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EXCL: Behind After Dark Films

Interview with Founder Courtney Solomon

Controversy has taken an axe, ala The Shining‘s Jack Torrance, to the office door of After Dark Films. Just a day before Shock is scheduled to visit the fledgling horror house of Hollywood, its latest advertising campaign – for the Roland Joffe-directed Captivity – has been skewered by concerned parents and, of course, the MPAA for its meticulous step-by-step depiction of a torture victim. If you live in L.A. you may have seen the billboards sitting regally high above Sunset Blvd. or the triangular ads affixed to the top of taxis like belligerent barnacles.

Courtney Solomon, founding father of After Dark, was required to have every ad pulled at 2pm the day following all of the press hullabaloo. That’s why we pay no mind when he joins us a little late, hurrying into the lobby with two cell phones that find a place on the table before us chirping for his attention for the following hour.

Solomon’s cap is a bit askew, but he rights it as he sits down on a nearby couch crossing his legs and drawing attention to the customized jeans he’s got on that read “After Dark” embroidered across one thigh. You get the feeling he’s been putting out fires all morning and our meeting is a slight reprieve from fighting the good fight. But we’ve got Captivity drama on our mind; it’s obvious so does he by the reactionary flood that flows from his lips within five minutes of introducing himself.

“Who are those billboards intended for and who is complaining about them?” he questions us. The hardcore horror fans, we respond. “That’s something you have to look at. Ask the audience that wants to see ‘Captivity’ or would go see ‘Captivity’ what they think of those billboards, what do you think the reaction is going to be?” Well, for the indiscriminating young fan of films like Saw and Hostel you’re bound to get a reaction like “rad” or “sexy,” depending on what your inner-sicko makes of the campaign’s mascara-eyed Cuthbert staring out at you helplessly. “That’s a woman in jeopardy, so by MPAA rules that is not a piece of art you’re allowed to use. You could never plan a PR stunt like what happened with ‘Captivity,’ it’s not plausible. You can’t make 20,000 people call in and complain, you should see my letter from the city councilman. [The ads were] something we were considering but those weren’t supposed to get printed, they were not supposed to go up.”

Nevertheless, whether you believe him or not, they ran. In a big way. And the cost of having them all removed – and replaced with black-on-white faux spray-painted “Captivity was Here” billboards – set Solomon back half a million dollars. “It’s one thing to do what you can to market your movie, it’s another thing to start scaring kids and upsetting parents. I don’t like to cross that line, that’s not cool or who I am.” Still, like a jilted lover who can’t kick a grudge, the MPAA slapped After Dark with a 30-day suspension before Captivity is even allowed to sit before the ratings board. Troubling for After Dark since its ads reflect a May 18th release date; without a rating it could find itself shut out of theaters.

“We have this ongoing thing now with them because the billboard wasn’t approved but it wasn’t supposed to go up,” he asserts. “It’s like, okay, you exerted your power and we took it down, so what else do you want from us? Now you want to make an example of us? If somebody goes down that line, then I can tell you we will respond in kind and I will be forced to go on the offensive and that will be to protect my interests and my company and my investment. I will find a way to get the movie out there because that’s the kind of movie the audience is going to want to see.”

And he’s pretty damn sure of that last part. So far, his instincts – especially in advertising – haven’t steered this Toronto native wrong, well, maybe except for the 2000 New Line flop Dungeons & Dragons where Solomon made his directorial debut. Six years later, he formed After Dark Films in order to release (with Freestyle) An American Haunting, starring Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek. It opened third to Mission: Impossible III at the cusp of the summer movie season.

“After Dark was spawned from me not being able to get a good domestic deal on ‘American Haunting,’” he reveals. “Not that we weren’t getting a deal, it’s just the financial stuff behind it. Everyone said, ‘You can’t market ‘American Haunting’ because it’s a period horror movie. Of course you can. It’s based on a true story, it really took place and the audience is going to want to see this movie. I went to my financial partner and said, ‘I want the money to market this myself.’ We hired the right people to get the screens and did the whole thing ourselves.” A publicity blitzkrieg proved successful for ‘Haunting’ and the indie film tallied a cool $16.2 million domestic gross. Solomon says marketing was a significant key to its success and being involved in that facet allowed him to exercise control many filmmakers yearn to have.

“Lots of producers have tried to [market their films] in the past, but they’ll get $2-3 million dollars and they’ll buy a little cable TV [air time]. If you’re going to put a movie out wide, you’ve got to spend the money like the studios do to reach the audience. We spend less because we’re more efficient and we’re smaller, but if they’re going to put up bus shelter ads and billboards you’ve got to do that. If they put posters up in every theater, you’ve got to do that. They buy ad space during ’24,’ we buy ’24.’ They, on average, spend $36-40 million dollars on something like, for example, ‘The Messengers.’ We spend more like $15-16.”

Shortly after the release of ‘Haunting’ a new venture plopped itself down on Solomon’s lap when Lionsgate vice chairman Michael Burns approached him to release more genre films. Thus, the After Dark HorrorFest was born. The concept? Terrify audiences over the course of a single weekend with “eight films to die for” – some already sitting in the Lionsgate vault awaiting release. Ever the showman, Solomon tapped his William Castle side and envisioned a national event with parties, ticket packages and giveaways. Where he succeeded in marketing exposure (posters brilliantly presented scantily clad femmes cozying up to a grinning ghoul), he partially failed in executing his grand plan for the fest. Attendees complained in their blogs about HorrorFest’s disorganization with indecisive theater locations and ticket incentives.

