How Re-Discovering a Movie from 1983 Led ‘Uncle Howard’ to Sundance and Cinemas

Aaron Brookner and Jim Jarmusch

Aaron Brookner and Paula Vaccaro

Uncle Howard continues its run at the IFC in Greenwich Village this week, less than a mile from where Howard Brookner shot his first feature, which began in 1978 as an NYU film school thesis titled Burroughs: The Movie.

But our journey began four years ago. As we searched for a viable print of that film, Aaron discovered a trove of material in a bunker on the Bowery. Our desire to discover that material soon became a commitment to recover the images and stories on those dusty reels. Like many filmmakers, our curiosity exceeded our cash flow.

Independent filmmaking is personal passion made manifest by collaboration, friendship, and funding. We turned to a Kickstarter campaign in order to cover the cost of re-mastering the feature documentary, and as a means to connect with the films past and future audiences.

Crowdfunding is a dubious business model if the goal is merely to acquire money; for us it confirmed our belief that there would be a 21st century audience for Burroughs.

In 2014, with thanks to Film Society at Lincoln Center and Kent Jones, we launched the re-mastered film at the New York Film Festival, where it had premiered in 1983. Janus Films came on board for a theatrical release, and we were honored to have it selected by Criterion Collection. The process of creative distribution for Burroughs—pitching, writing proposals, gaining support for the re-mastering—kickstarted the journey toward making Uncle Howard.

For Aaron, this was about connecting with an uncle who exerted a kind of undue influence on him – Howard Brookner died of AIDS just days before his 35th birthday when Aaron was only 7 years old. Aaron picked up his uncle’s camera at age five; his desire to become a filmmaker is inextricably linked to Howard.

At age 30, Aaron saw the opportunity to actually get to know his uncle as a man and as an artist. The reels that were stored for three decades in William S. Burroughs’ windowless bunker on the Bowery contained images of the streets where artists and addicts mingled and lived in run down tenements. The images depicted the early days of AIDS, long before high-rise condos cast shadows over Washington Square park.

Howard was part of the late ’70s and early ’80s indie film vanguard. Jim Jarmusch ran sound on Burroughs, and both he and Sara Driver appear in Uncle Howard. As leading independent filmmakers of our time, Jim and Sara are more than an inspiration to us: they have become like second family and producers on the film. Our decision to pursue creative distribution is in part inspired by filmmakers like them who have adapted to the changing distribution landscape and remained fiercely independent.

Launching Uncle Howard

By the time we reached Uncle Howard’s world premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, followed by a European premiere at the Berlinale, we had built a diverse and enthusiastic network around the film. Encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response from critics and audiences, we faced a critical decision: go with traditional distributors who would control our rights and likely pull the film from most upcoming film festivals, or try a different model. We wanted to share the film and our experience with audiences around the globe.

We are not against traditional distribution; in fact we are doing traditional distribution for the film in Mexico, UK, Spain, Italy, and Japan, with very good experiences. But our experience in the U.S. suggested we take a different path, and we decided to maximize exposure, keep control of both rights and revenue. Carrying all the expenses ourselves was scary, as it meant controlling budget and costs.

Buoyed by invitations and successful screenings at top festivals, we conferred with Sundance Institute Artist Services, other producers, several theatrical bookers, and partnered with The Film Collaborative. Together, we set dates in New York and other major markets and planned for digital a release on iTunes and a further SVOD platform in early 2017.

We underestimated how much work this would be. We were just about gassed by the time we reached Sundance, but for such a personal project and one that so many different dedicated foundations and people had invested in, we felt we owed it to everyone involved to go the extra mile.

It felt like a cinematic homecoming to screen Uncle Howard at the New York Film Festival in October. It was a great honor, but it also pushed theatrical release to the end the year, when screens are populated by heavy hitter films during their award campaigns. It will be a slow roll out, expanding across the country in December and on through January and February in film friendly cities with strong LGBTQ+ audiences—think San Francisco and Santa Fe.

A grant from Artist Services and revenue from film festivals (managed by The Film Collaborative) will fund our theatrical release. We are opening the film as a traditional booking at IFC Center. This is incredibly rare for a documentary this time of year and the first thing we did was lock down a date with the venue. Some of The Film Collaborative’s highest grossers have been films about film icons and/or queer history – we hope to replicate that past success. Knowing our base is in NYC and that reviews will drive larger market interest, NYC is our primary initial push.

We have worked with The Film Collaborative to create a tailored plan to delivering Uncle Howard to as wide an audience as possible on a cost-effective budget. They say that the Sundance brand is as good as it gets in positioning our film on digital platforms. Additionally, as producers, we expect a better return than we would have had with a traditional all rights distribution, and we have a close control of the expenses as well as input.

RJ Millard’s Obsured Pictures helped us launch at Sundance, then at NYFF in October 2016 where they previously handled Burroughs for us. We’ve hired them again for our theatrical launch in November 2016. Our associate producer on the film, Patricia Finneran, whose Story Matters handled outreach on How to Survive a Plague and helped launch Bully is with us on outreach.

For allies and partners, we have focused on film history, preservation, and queer pioneering organizations. Funds thus far have been spent on the creation of two new DCP’s, advertising in The Village Voice, and a PR team that has secured reviews in The Village Voice, The New York Times, Out Magazine, Indiewire, Film Comment, and other key media outlets. Our company, Pinball, is handling social media and continuing to connect with old friends and forge new partnerships.

We will see where this journey takes us, but by breaking up the rights of the film—although we increased the work and the expenses—we are in a position to create a plan reflected our vision for the film.

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