After "difficult journey" of legal, financial issues, most bills paid in region
Extras fill out their paperwork and wait in a holding room in the Steuben Athletic Club after they were cast for a scene in the independent film "Sister Spirit," to be filmed later in the area of "Plastic," an Albany night club on North Pearl St., in Albany, NY, on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010. (Luanne M. Ferris / Times Union)
The feature-length independent movie shot locally was halted after an investor defaulted and a lawsuit was filed by the production company, Sister Spirit, and hundreds of Capital Region residents received checks that bounced or nothing at all for their work.
Now, most of the bills have been paid, filming was completed and the production has the green light.
The offbeat comedy is described as a chick flick with overtones of "The Hangover." The writers and co-stars are June Raphael and Casey Wilson, a "Saturday Night Live" alumna. The cast includes Alicia Silverstone, Jon Cryer and Vincent D'Onofrio.
The buddy movie is about best friends who go on a cross-country road trip to win a beauty pageant that eluded them as girls. It was shot in and around Albany during more than three weeks of location work in the summer of 2010, including a large dance scene at a North Pearl Street nightclub.
The majority of local vendors and hundreds of extras owed money for their work on the film — its working title is "Ass Backwards" — have been paid, long after some had given up hope of ever receiving compensation.
An angel investor stepped in, paid long-overdue bills and financed the final days of shooting in New York City last month. The film is being edited and will be shown at film festivals in the hope of finding a distributor and reaching theater screens in 2013.
The film was rescued by Dori Sperko, who three years ago sold National Employers Co., a Florida employee leasing company. Sperko agreed to shoulder the remaining costs of the roughly $1 million "Ass Backwards" project as its executive producer.
"It's been a really long, difficult journey that caused a lot of pain for many people," said producer Heather Rae, who produced the Academy Award-winning movie "Frozen River." Another producer, Molly Conners, an Albany native who worked with Rae on "Frozen River," also invested heavily with her own money on the project. Conners lives in Brooklyn and is a daughter of Albany County Comptroller Michael Conners.
Rae said she invested her family's life savings of $200,000 in the project, had her car repossessed and lost her Boise, Idaho home to foreclosure after financing for the low-budget indie movie fell apart. She and her husband relocated to Los Angeles.
Rae filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court in November 2010 against former IBM executive David M. Thomas, who lives in the Boston area, for defaulting on a contract for a $1 million line of credit with which he agreed to bankroll the production.
Rae's attorneys, who worked pro bono, won a judgment against a limited liability corporation, Better Late Than Never, that Thomas created for the film. It has no assets and Rae is doubtful she will ever recover monetary damages. Thomas could not be reached for comment.
"The good news is that it's a good movie and very funny," Rae said. "At the end of the day, everybody who had a part in it is going to be proud of this film."
"It had been so long, we had written it off," said James Pentaudi, who booked more than 100 local people as extras through his management firm, Albany Talent. "Now that people have been paid, it has a happy ending."
Non-union extras were owed $40 a day and members of the Screen Actors Guild were set to be paid the union minimum of $139 per day as extras. Pentaudi was supposed to receive a 10 percent commission from the extras, but those payments have only begun to trickle in.
"I've seen bankruptcies in this business and it's rare when they actually recover and make payments," Pentaudi said.
"The girls did the best they possibly could and made sure people got paid," said casting agent Rita Powers, based in New York City, who cast more than 200 extras. "They lost a lot of money themselves and it was a very rough ride."
The producers were able to negotiate a lower payment with most creditors. Not everyone was happy with those arrangements.
"I'm not going to take pennies on the dollar," said Steven Feldman, owner of Birch Hill Catering in Schodack, who is owed nearly $9,000 for feeding 150 members of the cast and crew during shooting. He also wants interest.
"I'm not going to write it off. I expect full payment before they show that movie," he said."
Jennie Glasser, of Tremont Rentals in Averill Park, said her firm has not been paid the $900 it was owed for tent rentals. "We gave up sending out invoices, but we'll re-send it now that we might get paid," she said.
Rae said about 95 percent of the people owed money negotiated a lower payment "because they understood the distressed nature of our business."
It was the first time in 20 movies she produced that Rae was burned. "We did the same procedure we normally do to make sure an investor is legitimate and we'd never faced this problem before," Rae said. "I learned a hard lesson. From now on, I make sure an investor funds every single dollar up front."
Rae hopes that once-disgruntled local folks have forgiven Sister Spirit now that most of its bills have been repaid.
"This was a very humbling experience, but if the Albany community wants us to come back, we'd do a premiere there," Rae said. "We appreciate Albany, it's Molly's hometown and we'd be thrilled to come back to show everyone the great movie they helped us make."
firstname.lastname@example.org • 518-454-5623 • @PaulGrondahl
SOURCE: Paul Grondahl TimesUnion.com
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