September 10, 2004
The Boston Globe
Exhibiting creativity pays off for director
By Robert W. Butler
Michelangelo had the de Medicis. Shakespeare had the Earl of Southampton. First-time feature film director Enid Zentelis has AMC Entertainment.
Today, AMC will debut Zentelis's coming-of-age film Evergreen, on 114 of its screens in 27 cities. It may be the first time a major theater chain has "adopted" a film, bypassing conventional distribution to bring a picture directly to customers.
To cut costs associated with marketing and distributing the modestly budgeted movie, AMC has taken advantage of digital technology. Rather than strike exhibition prints of Evergreen (which could cost up to $2,500 each), the company is beaming the film into theaters by satellite. It will be shown using the digital projectors that display the chain's shows of trivia and advertisements. That's another first.
For Zentelis, who feared that her low-budget movie might go unseen or be lost in the art-house ghetto, it's a happy ending to a project that has consumed several of her 33 years.
Evergreen is the story of Henri (Addie Land), a teen dragged by her single mother (Cara Seymour) between minimum-wage jobs and bad relationships. Now they've spent their last dollars on bus tickets to Everett, Wash., where they'll sleep on the floor of the tumbledown house occupied by Henri's grandmother (Lynn Cohen).
Henri hates her poverty, and is ashamed of her family. When classmate Chat Turley (Noah Fleiss) invites her to his home, she's welcomed by his parents (Mary Kay Place and Bruce Davison) and floored by the Turleys' wealth and sophistication.
She wants desperately to become part of their seemingly ideal world. Only later does Henri realize that the Turleys have problems that not even money can solve.
Evergreen isn't autobiographical, Zentelis said.
"It's a work of fiction, but I write about what I know. I've worked every kind of [lousy] job you can think of since elementary school."
Zentelis studied film at New York University, where she won several awards for her shorts Dog Race and The Man With My Nose and made the documentary Granny Was an Outlaw, about her grandmother's experiences during World War II.
She was a director for hire, making documentaries. "I also did housekeeping, office work . . . whatever it took to keep my head above water."
In 1999 Zentelis began writing Evergreen and in 2000 she refined it at the Sundance Writers Lab. Getting the film made, though, was another story.
"We put together some financing in New York, but it all fell apart. Instead of giving up, I went to Seattle determined to put the production together any way I could."
The Sundance Institute gave her a camera and film stock. She assembled a crew, most of whom agreed to work for deferred salaries. And she sent her script to Place and Davison.
At January's Sundance Film Festival, Evergreen played to enthusiastic audiences but wasn't picked up for distribution. In recent years the cost of marketing and distributing a typical Hollywood feature has risen to nearly $30 million. Without major stars, action, special effects, or adolescent humor, the low-profile Evergreen couldn't justify that sort of investment.
Quality wasn't the issue. Marketability was.
A month later Zentelis was brainstorming with her producers and colleagues about how they might get Evergreen into theaters when she remembered meeting a man named Dick Walsh at the final Sundance screening of her film.
Walsh, chairman of the AMC Film Group, recalls being blown away by Evergreen.
"My economic background wasn't the greatest," he said. "I wasn't born on third base, . . . and watching this movie I was reminded of my own teen years. The experiences this girl in the movie goes through were exactly the sort of thing I remembered.
"It was a very accurate portrayal of the things a family goes through when they're struggling economically."
Walsh was one of several people who left Zentelis their business cards. "He told me: `This film deserves to be screened in a top-quality venue.' "
It was a few weeks before she actually took a hard look at the card and realized that Dick Walsh ran one of America's biggest exhibition chains.
"It took a while for us to wrap our minds around what this could mean," she said.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.