The Hottest Property at Sundance
How a DIY documentary made for less than $1 million has created a buyers' frenzy in Park City.
“I love the total kick—do a couple of those,” a photographer instructs three twentysomethings clad in variations of hipster-casual during a photo shoot at the EW studio at the Sundance Film Festival. Standing in front of a white screen, the three young men—Henry Joost and brothers Ariel and Yaniv “Nēv” Schulman—all jump up in the air at the same time, huge grins plastered across their faces.
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“That’s totally New Kids on the Block,” the photographer says approvingly. “Nice.”
The metaphor is apt. At this year’s Sundance, the young men are, indeed, the new kids on the block. But they are also something more: They are The Buzz.
On Sunday, two days after their debut documentary, Catfish, premiered to a standing ovation and was followed by a second screening so packed that some acquisitions executives were left out in the cold, the filmmakers were the talk of the town at this year’s festival. And in Park City this time of year, buzz is even more critical than in Hollywood, as it attracts distributors and sets the tone for a film’s commercial rollout. In past years, good buzz out of Sundance set films such as Little Miss Sunshine and, more recently, Precious, on their way to plaudits and box office well beyond the festival circuit.
“The pressure shifts to, like, ‘Is Catfish gonna live up to the hype?’” says co-director Ariel Schulman. “And it’s like, wait. We didn’t give it any hype. We just made a movie and wanted to show it to some people.”
Catfish is ultimately about the strange, wonderful, and scary power of the Internet and the questions of identity raised by social-media outlets such as Facebook. For its creators, the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the documentary—which focuses on the odd and touching journey of Nēv Schulman after he receives a painting of a photograph he took—has meant that overnight they’ve gone from New York City kids who inadvertently made a full-length documentary to Sundance darlings.
And that has meant nonstop meetings with potential distributors who see in Catfish the next Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch Project, interview requests, and now this photo shoot. As of Sunday, no deal was in place, but strong interest was being expressed by several companies. One of the most interested suitors, sources say, is Bob Berney, an indie veteran and the co-founder of Apparition.
For the 25-year-old Nēv Schulman, who, like Ariel Schulman, 29, has boyishly smoldering good looks and a killer smile, fame has also meant that he “got 15 more Facebook friends,” he said after the shoot.
“I got one very long message on Facebook, accompanied by a friend request, and I got teary-eyed reading it, because the number of people who have come up to me in person, telling me how moved they are, how grateful and inspired, and how thankful they are that I filmed this experience,” said Nēv Schulman. “People have been so expressive and beautiful. And it’s a wonderful experience to have people inspired by what you did.”
What the men did began as an innocent exercise about a year ago. Ariel Schulman and Joost, who are both commercial directors and partners in a film production company, began shooting Nēv Schulman, who’s a photographer. (The three all share an office in Chinatown.)
“We each catalog each other, all the time, just in case,” said Ariel Schulman, who goes by “Rel.” “We always have cameras on us. It’s something we do—for fun.”
When Nēv Schulman received a package containing a painting of one of his photographs, along with an intriguing letter from a young girl named Abby, “fun” became something more intriguing—even more so when Nēv Schulman began emailing and Facebooking with Abby, and, subsequently, with Abby’s older sister, Megan, leading to an online romance. (Spoiler alert: The film’s ending has a Crying Game twist.)
Another film that Catfish has been drawing comparisons to is Capturing the Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki’s documentary that won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2003 and which, as Ariel Schulman said, “Started out as one thing and became something else.”
The filmmakers said they thought of Jarecki when they were ready to edit their footage. “We said, ‘What’s this like? What feels right? And Capturing the Friedmans kept coming to our minds,” said Schulman. “I said, ‘We need to talk to those guys. We need to get them, we need advice, we need guidance. How do we structure this?”
An introduction to Jarecki was forged through Veronique Pittman, a family friend of the Schulmans’ and the wife of Bob Pittman, the former chief operating officer of AOL Time Warner. (Before turning to filmmaking, Jarecki created MovieFone, which he sold to AOL.)
“Andrew and Marc [Smerling] came in as producers at the rough stage,” said Joost. “The hardest thing was editing, because for us it was such an intense, personal experience, and sometimes it’s hard to separate your personal experience from what the film ends up being.”
They next sent a cut of the film—which ended up costing less than $1 million—to Sundance, where it was accepted, and are now finding themselves the beaux of the ball. But riding the “roller coaster,” as Ariel Schulman puts it, of anonymous DIY filmmaker to EW poster boy has been heady.
“The pressure shifts to, like, ‘Is Catfish gonna live up to the hype?’” he said. “And it’s like, wait. We didn’t give it any hype. We just made a movie and wanted to show it to some people. Now they’re giving it hype and we’ve got to live up to the hype that they’ve created.” He paused. “We’re relieved it did. Or that some people said it did.”
As for the added perks—the VIP invites, the swag—the three seem to be taking it in stride, and sticking to their indie roots. “One guy from California who saw the movie, he makes custom luggage, and he offered to make us custom camera pouches for our belts, which is, like, the ideal swag,” Ariel Schulman said. “We said, ‘That’s exactly what we want. I’d rather have that than a bag or a jacket.' ”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.