When “The Lucky 6” has its official premiere at the Sarasota Film Festival today, it will mark the debut of the first feature film created through a collaboration between the Ringling College of Art and Design and the Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training.
It may also be the last — at least for awhile.
When Tony Stopperan, a 2012 Conservatory graduate working as the assistant to Ringling President Larry Thompson, came up with the idea for the “Summer Feature Film Collaborative” early last year, it was with the intention that such a project would take place every summer, providing job-seeking film students with professional production experience and acting students with on-camera training and résumé-ready clips.
But multiple unforeseen obstacles — from high costs to summer heat to an unwieldy business model — have put thoughts of additional projects on hold for the time being.
“It was such a big undertaking that we can’t possibly do it every year,” said Bradley Battersby, head of Ringling’s department of digital filmmaking, who devoted countless unpaid hours to writing, coordinating and directing the production. “There’s just no way we can do that amount of fundraising again so soon.”
Even with almost $200,000 of in-kind contributions — everything from the use of a sports car to a waiver of permitting fees from city of Longboat Key — the movie cost nearly $100,000 to make, about $80,000 of which came from private donations. (The Gulf Coast Community Foundation added a $5,000 grant and BMO Bank sponsored post production costs). Moreover, all expenses had to be channeled through the college which, as a 501(c)3, made every transaction cumbersome.
“The original idea, yes, was to do this every year,” says Stopperan. “But in fact, ‘The Lucky 6’ succeeded in spite in spite of its circumstances. It was not an effective way to make a film and it was very trying. To ask of people to do that again would be unfair.”
A wake-up call
The film — about six friends at a Sarasota tech start-up who win the lottery but are later accused of cheating the system — was shot over 27 days last June in mostly donated sites that included The Colony on Longboat Key, the Tibbetts’ mansion on Bird Key and the home of John and Barbara Mengelberg off the North Trail.
RCAD students handled the cameras and editing and Asolo students were the “talent” for an ensemble script written in two weeks — mostly between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. — by Battersby. The film was produced by Battersby’s wife, June Petrie, who did everything from buying endless bottles of water to scheduling each day’s shoot and chasing donations.
The challenges weren’t only financial. Trying to give each actor at least one substantive scene made the script and story line less cohesive. Shooting in summer heat and humidity took a toll physically. Having to clear everything from human resources concerns to the smallest payments through the bureaucratic college system was cumbersome and slow.
And given that everyone was a volunteer and volunteers are, by nature, not obligated to show up, too much work fell on too few hands.
That said, Battersby still considers it a success.
“The whole movie for me as the director was not so much a creative exercise as an exercise in patience and letting go of control,” Battersby says. “But as a student exercise, it was huge and probably one of the best things I’ve done since I’ve been here. It will pay off for them in the real work unlike anything else we could have done.”
Andrei Malaev-Babel, an adjunct professor at the conservatory, who served as coach for the actors, says the film was a good wake-up call for his students, most of whom had never worked in front of a camera before.
“The process taught them how independent and well-prepared they need to be to work on a film set, where most of the focus goes to the technical aspects of the shoot, and not to the acting,” he says.
What makes a success?
Some of the actors “took to it like a fish to water and others were a little ‘deer in the headlights’ at the beginning,” says Stopperan, a 2012 conservatory graduate. But he believes the real-life experience it provided and the relationship it cemented between the two organizations was very worthwhile.
Two scheduled screenings of the film at the SFF sold out as soon as tickets went on sale. A third screening, at noon today, was then added, but it is also on “standby only” status and no additional showings are planned.
“That’s a good barometer for how supportive the local community is of independent film making,” says Stopperan.
Or it could just be that community members want to catch a glimpse of the local terrain and the Sarasota residents who have bit parts in the film — among them George Kole and Judy Zuckerberg as arts patrons, Larry Thompson as the lottery commissioner, and the West Coast Black Theater Troupe’s Nate Jacobs as an elder at an African orphanage.
Whether the film will have any life beyond the festival isn’t important, Battersby says.
“It was never made to turn a commercial profit or get a distribution deal,” he says, though he doesn’t rule out alternative distribution models. “But if the festival shows it and it gets people excited, who knows what might come of it?”
Battersby says he looks forward to the day when students will be able to handle the writing, directing and producing of such a project themselves, something that would makes annual productions more feasible. Stopperan is already investigating alternative business models that could better accommodate future collaborations.
“I’m proud of the project,” Stopperan says. “But what I’m most proud of is the process. We had no idea how to do this wild not-for-profit/faculty/student collaboration and we produced what I think is a good movie.”
But it may be a while before anyone is interested in repeating the experience.
“It’s like childbirth,” says Battersby. “We need to wait a bit and forget the pain before we do it again.”