Thursday, January 08, 2009

So Maybe I'm Controversial After All

When my first feature, The Proper Care & Feeding of an American Messiah, was making the rounds at festivals, I had thought it might inspire some controversy because of the religious satire in it. Now, I should preface this all by saying that I am a very religious person, and the satire in the film was aimed squarely at people who abuse and misuse religion for their own purposes.

And since I sensed it might be controversial, I was almost disappointed that it wasn't. Most people took it as intended or just found it funny.

But today, someone was finally offended enough to do something about it.

I have been working with a distributor in the midwest on a small theatrical distribution for the film. I had intended to keep this quiet until I had all the details worked out. But I had a conversation with the distributor today during which he explained that he wasn't going to be able to release the film in the theatres that he deals with because of the title and the poster art -- specifically, the word "messiah" in the title and the images of Christ on the poster.

So, hmmm...

I was taken by surprise, only because the film hasn't inspired much controversy thus far. But this is a case of perception trumping reality -- it's not the content of the film that offends (apparently), but the fear that people who see the poster and hear the title will believe something about the film that isn't true.

Thus, if I want to see it get a theatrical release, I must change the title and the poster design. To end any speculation: I've decided to do just that, simply because I'd like to see the film released, and I don't feel that I'm compromising any principles. I'm not having to change the content or intent of the film, just the perceptions and concerns created by the title.

And, in any case, I suppose it's better to be controversial.

I'm also choosing to view this is as a positive. It's a chance to rethink something that's already been completed. I have lately had some misgivings about the title (I always wished I'd chosen to call it "Local Messiah" as I think that would have intrigued people more, and audiences always react positively when Brian calls himself a local messiah). But I can't use the word "messiah" at all now.

So, if you have any title suggestions (or poster design suggestions, for that matter), leave them in the comments below. And I'll share the new title choice and poster design when we have it complete...


Anonymous Chuck said...

This is an interesting dilemma. I can see why the title might be difficult to market, although the film itself obviously isn't that controversial. My first suggestion would be something like "Being Brian B" or "True Confessions of Brian B" that might highlight the mockumentary format while using the character name to dodge any "messiah" references.

Another option might be to play with one of the key scenes in the film: "The Miracle of the Fruit" comes to mind, but that may risk being too messiah-like.

Is the poster art in general a problem or is it just the title? A close-up of Dustin/Brian might be away of alleviating that.

Just some thoughts.

1/08/2009 10:10 AM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Those are good thoughts, Chuck. I was told that it was the word "messiah" in the title and the images of Christ on the poster (which, I think, combine in their minds to seem to be mocking Christianity. Not true, of course, but as I said, perception is reality)...

1/08/2009 10:12 AM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

Please note that I do know the difference between "a way" and "away." I just failed to demonstrate that in my previous comment.

I can see why they would have that fear, and poster art can go a long way toward shaping interpretation, so it is an interesting consideration.

1/08/2009 10:15 AM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Yeah, it makes sense to me even though I think the reaction is far beyond the perceived concern...

1/08/2009 10:37 AM  
Blogger Christianne Page said...

Hmmm... I'm guessing the bobblehead Jesus poster is probably out as well. (I loved that one.)

1/08/2009 11:07 AM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

yeah, that one's out, too (and yes, I liked that one as well...)

1/08/2009 11:46 AM  
Blogger millar prescott said...

That's unfortunate. I have yet to see it, but the title is what hooked me, along with the its tag line.

I'm reminded of the fuss kicked up by those who picketed against The Passion of The Christ. When some were asked to what they specifically objected they could only answer that they hadn't seen it. The same was true of Scorcese's The last Temptation of Christ.

Granted, those scenarios don't apply here but the tone is the same. The sentiment is manufactured not from what is, but from what might be. Someone might be offended. It's ridiculous and has no place in any art form whatsoever.

Having said that, I suppose anything from Waco that even hints of a self proclaimed messiah wouldn't help your cause.

1/08/2009 11:56 AM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

The title is a hook, and it is indeed why this is frustrating. I think people will see it because of the title. I am striving to come up with something quirky and long with religious undertones (without being as explicitly religious), but I fear losing out on people just like you, for whom the title was a draw...

"...manufactured from what might be..." is exactly the problem.

I don't think the waco connection is an issue here. Most people dealing with the distribution angle wouldn't even know that. They're just concerned with the issue presented by a film that appears to be mocking the faithful.

1/08/2009 2:57 PM  
Blogger millarprescott said...

Ha! Yeah, I threw the Waco thing in with tongue in cheek. No doubt irrelevant and long forgotten by most.

I totally empathize with you. Having agonized over the creation of a perfect beast, you now have to think up another when no other will do.

I hate that when that happens.

1/08/2009 3:57 PM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Ah, sorry I missed the tone, LOL. Good ol' digital text is hard to classify sometimes. I guess perception is reality ;-)

Yes, you understand completely. Tok forever for us to settle on that title. And now a new one? Sigh...

1/08/2009 4:13 PM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

If you want the vaguely religious angle, maybe something like "Signs and Wonders in the Suburbs" or even "Signs and Wonders in Suburban America," if you want to preserve that aspect of the original.

1/08/2009 8:42 PM  
Blogger BK Garceau said...

wow! Congrats, sort of! Not so cool about a title change, but you do what you have to! That's a tough one too, every time I come back to Messiah... and I am guessing Savior is out, or is that cool? Good luck!

1/09/2009 1:54 AM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Chuck -- I like the "signs and wonders" idea; I'm adding it to the list.

BK -- savior is pretty much out, too...

1/09/2009 6:49 AM  
Blogger millar prescott said...

What about something like The Divine Appointment Of Brian B. Well not that exactly. But you know where I'm going.

I haven't seen it yet. Amazon promised delivery before Jan 20th., and I don't want to read the script before, so I'm at a bit of a disadvantage. Not even sure if you're actually soliciting or simply commenting about the controversy. Regardless, I thought I'd offer.

1/09/2009 8:50 AM  
Blogger Shane Alexander said...

What if you change Messiah to ^^€$$!@ђ?

1/09/2009 8:58 AM  
Blogger Shane Alexander said...

I wonder if you used the word "messianic" if it would be any better, like "The Complexities of a Localized Messianic Complex" or something like that.

1/09/2009 9:01 AM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Ha -- very creative use of non-letters, Shane. I think messianic would be a problem, too.

Millar -- I am soliciting ideas -- and I like the way you're thinking in general...

1/09/2009 9:13 AM  
Blogger BK Garceau said...

How about:

The Curious Case of Brian B.

Just a thought...

1/09/2009 11:38 AM  
Blogger Shane B said...

Shame you can't use Savior, cause 'Savior of the Suburbs' would be sweet.

How about switching up the name of a bible story like 'The Mediocre Samaritan' or something

1/09/2009 2:52 PM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

I like "Savior of the Suburbs" -- as well as a lot of the other ones that use Messiah or Savior.

1/09/2009 5:22 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Wow. I haven't checked your blog in two days and then suddenly this. Serves me right, I guess.

I have a number of responses here.

1.) I'm sorry; did you say there was an image of Christ on the poster? Did I miss that? Surely you can't be referring to those Andy Warholesque cartoons of Brian with a beard. That's supposed to be Christ? Those images are so removed from the stereotypical image of Christ that I didn't get that. I thought they were Brian wearing a fake beard.

2.) Did you say this film is going to be shown in theatres in the Midwest or that the distributor's offices were located in the Midwest. Maybe I just don't know anything about independent film, but I used to believe that low-budget, low profile indies like "American Messiah," if they get a theatrical distribution, play on a few screens in New York, LA, and a half-dozen art-houses in other large cities. They may get a review in the New York Times and Variety but basically fall way under the radar of mainstream audiences. Am I to assume this is NOT the kind of theatrical distribution you are talking about? And that leads me to point 3...

