When Jessica Hardin decided to launch the Pasadena International Film Festival, she probably didn't expect this much controversy. Dozens of L.A. fests happen every year without a hitch. Yet here she is, fending off lawsuits and what she says are threats on her home – all because an independent film called Southern Comfort will not be screened at the inaugural fest, scheduled for February 12-16.
It all started more than two years ago, when Michael O'Hare Wallace wrote a screenplay called Southern Hospitality. Writer-director Ryan Phillips found Wallace via a post on Craigslist and optioned the rights to produce the script for $1 and a percentage of the ownership if the film moved into production. Phillips teamed up with producer Chris Mammarelli, and, after changing the title to Southern Comfort, the two Angelenos produced the film – about a young artist who journeys to the South – on a shoestring budget of $110,000.
As the filmmaking process went on, writer Wallace, who wanted to be a producer on the film, began shirking his duties, says Mammarelli and Phillips, and they ended Wallace's creative involvement in the project. (Mammarelli maintains Wallace received his proper payment.) The IMDB page lists Wallace as as “associate producer” and as one of the writers along with Mammarelli, Phillips and Bruce Rubenstein.
Wallace and his lawyer Tyra Smith then issued a cease-and-desist order to the production in March 2013, while the film was in post production. But Mammarelli and Phillips continued to work on the film, and it was accepted to the Pasadena Festival in December.
At this point, Wallace and his attorney sent the festival a cease-and-desist, informing Hardin that the filmmakers did not hold full copyright ownership of the film. (Attempts to reach Wallace for comment were directed to his lawyer, who responded, “At this time, given the pending legal action, my client doesn't view it prudent to comment on the matter.”)
Hardin's husband Marco Neves, the fest's creative director, initially sided with the filmmakers, removing the film's title from the website, but unofficially keeping it on the bill. But Hardin says their attorney asked them, “Why are you going to risk your festival for a total stranger?” So on January 21, the festival (which is not to be confused with the annual Old Pasadena Film Festival, by the way) dropped the film completely, and told Mammarelli that they didn't want to be in the middle of this legal battle.
The filmmakers, however, were not about to give up.
Mammarelli and Phillips rallied their friends and family to get the film included in the festival again, to no avail. Hardin says she received “probably 100 emails, voicemails, text messages, tweets, letters in the mail, calls,” but was adamant that the film would not be screened, and stopped responding to Mammarelli. She made a public statement on the festival's public Facebook page, which led to a commenting war (most of which can be found here).
On January 25, after Hardin and Neves “were ignoring all communication from all parties involved,” says Mammarelli, he and Phillips went to the film festival's office – which is also Hardin and Neves' house.
Then things really got nasty.
“Marco [Neves] threatened to punch me in the face as Jessica [Hardin] shrieked in the background telling him to call 911 and screaming, 'I can't believe they came to my house, why would they come to my house?'” Mammarelli says. He maintains that they came in peace, stating, “We figured that anyone running a festival would be sane and rational when approached in person. Our only intention was to achieve a satisfactory remedy for all.”
This past Monday, Hardin filed a temporary restraining order on behalf of herself and her husband against Mammarelli and everyone involved with Southern Comfort. “They definitely made us scared,” Hardin says. “I'm nervous leaving the house.”
Mammarelli says he thought the programmers initially seemed excited to have Southern Comfort in the festival because they gave it a spot that he called “prime time for the festival” – Friday night at 7:25. Hardin counters, “If he's alleging that the main spot is because of the quality of the film, that's not the case. We give the weekend spots to people who are flying in, for obvious reasons.” While Mammarelli and the filmmakers live in Los Angeles, they were flying in cast, crew and friends from elsewhere.
Mammarelli says he remains “absolutely, without a doubt confident” that he and Phillips will be on the right side of everything in the end. And he's not letting these setbacks trouble him too much – he's already submitted the film to the Charleston International Film Festival in April.
Hardin's not so sure everything will work out for them. “They're publicly announcing that they're [trying to get a] screening at a festival because of a lawsuit threat,” she says. “No one's going to come near them with a ten-foot pole. What kind of festival wants to take that kind of risk?”
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