Time was — and still, for the most part, is — that movies weren’t really movies unless they got at least a token theatrical release. The new microbudgeted dramedy “Mutual Friends” — which follows various New Yorkers who later congregate at a party — won’t be getting a theatrical release. It didn’t even want one. Today it becomes available across every on-demand platform.
“That was essentially our plan from the start,” says Matthew Watts, the director and one of several cowriters of the film. “Less people are going to theaters now. Theatrical is essentially blockbusters. Releasing an independent film theatrically doesn’t even make sense unless you have a couple million dollars to support it — even on the indie level.”
“Mutual Friends” is far from the first film to embrace a purely digital, at-home life; Edward Burns has been doing it for years. (His "Purple Violets," from 2007, was the first film ever to premiere on iTunes.) But its reach is unusually wide, thanks to the outside-the-box thinking of its distributor, FilmBuff, who are trying to find the most cost-effective way to allow as many people as possible to see “Mutual Friends.”
“You can be anywhere now,” Watts says. “You can be in the backset of a caravan in Illinois watching ‘Mutual Friends.’"
Watts conceived the film as an experiment: He’d reach out to other writer friends, they’d write their own short films then he’d combine them. “It was initially designed as an experiment,” Watts says. “I said, ‘Here are the rules: You need to write a roughly 15-page short, there needs to be a protagonist, they need to have a need and they need to know this person, Liv, and they’re on their way to her party.”
When he first pieced it together, it was more, as he describes it, “experimental”: The tones varied from farcical to melodramatic, with no unifying theme. “That would have been a totally different movie. You’d be cutting from this ‘Three Stooges’ story to one more like ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ It would have been weird. Or not weird: it would have been unique,” Watts says. “We realized the way to do it would to find a theme, cut down the characters, combine others and really make it more of a 90-minute comedy.”
Watts is happy to be working during a rare good time for independent movies, which now have more of a chance of being seen. “Five or ten years ago you’d meet a filmmaker who says they made a movie, and you’d say, ‘Send me a DVD.’ Now you meet a filmmaker and they tell you to go to iTunes and download it, and you can watch it on your 60” widescreen television,” Watts says.
But it’s not all sunny. Theatrical release still carries strong cachet for filmmakers. “It’s sad, honestly,” Watts confesses. “It’s great seeing a film shown in a dark, quiet theater with a rapt audience. That’s still the goal and the dream.” Watts was lucky to achieve that, if briefly: “Mutual Friends” premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in May of 2013.
And though he says that right now is a great time for independent filmmaking, the future isn’t secure or remotely foreseeable. “Even since its premiere [a year ago], the landscape has changed, seemingly for the better. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next two or three years."
Bonus: Meet actress Caitlin FitzGerald
The ensemble cast of “Mutual Friends” is comprised of faces both familiar and familiar-ish. Among the most recognizable are Cheyenne Jackson, from “30 Rock,” and Caitlin FitzGerald, about to be seen reprising her role of repressed Libby Masters on Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.”
FitzGerald plays Liv, the character putting on the surprise party that will unite the cast in the final stretch, and who’s also dealing with the overtures of an old flame, who’s angry she’s getting married. She handles neither gracefully.
“She’s very Type-A. I think I have a little that quality in me” FitzGerald says. Liv’s nervousness isn’t dissimilar to Libby Masters. “I’m going to say I’m a very sensitive creature who can access my fragility and emotional breadth and depth,” she says, chuckling. “I hope I can play other characters. But it’s more interesting to play characters who are struggling or feel a little flawed — who are cracked.”
Of her “Masters of Sex” character, she’s glad that reviewers have noticed how she avoids playing Libby as a stereotype. “That was my great fear about playing her,” she says. “When they offered me the part, I talked with the producer and writer about that very thing. I said, ‘I don’t want to play a cliched ’50s American housewife/doormat. They assured me that wouldn’t be the case. I think they’ve made good on that promise.” She says they’re always working on making her more complicated. “She’s a survivor and she knows a lot more than she’s letting on. But she’s made a decision to play this part.”
As someone who’s been in the independent film scene for a long time, FitzGerald has her own opinions about the changing scene and alternative distribution. “I’m going to say something sacrilegious and say some of these small independent films work really well on the small screen,” she charges. She says she’s experienced this before, having been in Edward Burns’ “Newlyweds,” which went the VOD route. “I think ‘Mutual Friends’ is not dissimilar to that. I always love seeing movies on the big screen, and many belong there that don’t get to go there. But sometimes it’s more intimate watching it in your home.
“The point is people see them.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge