From Cecil B. to Businessman

Will Keenan has done some crazy things to promote movies. He’s been hit by a car, threatened self-immolation, and climbed a water tower only to get busted on the 6 o’clock news. Keenan even once dove from a third-floor balcony into a pool. But what he’s doing these days to promote movies is, by his standards, far scarier than any rapidly approaching front bumper or a 50-foot free fall. These days, it’s all about spreadsheets, managing interns, and getting to the office by 9 am.

Will Keenan has become a businessman.

Anyone who knew Keenan before he moved to Los Angeles from New York two years ago knew someone who was many things—but a businessman was not one of them. He was an actor, a director, a stunt (and sex) choreographer, and a casting agent. In an underground soundstage he once created in a Brooklyn warehouse, where he scurried between taped-together editing consoles and a row of film sets built from discarded sitcom flats and dumpster-dives, he was nothing less than Cecil B. Demented incarnate. So, sure, from a distance this recent change may cause an aspiring filmmaker to shed a tear for another lost soldier in the battle for independent cinema. But this is good news. Really. Will Keenan may now be a businessman, but he’s a businessman who wants to work for you.

“When it comes to distribution, I’ve been burned,” says Keenan. “Everyone I know who’s made movies has been burned … by distributors, by labels, you name it. So we created this company to be the alternative.”

That “we” includes Greg Ross, who started the successful New York City punk music label Go-Kart Records over 13 years ago. And “this company” is Go-Kart Films, a joint DVD distribution venture.

The two met while working on Trauma Film’s 1999 cult hit Terror Firmer, which Keenan not only starred in but also served as associate producer. “I hired Greg to do the soundtrack and [the film] did so poorly that he said I owed him,” recalls Keenan. Payback was producing what would be Ross’s directorial debut, the documentary Into the Night: The Benny Mardones Story (2002), which chronicled the troubled fame of a one-hit wonder. “It did well,” notes Keenan. “It played some festivals and Wellspring picked it up for TV rights. But when it was time to sell it to a distributor, I pretty much had to break the bad news to Greg and tell him, ‘If you get anything up front it’s going to be very little and chances are, from that point on, you’ll never see a dime.’ Unfortunately, that’s a common experience when it comes to independent distribution.”

Keenan knew what he was talking about. This was 2002, about the time Operation Midnight Climax (a comedic conspiracy-themed feature he and this writer collaborated on) had arrived at a similar point—successful festival run, a few awards, great press, and distributor interest. It wasn’t difficult for Keenan to describe to Ross what he calls “filmmaker desperation”: a condition whereby you realize you’re about to sign away the rights to your film for little more than the thrill of seeing it in a video store coupled with the feeling that you have no other choice and followed by repeated attempts to convince yourself that this crummy situation is perfectly okay. Rather than suffer this fate, the two decided to take matters into their own hands.

Shortly after Keenan arrived in California, Ross’s wife took a job in LA, and in the spring of 2003, the men found themselves in the same town again. A new city suggested a new opportunity and though “let’s just put these movies out ourselves” may have sounded like a naïve Hail Mary play, Ross had a successful music catalog to use as leverage. Shortly after settling in California, Ross left his music distributor for Koch Entertainment, a large distributor that handles both music and movies.

They made an announcement, and it wasn’t long before Keenan heard from two New York acquaintances. The directors Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley were having last-second problems completing a distribution deal on Horns and Halos (2002), their controversial and critically acclaimed documentary about George W. Bush’s early years. With the election approaching, they knew the film needed to be released quickly. They also knew it had to be handled correctly, and they weren’t convinced by their current distributor. For the first time, Keenan found himself on the other side of the desk. “When filmmakers talk to distributors about a deal, they’re used to hearing about this weird percentage thing that they can never really figure out,” notes Keenan. “The one time with Operation Midnight Climax when I actually was able to figure it out, I realized that we would have gotten 65 cents or 85 cents per unit sold. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, you’re charging $19.98! This is a scam!’”

As he begins describing Go-Kart Film’s strategy, Keenan leans in and his voice lowers, as if he’s about to break an industry omerta. “At the end of the day, let’s say distributors get about six dollars to play with per unit. They’re gonna want to make five of that six. So they try to get the filmmaker to take a lot less by spouting vague percentages,” Keenan says. ”And even if you’re able to get a decent royalty rate, you realize that the costs they’ll need to recoup are just insane. You end up paying for their paper clips.”

