SARASOTA — Academy Award nominee William H. Macy's visit to the Sarasota Film Festival next week won't be as leisurely as the four times he has been here before.
In past years, Macy touted TV movies that already had network slots, picked up a career achievement award, and then watched as his wife Felicity Huffman won the same prize.
Macy also made friends who then helped finance The Deal, an inside-Hollywood satire. Now it's time to show his investors what they've bought when he screens the film April 4, opening night of the 10-day festival.
Nearly half of the film's $8-million budget was raised in Sarasota and Manatee counties, Chicago and New York, from silent partners who'll become more visible at the opening party, a highlight of Sarasota's social season.
"There's an astounding amount of money in that part of the state," Macy said during a telephone interview. "People would give us their cards and say: 'If you ever want to make a movie, maybe I'd be interested in investing.'
"Well, the joke was on them because we kept the cards,'' Macy said.
Don't let that wry remark fool you. Steering an independently produced film is a new challenge Macy takes seriously. He received honorary credits for producing before — notably for Huffman's Transamerica — but that isn't the same as working in the celluloid trenches.
Best known for his Oscar-nominated performance in Fargo and Golden Globe nomination for Seabiscuit — and occasional mainstream hits like Wild Hogs — Macy passed along a few learned lessons.
"One of the things I discovered about producing is that it's very much like having children: They just never go away," he said. "This one will be with me for years when it's all said and done."
Looking for distributor
Macy co-wrote the screenplay for The Deal with director Steven Schachter. Somewhat ironically, Macy also stars as a conniving movie producer desperately seeking a hit. But he approached his first hands-on producer's credit with humility and transparency that his film character wouldn't understand.
"For the first time, I was the one looking people in the eye, saying: 'Give me your money and I think we'll get it back,' " Macy said. "That comes with a heavy responsibility. My reputation and my word are on the line."
In Sarasota, Chicago and New York, cocktail parties were arranged for potential investors to meet Macy and Schachter, who offered a tutorial on independent film financing they dubbed "Follow the Buck."
"We'd say: 'Okay, here's a dollar. You go to the box office and buy a ticket with it,' " Macy said. " 'Now let's see where that dollar goes, and who takes a piece of it along the way.' I drew on all my experiences and showed them what can go right and wrong.
"We feel the responsibility to get these people their money back. It really has been weighing on us."
Certainly it won't be easy for The Deal to recoup everyone's investment. The movie premiered at January's Sundance Film Festival to mixed reviews and scant attention from distributors. No deal has been struck yet to distribute The Deal to theaters. More regional film festival slots are likely, starting with Sarasota and Nashville. Home video and cable TV deals are possible revenue sources.
"Nobody knows how it is going to turn out yet," said Sarasota Film Festival president Jody Kielbasa, who also acted as a conduit between Macy and local investors, who he said prefer to stay out of the limelight.
"The jury is still out, so to speak. There have been some (distribution) offers that are under consideration. Everybody is trying to consider what is best for the film and for the investors as well."
To that end, Macy kept investors informed for nearly two years via e-mailed newsletters called "Dealmaker.''
"We've told them everything, without massaging the facts," Macy said. "And they have responded in kind. These people are so cool that we wanted to be completely candid. When the news was bad, I said it was bad."
As when filming was expected to begin in Bucharest in 2006 but an actor's conflicting schedule and the harsh Romanian winter got in the way. Macy already opened production offices — at his own expense — that had to be shut down, sending crew members back to the United States.
The Deal was almost done in.
"I sent an e-mail to all our investors saying it's a disaster," Macy said. "We're pulling the plug, the troops are coming home, and I hate writing this but we have to return all your money.
"Almost all of them wrote back and basically said: 'Oh, you think that's tough? You should try to build an airport or an apartment complex. Go have a beer, take a deep breath and put it back together. It's no big deal.' "
Yet Macy did return their investments because "it was the right thing to do." A month later, he had secured locations in South Africa. Another e-mail informed investors of The Deal's resurrection. A week later, the investors sent their money back to Macy.
"Every single one of our investors stuck with us through thick and thin," Macy said. "They have been nothing but stand-up and outstanding."
No bites at Sundance
Many investors also paid their way to Sundance for The Deal's world premiere. The film festival is historically a seller's marketplace, as studios search for the next Little Miss Sunshine or Napoleon Dynamite sleeper hit. This year, buyers were buying at the usual clip.
"That was shocking," Macy said. "I knew about four films at Sundance that were all in the same boat.
"The rumor was that all these distributors were going to show up with their checkbooks on fire, that they were desperate for product because of the (writers) strike. But I think their bosses, the major studios, said: 'We're not desperate. We can wait out this strike forever.'
"Also, last year at Sundance, a couple films sold for ridiculously high prices and they didn't perform well. I think some heads rolled because of that. I don't think it was a harbinger of things to come but it was just a bad (Sundance) year."
Now any deal concerning The Deal needs to be done the hard way.
At least one early promise Macy made to his backers comes true next week:
"In one of the Dealmakers (newsletter) I said: 'Someday, this will all be done. We will have found our cast and all our money. We will have shot the film and (finished post-production) and we'll all go to Sarasota, sit in a dark room, watch this film and listen to people laugh.'
"It has been a long time coming but I'm really looking forward to it."
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.