help of Kirkman.“I watched Loggerheads and then I read [our] script,” Foster told me. “Gosh, it doesn’t sound so great anymore. It reads good, but that doesn’t necessarily make for a good script.”At one point, I told Deponte and Foster a story about a reporter I knew who had tried to get a movie made. He had taken meetings with studio execs and went through innumerable script revisions until the whole project collapsed. “It’s all bullshit, except the money,” he had told me, and I repeated the quote to Deponte and Foster. They both smiled.“In this business, you really have to filter out what is real from what is not,” Foster said. Deponte nodded.“We’ve learned some hard Hollywood lessons,” she said. “We’ve worked with studio producers, day in and day out, and they’re not what we want.”Considering what Deponte and Foster want to do–an intelligent, character-driven drama about a troubled pro-surfer–this isn’t surprising. Studios want simplistic PG-13 movies—“under-25 males” is Hollywood’s drool-over demographic—but the current script for Keys is potentially R-rated. Of course, their script also looks like it’ll clock in at a little over 100 minutes, and that’s just fine by theater owners. See, theaters make a lot of money showing movies, but they make even more selling popcorn and soda (According to Hollywood chronicler Edward Jay Epstein, an astounding 90 cents from every dollar’s worth of popcorn sold goes into the theater owner’s pocket). To maximize concession stand trips, the theaters want films that don’t keep moviegoers on the edge of their seat, but get people out of their seats from time to time.
In 2005, Deponte and Foster put together a “reel”—a trailer-like short version of Keys to the Kingdom to show to potential Hawai`i investors. It was cast with unknowns, with one exception—Tahitian pro-surfer Malik Joyeux. Things were looking great. Deponte and Foster were happy with their script and meeting with potential financiers and distributors. Then on Dec. 2, 2005, 25-year-old Joyeux died preparing for the Pipe Masters on the North Shore of Oahu. It was a tragedy that shocked the pro-surfing world—Joyeux was a well-known, experienced big-wave rider—and it nearly derailed Keys. As it happened, Deponte and Foster were in the middle of negotiations for a possible distribution deal at the time.“Two weeks [after Joyeux’ death] the deal went to another project, because they felt we were no long ready,” Deponte said. “It was just one of those things. We were all devastated by Malik’s death as he was an inspiration to the story and like family. The blow of losing the financing opportunity was a big hurdle to leap.”But they went back to work, navigating that Byzantine labyrinth of publicity campaigns, residual payouts, “back end” licensing, overseas distribution rights, completion bonds, film festivals and financiers to get their film from script to theater.Amazingly enough, there are a few advantages to doing an indie film. For instance, it’s likely Deponte and Foster will secure some big name actors for their film at “scale” pay rates, which are around $788 a day. Reasons for this vary from actors falling in love with the characters, which tend to be meatier and more intelligent than your typical big-budget studio flick to stars just needing the work.This is good because it helps offset the biggest disadvantage facing indie-filmmakers like Deponte and Foster: the need to finish their movie before securing distribution. That means they need big name talent to help sell the picture to potential distributors. Once that happens and they actually achieve the miracle of making their movie, they’ll have to shop it around themselves to film festivals in hopes of winning awards that generate buzz which will, ultimately, get their movie into theaters. How many theaters—Spider-Man 3 opened on thousands, Sideways opened on 30—has yet to be seen.“Maui Film Festival has looked at 1,250 submissions this year,” Barry Rivers told me, “and there’s an inordinate amount of work being submitted that is astonishingly bad.”But even an indie pushed by big names through the film festival circuit may have trouble. Two years ago I saw The Wendell Baker Story—which starred Luke and Owen Wilson, who also wrote, directed and produced it—at the Maui Film Festival. It’s finally appearing in theaters this week. But now Deponte and Foster say they’re seeing the end of development. They say their script has been polished to the point that the dialogue just crackles off the page. They’re getting close to making casting decisions, then actual filming decisions. Of course, even if everything goes smoothly from here out, they still may not make any money.To find out how movies make money, you first have to ignore the one number the media throws at you every weekend—the box office gross. All that tells you is how much the movie theaters themselves took in. Half the box office take goes right back to theater owners—the rest goes to pay a movie’s marketing costs ($36 million on average for a big picture), star salaries, assorted guild fees and distribution. Often the money runs out long before it comes time to pay the studio that made the movie in the first place. A film like Gone in 60 Seconds or King Kong can make hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office and cost their parent studios money. Others like Sideways can bring in just a few paltry millions and generate substantial profit because of their low upfront marketing and distribution costs.In any case, studios make most of their money these days off the “back end”—DVD sales and rentals, pay TV, network broadcasts and video game tie-ins. In fact, Edward Jay Epstein has written that television licensing alone is Hollywood’s “biggest profit center.”
But we’re a long way off from that. Deponte and Foster want to start filming Keys to the Kingdom at the end of the year, to take advantage of optimal surfing conditions. Their film has a script—the latest draft is dated May 7, 2007—and financing is just about complete. According to Deponte, producer Gill Holland is preparing to start sending the script out to actors. In the mean time, Deponte continues to fly to New York, where she tries to meets with potential investors.Some of the meetings go smoothly—Deponte described one to me in which an investor said that since his attorney’s fees would be the same for a small investment as well as a significant one, that he might as make a significant investment. Other meetings have resulted in what Deponte calls “Nazi inquisitions” that led to no money changing hands.“As long as I am creating, I am happy, even if it means creating a proposal,” Deponte told me. “However, the business side is the most difficult area. It’s like when we go into a meeting with potential investors—let’s say, for instance, venture capital types. I often feel like an alien sitting at the table waving my arms about while talking about how I see the film on the screen—how I’ll shoot it, how great it’s going to be, etc. I’m lost in my vision and then I’ll look over at them and realize that they are totally amazed by my intense passion but what they really want to know is how much money they’re going to make and when will they get it. It’s funny sometimes.”
For more information on Keys to the Kingdom or Cutback Productions, email Paige Deponte at email@example.com or visit www.cutbackthemovie.com MTW