What does a producer do? Do they sit at the top of a tall table, merely giving instructions to the filmmaker, writer and assistants that sit at the end? Or do they throw themselves into the production — offering up their sweat, tears, ideas and know-how to make the best movie they can! It depends on the production and the producer, obviously, but in the case of Patrick DiCesare — producer of the new film Driving While Black — he doesn’t believe in taking a back seat, as his newfound success demonstrates.
Meagan Meehan (MM): Tell us about your start, Patrick. Where did it all begin for you?
Patrick DiCesare (PD): My father was very successful in the entertainment business. He was one of the largest concert promoters in the United States, owned theaters, a booking agency, an advertising agency, and many other affiliated businesses. So, from a young age I was exposed to many facets of the entertainment industry at a very high level. I used to work for my father when I was in high school and college and gained valuable knowledge and experience that I still use today in marketing, publicity, promotion and advertising films that my company, Artist Rights Distribution, distributes. Also, my Uncle Joe managed many theaters near where I grew up in Pittsburgh, so I saw a lot of movies in the theatre. But I got kind of a behind-the scenes view because my brothers, cousins and I were always in the box office, or behind the concession stands or in the projectionist’s room. There’s just something magical about watching a film in a theatre, so I’ve always felt a deep connection with film because it had a profound effect on me at such a young age.
MM: And have you always been a fan of movies — and wanted to get involved in them?
PD: Yes, I’ve always been a fan of film, since very early in my life. I was so fortunate to have seen some really great films in the theatre during my formative years, such as Heaven Can Wait, Grease, Star Wars, Halloween, Caddyshack, Phantasm, Poltergeist, and I could go on and on. They had a huge impact on me. I clearly remember when I decided that I wanted to produce films. There’s an old saying in the film business that goes something like “Everyone who makes (finances) a film, made their money in some other business first.” I’ve found that adage to be fairly accurate. I have many businesses, but my primary business is commercial real estate investment. I’d always noticed the similarities between real estate development and film production and I remember thinking that it’d be so much more enjoyable to produce films than to develop real estate. Also, I’m a believer in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. So, when I sold a decent sized portion of my real estate portfolio several years ago, it opened my mind to allow me the ability to executive-produce a film and take the jump into that business. And, I was right! It’s much more enjoyable to produce a movie than to develop real estate.
MM: What was your first taste of that?
PD: It’s kind of funny, actually. When I decided that I wanted to produce a film I thought that I’d move to Los Angeles and enrolled in film school. I toured a few film schools and I remember sitting in a room with a bunch of high school seniors and their parents as the representative from the film school came in to talk about their program, looked at me and said “Where is your child?” That was my first indication that I might want to start in a different place. I laughed with my friend, Paul Sapiano, about this story and he said, “Why do you want to go to film school? Just make a film. You’ll get better experience, learn more, have an IMDB credit and you’ll own a film.” He was right and I did exactly that. I laugh now because when I go to film markets and film festivals for my distribution company, sometimes I’ll have professors in college film departments asking me questions about film distribution and marketing films.
MM: How do you think you’ve improved as a producer since those early efforts?
PD: Actually, Driving While Black was the first film I made as the sole executive producer. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in business, it’s that you’re only as good as the people around you. So, on Driving While Black I was very fortunate to have had a great group of talented professionals who were involved in making that film. Co-writer and lead actor, Dominique Purdy, was really a driving force in most creative aspects of the film. The film is based upon his life experiences, so as a co-writer, you don’t get much closer to a script than he is. Aside from a co-writing credit, Dom was deeply involved in creative decisions ranging from choosing the artwork for the poster, to music supervision, to casting some of the roles, and a bunch of ad-libbing on set as we were filming. Co-writer and director, Paul Sapiano, was also an enormous resource for the production, as he was, and still is, involved in many creative and business decision on the film. Our post production supervisor, Enrique Aguirre, who sadly passed away during the end of post-production, was another driving force in all production aspects of the film. Djay Brawner, of Anthem Films, brought an amazing, professional crew and great expertise to the film. Lastly, our line producer, Charles Berg, we essential to keeping the film on time and on budget. So, Driving While Black was much more about the collaboration of efforts from a very talented cast and crew than any one producer.
MM: What did you do differently on Driving While Black that you didn’t do on the earlier ones?
PD: Actually, while I’m involved with a producer credit on films made before Driving While Black, it’s in my capacity as a distribution executive, not as an active producer in making those films. So, Driving While Black was the first film that I was involved with the production.
MM: Driving While Black has been very popular — what do you attribute to its success?
PD: I think it’s because the film is so real and it’s very current. Plus, it’s just straight up funny. It really seems to resonate with audiences. Some of our Q&A sessions would go on for an hour when we’d screen the film at festivals, or at special theatrical screenings. I’ve found that the film is relatable to wide audiences.
MM: It’s based on a true story?
PD: Yes, running theme of the “Police Harassment Timeline” in the film is based on actual events that happened to Dominique throughout his life, starting when he was just a kid.
MM: What does Dominique Purdy bring to the movie?
PD: I don’t think it’d be an understatement to say that Dominique brings everything to the film. Without him, there is no Driving While Black film. Paul tells the story of the origins of Driving While Black being rooted in Dominique telling him the stories that are in the film and Paul suggesting that they co-write a screenplay based around Dom’s stories. Beyond that, his acting is absolutely brilliant, in a natural style that is so difficult to achieve in comedic roles. We’ve gotten come critical acclaim for the soundtrack, too. We have Dom to thank for that, as he’s selected nearly every track in the film. Dom was heavily involved in post-production, as well. I don’t know if there was a day that went by in the post production studio that he wasn’t there giving his input. But, if I had to pin it down to one thing, it’d be that he’s funny. He and Paul are the two funniest people I know.