“I had three and a half months to get it done from the moment we got the greenlight and nothing was done,” he defends. “No movie was acquired, no marketing materials were made, no plan was in place, no theaters were booked, but I knew I had to do it that year because I had talked about it to other studios and I knew if I did not do it my idea was going to get taken by somebody else. The idea was to get the event out there and show that our community loves an event like this and then refine it and refine it. So everything that wasn’t so right about HorrorFest last year, like the passes – which wasn’t our fault, it was at the theater-level – all of that is being rectified for this year.”

“We made a thick book of every comment from the internet [about Horrorfest] and that’s what we looked at for fixing it this year,” he continues. “We went right to what they think. Most studios don’t do that. And theater problems were the predominate complaint. It was really mixed film-wise because there were people who really liked something like [Craig Singer's] ‘Dark Ride,’ some said it was the worst film they ever saw. Again, there’s different tastes, there were people who really like [Nacho Cerda's Spanish spookshow] ‘The Abandoned’ and [Mike Mendez's] ‘The Gravedancers’ got really high marks. Some people liked [Jason Todd Ipson's] ‘Unrest’ because it had real cadavers.”

This year, Solomon has had since January to plan HorrorFest 2 and promises a wider screen count (800, with debuts in the UK and Canada), a screenwriter and filmmaker contest, another Ms. Horrorfest event – in which raven-haired vixens all over the country vie for the festival’s spokeswoman position – and a “higher pedigree” of films. One such entry may be The Tribe – Jorg Ihle’s island-set creature feature – which was purchased at the Berlin International Film Festival by After Dark after six-minute promo reel were screened before potential buyers. “A lot of studios were looking at it. This was within our budget limit and it was a bit risky. On the other side, the filmmakers agreed to show us the rough cut when it’s done and they’re going to be very open to notes. If there’s stuff that needs to be re-shot we have a chance to fix it and make it better. They went back to the ‘Alien’ approach to horror which I thought was really cool. From what they tell us, it sounds like the film is going to deliver and everything they showed was good, I hope that’s not all that was good, but that’s the risk of a pre-emptive buy.”

You might say this was a way for After Dark to flex its muscles amongst its peers, however, the company is already showing where you win some, you lose some. The Tripper, David Arquette’s directorial bow that blends overt political subtext with the trappings of a slasher film, was a last-minute shoo-in during last year’s HorrorFest. A wider release via After Dark had been planned but the picture was removed from their slate and relinquished back to Arquette for independent release (the film is still coming out April 20th). As Solomon explains, no bad blood came out of the split. “David worked his butt off to make that movie and there’s an audience out there. In the time frame he wanted that movie out there, and with everything we’re doing, we couldn’t give it the attention he wanted it to have. I said, ‘Maybe we should amicably parts ways, you can have everything we’ve put together for it, use it however you want.’ That’s what it came down to.”

Which brings us back to “the now” with Captivity. But before Solomon upholds his promise to take us back into the editing room to see five minutes from the film, he breaks for a much-needed smoke break. Outside we discuss Joffe’s film, last year’s ill-reviewed test screening and the re-shoots that occurred in Los Angeles under Solomon’s direction. “I have to finish the film because Roland is in Russia so I’m on the phone with him and trying to keep it in the vein that he wanted,” Solomon exhales in a cloud of soothing nicotine. “We’re going through all of this in the interest of wanting to satisfy the audience because, to be fair, we did a test of the film a few months ago, too, when we were considering picking it up. The scores weren’t over the roof. They weren’t terrible, it just wasn’t delivering in certain places the audience wanted it to deliver.” Solomon promptly dissected the result and whipped up some fixes with scribe Dwayne Johnson (not the wrestler who goes by the nickname “The Rock”). “Roland and the producers were all for it. They’re on board to give the audience the best possible film that they want. What’s cool is that you end up with a cross between ‘Saw’ and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ because you’ve got Roland Joffe [director of 'The Mission'] bringing class, pedigree and a whole feel of the film. Then you’ve got the [Larry] Cohen’s script, the d.p. of ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ [Daniel Pearl] and now you’ve got the element of what the ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’ audience was looking for that initially wasn’t in the film and now it is. I think the images from the billboards are reflective of the movie, it’s not like we just did those for marketing, they’re reflective of the movie.”

Back inside we hunker down in the small editing bay where we get a taste of what the “audience is looking for” – what unfolds is a scene during which Elisha Cuthbert is strapped down to a chair via an unseen attacker wearing giallo-esque black leather gloves. These malevolent hands then reach for a blender, filling it with body parts – ears, eyes, you get the picture – and a Tupperware container of brownish-red blood. When a viscous brew is fully mixed, down the pipe it goes, through a funnel jammed forcefully between Cuthbert’s lips. She groans in disgust, unable to fend off the feeding.

Solomon turns to us. “Cool, huh? What do you think?” Disgusting, exploitive, forceful – perhaps excessive? It’s certainly going to repulse viewers. “‘Captivity’ is one of our first production things,” he adds – by the end of this year, Solomon hopes to have two original films in production under the After Dark banner. “It helps that I come from both sides, a filmmaker first and now I’m doing this. It’s easier to deal with the filmmakers when you acquire films but it’s also easier if you need to fix them. A lot of times, with other films, the studios haven’t picked them up because they’re more conservative than we are. They don’t want to take the risk. We look at the films and say, if you change this and you change that then we think the horror audience will think it’s really cool. If it’s good enough that the audience would like it, then why not make the effort? Because then they’re getting to see things that they wouldn’t otherwise get in the movie theater.”


Source: Ryan Rotten