At 9 p.m. on September 10, 2001, the feature-length documentary Carving Out Our Name enjoyed its world premiere and launch party at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Approximately 12 hours later, first-time filmmaker Tony Zierra was no longer focused on launching the doc he had spent the previous five years making. Instead, the film director and his closest friends (the subjects of the film) sat on the stairs of their hotel crying, wondering whether friends had made it out of the World Trade Center alive.
The events of September 11 had profound consequences for the L.A.-based filmmaker, not only emotionally and psychologically, but also for his film. ‘I felt so satisfied with the screening [on Sept. 10]… actually seeing people sitting in the theater laughing, being affected by the film and asking questions afterward,’ he recalls. ‘I refused to do any business that night. I wanted everybody – even the sales reps and business people – to just sit and enjoy the movie. I told the film’s William Morris agent, ‘No bids tonight,’ because he was ready to do normal business. ‘Let’s just enjoy ourselves, and we can deal with business the next day.”
Of course, there were no bids the next day. ‘We stopped all activity on the film,’ says Zierra. ‘After 9/11, I felt I shouldn’t talk about the film. To anyone. I completely withdrew, pulled the movie [from its distribs] and didn’t say anything to anyone.’
This is hardly a foregone outcome for a documentary that was widely believed to be headed for a major distribution deal post-festival. Says Sean Farnel, Real to Reel programmer for TIFF, ‘The programmers thought [Carving] was potentially one of those docs that breaks out of the normal, limited distribution model for documentaries. We really thought that it was going to get a release like a fiction film.’
The film indeed had major breakout potential, claiming many unique elements and marketable qualities. Carving centers around the aspirations, relationships and emotions of four young actors over the course of five years, one of whom (Greg Fawcett) falls short of his acting goals while his three roommates (Wes Bentley of American Beauty, Chad Lindberg of October Sky and The Fast and The Furious, and Brad Rowe from Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss and NBC’s Leap of Faith) rise to fame around him. Given the public’s ever-growing fascination with celebrities and the popularity of these three actors, it’s no surprise there was considerable buzz surrounding the film leading up to TIFF.
Buzz was also generated by some clever grassroots marketing efforts, which included engaging a network of regional marketing reps (i.e. young, connected people with an interest in the film who were asked to help promote it locally) and an outstanding website (www.carvingoutourname.com), which brought together a community of followers on the Internet. The site offered teaser clips, contests and intimate biographies of each of the rookie actors, in addition to a message board that quickly became a playground for rumors, raves and gossip about the film.
A quick peruse through the message board reveals that the film’s ultra-hip style and subject matter struck a chord with a much younger audience than documentaries generally attract. ‘Tony did such a great job constructing the film in terms of the way he told the story, the style he chose and the music,’ Farnel comments. ‘We thought all of the elements were there to attract an audience that may not normally go to see a documentary at their local cineplex – a younger audience – and we were really excited about having a film that appealed to that demographic.’
Immediately following the festival, Zierra switched gears and made a fiction feature film called America Off Line. The movie takes viewers on the road in a motor home with a fictional character who visits dozens of cities and towns in post-9/11 America. Zierra is coy about the details of the film, which is currently in post-production, but describes it as ‘controversial.’ As for Carving, without the enthusiasm and attention of its filmmaker to continue promoting and selling it after the festival, the film gathered dust, until recently.
In June, with the anniversary of 9/11 looming and the dwindling possibility of a theatrical release for Carving, Zierra made an unusual decision – to take his film, chop it up and re-edit it with new footage, including the events occurring at TIFF, and the continuing stories of his four subjects. ‘It’s going to be completely different and it is going to be longer,’ says Zierra, with renewed excitement. ‘It’s going to shuffle back and forth between time, and continue probably for the duration of 2002.’
The question remains, however, whether this film will be as relevant, and if it will be able to command the necessary attention to break out in 2003 like it could have in 2001.
The film’s associate producer, Heather Burgett, is undaunted by the task of relaunching, and believes that a new and improved Carving has even more potential than the first. Her enthusiasm can be partly attributed to the public’s continuing interest in the documentary’s starring actors. Bentley will soon be in theaters again as a principal character in the Miramax release Four Feathers. Rowe appears in Steven Soderbergh’s newest film Full Frontal (also from Miramax). There is also newfound attention surrounding Ima Robot, the music group that provided most of the score (and some of the financing) for Carving. They recently signed with Virgin Records.
And then there are the droves of ardent fans who continue to return to the website, offering more and more conspiracy theories about why the film isn’t coming soon to a theater near them. One groupie posted this message on April 30, 2002: ‘We should be part of the reason why someone would want to pick the film up…Distributors, studios, filmmakers. Let me see it.’