Bartender by day, producer by night

  • By BETH DAVIDZ
  • Medill News Service
  • June 14, 2006 @ 5:37 AM
One of the biggest hurdles for young filmmakers is getting their work distributed.

There's the festival circuit, but often times seasoned filmmakers elbow out struggling film neophytes. UPressPlay, a Chicago-based online entertainment network, has found a solution.

The site, uPressPlay.com, allows artists to post films, music, web resumes, online portfolio, and director and actor reels, as well as network with each other. The uPressPlay movies are also available through iTunes, allowing users to download their favorites and for artists to show off their work.

Although there are other sites that feature independent films, like striketheset.com or undergroundfilm.org, uPressPlay has carved its own niche with free networking, film submission and viewing.

"We're trying to provide a free resource for artists," said Joe Elsey, a uPressPlay filmmaker production team member. He said that site will post any work as long as it isn't pornographic or racist.

UPressPlay also distributes its films through traditional routes. "V.2," a compilation DVD of independent, films, videos and music, released May 18, features "Two Days in Limbo," "Roscoe Village: Episode I," "Soldier," "Terrorvision," "Roni vs. Lincoln" and the band Marazene's "Executive" music video. All the features can also be viewed on the site. According to the uPressPlay President Matthew Jones, the first DVD was released about two years ago. The next compilation DVD is planned to be released in the fall.

"This is Jones' brainchild," said uPressPlay filmmaker Paul Moriarity.

The site was founded five years ago when Jones graduated from Columbia College's film and video program. Jones, who earlier received a B.A. in advertising at Michigan State University, refinanced his house to pay for the site, as well as camera and editing equipment.

"They way I looked at it was there's no golden ticket," Jones said. "You have to do it yourself."

The core of uPressPlay is a group of close-knit Columbia College film and video program alumni and friends, who help with each other's productions.

"My crew, they're do or die," Jones said.

The site doesn't make money, but pays for itself with online advertising, primarily from Google ads on the site. According to Jones, the site gets about 14,000 unique visits every month. Although the site may pay for itself, the uPressPlay filmmakers pay for their films with their day jobs, which include bartending and graphic design.

Jones said that while his other friends have time for families and leisure, he and his crew spend their time and money on their films.

"Isn't your dream worth every sacrifice?" Jones said.

Despite sacrifices, there's the satisfaction of their finished work and other perks.

"One of the best thing about independent films is that you can work with your friends," said Daniel Pico, a uPressPlay filmmaker.

Pico's "Soldier," which is part of the "V.2" compilation, was a 2006 Phoenix Film Festival official selection. The film, based on a slam poetry piece by David Bianchi, is about death in Iraq.

"It's not anti-America; it's not anti-Bush. If it's anything, it's anti-war," said James Azrael, who composed the film's music.

Azrael said the second screening of the film at 9:15 a.m. on March 26, a Sunday morning, was packed. "People were crying," he said. "We were the talk of the festival," director Pico added. Although the film didn't win, it did receive good press.

According to a review by Phil Hall at the alternative Web site Film Threat, "It is no small exaggeration to claim Daniel J. Pico's adaptation of David Bianchi's performance piece 'Soldier' is among the finest experimental short films ever made. Yes, ever made."

Although another "V.2" film, "Back to Reality," also received recognition as a Top 5 finalist on "Clerks" director Kevin Smith's Movieaskew.com, most of uPressPlay's films haven't had much luck on the traditional film festival route.

Jones said they've attempted to submit films to Sundance, Slamdance and other large independent film festivals. He said it's hard to compete with supposedly independent films that star Tim Roth. He said most "independent films" are really just big-budget people slumming.

According to Elsey, as a film and video student at Columbia College, he and his peers were encouraged to leave Chicago to find work in the film industry.

"There's a big push to go to L.A." Elsey said.

But Elsey and his roommate, fellow uPressPlay filmmaker Thomas Piwnicki, said that they didn't want to go to Los Angeles to be production assistants -- a position they describe as being a glorified coffee-fetcher on movie sets.

Jones said that his uPressPlay crew is talented and probably could land small roles on Hollywood movie crews.

"But that doesn't make you a filmmaker; that makes you a lackey," Jones said.

The uPressPlay moviemakers agreed that they like the freedom and camaraderie of the smaller Chicago film scene.

UPressPlay members, though, have landed roles in the cast and crew of major productions filmed in Chicago. Azrael landed an uncredited role as a bowler in the Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston comedy "The Break-Up."

Despite the allure of Hollywood, the Chicago scene is enjoyed by actors as well as filmmakers.

"L.A. wasn't my bag," said Mark Verne, a uPressPlay actor, who lived in L.A. for a year. "My soul died."

Verne said he'd rather do good work in lots of small budget films than get bit parts in large productions.

"When money gets into it, it ruins everything," Verne said. He acknowledged, though, that if he were offered a lot of cash to do a role, he'd take it.

Verne isn't the only uPressPlay cast or crew member who would give up the indie scene if offered cash to work in the mainstream.

Jones said uPressPlay is planning to make T-shirts that say, "We'd sell out to the man, but the man isn't buying. uPressPlay.com."

Although Chicago's independent film scene is small compared to L.A. or New York, Chicago has a wealth of actors.

"There's an awesome theater base in Chicago," Pico said.

With Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Co., the local improv scene and college theater programs, there's a wealth of acting talent in Chicago. The uPressPlay crew said they haven't had trouble finding actors for their movies.

"People want to work," Elsey said.

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