If you tuned into Cinemax on February 20 at 8:00 p.m., you were treated to some unusual TV fare – a doc that more closely resembles a home movie than much of the high profile non-fiction airing on the majority of U.S. outlets. The Target Shoots First is the directorial debut of Brooklyn-based filmmaker Christopher Wilcha, who shot the feature doc on a no-frills SONY Hi-8 camera (a graduation present from his parents) while at work at mail-order music retailer Columbia House in New York. The film is a compelling, insightful and often hilarious peek into corporate America through the eyes of the then-22-year-old, hired by Columbia House to help market its wares to early ’90s alternative rock-obsessed youth – a group in which he included himself.
‘This job was not what I expected to be doing right out of school,’ explains Wilcha, who left NYU in 1993 with a philosophy degree. The film not only documents daily life at the office – board meetings, lunch room dynamics, inter-departmental bickering – but also Wilcha’s struggle to excel at his job while living up to his personal values. ‘I felt I was part of the process,’ he says, ‘as the subject being marketed to… and, at the same time, in this strange position of actually doing the marketing and advertising to the demographic. I felt very conflicted about it.’
During his two years with the company, Wilcha amassed a staggering 200 hours of footage, which he later carted off to the California Institute of the Arts where he completed the film to earn his master of fine arts degree. Target went on to enjoy a successful run on the mid-level festival circuit, and won best documentary awards at both the 2000 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and the 2000 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
In the wake of the film’s success, HBO’s Cinemax picked up Target for its ‘Reel Life’ strand. Wilcha admits he had no pre-set strategy for rolling out the film. ‘I just did things on my own, sort of intuitively,’ he says. Wilcha even chose not to go with a distributor. Instead, a friend put him in touch with John Hoffman, senior director of docs at HBO. ‘We started to correspond and talk on the phone,’ says Wilcha, ‘When I met with the distributors they told me, ‘We’re going to get you access to HBO… and we’re going to take 35%!’ I was like, ‘Hey, I have a guy at HBO who is returning my calls, why do I need you?”
Now, armed with the hard-earned lessons from his first film, Wilcha has been working on several new projects. Among them is a magazine-format series pilot for MTV called So Five Minutes Ago, which aired on May 19. The us$150,000 half-hour program, which Wilcha calls ‘an ironic take on nostalgia for things that happened in the last six months,’ mines recent history to examine fleeting fads, such as the Razor scooter, the demise of dot-com hysteria and Napster (the loss of which evokes a feeling of ‘Nap-stalgia,’ he says).
He is also working on a more personal, ‘epic’ project for which HBO has contributed start-up funds to secure a first look. The film documents Wilcha’s obsession with garage sales, which he visits weekly with his friend’s dad. ‘It’s kind of a second-hand, shadow economy, buddy film,’ he says, adding that he hopes to complete it by January 2002 for under $50,000.
His best find at a garage sale? Says Wilcha, ‘Last week I went to a guy’s place. He had a brick that he’d scraped out the back of, and elaborately inserted the guts of a clock… It’s a functioning clock that’s made out of a brick.’