Many of the films out on the festival circuit are niche films, films that maybe don’t have the massive appeal of shape-morphing robots destroying large parts of Chicago, films that come from very singular and independent voices. Sometimes these so-called niche films discover that actually, the more particular the story, the more universally loved it ends up being. Such is the case of PUTZEL, the little romantic comedy about a smoked fish emporium heir on Manhattan’s upper west side, waiting for his uncle to retire and petrified to leave the 40 block radius of his neighborhood. The film, a collaboration between director Jason Chaet and writer Rick Moore, world premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival in 2012. As I spoke with Moore last month, it had clocked in 50 festival selections, in addition to getting distribution through FilmBuff and being available on iTunes and VOD, as well as Hulu and Amazon. Just how does a little indie comedy reach such a wide audience?
“From a marketability standpoint, we knew it wasn’t a studio film,” writer Rick Moore tells me. The project came out of the frustrations of he and director Jason Chaet. Chaet had made a few shorts, and Moore had optioned a few scripts that never got made and the two decided to work on some ideas together. In a conversation, Chaet mentioned to Moore that he couldn’t remember the last time he left the upper west side, and Moore said: “okay, I think I can weave something out of that and basically I took that idea and he went away and I came up with the story and we met 6 weeks later and polished it together.”
At this point, despite the subject matter, and a majority of the characters being Jewish, the team didn’t really think they were about to make a niche film. “I was writing about the people who live next door to me and that I’m friends with,” says Moore, and the bagel and lox shop, “that’s what the upper west side used to be – Jewish businesses.” It was during the development process, when they organized several reading for agents and other such people that for “the first time we had people come up to us and say ‘oh this thing is going to be really big with Jewish crowds’ [and], as the writer, how naïve am I? That never occurred to me.”
But fate, of course, had different plans for PUTZEL. Yes, it made its debut at a great film festival, Woodstock, and went on to play several of what Moore calls ‘secular festivals,’ – Cleveland, Phoenix, Seattle, Rhode Island, Napa. However, the other place Chaet and Moore’s film has really made an impact is on the Jewish Film Festival circuit, playing a grocery list of high profile festivals and Jewish Community Centers across the country and even in places as far reaching as Hong Kong and Australia. “We didn’t sit down and think: this is a niche film,” says Moore, but “even if you took away the Jewish part of it, it’s still a niche film because of the scope of it.” If anything, it’s a very particular film, about very particular people who inhabit the upper west side, and in the case of the main character, Walter Himmelstein, doesn’t ever leave. Walter (Jack Carpenter) wants nothing more than to inherit his uncle’s smoke-fish shop, but his aspirations are thwarted when his Uncle (John Pankow) falls for a much, much younger Sally (Melanie Lynskey) and is reenergized in his business. Originally stalking her to break them up, Walter himself becomes taken with Sally and finally begins to face his own inertia. “We were focused on the story we wanted to tell, the sort of modern fable,” explains Moore, who is not Jewish. “That was very commonly one of the first questions at a Jewish film festival that I would field, even if Jason was there, ‘are you Jewish?’ or more often it was put ‘you’re not Jewish…’ but I never perceived that anyone in the audience was disappointed that I wasn’t. I think the film sort of stood on its own.”
What Moore and Chaet had stumbled upon, is a rare festival circuit one-two punch, a film that could play a number of mainstream festivals, and then make the round again (often in the same town) on the Jewish film festival circuit. “When that became such a big part of our audience,” says Moore, “it was a happy discovery.” Like many filmmakers, “we tried to loosely plan out what our festival year would be like” but when the team received an enthusiastic offer to premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival, they decided to just start their journey then. “We played well in Woodstock and word of mouth spread there and that probably is what led to screening at Palm Springs,” relates Moore, who admits “it was a very small number [of festivals]that we just cold submitted to.” With high profile festivals like Woodstock and Palm Springs in their screening history, “we then definitely looked at lists of film festivals and went to a handful of them and said hey guys…” and let them know where PUTZEL had played, how the audiences had responded and “we’d love to play your festival.” They went directly to the programmers, or the executive directors if they could find an email address. “I guess it was enough cache to have someone flag it and to have someone take a look at it,” says Moore, “and we had a high degree of success.” Of course, “we did submit the film cold to some festivals that turned us down,” the writer says, but he emphasized how important he felt it was to get the film in the hands of the people past the first screeners, and that he always respected their judgment: “the decisions by programmers are by and large from what I can tell, heartfelt, individual responses to films.”