Keenan pauses and takes a deep breath. He’s in full-businessman mode. “That’s why I call us the alternative,” he says. “Our deals are very different. If we have six bucks to play with at the end of the day, we split it right down the middle with our filmmakers. If we’re making $3 per unit, so are they.”

Keenan made the Go-Kart pitch to Galinsky and Hawley, which resulted in Horns and Halos becoming the fledging company’s first (and still most successful to date) release. “We really appreciate that Go-Kart stepped in and helped us get the film out,” Galinsky says. “They had a good reach and really got the film into stores.”

In the eight months since then, another forty have followed and Go-Kart Films is now averaging three to five releases a month. These acquisitions have come through various channels; Keenan continues to mine his past decade of cinema experience—meaning he scours through the thousands of business cards he collected through projects, at festivals, and on cross-country travels. He also uses “independent contractors” (read: trusted film types who are traveling to festivals), who keep a discerning eye out. “If someone brings a film to us, they get a signing fee,” says Keenan. “And if, in certain cases, they’re very close to the film, maybe they even worked on it, it may make sense to cut them in on the royalty rate—whether it’s 10 cents a unit or 25 cents a unit.”

And with Keenan, deals can even go down simply because he happened to be at the right 7-Eleven parking lot at the right time. Take the night he and his friend were asked by a man living in a van parked next to them for a cigarette (they obliged). As a thank you, the smoker gave them a sticker for a new documentary coming out of Iraq. The film was a compilation of material shot by Iraqis since the commencement of the US occupation. The man was Aaron Raskin, the film’s producer; The Dream of Sparrows (2005) soon became one of Go-Kart’s leading titles.

Of course, if Go-Kart is enjoying that kind of output, it follows that other companies must be doing the same. “Over 250 DVDs are released every Tuesday. We all fight for shelf space,” says Keenan. “It’s incredibly tough.” But Go-Kart has an ace up its sleeve: Koch Entertainment. “Koch pitches the retail chains, and they’re very good at it,” says Keenan. “They’ve been doing it for twenty years and have 9000 accounts in North America”—including Blockbuster, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Tower Records, and Hollywood Video—“and then as a label, we reach out to the independent stores, the little mom-and-pop shops.”

Keenan may talk a great business game, but he hasn’t put aside the things that brought him to Hollywood. “I still act now and then, and there are a bunch of scripts I’m attached to as either a producer or talent,” says Keenan, who lives in Hollywood with his wife Stefanie, a photographer. But at this moment in time, everything else is secondary to Go-Kart. Yes, his agent thinks he’s crazy; so does his manager. And no, this isn’t a cheap ploy to meet directors, he promises with a laugh.

But it’s a rare laugh when he’s discussing business. When Keenan speaks it’s with the true understanding that a movie isn’t a can of soup: it can’t just be shoved between other cans on a supermarket shelf. Rather, an independent film is nothing less than someone’s dream. And any filmmaker will tell you that a movie is, among other things, a very personal diary of a set period of time, usually years. It involves relationships, beginnings, endings, and a million other wonderful and painful moments that aren’t pictured on the screen. How do you nickel-and-dime a filmmaker over something like that?

As we sit next to a statue of Buddha on the grounds of Hollywood’s Self-Realization Center, which Keenan calls home, it’s obvious that he has no intention of messing with filmmaker karma.

When Keenan tells me, “This is my job, and it will be for a while,” his path appears rather clear, and there’s even an echo of the old saying that you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. Will Keenan certainly knows where he’s been. If you’re talking to him about your film, chances are that he once kicked the dirt exactly where you’re standing right now.

“With Go-Kart Films, I’m taking everything I learned about publicity and grassroots and guerilla marketing, and I’m using it for everyone else. It’s the fun part of the business that I enjoyed the most when I was making films—traveling around, trying to raise awareness. The goal used to be getting people into theaters. Now, it’s trying to get them into stores,” says Keenan.

This doesn’t mean he’s not still looking for the next great publicity stunt. It’s just that these days, he may be more likely to get a paper cut than wrestle a crocodile to promote a project. Nevertheless, he’s more devoted than ever to the filmmaker’s plight. And maybe, just maybe, Keenan’s new approach is not just safer, but smarter.

For more information, www.gokartfilms.com

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