June 2, 2009

Doc'd in New York: The 'Toots' Tour That Tanked

From Kristi Jacobson's <em> Toots</em>

When Kristi Jacobson set out to make the documentary Toots, the story of her grandfather, she knew the labor of love would require determination and tenacity. But she never imagined that she'd end up investing just as much blood, sweat and tears into getting her film out as she had into making it.

Toots tells the story of Bernard "Toots" Shor, the owner of the infamous Toots Shor's Restaurant in New York City. Rough, tough and beloved, Toots worked his way up from bouncer to owner, using connections forged during the Prohibition Era to launch his own saloon on West 51st Street. Toots Shor's became legendary in the 1950s and 1960s for hosting politicians, gangsters, sports heroes, journalists and movie stars, and the larger-than-life Toots defined his saloon by his unique code of honor. The film utilizes interviews, archival footage and family photos to create a vibrant portrait of both the man and his city.  

Jacobson spent ten years putting the film together, researching and interviewing subjects between other projects. The film premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, where it played to enthusiastic audiences and garnered strong reviews. Several offers followed, including broadcast opportunities, but ultimately Jacobson and her team chose to go the theatrical route. Their distributor asked them to hold back on selling Toots to television in order to do a prolonged multi-city rollout that would take advantage of grassroots marketing efforts.

"It's always a tough decision when you have the opportunity to sell to television and do theatrical instead," says Jacobson. "But we agreed, and the theatrical distribution was supposed to be in at least five cities, including New York and Los Angeles. I was very, very excited about the possibilities for the film."

The director's excitement turned to alarm just after the New York premiere in September 2007. Despite positive reviews and strong audiences, the promised multi-city rollout never happened. "The prior distributor was unable or unwilling to put in the funds to get it out there, as was the plan," Jacobson explains. "I didn't want to just stand by and let my film not get out there in the way that I thought it should."

Motivated by both her pride in the film and her personal stake in the subject matter, Jacobson fought and, in March 2008, won the battle to regain the rights to her film. She was then faced with the bizarre situation of trying to figure out what to do with a film that had been released in just one city. Friends and colleagues advised her to self-distribute Toots, but she just didn't have enough energy. Eventually Annie Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback) connected her with IndiePix, which is now strategically getting the film out, with a special screening at the Paley Center's DocFest, week-long runs in Chicago and Los Angeles, and individual theatrical play-dates around the country. The DVD is available through www.indiepixfilms.com, and IndiePix is also exploring a broadcast partner.

Though Jacobson was somewhat reluctant to revisit her distribution woes, she wanted to share her story to pass along the message of filmmaker empowerment. "I couldn't be more grateful in getting hooked up with IndiePix," she says. "[Acquisitions head] Ryan Harrington and his team came in with tremendous energy and great new ideas, not to mention the ideas that I'd been trying execute previously."

So what can filmmakers learn from her story?

If it sounds too good to be true, it might be. Jacobson never loved the idea of sacrificing a television deal for theatrical distribution, but says, "I wanted to believe in the distributor. Sometimes you don't see through your own foggy judgment because you just want to believe in this success story that someone is presenting to you."

Examine your distributor through reality-colored glasses. In the process of negotiating, the wooing distributors will lay out a plan for your film. Do your research and find out whether or not the company has the resources to actually deliver on its promises--especially if it's a smaller distribution outfit.

The devil is in the details. Insist on getting specific information about where your film will be playing during its theatrical roll-out. Says Jacobson, "If you don't have concrete booking dates, then you're not booked. It's not enough to just know the city. Find out the concrete dates and theater names. If you're not getting that kind of information, that perhaps should be a red flag."

Don't be a slacker. One of the reasons that Jacobson was able to get back the rights to her film was because she had kept up her end of the distribution agreement. "Make sure to do everything that you agreed to do in your distribution agreement," she advises. "Deliver everything. If there's a problem, you're probably going to be in a better position to get the rights back."

Take action. Speak up. Fast. It didn't take long for Jacobson to realize that she was not happy with her distribution situation. "If you have a feeling, speak and act quickly," she says. "Resolve it. And of course, the best thing for everyone would be to resolve it within the agreement you have, with the distributor that you have. And if it's not getting out there the way you wanted it to, then do what you can to get it back."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.