Gab Cody and Sam Turich say it took a Lawrencevillage to make their debut feature film, Progression. Now, they plan to distribute the film using a novel, hands-on model as well.
"The do-it-yourself nature of the film goes from beginning to end," says Cody. As traditional indie distribution models break down, she says, the big question is whether there's "space for films that have independent voices rather than [being] driven solely by commercial interests."
The local theater veterans, among other on- and off-stage credits, were both on the creative team for Bricolage Productions' immersive hit STRATA. They shot Progression mostly in August 2012. The microbudget ensemble comedy is the Lawrenceville residents' screwball, slightly bawdy take on their neighborhood's progressive dinner, which since 1984 has sent neighbors on a four-course trek to different houses, where they dine with new partners in each spot. The film's plot includes infidelity, breakups, attempts at pregnant sex and awkward encounters between new and old Lawrencevillians.
The husband-and-wife writing-and-directing team honored their artistic vision — even if that meant orchestrating a first feature with 43 actors and more than a dozen shooting locations. And while most indie films — with marketing in mind — pursue name actors, Progression was "cast almost entirely from our group of friends who we really love in the Pittsburgh theater scene," Cody says.
Progression is a local-stage who's-who, from Cody and Turich themselves to James FitzGerald, Gregory Lehane, Jason McCune, Theo Allyn and Mary Rawson, with relative newcomers Alex Falberg and Hayley Nielsen as the film's cute, young would-be couple. Tony Bingham, Jeffrey Carpenter and Patrick Jordan play a raucous trio of rowhouse uncles, and local country singer Molly Alphabet recurs as a street performer whose tunes — mostly Chet Vincent's "Let's Make Love With the Lights On" — wryly punctuate the action.
Progression looks great, too. The crew, including director of photography Mark Knobil, drew on the team from Cody and Turich's 2009 zombie spoof "Mombies," a short that screened at festivals nationally and overseas.
Progression's shoestring budget — Cody and Turich decline to name a figure — was assembled from grants (from the Heinz Endowments Small Arts Initiative, among others), Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns and, aptly, a progressive-dinner fundraiser. But Cody and Turich say they also received loads of neighborly in-kind support, including food from restaurants and donated shooting locations in people's homes. On one outdoor shoot, a stranger even let them run an extension cord to his outlet.
"It was a community enterprise," says Cody. "We absolutely could not have done it without everybody in the neighborhood pulling together."
After months of post-production, the film gets its Pittsburgh premiere July 10, at the Regent Square Theater. The night before that, it'll screen at New York City's legendary Anthology Film Archives as part of the NewFilmmakers Series — a status that series producer Barney Oldfield says is granted to only about 30 percent of its hundreds of applicants.
The next challenge is attracting a wider audience for Progression's brand of sophisticated screwball, set in a quirky world foreign to the Ikea sensibilities of mainstream storytelling. For decades, small-budget indie films found audiences at festivals and — via distribution companies — homes at arthouses. But as the ranks of arthouses have shrunk, most of today's festivals are more marketplaces than showcases, and even DVD sales are tanking.
Anyone can stream online, of course. But how to stand out amidst thousands of films?
"We're going to have to go out and cultivate our audience," says Cody.
"People are hungry for an experience that is more personalized," says Turich. "We're interested in trying to involve the audience as participants in the event."
For now, that means not theatrical bookings, or even exclusively festival submissions. Instead, they're seeking partners in other towns for intimate screenings — perhaps "dinner and a movie" nights tied to other progressive dinners. The idea is to build word-of-mouth to drive online viewing.
Turich and Cody spoke to CP by phone from San Francisco in late June. While they'd headed west partly to scout possible DIY screenings, Cody says they're also "very interested in partnering with like-minded distributors. That means distributors who believe in serving up hand-crafted fare that caters to an adventurous audience." An audience, perhaps, not unlike one that would crave a progressive dinner.