Director: Rob Meyer
Writers: Rob Meyer, Luke Matheny
Producers: Kirsten Duncan Fuller, Lisa K. Jenkins, Dan Lindau, R. Paul Miller
Budget: Approximately $1 million
Financing: Private Equity, Grants
Production: 20 days, August-September 2012
Shooting Format: ARRI Alexa Digital HD
Screening Format: DCP
World Premiere: 2013 Tribeca Film Festival
Sideways meets Stand by Me in this endearing story of friendship, family and a place in bird watching’s history books. On the eve of his widower father’s second wedding, 15-year-old David Portnoy spots what may just be the extinct Labrador duck. Now he and the two other stalwart members of the local Young Birders Society, joined by their headstrong photographer classmate Ellen, take off on a rollicking, interstate road trip in search of a rare bird and elusive answers to teenage questions large and small.
Development & Financing
The genesis for Rob Meyer’s first feature, A Birder’s Guide to Everything, sprang from his 2008 short film, Aquarium. Performing well on the festival circuit and even earning an honorable mention at Sundance, the film put Meyer on the map, landed him an agent and gave him the kind of validation he needed to start thinking about expanding the material for his feature debut.
Inspired by “‘80s coming-of-age road trip movies with 15 year-olds in over their heads out in the real world,” he crafted a rough outline of the story, keeping the overarching characters and themes from Aquarium but transforming the children from avid fish enthusiasts to eager bird watchers. Needing an endeavor for them to actively pursue, Meyer understood that, “the Macguffin…would be better as a bird than as a fish.”
When it came time to flesh out his ideas for a full-length screenplay, Meyer turned to fellow NYU Film School alum, Luke Matheny. Meyer admired Matheny’s previous work—the short film Earano and the Academy Award®-winning God of Love—and recognized that they shared a “humanistic, comedy-with-heart sensibility.” Because Matheny couldn’t afford to take the summer off to work on Birder’s Guide, Meyer was able to use some prize money that he won at a festival to pay him to work on the script part-time. This also served as a blessing in disguise because, with money on the line, the pair really took the project seriously and were able to finish a first draft in 2009.
Once complete, Meyer and Matheny sent a first draft of Birder’s Guide to Gersh, the former’s agency at the time and, based off their notes, completed another pass on the script in 2010. Gersh also connected them with independent production company, Crossroads Films, known for critically acclaimed work, including Igby Goes Down and Snow Angels. Teaming with two of its producers, Dan Lindau, CEO and Paul Miller, Head of Production, they began strategizing on how to secure financing.
Using Lindau and Miller’s previous relationships with Emmy Award-winning casting director, Avy Kaufman, and CAA’s Chris Miller, the filmmakers managed to attract Oscar®-winner Sir Ben Kingsley to the project in 2010. According to Meyer, Sir Ben “really loved the material, the voice of the characters, the humor in the script and the deadpan tone of it.” It also helped that they only needed the in-demand actor for five days of filming.
Next, the producers considered what price point was the best and most responsible. When they went through the original, ambitious script, they came up with a strategy to approach larger industry companies who typically would invest at a scale of $3-4 million with two to three big name actors. Over a few years, they nearly secured this amount in private equity, but each time they got their hopes up, the capital ultimately fell through. During this period (2008-2010), studios dropped their independent arms and, with the financial crisis hitting hard, equity financiers of these types of films seemed to dry up as well.
While this was happening, in 2009, the film received the Chris Columbus/Richard Vague Film Production Award of $50k given to promising scripts to help with development. “I still can’t get over the generosity and the confidence that gives you as a filmmaker to get that,” remarked Meyer, “especially by a filmmaker I admire like Chris Columbus.” That year, Meyer was in good company with Dee Rees’ Pariah and Andrew Maclean’s On the Ice also being recognized. Next, Meyer submitted the script to Sundance’s Screenwriters Lab. Although the script did not get accepted, Sundance recommended that he apply for an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, which he did in 2010 and was awarded $15k to assist with development and production. In 2011 Birder’s Guide also received a boost from the Tribeca Film Institute and the Sloan Foundation with a $30k production grant as well as the Sundance Institute and Sloan Foundation’s Feature Film Fellow Bridge Grant of $25k. These grants seemed to come at opportune moments when Meyer was losing confidence: “I had my white whale and I kept chasing this dream that felt like it was never going to happen,” said Meyer.
