Steal This Movie

Studios don't get the Upright Citizens, which isn't funny at all

This should really piss you off: What follows is a story about a very funny movie you will have absolutely no chance of seeing any time soon. The powers that be who distribute movies--who copy prints, print up posters, deliver them to theaters, collect receipts, split profits (well...)--do not want to distribute this one, which is called Martin & Orloff. There are all kinds of reasons why you can't see this movie, and they're enumerated below, but none of them are good reasons, which makes sense only in that the movie business does not operate with any reason.

Perhaps I should tell you what it's about and who's in it, because, like, you'll never see it. (OK, you might. On DVD. God knows when.) To begin, a man lies on his couch in a sparse, blindingly white apartment. His name is Martin Flam, and he designs promotional costumes for actors to wear when advertising a restaurant's latest menu addition--say, an egg roll or barbecued spare ribs. Martin gets up and walks to the bathroom, which is also as white as an albino in a blizzard. He sighs, grabs a towel, wets it--then proceeds to clean up the dried blood covering the floor and tub, the result of Martin's failed suicide attempt. The sight at first shocks and sickens; it's also kind of depressing, since it means Martin, hospitalized for several months, has no friends or family to clean up after him. And it's also really funny. Seriously.

Because not only will Martin cope with the reasons for his suicide, but he will do so with a therapist, Dr. Orloff, who conducts his sessions by badgering, humiliating and essentially kidnapping his patient. Martin's hour in Orloff's office turns into, among other things, an afternoon at a softball game that lands the two in jail; a side trip to a strip bar that serves New York City's best sweet potato pie; an evening at a play in which the actresses chastise attempted suicides as pathetic; and the promise of a savage beating by a football player with a penis the size of a Louisville Slugger. "I'm here for suicide," Martin explains to his doc by way of introduction. "Attempted suicide," Orloff corrects, lighting a cigar and igniting a small fire. "There's a big difference."

"Act like a mannequin": Matt Walsh, left, and Ian Roberts wrote and star in Martin & Orloff. This picture is about all you're likely to see of it any time soon.
"Act like a mannequin": Matt Walsh, left, and Ian Roberts wrote and star in Martin & Orloff. This picture is about all you're likely to see of it any time soon.

Martin is played by a man named Ian Roberts; Dr. Orloff, by Matt Walsh. They may be vaguely recognizable to the casual viewer of comedy: You might have seen Roberts as the fey dance instructor in Bring it On, Walsh as a correspondent on The Daily Showor a would-be frat man in the new Old School. More discerning consumers will know them both as founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the devious pranksters and improv comedy troupe who had their own Comedy Central series from 1998 to 2000 and still run a theater in Manhattan, where they perform, teach improv class and accommodate audiences full of talent scouts for the likes of David Letterman and Saturday Night Live. (The UCB is currently looking for a new permanent home, having run into landlord issues a few months ago.) UCB'ers Matt Besser and Amy Poehler, now a cast member on Saturday Night Live, are also in the film. In fact, everywhere you turn in the movie is a recognizable face: David Cross, Andy Richter, Janeane Garofalo and SNL's Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey have roles ranging from extended cameos to peekaboo performances.

That alone should be reason enough for someone to take a flier on this movie; the Upright Citizens Brigade may only be a household name in the apartments of the stoned and recently-graduated-from-college, but it's a sizable audience. Surely, a UCB movie could draw. Right? No, right?

"Of course, it's possible that nobody finds funny what we find funny," Walsh says. "But there is a fan base, and we have a sense of humor people connect to, so it is surprising someone doesn't understand just the simple mathematics of it. If a group like The State [Wet Hot American Summer] or Broken Lizard [Super Troopers] can make a movie and get a release, and I think our movie's solidly funny throughout, then it's sort of a reasonable assumption that somebody would take that risk and see the profit. But I'm not the guy buying it." No one is.

A year ago, Martin & Orloffbegan its circuitous journey through the film-fest maze, where it received unanimous, and well-deserved, critical praise. Lawrence Blume, who directed the movie and secured its financing through investors, had tried to get into Sundance earlier in 2002, but was waved off; it hurts when you're not pals with the fest's directors or don't have Patricia Clarkson in your movie. The problem is, you can show up to every tiny fest in the United States and Micronesia, but movies don't get bought there, because the guys who buy them send receptionists to scout for talent they're going to ignore anyway. So it's Sundance or sunset on hoping you're ever going to get a deal--and both Super Troopersand Wet Hot American Summerwere hits there, for whatever reason (maybe people thought they were dramas?).

