Backpack Filmmaking: The Hard Work Behind The Movies From Marlboro

THE BACKPACK FILMMAKER – Jay Craven has been making films on small budgets for nearly 40 years.  This summer, he’s screening his latest film, Peter & John, based on Guy de Maupassant’s 19th century seaside novel, that he shot and produced with 30 professionals and nearly three-dozen college students.  He’ll play the film, accompanied by two of his Marlboro College students, for audiences at 51 screening dates on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, where he shot the film during the spring of 2014.

Craven says that making a film now is motivated by his desire to create conditions for intensive learning that fosters critical thinking, considered practice, and multiple skills development through interdisciplinary work and study.  He’s also driven by his desire to foster sustainable place-based New England narrative filmmaking.  He tackles the increasing challenge of film distribution through intensive regional barnstorming to theaters and alternate venues (fire stations, cafes, town halls, etc.) that create distinctive community events that attract film buffs AND many people who rarely attend movie theater screenings.

“My 2007 Vermont film, Disappearances, starring Kris Kristofferson, played 286 venues and 38 countries, and it sold 120,000 DVD’s and played extensively on pay-per-view and multiple premium cable outlets,” said Craven.  “But we only returned $272,000 on $2 million in production costs.  And that was a solid release.  I needed to find a new way.”

During the late 1990’s, Blockbuster killed the market for indie filmmakers when it collapsed the revenue model where video stores paid $60 per unit for rental video.  One morning they simply announced that, from that point forward, they’d only pay $5 per unit.  In addition to that, television rights are grabbed for peanuts in a buyers’ market—and Hollywood has flooded the foreign markets that used to be crucial to independent filmmakers.” 

Now Craven, mounts a crew consisting of twenty professionals who mentor and collaborate with thirty students from a dozen colleges.  The theater, film, art, and photography students enroll in his biennial “Movies for Marlboro” film intensive semesters, to produce a high quality feature film complete with award-winning actors. The films squeeze every nickel in their $650,000 budget that includes donated locations and in-kind support from both the industry’s leading camera manufacturer, Arriflex, and prominent New York post-production houses.  Recent talent for Craven’s films includes Academy Award-nominated actors Bruce Dern and Genevieve Bujold; 2014 Golden Globe winner, Jacqueline Bisset; Emmy winner, Gordon Clapp; and Tony nominee, Jessica Hecht.

After Craven completes post-production, again aided by students, he teams up with a couple more undergrads to take the film on the road to venues in more than 100 cities and towns throughout the northeast – to help recoup costs and support the next project.  For his traveling team, 60 people constitute a small nightly audience – more than most movie theaters across town that are playing the latest Hollywood fare.  But other times his Movies from Marlboro films attract sold out shows of 200, 600, and even 1,000 people. 

At some stops, Craven and his students set up shows at local venues run by movie theater owners and community arts activists.  At others, they mount their own 8-foot projection screen, high-quality HD projector, and first-class speakers.  They also lead post-screening Q&A with each crowd after the film shows. 

“Hollywood does not look at making films as part of the well-established practice of performing arts production and presentation,” said Craven.  “We do.  We make the film and we ensure its delivery to audiences, using a non-profit performing arts model.  Most filmmakers tend to make a film and then walk away from it, expecting commercial distributors to take it from there.  But that model doesn’t work for independents.” 

“We also invest heavily in an arts education model pioneered by early 20th century innovator John Dewey who advocated “intensive learning that enlarges meaning through the shared experience of joint action.”  The educational outcomes we see are often transformative – and address many challenges now faced by leaders in higher education.  We see the delivery of a “double bottom line” – in spades.”

In order to recoup costs, Craven negotiates percentages of ticket sales when his screenings are hosted by a movie theater or arts organization.  Sometimes he’ll get 60% of a $12 cover, but sometimes it’s more.  The remaining percentage goes to the film house or cultural organization (museums, art houses, even some food vendors) supporting the film.  When he and his road warriors mount their own shows, they keep the take, deducting costs of venue rental, print and radio ads, postering, and modest fees paid to the students.

Peter and John will tour New England and New York for two years.  Craven’s next project, Wetware, is planned for the upcoming 2016 winter/spring semester.  It will be a noir thriller set in the near future, based on Craig Nova’s novel of the same name that Washington Post critic Michael Dirda called,  "A haunting, heart-stoppingly exciting, brilliantly structured novel of suspense, ideas, and subtle characterization.”

Source Contact Information

Marlboro College
Professor of Film Studies