A few years back, blockbuster titans George Lucas and Steven Spielberg predicted massive changes in the film industry. Big-budget, overblown studio pics will come crashing to the ground, theater ticket prices will surge, and distribution models will change. That last prediction is hard to deny these days, with online platforms like Netflix getting into feature distribution and indie filmmakers putting their work out on their own. The stigma of not securing a studio release is long gone. “Now you can do it much less expensively, which means it’s going to be a more democratic process, and I think that’s good,” Lucas said. Gren Wells, the writer/director of the new feature The Road Within, is living proof of that statement.
“We can’t compete in terms of marketing with the Fast and Furious movies of the world,” Wells recently says of her film, which she co-produced with her husband and partner at Coup d’Etat Films, Brent Emery. “I think our entire budget was probably less than their catering budget.” The Road Within was a passion project for Wells and her team. It’s based on the 2011 German film Vincent Wants to Sea, and it’s a coming-of-age story about a young man with Tourette’s Syndrome who sets off on a road trip with his recently deceased mother’s ashes, along with a woman suffering from anorexia and a man with OCD. Wells’ script attracted Dev Patel, Zoe Kravitz, Robert Sheehan, and Kyra Sedgwick, and Wells says she knew she wanted to tell the story the minute she watched the three-minute trailer for the German version of the film.
“I just thought that if they could pack that much heart and humor into three minutes, I knew I knew how to make that movie,” she says. “I related to those characters. I was anorexic and bulimic from fifteen to twenty-one, so that aspect I completely understood. You don’t have to have anorexia or Tourettes to understand this movie. It’s like Breakfast Club; everyone feels like an outsider.”
Most independent filmmakers know that their small-budget project will be a labor of love, and that distribution won’t come easy – unless they premiere at Sundance or Toronto to glowing reviews and land a deal on the spot. The chances of that happening are slim, and so most producers and directors find themselves seeking alternative distribution channels, online, via VOD, or DIY theater bookings.
Wells says she knew she’d be facing an uphill battle with this film because of the language in the film. The main character has a form of Tourette’s that causes him to yell out curse words, and Wells refused to water down the language in order to please execs and secure distribution, even though that may have made the road to distribution a little easier.
“We knew it was going to be rated R, and that was going to be a stumbling block,” she admits. “We had a lot of interest from the mini majors, but they all said pretty much the same thing: ‘We’d love this if it was PG-13.’ But I didn’t want to make that version of the movie. It wasn’t as interesting to me and I wanted it to be authentic.”
“I stayed true to my heart and made the movie I wanted to make.” -Director Gren Wells
Wells wrote the script on spec in 2012, and they had a financier in place before pre-production began. “That’s how we chose how to do it because I wanted to make sure I controlled it,” she says. They shot the film in the summer of 2013, and in December 2013 Variety named Wells in their yearly “10 Directors to Watch” series. The film premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in the summer of 2014, and Wells said the audience reaction was encouraging – people would come up and hug her after the film. Well Go USA quickly secured distribution rights, and the film hit theaters in New York and Los Angeles in mid April.
Even though The Road Within did secure distribution, it wasn’t an easy process. Wells says taking risks and sticking to her guns was worth it in the end, though. “I stayed true to my heart and made the movie I wanted to make. Obviously you always hope for distribution just so more people can see it, but I think there are also so many avenues now. I’ve met so many filmmakers along the way at festivals who don’t have distribution and who are doing it themselves, and they’re having a tremendous amount of success. Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
Indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg (Hannah takes the Stairs, Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas) has been experimenting with alternative distribution models for years, and producer Ted Hope, who has made indie classics like In the Bedroom, American Splendor, and 21 Grams, has an entire blog devoted to indie filmmaking and alternative distribution routes. The “democratic process” that George Lucas is in full swing, and the festival circuit is and always has been a huge part of that.
Wells and her producers have taken their film to festivals from Rome to Nashville to Napa to Sarasota. The work never ends, and the week of release she’s still trying to spread the word about the film, and she recently sold a pilot to Vuguru and signed on to her next feature, which is a “beautiful script” about a female Marine. Traveling to festivals and promoting the film prior to release is a full-time job, but the end results are well worth it. “That’s what we all want with our art,” Wells says. “To move people.”
The Road Within, produced by Coup d’Etat Films, Troika Pictures, Roberi Media, and Amasia Entertainment opened in New York and Los Angeles on April 17th.
In addition to SSN Insider, Dina Gachman's writing has appeared in Forbes, Bustle, The Hairpin, Salon, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her first book, BROKENOMICS, will be published by Seal Press this April. You can find her on Twitter here.
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