Of course, the deck was always stacked in PUTZEL’s favor, being a comedy with a built in audience (maybe a new audience for a mainstream festival), as well as being able to draw on the ex-New York diaspora. “New Yorkers are everywhere,” says Moore, and they love watching films about themselves, “they’re absolutely self-absorbed.” In fact, PUTZEL has been so successful at booking festival screenings, that it is still playing them, despite being available on VOD (and iTunes, Amazon etc.). “Our release was back in April, and we were still getting calls,” admits Moore, “and we would say that it had been released to give them an ‘out,’ because we thought that was going to be an issue, and surprisingly we’ve not had a single festival turn us down for that reason.” At one point in time, Moore and Chaet were counting the number of people who had seen the film at screenings, and came to 27,000 – the actual number is higher but ‘ life got in the way’ and they ‘lost track of the numbers.’ In September, PUTZEL will play the Port Townsend Film Festival in Washington State, it’s 50th film festival. Says Moore: “we never got a theatrical release and when we set out years ago that was what we thought we wanted, and we are far less disappointed by that now. When you play that many film festivals, the film is playing in some very nice theatres and it’s had a run, you could almost say that’s its theatrical release – for us it was.” Additionally, playing in that many festivals has helped the VOD release. “If you’re still plugged in to the social media for those festivals,” Moore recommends, “you can circle back and let those communities know that your film is out there on iTunes and we’re tracking who these people are who are watching” and often they are coming from these cities.
Making your way around the Jewish Film Festival Circuit ends up being very similar to the mainstream circuit. “There is word of mouth among the secular festivals, but word of mouth is even stronger in the Jewish festivals and that’s very, very nice,” says Moore. PUTZEL got the ultimate push when they received the call from the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. Moore explains: “The JCC here in Manhattan is kind of like the keystone JCC for all the JCCs in the country, which are big patrons of the arts and they have to fill lots of arts programming – and again, this was all an education to me – and they wanted to take a look at the film. They liked it very much and wanted to screen it there, and wound up screening it three or four times, and just from that, the word spread to other JCCs all across the world. They all heard about it from this screening that happened at the JCC in Manhattan.” The Cherry Hill Volvo Jewish Film Festival, Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, Miami Jewish Film Festival, Savannah Jewish Film Festival, New Jersey Jewish Film Festival, Farthest North Jewish Film Festival (in Fairbanks, Alaska), Jewish International Film Festival (Australia), Denver Jewish Film Festival, Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, Long Beach Jewish Film Festival, Nashville Jewish Film Festival, and the Austin Jewish Film Festival (along with several others) all sought out the film. “They’re wonderful, wonderful audiences and very often they pay screening fees,” says Moore. And just like on the ‘secular circuit,’ where you make your festival premiere, you can make your ‘Jewish festival premiere.’ Also the larger and earlier Jewish festivals will make a big deal out of newer films. Moore remembers fondly the Cherry Hill Jewish Film Festival in the Philadelphia suburbs sponsored by Volvo and Volvo sent a Volvo SUV to Manhattan to pick up the team. “We got a call from the Farthest North Jewish Festival in Fairbanks Alaska and they offered to fly me up, put me in a hotel,” relates Moore, who due to scheduling could not attend, “it was thirty four below at the time and I was going to be landing at 2:30 in morning.”
Just as a lack of great comedy helped PUTZEL in mainstream festivals, it probably helped even more here. “There’s a lot of heavy stuff out there because it’s the history, and that stuff is definitely a part of a Jewish film festival,” says Moore, “but we got told time and time again that programmers and audiences were keen to have some lighter fare to balance.” In offering advice to filmmakers hopeful to play the Jewish Film Festival Circuit, he says: “It obviously has to be a Jewish themed film, but Comedy, Science Fiction,” these programmers are always looking for counter-programming. I asked him if any of the Jewish Festival programmers thought his film was ‘too mainstream,’ but it turns out the most common issues were with how coarse it is at times, like most modern comedies. “There were certainly more conservative Jewish venues who found some parts of the film not right for their congregation,” says Moore, “and that was the right move for that festival.” Sometimes, these are small groups of people we are talking about, “the programmers know their audience very well.” Of course, PUTZEL is hardly crass in comparison to most of what’s out there, and, according to Moore, “there are certainly many R-Rated films in Jewish film festivals, but I wouldn’t go too far.” However, he shares his family’s shock, (according to Rick, he grew up “in a Methodist, southern Baptist background”), that a religious organization would show his film at all.
Now that PUTZEL is (possibly) rounding up its festival run and is happily available on a number of streaming and download options, Moore is on to his next projects, a couple of features and short film that he will direct himself. I asked him if he was finding a way to set it in a synagogue. “Everything I do from this point on is not always going to have a Jewish character dealing with some part of Jewish life or culture,” he says, “but I will not shy away from it, I enjoyed playing those festivals very much.” He gives a special shout out to David Goldblatt of the Austin Jewish Film Festival: “I’ve got to make another film that has some Jewish content so it plays at his festival and I can hear that guy laugh. I thought David was going to have a heart attack, and he had already seen the film.” So what about this short? Moore’s answer didn’t surprise me: “I did make one of the characters Jewish and it comes up just enough, so the short answer is yes.”
PUTZEL continues its festival run through the summer and fall and is available on VOD, iTunes, Amazon, and Hulu.