Bob Byington sat with a journalist last August in an empty theater in Michigan, where the two feature films he's directed in three years for a combined total in the low six figures, RSO: Registered Sex Offender and Harmony and Me, were screening at the Traverse City Film Festival, organized by director Michael Moore.
The conversation was interrupted when Moore's personal bodyguard approached Byington to ask for a screener of RSO, a documentary-style comedy about a 20-something prankster who is jailed on a misunderstanding and is forced to go door-to-door introducing himself as a sex offender upon his release. It's a satire with sympathy for the bad guy, and the bodyguard thanked Byington for going there: "That same thing happened to my friend, man," he said.
In an indie-film world that's increasingly niche-driven, Byington is making movies that cross demographic boundaries. They appeal to both Oscar-winning filmmakers and to their bodyguards; they've won film-festival audience awards and highbrow grants; they've won over crowds at museums, in boozy alternative cinemas, in a Las Vegas casino.
Harmony and Me is a profane but poignant comedy about hipster heartbreak, shot on a prosumer camera and starring Justin Rice of the band Bishop Allen. The film was the sole American offering to world-premiere at prestigious New Directors/New Films in 2009, thanks to the support of MoMA's Lawrence Kardish, who likens the film to Richard Linklater's breakout Slacker. It's an undeniable crowd-pleaser with art-film credibility, and yet the film never landed distribution.
When Harmony begins its run at the Sunset 5 on Friday (after a number of local screenings at venues as diverse as the Billy Wilder Theater and Cinefamily), it will be because Byington and his distribution consultant, Houston King, called the theater and booked the engagement themselves.
Harmony and Me is visually unpolished, but its script is extremely sophisticated. The comedy is both literate and bawdy (watch out for an ejaculate-in-hair gag that rivals There's Something About Mary's). Its running theme of art-making as self-healing is articulated through an original song, "The Finishing Touches," composed by Byington and Rice, which is surprisingly heartfelt.
You watch Harmony and Me a couple of times (trust me, it gets funnier every go-'round), and see crowds go crazy for it every time, and you think, "It shouldn't be this hard for this film to get out in the world."
Aspects of Byington's work now seen as marketing challenges would have been selling points 15 years ago, during the indie-film boom — the superlow budgets, the "did I just hear that?" risk-taking of the writing, Byington's tendency to cast indie rockers like Rice, and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, who will star in his next feature alongside Patton Oswalt.
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For Harmony's festival-circuit tour last spring/summer (stops included CineVegas, Edinburgh and a coveted competition slot at the Los Angeles Film Festival), Byington contracted sales agent Josh Braun to set up a traditional release deal. The team came close to signing with a small outfit called Liberation, but Byington ultimately balked after deciding that the company didn't "get" the film and wasn't thinking imaginatively about how to reach its audience.
Byington has since brought in King to replace Braun, who is a kind of middleman to other middlemen, the distributors who place films in theaters. King contacts the theaters directly. The filmmaker says his experience is indicative of a new reality — and he has no time to mourn the collapse of indie distributors.
"How can you lament the passing of [a distributor]?" Byington asks. "A lot of those companies went down because they had nothing to offer. Like in Heathers, when Christian Slater says it wasn't so bad that the jock guys die, because what did they have to offer? Date rape?
"I think people who make movies will soon expect to disseminate the movies themselves, rather than looking around for someone to do it for them."