Friday, May 24, 2013

The Cameo's Story: In Three Acts

Visual Journalism Interviews

The Fayetteville Observer
Published: 09:01 PM, Fri May 24, 2013

The Cameo's story, in three acts

The credits for "In the Company of Men" were scrolling past the unit publicist and best boy. A couple sitting up front and I, leaning against the wall with a drained glass of Merlot in hand, were the only ones left in the loge.

Like everyone who has ever worked on a film, I watch credits to the end out of respect for the collaborative role that even the lowest-paid production assistant contributes.

This made me privy to something I had never seen in all of my previous movie-going experiences. The owners came out and started cleaning the aisles themselves. For them, it was just another day: picking up popcorn, forgotten napkins on the floors, soda containers and wine bottles. For them, standard operating procedure.

But, it wasn't so standard.

Because if it were not for Chris Kuenzel; his wife, Nasim, and the Fayetteville community, the Cameo Art House Theatre would have joined the tragic fate of thousands of other community theaters nationwide that weren't able to go digital instead of going dark.

If the story of the Cameo were a feature film, its arc would go like this:

Act 1
Chris and Nasim move to Fayetteville in the late '90s to start an architectural firm. Longtime film lovers, they quickly realize how much they miss independent films.

But film distributors make money from filled seats. The more seats, the more revenue. Independent films, despite their high quality, barely make back the costs of production. Without much marketing and publicity, chances of bringing in mass audiences that eat large amounts of popcorn and snacks (where the real money is) are small. So distributors generally don't take chances on small films and small theaters like the Cameo.

That doesn't mean audiences don't want the films or won't pay to see them. I first saw the American premiere of the amazing "Once Were Warriors" in a Utah gymnasium.

So, Chris and Nasim buy what was once the Dixie Theater building on Hay Street. They squish design and construction costs by using their own architectural knowledge and hands. They buy a 1950s film reel Simplex projector, which still runs smoother and faster than most people I know born in the '50s.

Their first film? "Cinema Paradiso," a film about a boy so passionate about films and a small-town theater that they determine the course of his life, his loves and his near destruction.

Act 2
Though it's never easy running their own firm and operating the Cameo, the Kuenzels make it work. Along the way, they become valued members of the community. Still, as is the case in most second acts, problems arise. Ever-increasing and ever-insurmountable challenges confront the Kuenzels.

Most recently, that challenge presented itself in the conversion from film to digital projectors. The Simplex, like the projectors you see in "Cinema Paradiso" and "Sunset Boulevard," or even those caressed so lovingly by the film lover Tony DiNozzo on "N.C.I.S." are flickering klieg lights.

The switch to digital should have hit five years ago. But both multiplexes and indie theaters got a reprieve while major theater owners and the studios, neither of whom fell in the slumdog millionaire category, bickered over who was going to cover the costs.

The savings were tremendous to producers. With digital equipment, one can simply stream or email a digital file to the theater.

Don't get me wrong. I love the big-budget blockbusters just as much as I love indies. I ferociously await "Fast and Furious 6." I saw "Star Trek Into Darkness" on opening day. Digital makes many things possible for the common man.

In fact, the use of digital technology was the key reason director J.J. Abrams allowed me to hold a free premiere of "Morning Glory" for 200 students two years ago. Without digital technology, such an event would have involved a negative pickup (actually picking up the film reels and bringing them to Fayetteville). Never would have happened.

The cost to convert can be $70,000 to $100,000 per screen. The Cameo needs about $200,000 because it has two theaters, the 40-seat loge and the 124-seat theater downstairs.

Act 3
The Fayetteville community is not about to let the Cameo die for lack of digital projectors. Residents form the Save the Cameo Committee in October and, with the help of the Internet, start raising the cash.
They garner media support. They plaster the city with fliers soliciting donations. They sell unknown quantities of "Go Digital or Go Dark" T-shirts.

When asked, all say that the films the Kuenzels have brought to the Cameo have been films they couldn't see anywhere else. Terrific stories that brought worlds to their eyes that they would never see at a multiplex.

But don't take my word for it. Go to this website - - and listen to some of these residents yourself. Tom Thompson. Edwin Hopkins. Angus Bowers. Lynn Legatski. You and people like them have done all the heavy lifting.

They celebrate with a May 5 screening, free for all donors, of - what else? "Cinema Paradiso" in an extended-film version.

The importance of this achievement is noted by the fact that the news makes it all the way to Emerging Pictures producer Ira Deutchman, a longtime major name in the world of indies whose films regularly garner Sundance Film Festival awards.

"It's wonderful that places like the Cameo exist, and it's wonderful that the community rose up to protect it from technology obsolescence," Deutchman says. "It's so important that these venues survive and thrive all over the country."

Most third acts are quick and dirty. The credits roll less than 10 minutes after the gal is got, the race is run, the war is won.

