Who Needs Matt and Ben?; Making Theater Fly on the North Shore | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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Who Needs Matt and Ben?; Making Theater Fly on the North Shore

Project Greenlight winner Pete Jones couldn't get anyone to buy his new script, so he scrounged up the money to produce it himself. Guess what he did when he couldn't find a suitable leading man.

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Who Needs Matt and Ben?

Filmmaker and Project Greenlight documentary star Pete Jones is back, thanks to Judy Baar Topinka and the family and friends who've bankrolled his latest effort, which will premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival October 10. After winning the first Project Greenlight script competition in 2001, Jones got to make his entry, Stolen Summer, into a movie that ultimately bombed while his directorial missteps were showcased for a national television audience. Then the 34-year-old Deerfield native fell off the radar for a while. He wrote another film--a "rotten" attempt at a new Diner, he says--and wasted some time on television concepts that didn't go anywhere, but mostly he downed Frappuccinos, played Xbox, and lied to his wife about how he was spending his days. Eventually he sat down to write a commercial script about an Irish Catholic family in Chicago. No surprise there--that's the same autobiographical ground he mined in Stolen Summer--but Jones says he became fascinated with how this family would react if one of the kids turned out to be gay, and that character's "comedic but real" story took over. He shopped it around LA, where he now lives, under the title "Doubting Riley," only to find no studio would touch it. "They said they loved the writing, loved the characters, they're just not looking to go in this direction," he says. "The studios don't believe mainstream America is ready for real gay relationships."

Jones decided to make the film himself. He had a friend work up a budget: $700,000 for a 23-day shoot in digital video, which would be cheaper than 35-millimeter film, and he knew where to turn for help. With his family putting up collateral (like their houses, he says), he got a two-year, $500,000 loan from the state treasurer's "Lights, Camera, Illinois" program, while two of his brothers (traders at the Merc) produced ten investors willing to buy in at $70,000 each. The investors would kick in $35,000 up front; if the film didn't get picked up by a distributor they'd have to come up with the other half when the loan came due. But to seal the deal Jones needed a lead--preferably someone with name recognition. He went after a string of actors he could visualize in the role of his sports-loving, beer-guzzling, closeted protagonist, starting with Chris O'Donnell and Casey Affleck, but they weren't any more interested than the studios had been. "We couldn't get anyone to do it," Jones says. "Finally I went to the investors and said, the character is pretty much who I am." Although he'd never acted before--and never mind that it's a recipe for disaster--Jones added the starring role to his duties as writer, producer, and director. "It was cheaper," he says. "And when nobody else is saying yes you've got to step up."

Outing Riley (the title was changed after no one picked up on the nod to Doubting Thomas) was filmed here in August and September of last year with a cast that includes MADtv's Mike McDonald as the object of Riley's affection. Curb Your Enthusiasm's Jeff Garlin, whom Jones had met at an HBO Emmy party, made good on a casual promise to a fellow Chicago boy and did a pro bono cameo for the film. No cameras recorded the director's angst this time, but Jones kept an online production diary (at www.filmthreat.com) where he noted, "I hate my fucking self on screen....The toughest thing I have to deal with is watching dailies of the scenes that I am in." He says this movie--with "strong language, nudity, and men kissing"--is a departure from his PG-rated first film. And though he insists the movie is not a "$700,000 coming-out party for me," the married father of two shared this titillating-as-a-trailer confidence with his online audience: "I can't lie, making out with another guy is thrilling."

Jones rushed to meet last year's Sundance Film Festival October submission deadline. "I had two days in the editing room and sent them an hour-and-53 minute film," he says. After it was rejected, he cut it to an hour and 27 minutes, and in August he had a screening in LA for potential distributors. The hope was that one of them would pick it up, paying enough to settle the loan and pay back the investors. Jones says there were offers that included a 10- or 20-city release, which sounded good to him, but the up-front money--less than half the movie's cost--wasn't enough. Going directly to cable would have brought in more, but he says the investors, including family members who "were let down by the [lackluster] marketing Miramax put into Stolen Summer, are looking for someone to come in and really be behind the film." Now he's counting on a positive response at the festival to help land a deal.

"I've told the investors, be prepared to lose all your money," Jones says. "But it still keeps me up at night."

Making Theater Fly on the North Shore

The wraps weren't scheduled to come off the "North Shore Live" audience-development program until later this month, but Boeing's Jim Newcomb, a community-relations specialist who's worked on it in collaboration with member theaters for the last two years, lifted the veil last weekend when the Arts & Business Council's national arts marketing conference met in Chicago. In his presentation "What Would Make the Great Big Boeing Company Invest in Five Little Tiny Theatres?" Newcomb said the theater group, made up of Apple Tree, Next, Northlight, Piven, and Writers', came to Boeing after realizing they'd been "acting as if we're competing against each other, but really we're competing with a lot of other things," like movies and sports events. They wanted money for advertising but what they got was a strategic planning process that came up with the notion of a new theater district. None of the five is more than 12 miles apart--in suburban terms, not too much of a stretch to think of as a unit--and it can't hurt that their territory is a big chunk of affluent real estate. According to Newcomb the challenge is to convince suburbanites that these are professional theaters in the community, not community theaters ("not that there's anything wrong with that"), and to "get in their heads" so as to come to mind when people think of going out. A Web site, Metra posters, and radio advertising on WXRT are set to launch October 18 for the North Shore Live "theatrical multiplex," offering "five real theaters, real close."

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