New York - One year after its initial public booking in Chicago, HABIT, the psychological horror by writer-director-star Larry Fessenden, is a hard-won independent success story. Fessenden and his Director of Photography, Frank DeMarco are currently in Los Angeles at the 1998 Independent Spirit Awards where they were both nominated for top awards. In the Best Director category, Fessenden joins Robert Duvall (The Apostle), Victor Nunez (Ulee's Gold), Paul Schrader (Touch), and Wim Wenders (The End of Violence). DeMarco, vying for Best Cinematography, joins Michael Barrow and John Foster (Sunday), Robert Elswit (Hard Eight), Declan Quinn (Kama Sutra), and Alex Vendler (The Bible and Gun Club).
Late in 1996, after 50 distributors told Fessenden that they could not see a way to market his independently produced film, he and his production company, Glass Eye Pix, partnered with his long-time associate, Michael Ellenbogen of Passport Cinemas, for the purpose of distribution. "In our first distribution effort together, we were able to tap six markets, schedule six more, and get six others to agree to an unspecified date in the near future," says Ellenbogen. Before distributing HABIT, Ellenbogen had been producing and programming two annual film festivals, the Albany International Short Film Festival and New York's Capital Film Slam, and a monthly series of short films, 'Off-hollywood'.
HABIT has been a critical success in each of its outings. The metaphorical nature of the vampire story combined with Fessenden's naturalistic acting and directing style has encouraged critics to be insightful. Michael Wilmington (The Chicago Tribune) called HABIT a "paralyzingly real Sharp Chillingly smart " movie that "evokes true horror: the fear that you can trust nothing around you." Amy Taubin of the Village Voice called it "a Dostoyevskian East Village romance," and "as evocative of New York-style paranoia as Rosemary's Baby, Bad Lieutenant, or Taxi Driver." Other praise for the film included: "Remarkable." (Michael Freidson, Time Out New York) "Haunting." (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times). HABIT was passed over by major film festivals like Sundance and Toronto, but its appearance in the Chicago Film Festival in 1995 caused a stir of interest-most notably in the minds of three of Chicago's top critics including Ebert, John Petrakis (Chicago Tribune), and Joshua Katzman (The Reader) and Charles Coleman, programmer of Facets Cinematheque, Chicago's true haven for independent cinÚphiles. Its follow-up appearance at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival in 1996, programmed by Robert Faust, garnered enough interest in Fessenden to set in motion events which led up to his winning the 'Someone to Watch Award' in March, 1997 ($20,000 cash sponsored by SWATCH Inc. and awarded by the Independent Feature Project West at the Independent Spirit Awards (ISA)).
"The important thing to realize," says Ellenbogen, "is how much these small events can mean to an independent distributor." When Coleman requested to play the film in his small Chicago art house in March, 1997, the offer was accepted. "Early in 1997, we had been trying to get booking dates in New York at the Angelika, Film Forum, Paris Fine Arts and Cinema Village, and in L.A. at Landmark Theatres, but several things were working against us: no major festivals, no major awards, no names, and no distribution track record," says Ellenbogen. "As the months went by, we were concerned that the movie would be out of place in summer engagements when most attention would be on the blockbusters and the decision was made to hold the two major cities until the fall. Facets gave HABIT the opportunity to play for two weeks. It was a combination of our in-house publicity efforts and those of Coleman that generated the intelligent and positive reviews by Ebert and Wilmington."
The Chicago reviews and the 'Someone to Watch Award' gave us the ammunition we needed to open the doors to Laemmle's Music Hall theatre in Los Angeles and Ed Arentz's Cinema Village in New York in October and November last year. Glass Eye Pix and Passport Cinemas had beat the odds and now had an opportunity to do business in two high profile art houses. With this goal in mind, they began developing an extensive publicity and promotional campaign, treating HABIT as any indie distributor would treat their trophy picture. Color one-sheets were released on the streets of both cities, postcards were distributed by hand and by Go-Card-one of the several postcard-advertising distribution companies-20,000 sets of eight different collector's cards (most of them stuffed into their platic casings by the director himself), and thousands of handbills were distributed. A late night wild-posting adventure in downtown New York to promote the film resulted in the arrest of Ellenbogen and Fessenden, who were charged with 'graffiti-ing'.
Critically speaking, Fessenden's persona and directing style have been the subject of great speculation. New York's Newsday called him a "virtual one man show" for writing, acting, and directing the film, while his looks have been compared to everyone from "a runty Jack Nicholson" to "a skinny Tim Robbins" and "Keith Carradine after extensive-and unsuccessful-electroshock." His directing, on the other hand, has recalled the style and films of such greats as Roman Polanski, Abel Ferrara, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorcese in the minds of many critics. Publicity efforts launched in July were successful in gaining positive reviews from many national publications, including Interview, Bomb, Paper, Playboy, Fangoria, Shock Cinema, and Cups magazines. The movie also landed on the 'Best of 1997' lists of critics Taubin and Steve Puchalski (Shock Cinema). These were good enough to allow Jack Foley, director of marketing at City Cinemas/Angelika, to convince his programming committee to book the film into a midnight slot in New York in December. Foley then chose HABIT to be one of eight initial films to run at the newly built Angelika Film Center in Houston (TX), which opened to the public on Christmas Day, 1997. While HABIT has not broken into a box office run that would make a platform release possible, it has achieved what its distributors call a "progressive" release, moving from city to city. "This allows us to keep the costs of distribution down and pay more attention to promoting the film in each market, says Fessenden. "It also allows us flexibility with the timing of each release. In Austin, TX, we were scheduled to open on Friday the 13th but moved up to the 27th to avoid competing with Robert Duvall's THE APOSTLE". "The key," says Ellenbogen, "is working with the exhibitor to find a window of opportunity that works for them and for the picture." This pattern will hold until the release of the video in the Fall of 1998.
The year-long efforts have also paid off with two distribution deals. One is with New York-based Fox Lorber which covers all international rights to HABIT including theatrical, cable, and video and domestic video releases. The other is with Wendy Lidell of New York-based International Film Circuit for domestic theatrical and semi-theatrical bookings.
Currently, Fessenden is developing two features at Glass Eye Pix. He has one completed script, "Hector Dodges," which veers from his focus on genre bending horror films to something lighter and more romantic while maintaining an auteur's sensibility for unique, offbeat situations. His other project is a haunting and mystical monster movie based on an old folk tale and set in the snowy regions of the north country. Having made an impression while starring in Kelly Reichert's film RIVER OF GRASS and in HABIT, Fessenden has been receiving offers for other feature roles for some time, none of which he has accepted as of yet. Television, however, caught his fancy briefly, and on March 24th you can see him play a gun dealer on the soap opera 'As The World Turns'.
While continuing to manage HABIT's distribution, Ellenbogen is now producing feature films under the roof of his new production company, Passport Pictures. The first project in development is an updated adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. "Karamazov," written by Michael Brophy, the film is a modern sexual noir set in the Hamptons. While Ellenbogen has several original projects that he plans to write and direct, he is currently focusing on acquiring screenplays to produce. "I am drawn to stories that mix intrigue and suspense," he says of the scripts he reads. "I need intelligent people moving fast toward some kind of transcendence. I like to be surprised and seduced because to me, cinema is about escape."
Both companies maintain an office together in New York City's Soho neighborhood.
NOW PLAYING | Habit
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