MM: Have things improved at all — with the police situation — since the movie was made, you think?
PD: I think so. I think there is more awareness now than when Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, etc. were killed. I’m not saying the film has directly impacted public perception or the police, but I don’t think you’ll find one cast or crew member who doesn’t hope the film makes a difference. I think it was always in the back of everyone’s mind that the film could make a difference.
MM: Tell us about your distribution company?
PD: Oh, wow! I’m so excited about the distribution company. It’s rooted in my search for distribution for Driving While Black as I toured the film festival circuit all over the world for a year with this film. We got several distribution offers from smaller distributors, but none of them had everything that I needed. I wanted to make sure, first, that we were going to get paid. I came into the film business after having owned businesses in other industries, such as real estate brokerage and mortgage brokerage, in which they employ best practice standards and are highly regulated by the government with severe civil and criminal penalties for impropriety. I was astonished to see what goes on in the distribution business. The horror stories are unbelievable. It’s like the wild west. I mean, what happened to the duty of fiduciary care to the client? Why doesn’t it apply to filmmakers? It made no sense to me. Unfortunately, it’s a real leap of faith for most filmmakers. Picture this, you spend two million dollars and two years to make a film and then all of a sudden you have to turn the rights over to a distributor who you don’t know and you don’t trust. For me, that decision was like me giving a two million dollar office building I own to a stranger and hoping that they would manage the building properly, advertise to fill vacant suites, pay the property tax and insurance, and pay me the rents that are generated. Are you kidding me?
After you get comfortable with trusting your distributor, you worry about “smaller” things, such as the marketing the distributor will do, what access do they have to VOD platforms, what’s the windowing strategy, can we get a theatrical release, do they have expense caps, is their accounting transparent, how can we mitigate risk so we’re not buried under a huge recoupment, will they continue to market the film after the release? No distributor I met could check all those boxes for me.
During this process I discovered an underserved market in which good independent films weren’t getting the attention they deserved from distributors and they couldn’t find these things either. So I’d go to all these festivals and there’s a lot of downtime between screenings and I’d talk to these other filmmakers about what was important to them in a distribution deal. And I based the entire company around the answers I got from these many independent filmmakers. To this day, the very first question I ask a filmmaker looking for distribution is “What’s important to you in a distribution deal?”
Our distribution model resonates for filmmakers because we offer a no-risk theatrical release, critical reviews in major media outlets, access to all the top VOD platforms, opportunities for the highest SVOD licensing deals, a targeted, sales-driven marketing strategy, expense caps, collaborative decision making so the filmmaker still maintains an element of control over their film, and we’re only spending money that is making money by driving sales. We’ve gotten a great response from the filmmakers.
MM: How do you decide which projects to take on?
PD: We screen a lot of films and only about half of what we see is right for us. We’re typically looking for four things:
1) High production quality — the film has to look good, sound good and the acting must be solid. We see too many films that aren’t properly lit, or they used a bad camera, or the sound design is poor or non-existent, or the acting is bad. Just one of these miscues will cause us to pass on the title.
2) A unique concept — we want something that’s fresh and new because there’s so much content out there that we feel it’s important that each film stand on its own.
3) We look for a story that’s compelling, flows well and is engaging. We can’t, in good faith, market a story that’s not good. It’s not good for us or the filmmaker.
4) Few distributors may overtly admit this because it’s not “PC”, and I list this fourth although it really should be first — we want films that are commercially marketable. It’s our job to sell films. If we don’t have the confidence that a film will appeal to certain audiences, we’ll be honest and tell the filmmaker. We can’t agree to sell a film that we don’t think we can help.
MM: Can you tell us about some of your acquisitions?
PD: Yes! It’s an exciting time for us, as we had an incredibly successful American Film Market and our calendar is full as we approach the European Film Market in Berlin in a couple of weeks.
You’re officially the first one to know that just yesterday we signed a feature film produced in the Bahamas, called Cargo. It’s a great story about a sensitive fisherman who unwittingly transforms into a prolific human smuggler to pay his debts. Without being “preachy” the film sheds light on a problem I wasn’t previously aware of through its subtle spotlight on this human rights issue. We’ve also recently signed a film produced in New York, called Such a Funny Life. It’s a story of secrets, loss, and betrayal in the main character’s pursuit to become a successful entertainer with consequences that go deeper than any one of his movie roles. We have several other great titles that we’ll be announcing within the next two weeks so that we may include them on our slate for EFM.
MM: And will you continue to produce your own in-house projects too?
PD: Yes, as a matter of fact, I’m producing two new films right now, both of which are horror films. 7 Nightmares is a horror film in an anthology format featuring seven dark and deranged tales which are expertly crafted by some of the best and brightest modern horror writers and directors. The other film is more on the lighter side of horror, with some elements of horror-comedy, animation and generally lighter horror concepts. I’ve been approached to sign on as an EP for two other bigger budget films, both with high concepts and big names attached, so I’m excited about all four films!
MM: Where do you hope to be a decade from now?
PD: I hope to be right where I am now, except to be doing more of it and with bigger numbers. I’d like to see Artist Rights Distribution operating on a broader scale to continue to help independent filmmakers in the marketing, distribution and sales of their films by providing artist-centric services to get the filmmakers the exposure and the return on their investments that they deserve. And I intend to continue producing more horror films.