This grant money gave the project momentum; while it was used for development, it also meant that they had a significant amount of money when approaching investors.
By 2011, in a new landscape of financing and distributing, the filmmakers revisited the script, with an eye toward lowering the budget by cutting pages and losing expensive elements, without losing the essence of the story. At this point, the question considered was what could they reasonably expect in terms of their ability to execute at a lower budget, and what they could expect to raise and return at this smaller scale. They landed on a budget of just under $1 million and continued to seek out equity financiers at this adjusted budget.
At this point, an offer came in for a portion of the budget from Dallas with the stipulation that the film be shot in Texas. The script was rewritten for the new location and the filmmakers were able to use some of the grant money to start scouting in Texas. In the end, not enough money was raised to make the film possible in the state, so the production returned to New York, where it was determined that there was better value in shooting there, considering the wealth of local talent, a generous tax rebate, and the locations, which were a more natural fit for the story.
The production was also able to use the New York State tax credit (30%) toward the cost of production. Initially, they went to banks to get a loan for this amount (but were considered too small), and ultimately they found an investor willing to loan the amount of the credit, with the promise of a return on his investment. To explain how financing the tax rebate works: if the tax rebate was $125k, the filmmakers would borrow $100k and the lender makes his money on the difference. So in order to do this, a deep understanding of what qualifies for the credit and how to access it is necessary. Otherwise, the production could be on the hook for a good deal of money if they can’t get the full amount of the anticipated credit.
Along with the tax credit and grants, the film ended up being financed by the financiers out of Texas as well as several investors based in NYC. It was important to Meyer that every investor felt good about what he or she was getting into: “I actually do think that for independent films to keep being healthy, people have to feel really good as investors and producers and executive producers,” remarked Meyer, “Otherwise people are going to feel burnt and not want to support another film. So it was important to me that everyone got something out of the film even before the money started coming back, which [as of this writing] is now just starting to happen.” He also added that all of the investors loved the script and believed in his vision, so they had no interest in making major changes.
To support himself in the four years that it took to get the film made, Meyer began doing promotional non-profit videos under the banner of his production company There We Go Films, which eventually led to higher-end brand videos. Knowing how to shoot on a shoestring budget and owning his own equipment helped him carve out a niche in this line of work while giving him the flexibility to adapt Birder’s Guide on the side.
Acknowledging the challenges of such a protracted process, especially after Aquarium was well-received and it seemed like he had momentum on his side, Meyer takes pride in the side business that he has developed. “It took years and so much persistence and a lot of swallowing of my pride to keep with it and make the film happen,” he remarks, “but one of the silver linings was that it did force me to create and make this whole branded content-creation company.” Meyer now has the luxury of working on brand videos while writing or pitching and not having to rely on an office job to make ends meet. In addition, his self-sufficiency has made having a personal life much easier and allowed him to start a family.
The filmmakers readied themselves for production, scheduling the 20-day shoot around Kingsley’s full schedule. They found a window where he was available for five days between filming Iron Man 3 and Ender’s Game. About 4-6 weeks before production began, casting was well under way with Avy Kaufman filling the other roles, including Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) in the lead role; James LeGros as his reticent father; and up-and-coming actors Alex Wolff, Michael Chen and Katie Chang to round out David’s ragtag group of friends. Because they were facing a serious time crunch, the production could not allocate any days for rehearsal, which made it vital for them to find experienced young actors. While Meyer wished that he could have had more time to work with his actors, he also thinks, as a filmmaker, that there can be a danger to over-rehearsing as well.
