Patrick Creadon's I.O.U.S.A. had its premiere last year at Sundance. When it was released in August, it came to audiences with a unique one-night stand that netted the film more than half a million dollars in a single evening. It's release was followed, just weeks later, by the epic collapse of the world financial markets.
In this interview, Patrick talks about his work with graphic design collaborator Brian Oakes, the stress of making a film about a topic that's constantly evolving and how his team created one of the highest grossing single nights in the history of nonfiction.
ATWT: When I saw this film at Sundance, I was immediately struck by the immediacy of your topic. And I couldn't help but think that it was an example of a film that needed to get to people as quickly as possible. Then, when I.O.U.S.A. came out in theaters later in the year, so much was developing with the financial crisis that I wondered if you wished you could be continually making updates. What's it like to make a film where the ground underneath you is constantly shifting?
Patrick Creadon: It was terrifying actually. Making I.O.U.S.A. was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, and I know many of our team members feel the same way. We all felt a tremendous responsibility to tell this story accurately and in a non-partisan way. The day of our premiere at Sundance in January of 2008, Ben Bernanke was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. We were starting to get the sense that this was going to be the story of 2008. The version we showed at Sundance was "festival-ready" but we ended up working another 6 months on the film after Sundance. By the time we released the film on August 21 we had made four different versions of I.O.U.S.A. (Sundance in January, Maryland in March, Silverdocs in May, and theatrical in August). The versions were quite different from each other due to the fact that the story was moving so quickly throughout 2008. It was a very exciting (and somewhat stressful) period for all of us.
You had such a creative and interesting release for this film, including an extremely successful one-night kick off event in hundreds of theaters. Can you describe how that came about and why that worked so well for you?
Our theatrical release was scheduled for Friday, August 22, 2008. As we were all brainstorming about how to build awareness for the release, Roadside Attractions came up with a fantastic idea. They took the film to National CineMedia and Fathom Events and said that we'd like to do a live simulcast of I.O.U.S.A. along with a "town hall meeting" immediately afterward. NCM liked the idea a great deal and said that if we could get a big name to be on the panel they'd do it. Once Warren Buffett agreed to take part in the event, NCM agreed to run it.
Original estimates for the event were that we'd get 150 theaters and maybe 15,000 people to attend. By the time the lights went down in Omaha (where the live event took place) I.O.U.S.A. was being fed to 359 theaters in 43 different states to over 43,000 people. It was successful for all of us -- the filmmakers, NCM / Fathom Events, the theater owners, and most importantly our audience. It was a wonderful way to kick off the traditional theatrical release that began the next day in the top ten markets around the country.
There were other factors that helped make the release a success. For one, NCM ran a 30 second commercial (cost-free to Roadside and the film) for an entire month leading up to the event in all of their theaters (almost 15,000 screens nationwide). It was in their best interest to do so because they not only keep some of the ticket sales but the theaters keep all the concession sales for the event. On a typical Thursday night in America the average movie theater sells about 10 percent of its tickets. The Thursday night I.O.U.S.A. played in those 359 theaters we sold half of all tickets available. Because it was so successful NCM and Fathom Events are anxious to do more of these kinds of events in the future.
Also, we teamed with CNBC to be a broadcast partner for the event. Becky Quick, the co-host of CNBC's "Squawk Box" (their popular morning financial show) was chosen to be the moderator of the town hall meeting in Omaha. As part of the arrangement CNBC agreed to run commercials all week during "Squawk Box" promoting the event. This was another key way to spread the word about the Omaha event, the theaters that would be simulcasting the film that evening, and the general release as a whole.
Having Warren Buffett was critically important too. The whole world was aware by then that America was heading toward a terrible financial storm. Although he didn't agree with everything in the film, Mr. Buffett told me "there's never a bad time to teach fiscal responsibility" and was happy to take part. He was also pleased that we moved the event to Omaha and that his family, colleagues, and the people from Omaha could come to the theater and be a part of the evening.