3.) Just who does this distributor intend to market your film to? Right-wing religious fundamentalists who will only accept a strict interpretation of the Bible and have no sense of humor? People who condemn films without seeing them? If so, I humbly suggest that this might be a poor target audience. If they all boycott the film, it would cost more to distribute the film than any revenue taken in through ticket sales. (Unless it's a clever ploy to generate controversy, attract attention of the national media, and then maybe get a booking by a more serious distributor who can get you into a number of big cities. Is that your game plan? I think that coalition of mentally-challenged persons increased sales for "Tropic Thunder" by calling for a boycott of it.)

4.) I always liked the title. "The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah." If you must change it, how about "The Movie that the Fundamentalists Don't Want You to See." Or how about something funny like "Bless the Potholes." (Yes, I realize that is a reference to a deleted scene, but I liked that scene and it is in the trailer. If you're going to change the poster and the title, you might as well unlock the whole thing and restore that scene.)

5.) It strikes me as odd that someone would object to the word "Messiah" in the title, but not the use of it several dozen times throughout the film. Has anyone else ever said anything about objecting to the word "Messiah" in the title? I'm wondering if maybe the problem is a crazy distributor. Aren't there any other distributors interested in the film?

6.) If you actually do change the title, will you re-release the DVD with the new title? If not, how will people who want to find the DVD know what to look for?

7.) What changes will you make to the poster? I like the original poster. It stands out. And I noticed you used it as a set decoration for "Endings."

7.) Finally, Chris, you're my friend and I support you whatever you decide to do in the end. I love the film, I'd love for it to have a larger audience, and I'll do whatever I can to help promote it. And I wish you the best of luck with this. But I have to tell you that making changes to please a distributor's paranoia gives me a queasy feeling.

1/10/2009 10:13 AM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Lots of points to respond to, J.

1 -- the cartoons were always supposed to be Jesus, with Brian tacking his picture over that image (i.e., considering himself a messiah, too).

2--Theatres in the midwest, because the distributor has deals with several theatres there. Indie film is changing, and I'm happy to get any kind of theatrical distribution, frankly. No one else has made any offers in that direction. Smaller distributors sometimes work with specific theatres, which is the case here. Not sure how many, precisely, but I know it's more than 100 (not that Messiah will be on all of them -- just that I know he works with that many).

3 -- It's more a case of -- this distrib is interested, this is the market he has, so we're going with it. Beggers can't be choosy, as they say. Also -- it's the theatre owners themselves who won't play the film without a title change, not the distrib (as far as I understand it).

4 -- I like the title, too, but I'm also not married to it.

5 -- If people see the film, they know Brian is not REALLY a messiah and is delusional. The fear is that the poster and title might imply that the film is making fun of Christianity/true faith, which is of course not true. And no, no one else is lining up to distribute it, I'm afraid. It's hard out there for an indie filmmaker.

6 -- I haven't decided yet about the whole DVD thing. I might do that, or I might have a new site with a new URL that points to the original film site with an explanation at the top. This is an area of concern for me as well...

7 -- The poster does stand out, and it's the only design we ever wanted. But if we have to change it, what else can I do?

Essentially, while I don't want to make these changes, I don't have an established reputation whereby I can make a principled stand and force this to go my way. If I say, "No, I will not do this," the distrib and the theatre owners will say, "Okay, then we can't do business." Could I then get someone else interested? Not likely, since a good deal of time has passed since my original festival run. So I pretty much have to do this to get to a potentially wider audience.

While I'm not thrilled about it, and I have all the concerns you cite above as well, I don't feel that I have a lot of choices, and I don't think it's the end of the world.

And I'll echo, again, just for the record, that the distributor likes the film, the title, and the poster, but is getting resistance from the theatres themselves...

1/10/2009 10:28 AM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

I understand that sometimes one must make painful compromises on the road to success. It's just that it bothers me a little for theatre owners to be dictating titles and poster designs to filmmakers, especially since festivals, festival-goes, DVD buyers, and Baylor University administrators haven't had any problems for the passed two years.