During location scouting for the film, producer Dan Lindau offered his house in Chappaqua, NY in Westchester County for the production and was also able to get many of the neighboring towns to waive their film permit fees due to his local connections. They spent $30-40k on feeding, transporting and housing the cast and crew in the local area rather than have them commute from the city. It really helped “create the right atmosphere,” says Meyer, “and it meant that no one was stuck in traffic trying to get home or to a different location.”
For the forest scenes, the production used Teatown Lake Reservation (through Lindau’s connections); they established a good relationship with its staff and eventually returned there to host a special screening of the film. Teatown also happened to have a rescue bird sanctuary, and many of the birds from their rehabilitation program were used in the film. It proved easy to scout locations that were no more than 5-10 minutes from parking lots so that they could maximize their time on set.
Leading up to the shoot, Meyer also recruited friends who owned RED cameras and did a camera test day with the Alexa, to get close-ups of birds for the film. The filmmakers also enlisted the help of “bird whisperers” who knew the area well and understood how to draw birds out into the open. It was helpful to have all of these close-ups of waterfowl going into production, and they also later partnered with the Cornell Macaulay Library to incorporate songbird sounds into the film during post. They also took advantage of a connection that their post-production supervisor had with a famous aerial helicopter photographer who allowed them access to his chopper in exchange for the price of gas. For scenes in which the actors witnessed bird migration in the film, they captured aerial footage from the chopper and then eventually used CGI to add the birds during post.
Birder’s Guide began principal photography in August of 2012. The filmmakers had to be incredibly organized because of Kingsley’s limited availability and the absence of Kodi Smit-McPhee (who is in nearly every scene of the film) for one day of shooting due to previous press commitments for ParaNorman.
Despite the relative ease they had in finding locations to shoot, the production did face its fair share of difficulties. Working with wildlife proved taxing, especially under such rigid time restrictions. “There are no such thing as trained birds or ducks,” says Meyer, “That was really challenging.” In addition, they had to contend with sound issues from cicadas in the woods and planes flying overhead. As much as he loved working with teens, Meyer conceded that it does restrict the time that you have as a filmmaker since it’s essential that you respect child labor laws, which strictly limit the time a minor can spend on set each day. However, shooting in the summer meant that he didn’t need to have teachers on set.
Festival Preparation and Strategy
After the film wrapped in September, the filmmakers had Sundance in mind, especially with Meyer’s previous connection to the festival with his award-winning short. Also, they knew that their odds of attracting a buyer increased exponentially by premiering the film in a marketplace such as Sundance or Toronto. To meet the Sundance deadline, he submitted a rough cut of Birder’s Guide, but unfortunately the film was not accepted into the festival. They also faced stiff competition from Jordan Vogt-Robert’s thematically similar film, Kings of Summer, which Sundance had accepted that year.
Next, they considered submitting the film to SXSW, but they ultimately settled on the Tribeca Film Festival for their debut. Tribeca proved a great fit with the film’s New York roots and its connection to TFI funding that allowed it to get off the ground in the first place. Ahead of its premiere, the filmmakers brought on board sales agent John Sloss from Cinetic Media and also hired publicity firm PMK to promote the screening. Even without Ben Kingsley and Kodi Smit-McPhee at the premiere (due to other film commitments), Birder’s Guide generated good press coming out of Tribeca and also helped raise the profile of the other young actors who were in attendance. The filmmakers hosted an after-party at the Jane Hotel to create a big splash, and hopefully attract a buyer for distribution.
In the end, Screen Media and Focus World partnered to acquire Birder’s Guide, purchasing all U.S. rights to the film, offering an advance (undisclosed). As part of their agreement, Screen Media and Focus World did guarantee that the film would be presented on at least 12 screens across the U.S.; it ended up playing on 25 screens total nationwide.
