The Hard Sell

It was only a few days ago that Shane Carruth, software engineer-turned-filmmaker, was ready to walk away from the money on the table and keep his movie--78 minutes' worth of cheapo celluloid that had, in a Utah instant, become as valuable as strands of gold. He had stopped answering his cell phone, stopped checking e-mails. He had stopped listening to the offers, stopped crunching the numbers, stopped trusting the promises. He'd had it up to here with the chitchat and the backslaps. Maybe he'd just keep his first movie and good off and make his second. To hell with Sundance. To hell with movie distributors. To hell with awards. Enough already. His weird little movie, about inventors and time travel and greed and God knows what else, cost only $7,000 and was going to sell for more than that, but maybe, just maybe, it wasn't worth it.

That was how he felt a week ago, sitting in his Addison apartment during a day cold and gray enough to match his mood. The buzz of being the surprise hit of the Sundance Film Festival at the end of January, where the 31-year-old Carruth's Primer had won the fest's most prestigious prize, had given way to the throbbing hangover this first week of February.

Despite being selected as the festival's Grand Jury Drama Prize winner, an accolade that's gone to such films as American Splendor, You Can Count on Me, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Blood Simple, Primer had not yet been sold to a distributor. That was no big deal; plenty of Sundance sensations have gone wanting over the years, only to wind up in theaters. But the process was getting to Carruth. Last week he was already thinking about distributing the movie himself or just putting it on a shelf. He, like the two men in Primer who invent coffin-sized boxes that allow them to travel a few hours back in time, wishes he knew in early January what he knows now, most of all how hard it would be to sell your firstborn.

"See, I never thought about that," Carruth says. "I hoped, like everyone hopes, that somebody wants the film enough to buy it and put the money that it takes to distribute it, but I never thought about the fact I was gonna have to sell it to somebody and lose it and give up that control. And I think that's part of what's making these talks last so long, the fact I am having a hard time giving it up."

Those talks are over now: On February 6, just a day after Carruth and I spent hours talking about the good and bad things that come with being the film world's latest overnight sensation, an oral agreement was reached between Carruth and ThinkFilm, the Toronto-based distribution company that has handled films such as The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and the Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound. The terms of the deal have not been disclosed, but Cassian Elwes, the William Morris agent who brokered the deal, says it's "pretty innovative and spectacular."

The deal took a relatively long time to finalize, in Sundance terms. Films that enter the fest with a buzz are usually snapped up before a single screening; the comedy Garden State, written and directed by and starring Scrubs' Zach Braff, was bought by Miramax and Fox Searchlight for $5 million early in the festival. Those movies that win its highest honors usually leave with a hefty check, though not always; it took months for Henry Bean's 2002 Grand Jury Prize-winning The Believer, about a Jewish kid who becomes a skinhead, to find its way out of the orphanage. Primer's not quite the controversial film The Believer is, but it comes with its own set of issues, chief among them that the movie's about as easy to follow as a raindrop in a hurricane.

It's not unusual to hear the movie described as "inscrutable," "puzzling" or "enigmatic," even among those involved with Primer, in which Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) find they can go back in time just enough to make money, right some wrongs and, eventually, go a little nuts. Apparently, everything that happens in Primer makes sense if you watch the movie enough times--or watch it extremely high--but its languor may infuriate some who suffered through the movie but once. Some viewers will be enamored of its impenetrability; they will love figuring out which is the "real" Aaron and which is his time-traveling doppelganger. Others will lose patience; the film certainly has no tolerance for the casual viewer. Both Hollywood Reporter and Variety insisted Primer will have difficulty finding an audience outside the film-festival circuit.

Elwes, the man who infamously brokered multimillion-dollar deals for Robert Duvall's The Apostle and Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade, insists Primer's air of incomprehensibility had nothing to do with the deal's delay. It was, rather, Carruth who held up the proceedings by sweating over every detail before giving his OK. Carruth was never going to make a fortune off Primer--even though it cost only $40,000 to make and transfer from 16mm to 35mm--but damned if he was going to give it away to somebody who might not treat it with the proper respect and, at the very least, leave him enough to pay off cast and crew.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky