Shooting for Success
Dean Hyers never actually says, "You can take the boy out of the business, but you can't take the business out of the boy"--but he might as well. After nearly a decade in the business world, the cofounder of the media communications company Digital Café has made the jump to independent filmmaking, and he has brought all of his aphorisms with him.
The driving force behind Bill's Gun Shop, which wrapped last month after shooting for five weeks in Robbinsdale, Edina, Lilydale, and St. Paul, Hyers is spinning his latest endeavor as both a return to his roots and a direct extension of his previous business success. The advertising influence is evident: After eight years of creating Web sites, screen savers, and computer games for A-list clients, the Denmark, Minnesota, resident seems preprogrammed for catch phrases. A day on the set yields: "We're getting feature coverage at an indie pace." "Work like dogs, play like children." "All I want is everything." "Responsibility leaves no wreckage." "I love business and I love art. I love art more."
The first time Hyers appears, in fact, he's showing off his new Bill's Gun Shop baseball cap. "This isn't what the actual hats are going to look like," he tells Bill, the actual owner of an actual store in Robbinsdale called Bill's Gun Shop, where Hyers spent time as an angry young man and where he's filming today. A week before the film has wrapped, and nearly a year before it's likely to debut in finished form, the director-entrepreneur and uncredited script consultant is planning merchandise. What's more, there's already a marketing superstructure in place, the scope of which soon makes it clear that this independent film is far from the charge-it-on-Mom's-card variety.
Although it's difficult to picture the goateed filmmaker as anything but buoyant and earnest--thirtysomething going on a well-behaved eleven--rumor has it that the hard-boiled Bill's Gun Shop plot stems from an episode in Hyers's own life. True, the rumor is his own, and he's stingy with details, revealing only that at one point in his late teens, he found himself aiming a gun at someone--an act he has spent the years since trying to either justify or understand. In his movie this penultimate scene is transferred to Dillon (Scott Cooper), a suburban college kid with a gun fetish who takes a job at a gun shop. In short order Dillon bangs his boss's wife, befriends a bounty hunter (Victor Rivers, who played the swordsman's brother in The Mask of Zorro), and tags along on a bounty hunt. A 20-minute rough-cut segment screened at the City Pages offices in June offered a series of quiet, character-driven scenes--Dillon's first day of work, Dillon scorned by the woman he has been dating, Dillon before a mirror doing a variation of De Niro's "You talkin' to me?" routine--before launching into a quick-cut action montage featuring guns, guns, and more guns, with escalating consequences. As Hyers would say: It's a mainstream plot with indie edge.
If Hyers has his catch phrases down cold, he also has a solid backstory: Grew up in St. Peter. Spent his teenage years making feature-length, Super-8 films with his brother. Defied the advice of his mentor, Dan Bacaner (executive producer of the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple), who advised him to embrace poverty and throw himself into filmmaking after college. Founded Digital Café with his wife Kim and college buddy Mike Koenigs as an attempt to earn enough money to make movies on the side. Found wild success. Sold Digital Café to Campbell, Mithun, Esty in 1998 for an undisclosed sum. Quit CME to make movies--just as new high-definition digital-video technology arrived to provide a low-cost format option. This meant that, first, the Digital Café partners' technological experience could be pitched as eminently transferable and relevant; and, second, that Bill's Gun Shop would be among the first independent feature films shot in the new medium.
If it all comes off as slightly too neat a package, asserting a tidiness and an orderly progression that's rarely demonstrated in life, it should also be said that Hyers's innate ability to spin is coupled with an absolute guilelessness and open sense of wonder. His movie set is friendlier than a church potluck, and more than one crew member pulls me aside to tell me that Hyers has been like a little kid at Christmas for the entire month.
For the moment, think of Bill's Gun Shop not as the artistic expression it will eventually become, but as a business venture in which the same people responsible for delivering a quality product are also responsible for selling that product. "A lot of people forget about the investors once they get their money," Hyers says. "I owe it to them to care about this a lot."
Look at it this way: Hyers had a marketing plan before he had a movie. The Bill's Gun Shop Web site (www.billsgunshop.com), which offers browsers the opportunity to sign up for a newsletter as well as various sweepstakes, has been up and running since early this spring. Just after shooting began, Minneapolis resident Kirstin Anderson won a role in the film. (Coincidentally, a news show was doing a piece on extras that very day, so, together with a full hair and makeup treatment and a day spent filming closeups, Anderson was also on television that night.) Five other sweepstakes entrants have won autographed copies of the currently incomplete movie.
