Jacob Medjuck’s new film has won 7 of the 9 film festivals it has entered. PIXAR is a fan. But you won’t be able to see it if the big movie studios get their way.
When Summerhood premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, Jacob was granted two screenings (allotted to most films). At the first screening, Jacob sat next to his skeptical father who had crossed the continent to boo the movie. “Dad had seen the film and pronounced it …not funny,” Jacob recalls. But the audience disagreed. They laughed. They cheered. So much so that the festival was forced to add three additional screenings and move Summerhood from a 300 seat theater to a 600 person sold out auditorium. Medjuck’s father insisted the movie still wasn’t funny, and that the real joke was that others liked it. But as it turns out…there were many others.
As a boy, Medjuck fell in love with stories by reading the Torah during synagogue services.
Medjuck’s journey into filmmaking is an interesting one. He grew up in Halifax, a small Canadian city with an even smaller Jewish population. In a high school of 1200 kids, only three were Jewish. But his family was observant. Walking 45 minutes to synagogue each Shabbat, father and son shared stories along the way. Jacob couldn’t understand Hebrew, so during the service he spent his time reading through the English translation of the Torah. And that’s where he fell in love with storytelling, seeing the rich history play out in his head. From then on he knew that he wanted to be a filmmaker.
But his parents skillfully persuaded him to go into engineering because he was a good student – math in particular. Even though he excelled, his heart belonged to cinema. “Just because you are good at something doesn’t mean that it’s what you are meant to do,” Medjuck recalls.
As a full-scholarship engineering student at the very top of his class, Medjuck shocked his parents when he dropped out in his last semester. After years of applying, he had finally been accepted to film school, and jumped at the chance.
The path he followed led to a specializing in classical animation. While he wasn’t the best draftsman in his class, his work stood out because it was funny, and that skill eventually landed him jobs at DreamWorks and Disney animating on films such as Joseph and the Emperor’s New Groove. At first Medjuck was thrilled -- it was a dream come true. But as the years passed, something began to gnaw at him. “The shows I was working on didn’t feel genuine. The neutered emotions they portrayed didn’t reflect my experience. Suddenly I became obsessed with the desire to portray something that felt authentic.”
THE MAKING OF SUMMERHOOD
It was this intense desire that led Medjuck to write the screenplay for Summerhood - after rereading his diary from when he was 10, written during a summer at Camp Kadimah. “My diary was so honest I just thought it would be funny to see kids on screen who actually talked like this.” With script in hand, he went around shopping it to production companies in Los Angeles, most of whom didn’t give him the time of day.
Where most would have given up, Medjuck persisted. “The only way to make an independent film is to be insane, and not to listen to the naysayers, because sometimes…they’re right,” Medjuck mused. So Medjuck went “door to door” raising money mostly from former camp alumni, adding one caveat, “You can invest in the film, but you can’t read the screenplay.” Amazingly, of the 50 potential investors he approached, 44 of them gave him money.
Fittingly, Camp Kadimah provided Medjuck with the location to shoot -- and a caterer who Medjuck likes to point out provided food that was 100% kosher (even though only four people of the 130 working were Jewish). He hired a casting director who found him a host of talented child actors as well as some industry veterans including Chris MacDonald (Happy Gilmore) and Joe Flaherty (SCTV, Freaks and Geeks). But the big score was landing John Cusack to narrate the film.
Recalls Medjuck, “I set the film in the 1980’s and for me no voice captured the romantic spirit of ‘89 more than John Cusack. I tried for a year and a half to get him. I wrote letters, I sent camp themed care packages. Nothing worked.” Eventually, footage of the raw film convinced a professional acquaintance to make the connection to Cusack who read the script and said it reminded him of “High Fidelity with kids,” and he signed on. “The day he said yes,” Medjuck recalls, “I felt taller, like I had my second Bar Mitzvah. I’m doing a movie with John Cusack!”
Production of the film was a whirlwind for Medjuck which included writing, directing, producing and even fundraising. Weekly he had to raise funds by Wednesday to pay the salary of the crew on Friday. And when an actor didn’t show up – Medjuck put on the costume.
The short six-week production schedule led to a much longer two-year postproduction time frame. But thankfully, the wait was worth it. Summerhood has won awards in 7 of the 9 film festivals that it has entered. And at the prestigious GIFFONI film festival in Italy 800 kids packed the auditorium giving the film a wild standing ovation.
Success? Well… not yet anyway.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Since the 1980s there has been a vibrant market for independent films, funded of course privately outside of the Hollywood studios. While it was by no means a sure thing, independent filmmakers could show their works at prominent film festivals (i.e. Sundance, Toronto, Cannes) and the celebrated films were acquired for distribution in movie theaters. But even as he filmed, this business model was crumbling before Medjuck’s very eyes-- movie studios and distribution companies simply stopped acquiring independent films.
According to Medjuck, there are many reasons for the collapse of the independent film market. It started with the overwhelming noise generated by the marketing of movies, and the advertising industry in general. The airwaves became so saturated by ads that consumers just tuned it all out. But instead of finding alternate ways to reach consumers, movie studios just began speaking “louder” – in the form of more advertising. As a result, marketing expenses skyrocketed. The average cost to market a film is now $40 million, with some advertising budgets reaching $60 million or more. Movie studios no longer wanted to touch independent films, which cost 10 times their production costs to promote and may only make $2-12 million, when even a box office of $30 million would see them losing money due to the marketing costs.
These economics have left many filmmakers, including Medjuck, struggling to get their films to audiences. Until now.
A NEW MODEL
While mulling over his predicament Medjuck came across a website called EVENTFUL where users can “DEMAND” that films or events come to them (www.eventful.com/demand). He learned about it when the major rock band Metallica used the site and to their surprise, found that many smaller cities, ones that Metallica never even considered for their tour list, had hoards of fans demanding the biggest concerts. So Metallica re-routed their tour because sold out shows made better sense. Now Medjuck is trying to use that same good business sense for Summerhood.
“We are starting a grassroots revolution. We are reaching out to people who have heard about Summerhood or have seen the trailer and DEMAND the movie. Instead of using the old studio model of spamming all demographics with louder, costly and more pervasive advertising hoping that something sticks, we are asking fans of film to ‘DEMAND IT’ for themselves. ”
Medjuck’s real leap of faith is using “pull” rather than “push” marketing. A brave model that trusts the audience to decide for itself. A delicate respect he learnt from his father, who ironically while opposing the film’s brisk humor, may have inadvertently inspired it’s winning strategy. Fans of Summerhood certainly hope Medjuck is onto something. As we secretly suspect, so does Jacob’s Dad.