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in Filmmaking
on May 7, 2006

In his weekend report, Len Klady over at Movie City News cites the solid box-office performance of Courtney Solomon’s An American Haunting this weekend:

The frame’s other national freshmen targeted horror and family fans to varying effect. An American Haunting, based on the historic Bell Witch incident, ranked fourth with good response that should pave the way for very good ancillary exploitation.

Depending on who you quote, the film grossed between $5.9 and $6.4 million this weekend, and it opened against Mission Impossible 3.

What’s really interesting, though, is that An American Haunting isn’t a studio release but an independent one. Solomon raised private equity to release his film on almost 1,700 screens. I talked to him last week for the My Space film page, and I’m posting the full feature below as well:

“I don’t get a lot of sleep,” Courtney Solomon replies when I ask him what it’s been like making his new horror film, An American Haunting. That’s not because making the film was so scary – although there were some strange incidents during its shooting that I’ll describe below – but more because of Solomon’s responsibilities on the film. After having developed and produced the feature, Solomon was unhappy with the distribution deals he was offered by distributors, so he decided to form a distribution company, After Dark Films, and release the picture himself. “Not only am I writer, producer and director,” he says, “but I’m also head of marketing and distribution!”

Filmmakers as diverse as William Castle, John Cassavetes and Hal Hartley have all self-distributed their movies, but what makes Solomon’s venture a little more unusual than most is its scale – the film opens this Friday on almost 1,700 screens and goes head-to-head with Tom Cruise’s latest Mission Impossible spectacle. So, yeah, at this moment, Solomon is not getting a lot of sleep.

Solomon originally got the filmmaking bug from his mother, who was a freelance production coordinator and assistant director in Canada. “I grew up on film sets with her,” he says, “and instead of going to film school I decided to form my own film company and look for investors in Asia.” For his first project, Solomon decided that he’d make a film out of the popular role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. “I was 19 or 20 years old,” he remembers, “ and I cold-called the [company that owned the rights] and made a friend on the inside. I was really persistent, and after a year and half of wrangling I managed to secure an option. With no track record, it was a tough process, but the fact that I did it while I was so young helped me get investors.”

Solomon’s story of making Dungeons and Dragons is a movie unto itself. The short version: after getting interest from heavyweights like James Cameron and Francis Ford Coppola in directing, various corporate politics created a situation where Solomon was forced to step into the director’s chair and helm the movie himself. “I hadn’t even made a short,” he says, “and here I had to prep a movie with 1,300 digital effects shots in eight weeks. It was trial by fire, and everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”

Solomon started developing An American Haunting before he shot Dungeons and Dragons and returned to it immediately after finishing that film. “I’m personally interested in the paranormal,” he says, “and I was on Amazon and saw Brent Monahan’s book, The Bell Witch: An American Haunting. I read some user reviews and it sounded cool, and then I did some more research and found out that there were about 20 more books and that it was a famous case.”

The film tells the story of the Bell family of Red River, Tennessee, who experienced a series of terrifying occurrences – a series of ghostly attacks on the young daughter, Betsy – almost 200 years ago. The case has gone down in the history books as the only time a death has been classified by the government as being caused by paranormal activity. “There was enough evidence and eyewitness accounts for the government to classify it this way,” says Solomon.

After Dungeons and Dragons, Solomon put together a script for this next feature (based, in part, on Monahan’s book), attracted veteran actors Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek along with the exciting young actress Rachel Hurd-Wood (Wendy from the recent Peter Pan), and brought on the great d.p. Adrian Biddle (Thelma and Louise). In writing the script, he updated the Bell Witch story not just with a present-day framing device but also by exploring the psychological theories of the incident advanced by Monahan. He secured enough financing through equity investment, pre-sales and some Canadian co-production funds to shoot for “50 days and change,” with the landscapes of Romania doubling for the story’s Tennessee location.

To prepare for the shoot, Solomon studied the horror classics. “I watched a lot of Hitchcock,” he says. “I looked at Rebecca for mood and atmosphere and also films like The Innocents and The Haunting. And I watched The Exorcist because I knew that by nature of the fact that Betsy Bell was wearing a nightgown in her bedroom with these [paranormal] things happening to her, I’d be subject to some kind of comparison, and I didn’t want to lift anything from that movie.”

Solomon finished the film and premiered it at the AFI Film Festival where he got a number of reviews and some critical feedback. “When ten out of ten people are all telling you the same thing,” he remembers, “you should listen.” He went back to the editing room and recut the movie, making the ending less expositional. “The next time you make a film,” Solomon advises young filmmakers, “put an extra six weeks in your post schedule. Once you’ve locked the picture, take four weeks off and then come back for two weeks. You’ll get rid of any tunnel vision you might have had.”

After recutting the pic, Solomon screened it for distributors but ultimately decided to go the independent route. “All of the studios are scaling back on acquisitions, and unless [movies] fit into that cookie cutter mode, they don’t get the attention they deserve,” he says. “And financially, if you sell something to the studio, that’s all you are going to get – what you get up front [as an advance]. I said to my partner, who is very wealthy and from Hong Kong, ‘Let’s doing something different. Let’s come up with After Dark Films and put the film out ourselves. If it works, we’ll have the ability to be a Miramax or New Line and can go out and acquire even more films.”

Once his investor pledged money for prints and advertising, Solomon started his distribution efforts by contacting Freestyle Releasing, a company known for booking films that receive small releases. “I said, ‘Are you up for 2,000 screens?’” They said yes, and to convince theater owners to book his picture, Solomon put together a studio-level advertising campaign, buying tv spots and putting An American Haunting billboards in the major cities and buying bus shelter advertisements. Once theater bookers saw that Solomon had the serious resources needed to make an impact in the marketplace, they booked his film. And he hooked up with MySpace to connect directly with the film fans he needs to draw to theaters that opening weekend. “It’s been a roller coaster ride,” he says of the whole experience.

Oh yeah, and what about those scary moments? “We left what’s known as a ‘hot set’ overnight a couple of times,” Solomon said. (A “hot set” is a set with all of its props and set dressing in place that’s not intended to be touched.) “We’d leave the set hot and come back the next day and everything would be rearranged. There was one Romanian security guard, and I really doubt he was going in and doing it. So that was a little weird.”

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