Within the next year, while gearing up for the festival circuit, there are plans to launch as many as six Bill's Gun Shop Web sites that target various potential moviegoers by demographic. One site will review movies based on the accuracy of the weaponry--just as a character in the movie does. Another will create a bounty hunter interface that links to a list of wanted fugitives in the state--just like the program that a bounty hunter uses in Gun Shop. The ultimate plan, à la Blair Witch, is to generate a roster of 250,000 potential audience members (called "registered users" on the Web site), and then shop those names to distributors along with the film. (If all this sounds a bit far-fetched, it might help to remember that this is the same team of people that managed to make a great deal of money on a John Tesh CD-ROM.)
Investors in Bill's Gun Shop also get a piece of Promoflix.com, a new venture devoted to promoting, marketing, and selling entertainment on the Web. "We figured that as long as we were going to be marketing an independent film, we might as well use it as a test case for a business that does that for other people's movies," says Hyers.
Clearly, Hyers loves business. Regardless of whether the finer points of marketing were second nature when the aspiring auteur graduated from college, they are now. And Hyers might, as he says, love art more, but his pragmatic approach to it is remarkably businesslike--the opposite of the monomaniacal behavior one might expect from the prototypical independent filmmaker. Though the Bill's Gun Shop story is his own, he hired director and filmmaker Rob Nilsson to write the script--and, following that collaboration, he cast himself in the role of Nilsson's protégé, serving an extended apprenticeship on the L.A. shoot of Nilsson's film Scheme. Upon returning to Minneapolis, he established an actors' workshop modeled directly on Nilsson's working methods. Two nights a week for ten weeks this winter, Hyers directed 20 actors in improv exercises and scenes from the Bill's Gun Shop script. While artists are most often associated with egoism and disdain for business, it doesn't necessarily follow that a good businessman and all-around team player can't also produce good art. Whether all of Hyers's artistic choices will complement his business choices, of course, remains to be seen.
Certainly, Nilsson is a curious associate for a man who conceives of his independent film as a viable business venture (although he certainly serves as Exhibit A in the near-airtight case against any critic tempted to label Hyers a rich young dilettante dabbling in mass culture). A populist when it comes to cinema, and a filmmaker who casts his productions from the Tenderloin Group, his actors' workshop for the homeless, Nilsson has spent three decades riding the festival circuit with little commercial success, despite having won both a Camera D'Or at Cannes (for 1978's Northern Lights) and the Grand Prize at Sundance (for 1987's Heat and Sunlight).
Nilsson himself has nothing but praise for Hyers's working methods: "More power to Dean," he says. "The arrogance of these young directors who think they know anything about human behavior. Dean learned how to immerse himself in the process. Actors are trying to be true to the moment of impulse. It's a difficult process and Dean had the guts to be humble about it--and therefore he armed himself and got really prepared."
At present, Hyers has had more than his share of the trials and tribulations of low-budget filmmaking. In person, he's as bright-eyed as ever, but he has wilted a bit around the edges. First, there was the rushed ending, which he had to write and film before his actors were hustled back to L.A. for good. Then there was the pace: six to twelve pages shot each day in May, compared with the typical three-page Hollywood average. Most recently, there have been marathon editing sessions to meet festival deadlines. In early June he compiled a 20-minute cut for the "works in progress category" of New York's Independent Feature Film Market. By the August Sundance deadline, he hopes to have a full-length rough cut.
A longer road lies ahead once the film is done, regardless of its relative success or failure. "All filmmakers have to commit to bleed until the last straw," says Nilsson, who has shopped his own films across the country for decades. "You are the person who sweeps up the popcorn after the last failed screening in a little town in South Dakota. If Dean's marketing campaign works famously, and the film delivers, this will show all over. If the film doesn't have fortune or genius, he still has to carry it through to the conclusion. I know Dean knows that."
Ultimately, as in advertising, the invisible hand of the marketplace (with a push or two from significant distributors and festival gatekeepers) will decide the fate of Bill's Gun Shop. Are festivals in the market for a men-with-guns indie several years after the genre's post-Tarantino peak? Are post-Million Mom March audiences in the market for a movie that's sympathetic to gun ownership? Are distributors in the market for another "indie"--or has the term become as tired as "edge" has in ad circles? Will the Web audience catch on? If it does, will it make a difference with the people who count?
One imagines that whatever the outcome, the currently undaunted Dean Hyers will have something to say about it. And whether it's the generous "Luck is earned" or the more sanguine "Failure is the start of success," one also imagines that it will fit on his next movie's merchandise quite nicely.
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