Screen Media International is managing all of the film’s international rights, although the filmmakers have retained John Sloss as a consultant. So far, they have sold the film in foreign territories, including Canada, Italy, Latin America and the Middle East.
On March 21, 2014 Birder’s Guide received a limited release across the U.S. It received strong reviews in the New York Times, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. The film also currently holds a 90% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While the the film only grossed a modest amount in the box office, the P&A costs were kept low so additional debt was not incurred. The release was thought of more as a way to garner reviews and attract birding and other special interest groups to give the film a chance to catch on.
Focus World also provided an Ultra-VOD release on digital platforms, including iTunes, 10 days prior to its theatrical run. The filmmakers just received their first quarterly report and are beginning to earn dividends from their VOD release. And while financiers are slowly starting to see a return on their investment, digital platform sales are still a “work-in-progress,” and it will most likely take a few years for them to recoup their funding.
During this process, Focus was in the midst of closing its New York offices, which presented its own set of challenges regarding the film’s placement on VOD. “The thing to ask distributors as a filmmaker is where are you going to place my film when it comes out on VOD?” says Meyer, “And can you promise me that you’re going to fight to the end and get it in the ‘New Releases’ or the ‘Hot Picks’ sections?” Due to the excess of independent films produced today, it not only becomes about how to attract a buyer, but also how to stand out in a crowded marketplace. According to Meyer, “Unless your film is featured somewhere or people have heard of it before, you’re going to get lost.”
Birder’s Guide has also exhibited at multiple regional festivals, including Aspen, Woodstock, Austin and Williamstown. Meyer also recommends that filmmakers be proactive if they are interested in playing foreign festivals rather than taking a backseat with international sales agents making decisions about a festival rollout. Currently, the film has just started screening on the international circuit, including the Rome Film Festival (with a dubbed version in Italian).
In terms of his relationship with the Sloan Foundation, Doron Weber has become a friend and champion of Meyer’s and put him in touch with several science advisors to help with the project. The filmmakers held a special screening as part of the Science on Film series, which the Sloan Foundation sponsored, so they helped a little bit on the distribution end. In conjunction with Sloan, they also hosted a screening in Boston in which one of their science advisors, Kenn Kaufman, participated in an engaging Q&A about the film’s issues.
Birder’s Guide also aligned with the Sloan Foundation’s mission with its message of “encouraging young people to become birders or ornithologists and get in touch with nature.” According to Meyer, Sloan “never pushed to add more science to the script.” Rather, they appreciated the fact that the film was accessible to the general public and not too dry or esoteric. Meyer’s partnership with Sloan also benefited from his previous work on wildlife documentary series such as NOVA and collaborations with organizations such as National Geographic. Furthermore, his background as an Environmental Science major also made it so that he could talk with some degree of “authority and passion” on the film’s subject matter and get audiences interested in the natural world while touring with the film.
When it comes to applying for a Sloan Grant, Meyer advises filmmakers to first have a film that they are passionate about making and hope that it fits Sloan’s criteria: “I wouldn’t recommend trying to reverse engineer a script that you think you can get a Sloan grant for because your heart probably won’t be in it.”
ADVICE FROM THE FILMMAKER
Rob Meyer: “John Tintori, the Chair of NYU’s Film Department, put it really simply about how to succeed as a filmmaker which is to just ‘get your next film made.’ Everybody’s in the same boat in that you make a film and hope that it will ultimately lead to an opportunity to make another film.”
“It is also important to manage one’s expectations as to what exactly ‘success’ means. Not every film is going to be Little Miss Sunshine or The Spectacular Now. Some films are runaway successes, but I’m really proud of this success, and a lot of films don’t get released on thousands of screens and don’t make millions of dollars. And it’s really helping me move toward making my next film. If you can manage expectations in this crazy industry and if you can just say ‘I’m optimistic that I’m going to be able to make another film,’ then you’re doing something right.”