It's interesting to note that throughout the town hall event Mr. Buffett kept taking the "Pollyanna" position (as he called it) saying that things aren't as bad as people think and that we're going to get through this current downturn just fine. In the four months since that evening Mr. Buffett has lost about $10 Billion in net worth due to the stock market collapse. True to his word, however, he has kept the majority of his investments in US currencies and companies and continues to be one of the biggest cheerleaders of the US economy.
As you know, I'm a big fan of the motion graphics in both I.O.U.S.A. and in your first feature, WORDPLAY. What is the work process between you and your graphic designer. Do you work via email, do you give him storyboards?
Brian Oakes and I have a fantastic working relationship. We genuinely love working together. Doug Blush, the editor of both films, is also a huge part of that collaboration. Basically the way we work is that Christine (O'Malley -- my wife and producing partner) and Doug and I have long talks with Brian before we start a project. We basically throw a bunch of ideas at the wall and see what sticks. In doing so we begin to shape the story we're trying to tell and are able to build a pretty good framework. Then we start shooting and editing. This is where Doug is most involved and Brian is more on the sidelines, though we still talk almost every day and keep him updated on our progress. Once we have a good rough cut done Brian steps in and begins to go to work.
He's in Brooklyn and we're in (the) Los Feliz (neighborhood of Los Angeles) so we do iChat all day long (and usually well into the evenings). He's an absolute pleasure to work with. I think that what's best about Brian is that story comes first for him. And in that sense he's a fantastic collaborator and problem solver. With I.O.U.S.A. we had mountains of charts and data to sift through (most of which was changing all the time -- just to make it even harder!). Brian and I wanted to present the information in a way that was 100% accurate (of course) but that was also dynamic and interesting.
Many of the solutions we came up with to show certain trends and data have been adapted by groups within the budget community and are now being used in Washington and throughout the country. There was one graphic in particular that we had a very hard time creating. It had to do with the key components of federal spending in the years ahead. The graphic that GAO (the Government Accountability Office) uses to show this works fine but was different from all the other graphics we'd been using throughout the film. Brian came up with a way to show the exact same data but to use an organizing principle we used throughout the film (it had to do with a penny and a pie chart). It took us the better part of a week to come up with that solution but it was worth the effort. Not only is that piece of information very dynamic when it appears in the film, but it's also accurate.
Perhaps the person who was most pleased with Brian's work was the star of our film, David Walker. He's been telling this story for years but had never seen it laid out in such an elegant and dynamic way. Dave is very proud of the work our team did and has been a big supporter of our efforts to get this story out to the public.
What were the differences for you going to Sundance a second time? Were you more comfortable because you had been through the process before with WORDPLAY?
Going back to Sundance was actually a little harder than being there the first time, but I think that's because the two films were so different. With WORDPLAY in 2006 we all felt we had a really good film on our hands. It's a fun story and we figured audiences there would enjoy it. It was also a much more commercial project. The film sold midweek after a fairly intense bidding war.
Going back two years later with a movie about the national debt was much different. Everyone who saw the film agreed that it was a very important story, but we had trouble attracting buyers. We ended up leaving Sundance without a sale. Sundance was also difficult because the film simply wasn't finished. As I mentioned earlier it was definitely "festival- ready" and people who saw the film probably assumed we were done. But our team and I knew we had months of work to do before releasing it.
I mentioned all this to Geoff Gilmore from Sundance a few weeks before the 2008 festival. I told him how excited and honored we were to be going back but that I was worried because the film -- and the story -- was still in flux. He told me that he felt this would be the most important story of 2008 and that he was very happy to bring it to Sundance. "You may not be ready to show this film, but the world is ready to see it... so get back into the edit room and hurry up." He had a smile on his face when he said the last part, and it seemed he took just a little bit of pleasure seeing the sheer horror on my face when I heard it.