Granted, I don't live in the Midwest. Maybe they have a special culture there that transcends American culture in general, and need to feel special by having their own titles and posters separate from the coasts. Maybe filmmakers really do have a point when they refer to middle America as "Flyover Country."

BTW, Chris, I trust you understand my comments are not at all intended to be a criticism of you or any choice you feel compelled to make. I support you and your fantastic film. I just need to vent a bit.

P.S. In case you are wondering, yes, I forgot how to count for a moment.

1/10/2009 1:12 PM  
Blogger DAN BUCK said...

FWIW I've been ruminating on this for a few days and I have two thoughts.

1. I think you should stay away from the use of Brian's name. I worry that people will make undo comparisons to the Life of Brian. They are wholly different films but if people's first impressions of your film (1. title and 2. premise) Brian-something and movie about a false Messiah... In truth, the parallel never occured to me until I started thinking about a title with "Brian" in it.

2. I too thought of the phrase "signs and wonders."

So my suggestion is "A Beginner's Guide to Signs and Wonders".

1/11/2009 9:34 AM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

J - no worries at all. I do know you were just frustrated for me, and I appreciate it.

Dan -- you make a valid point, and one I've considered as well...

1/11/2009 11:10 AM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Chris, I've calmed down a lot since I first read this. I've been doing a lot of thinking and you have really taught me something important about the necessity to compromise on the road to success. As I look back on my life now, I suddenly realize that there were several times when my staunch refusal to compromise has held me back. I wrote a blog about that last night.

I'll continue to think about your movie and if I get any more ideas for possible alternate titles, I'll let you know.

I wish you the best of luck.

1/11/2009 3:45 PM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

That's a really interesting perspective, J. I, too, have been pretty uncompromising in the past on things. Maybe it's a function of youth? I don't know. I see the same mistakes in my past, and I want to change that. Believe me, if I really felt like this was stand worth taking, I probably would. I just don't know what the benefit of such a stand is in this instance.

As an artist, I'm blessed to be able to make the films I want to make, within certain limits. I have very little to complain about, other than simply not being good enough as a filmmaker (which is, after all, my own fault).

1/12/2009 7:02 AM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

You might be right. Perhaps, when we are young, we refuse to back down on matters of principle, whatever we must suffer for it. Perhaps with age comes wisdom; and with wisdom comes the ability to recognize when to take a firm stand and when to compromise.

Over the last two days, I've been remembering a few times in my life when I refused to compromise. I was proud of my stand, but where did it get me? It's possible I made some wrong decisions. Too late now, but the next time I am confronted with such an issue, I may be much more willing to compromise.

In your case here, if you refuse to change the title, it will benefit no one, except that you could hold your head up a little bit higher. But countless people will never get to see your excellent film. And you lose an opportunity for greater exposure. You're right to give in. And it might lead to bigger and better things.

(Yes, I've done a complete 180 from my initial reaction.)

One last thing; you are an excellent filmmaker. Don't think you have any less talent than many of the big names working in Hollywood today. I say this not as your friend, but as an objective film critic.

1/12/2009 6:15 PM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

J, It's interesting to see how you've turned around on this. I hope my influence ends up being positive. I should emphasize that you're right/I agree -- there's a time to compromise and time NOT to. I just think this was a time to do so... I just don't want to appear to be advocating general compromise in everything.

Also -- I want to say that comments like your last one really keep me going. It's hard to have any perspective on your own work, but I'm typically pretty hard on my stuff, and that's gotten worse of late. It's probably a function of being in post on a new film -- there's a fairly standard emotional and psychological reaction to early cuts, and I'm on that roller coaster now. So thanks for your encouragement.

1/12/2009 7:39 PM  
Blogger Kourtney said...

I have an idea. Its about a guy who thinks he's a messiah. So keep the warhol jesuses. or Jesi. whatever. :)

1/14/2009 6:33 PM  

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