Walking into the humble production office of Franklin, Tennessee-based Seabourne Pictures quickly establishes that this is a place where serious movie fans do what they love most. Blade Runner and Jurassic Park posters adorn the hallway, and desks are crowded with movie memorabilia. It could pass for a 12-year-old's bedroom, if not for the editing bay and the standees for the company's own film, After. It's clear writer/director Ryan Smith and producer Brandon Gregory love what they do.
Seabourne was founded back in 2004, and Smith then began developing After based on his own script about two bus crash survivors who wake up to find they are the only people left in their familiar town of Pearl. The strangers must pair up to discover the meaning of the strange circumstances surrounding them.
Like most independent features, the road from production to the all-important festival screenings became one of endurance. Now, almost two years since the cameras rolled, After received its red carpet premiere in Nashville on September 9, 2012.
When you sum up the story in a few paragraphs, it sounds like a cakewalk. But anyone who's ever worked in the independent film scene knows there's more to it than that. And that begs the question: how does an up-and-coming filmmaker from Tennessee get his first feature film into more than one or two local theaters without the backing of Hollywood?
As the son of famed musical artist and multiple Grammy-winner Michael W. Smith, Ryan knows how a slice of the entertainment industry works. He got his start producing music videos and, after co-founding Seabourne with dad Michael, eventually made contact with two of the key figures in the production of After: the aforementioned Tennessee-native Brandon Gregory and Sabyn Mayfield.
Sabyn Mayfield came with his own insights. As the son of successful casting director Laray Mayfield (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Sabyn himself has worked as an associate in the casting departments on Dragon Tattoo as well as 2011's Footloose remake.
With After, Sabyn officially took the reins as casting director and co-producer, helping to bring on talent such as the up-and-coming Steven Strait (co-star of the Starz series Magic City) and Karolina Wydra (most recently seen as the wife of House in its final season) for the flick's lead characters, plus Madison Lintz (The Walking Dead) and Sandra Lafferty (The Hunger Games) in key supporting roles.
Once filming was completed in Alabama and Tennessee, producer Brandon Gregory's experience working with the booking department of Carmike Cinemas over the years became integral to the film's release strategy. For starters, After was given marquee treatment at select (and major) venues by having its trailer run in theaters as far as back as December 2011. The film made its local debut as the spotlight screening of the Nashville Film Festival five months later, and from there the distribution strategy began taking shape.
Typically, an independent production is lucky to find any kind of theatrical distribution. Sure, exceptions exist (often on a much larger or high profile scale, such as Kevin Smith's Red State), but the reality is that first-time filmmakers have to have something genuinely promising in order to secure even a small platform release. Who you know in this industry helps, but the product has to be worth the investment, particularly for exhibitors.
With confidence in their film and a growing list of financial backers, Smith and Gregory mounted a grassroots campaign in an effort to distribute After entirely independent of the Hollywood studio system -- a huge undertaking.
The work has paid off so far, though: against the odds of most indie films -- and especially against self-distributed ones -- After will make its theatrical debut on Friday, September 14 in not only its hometown of Nashville, but in just under 50 screens across the southern United States. They've not only nabbed Carmike as their initial primary carrier, but other mega-chains such as Regal, Rave, and Cinemark will also be screening the film in theaters from Lufkin, Texas to Birmingham, Alabama, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to Panama City, Florida. That impressive range of audiences, including in their hometown of Nashville, will help After start building buzz.
In the day and age of $100 million budgets and widespread 2,000-3,000+ theater distributions by Hollywood studios, the success already achieved by Seabourne Pictures with After still cannot be understated. Smith and co. haven't just self-produced an independent film whose visual appeal could easily pass for something coming out of some of those bigger budget movies (including credit to Nashville-based Magnetic Dreams for their visual effects work on the film), they've begun to establish themselves as part of the future of independent filmmaking... which is to say, expanding that notion to now include independent *distribution* and working directly with exhibitors themselves. If that doesn't offer some encouragement for other writers and directors out there wondering how to get their movie in front of an audience, what will?