While it is safe to say that everyone has been adversely affected by the recession, it is the small, start-up businesses that have been hurt the most. Given all that, this would not seem like an ideal time to build an independent film company. But, to hear Paper Street founders Austin Stark and Benji Cohn tell it, these tough times have worked greatly to their advantage. And therein lies the "against all odds" success story of Paper Street Films.
The two Upper East Side childhood friends formed the company 4 years ago, each bringing his different areas of expertise to the table. Stark, a Georgetown grad and English major, began writing screenplays while still in college. After graduation, he worked with producer extraordinaire Marty Richards (Serpico, Scarface,) on a number of projects, including the much anticipated but still in limbo sequel to The Boys from Brazil. Cohn, who had the foresight to quit Bear Stearns before they quit him ("that"s the reason they went under," he quips), brings with him the requisite financial acumen that keeps the business going.
The name Stark and Cohn chose for their business is also telling: "Paper Street" is an homage to the David Fincher film and cult favorite Fight Club. "Basically, we are big anarchists doing what we think is right," Stark explains, only slightly tongue-in-cheek. Of course, that doesn't mean that the bottom line never comes into play. Regarding the Mischa Barton helmed thriller Homecoming, Stark recalls that the former O.C. star was one of the few actresses of that age whom financial backers were willing to green-light at that time. While the Pittsburgh shoot was a pleasant experience, both Stark and Cohn regret that the negative press surrounding Miss Barton's personal life overshadowed the movie at the time of its release. Nonetheless, the film has found a great second life on cable, and is steadily becoming a cult favorite.
Among the other notable films Paper Street has produced over the years: 2009's Peter and Vandy, starring Jason Ritter and Jesse L. Martin, and the Werner Herzog directed My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, starring Chloe Sevigny, Willem Dafoe, and Michael Shannon. This summer will bring their most high profile release yet: the Josh Radnor directed comedy Happythankyoumoreplease, which won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and was chosen as the opening film for the GenART film festival this past April. As if this weren't good enough news, the film has secured distribution through the film and video division of publisher Hanover House, who paid a cool $1 million dollars for the rights to the film. The movie is set for release on August 27th in select cities, and will expand to an additional 20 markets nationwide Labor Day weekend.
Such a whirlwind success story would be commendable in the best of economic times, so how did Paper Street manage to pull this off at a time when production companies are folding right and left? To hear Stark tell it: "When we started [this company], we had a vision of being hands on but well-financed. So as the crisis escalated, we were well-protected , while other companies fell by the wayside. The financing gave us the ability to obtain access to material and talent that we otherwise would not have been privy too."
Which begs the question: who were the major backers? Friends - and parents of friends - involved in real estate and private equity were the primary sources. But while it certainly helps to have friends in high places, that merely gets one's foot in the door. "The content had to be there, and we still had to present great, original ideas," Stark tells me. "When your company is young and still unproven, that amounts to a lot of stress, no matter who your contacts are. Which is why our goal has always been to gain access to the best and most interesting material possible."
So with all if this sudden success, would the boys ever choose to go the blockbuster route? "You mean like Avatar?," Cohn asks without missing a beat. "It was such a spectacular film," he continues, "but if we were to do a big movie, it would have to be 'cool.'" Meaning? "It would have to have a great story and be character driven." Sounds like a tall order, but if anyone can do it, it is the unstoppable boys of "Paper Street Films."
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