After the celebration, the owners haul out the old film equipment and instal the new digital equipment in time for the next day's movies.

The Simplex from the 1950s now sits in the lobby. Chris will show you how it worked.

"As a film lover, you love the fact that you've been working with the same technology and format that you started with," Nasim Kuenzel says. "But we've got to change with the times, and fortunately we're one of the few lucky ones."

The lucky ones? We residents of Fayetteville.

Skye Dent is a film and TV writer who lives in Fayetteville. She is a former member of the Observer's Community Advisory Board.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why I Don't Write Film/TV Critiques or Reviews

So why don’t you write film and TV critiques, Skye?  You’ve sold screenplays. You’ve sold TV scripts.  You’ve written documentaries and even a safe sex video game.

You teach writing for narrative film and TV series. You used to be a full time journalist and still write opinion pieces for various newspapers.   

You clearly have a journalistic voice, an audience, and newspaper friends in high and low places.

How can you stay silent on films such as Skyfall when the world is talking about the effects of media violence on viewers?  Why won’t you speak up on the subject of Django Unchained and the status of African Americans in this country?

And when it comes to the military, one would think you’d have reasoned opinions.  You lived in a military city for several years.  You learned how to parachute from retired Vietnam Vets .  And you know what it takes to produce a series like Homeland or a film like Zero Dark Thirty.

Does your tongue need to be unchained?

For me, the reason is simple.  It may not fit in with our new world view in which everyone feels free to be a pundit on every subject under the sun and some not.

But, for me, there are ethical lines that I do not cross.

Years ago, I interviewed Ben Affleck for a Boston Globe feature article I wrote on Greenlight.  Now, I was pitching and writing scripts at the time.  But, interviewing Ben as a journalist meant that I could not approach him as a screenwriter.

What if I had and he had purchased a script of mine?  A Boston Globe reader might complain that I only wrote the article to get in good with him and his partner. 

I honestly think Promised Land is the most overlooked film when it comes to the Oscars, Golden Globes, SAG awards.  But, if I wrote the whys and wherefores in a column, the administrators of those guilds or the producers of winning films might claim that I was biased.   

Not only had I interviewed Ben.  I once had a friendly exchange with Matt about Good Will Hunting on a balcony of a Hollywood hotel.  I grew up in Boston. And OMG, I once had a lengthy exchange about novel writing with Dennis Lehane and am part of the search for his lost dog Tessa.

There are all sorts of biases one can throw against me.

Just last week, I attended a conference on media images. Several people  immediately asked if I was writing an article on what the speakers said about particular films and their negative images.

No, No, and No. 

I’m a producer-writer-professor.   So, I teach and practice what I preach.

Yes, I believe that I can be objective if I were to write film critiques.  And if I did that for a living, I would take the proper safeguards to protect the media I wrote for from ever being accused of biases.

But, for now, I don’t cross the lines.  Producers and companies that I’m pitching my pilots and screenplays to should not have to worry that if they reject me, that I’m going to write a blistering article about their next production. 

I should not have to wonder whether a producer is meeting me because he or she truly liked my work or liked what I said about theirs.

There was a published article by me about the film The Help.  But, it was not a critique.  It was simply an opinion piece about the pride I felt in seeing a film about a person who reflected my mom, my aunts, and a generation of women who raised me.

Sometimes it does seem as if this is a user and abuser world.  “Friends” Facebook you to get to other Facebook friends that they really want to contact.

I’ve even been interviewed for jobs because one of my references is the famed filmmaker Charles Burnett and the potential employers really wanted an excuse to talk to Charles one-on-one.

But, I don’t have to buy into it.  And I’m not unique in that aspect. 

Hollywood has its problems.  Entertainment has its pitfalls.  But, there are some really great humanistic people in the world of entertainment.  I would not have achieved all that I had without them.

After I became a member of the WGA, I met Helen and Al Levitt.  They were in their elder years, but still on their feet and still fighting for the rights of writers.  In case their names don't ring a bell, they were two of many who stood up against McCarthyism...had to write under fake names to survive, and lost out on many rewards they deserved careers in the bloodbath.  

Helen ran a free writers workshop out of her home for minorities.  I, the late Daryl Nickens and Moesha creators Sara Finney and Vida Spears came out of that workshop.

There are so many other writers with hearts that cannot be dampened.  Craig Wright. Charles Burnett.  Kevin Droney.  Robert Townsend.  Bob Eisele.  Dennis Leoni. Neema Barnett. Coleman Luck. Carleton Eastlake.  The late T.S. Cook, whose film The China Syndrome deserves a second look in light of the fracking controversy.  People who I don't have time to name, people who stay true to similar beliefs and passed them onto me through mentorship, friendships and casual conversation.

Their characters count.  At least it did for me.

So, I choose to follow in their footsteps and maintain my humanistic and professional values, knowing that what I do choose to present of myself in the worlds of journalism and entertainment is more than enough.