Here's how it works: Sundance programmers filter out the thousands of indie-film hopefuls to, oh, a hundred, who are then invited to the ball. At this particular mating dance, the men who actually carry the checkbooks--Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, say, or UA's Bingham Ray--will all sit in the same screening room and eye each other as often as they look at the screen. If one's hot for a movie, suddenly everyone's got to have it, to the point of paying millions for movies bound to make pennies on the nickel; Tadpole, for which Miramax shelled out 6 mil, is a good example, since it made about $80,000 in U.S. theatrical release last year.

"At those lesser festivals, you've got someone three down on the food chain who has to talk to their boss who has to talk to their boss," Roberts says. "Even if someone liked it, head-over-heels liked it, that's the beginning of, 'OK, now let me talk to my boss.' Then they tell you, 'We need you to do screenings in New York and L.A.,' which we do."

Everybody does, and it's one more waste of time. Like Roberts says, you'll invite 100 people, 50 will R.S.V.P, five of them will actually show up to the screening, and only one, if that, actually possesses the finger that could pull the trigger on a deal. Even then, they'll still have to go back and talk to a higher-up. If, by some stroke of luck a moneyman sees the movie and digs it, he'll likely say he doesn't get it. That's what Blume heard. All the time.

"You have a group of acquisitions executives at these small companies, and most of them are white balding Jewish guys in their late 40s and early 50s," he says. "They're not hip. They don't listen to hip music, they don't know what's going on in pop culture, and across the board, none of them had ever heard of the Upright Citizens Brigade. Seriously, none of them. None of them knew who David Cross was. They had no idea. So I would send them articles: 'Here's what we just got written about us in Variety,' 'Here's a full page in Time Out.' I was trying to explain to them who these guys are, and what I discovered was this sense that if they've never heard of it, they think it doesn't exist, and no matter how much press you give them, how many fan letters you give them, how long the line around the block is to the theater, to them it's an accident that doesn't count."

Blume, Roberts and Walsh know precisely how Martin & Orloff got stuck in the "passed" pile. They know because they've heard all the reasons from all the distributors in all the land--15 of them, give or take, from Miramax to MGM/UA to New Line to Sony Classics to smaller companies such as Magnolia. They've been told it's too edgy. They've been told it's too indie. They've been told there are no stars. They've been told it's too dark, it's too light, too smart, too dumb; the only thing they haven't heard by way of criticism is that it's too in color and too in focus.

"Nobody actually passes," Roberts says. "They all sort of give some excuse in case interest develops and they can say they're still interested." He laughs. "Everything they said had something in common. It was something about it being...I don't know, in my mind, I'd say original." Again, laughter. "I don't think anybody said they didn't like it or didn't get it. In fact, a lot of them said it was very funny but not mainstream enough. When they'd say it was funny, in my mind, well, that's the end of it. You kidding? Finally, a funny comedy!"

Last summer, Blume screened the film for his buddy, Goand Swingersdirector Doug Liman. Over a beer, Liman told him he had a problem on his hands: Blume had made a commercial comedy on an indie-film budget without a studio behind him from get-go. Liman figured they'd need $10 million to open the film nationally, which was too expensive for an indie and too small-time for a studio to bother with. "You're stuck in the middle," Liman told him. No shit.

Walsh and Roberts have pretty much given up hope of getting Martin & Orloffinto theaters; they've already finished shooting a second movie, an official and all-improvised UCB production titled Wild Girls Gone. They don't have a distributor for that one, either. Blume's hoping a DVD deal, most likely with a record company, might pay for a small theatrical run. But there are investors to pay back, so he'll see.

"I would love to see the picture open very small," he says. "I would like the marketplace to prove me wrong. If we open it in a couple of cities and nobody goes to see it and we get terrible reviews, well, fine. At least we tried. But to never have the opportunity would be a shame, and I hope that doesn't happen."

Walsh, however, thinks he knows where it all went wrong.

"I wish we had a director who was a blond bombshell with big breasts who could sell the movie or something," he says. "I don't know whatyou need to sell the movie."

"You think it's directors with big tits and blond hair?" Roberts asks, almost incredulously.

"I do," Walsh says, solemnly.

"We could get a figurehead director," Roberts says, warming to the idea. "It's worth it if we can sell it. We'll hire a supermodel to pose as this supposed director. Matt, you may have solved the problem right here." Or not.

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