While audacious in some elements of its distribution plan and release strategy, director Craig Brewer’s latest film, $5 Cover, is intimate in its story and reverential almost – almost – to a fault in the world it’s portraying.
$5 Cover is set in the world of the local Memphis music scene and features real life artists that exist in that world playing themselves, or at least slightly dramatized versions of themselves. Dialogue is (or at least seems) largely improvised and performances from the artists are sprinkled throughout the film. Those points, combined with Brewer’s hand-held, shoulder-level camera work that captures them gives the whole venture a very documentary feel, which in some respects it is every bit as much as it’s a narrative work.
While there is a core group of people we’re following, a group that ranges from Amy LaVere, a seemingly grounded female stand-up singer/songwriter/bass player to the eccentric, widely individual Muck Sticky, who can best be described as a skinny white dude with aspirations to become George Clinton. All the characters (I’m going to refer to them as that since, while it might not be technically correct, it’s the best shorthand I can come up with) flit in and out of the action, with the focus on Amy for a while before it transitions over to her roommate Clare and then to rapper Al Kapone and then to Sticky and then to Packy, the guy who runs the studio that they all record at because he’s cheap, plays all sorts of instruments himself and lets them come in at all hours.
All these characters come in and out of the story in much the same way instruments come in and out of a song’s mix. This one comes to the forefront but the others are still there in the background, creating a solid foundation for the once currently being featured. They all come together on-screen only a handful of times but show up in little groups, mostly while attending some other artist’s performance at a local bar or club, all the time. That creates not only a nice narrative consistency but very much portrays the notion that they’re all supporting each other. So you see someone who creates sensitive acoustic rock completely getting into it when someone’s laying down some heavy rap beats. Whether or not the music is their cup of tea, they dig the passion of the artist and want them to succeed. So they’re there.
So OK, that’s the movie. It’s really interesting and cool to watch and I really dig Brewer’s appreciation of the local music scene from his home town of Memphis. But what’s very cool is how the film is being released.
See, I keep saying “movie” but that’s not technically correct. The story is actually broken up into 15 seven to eight minute chunks that are being shown on MTV (which financed the $350,000) beginning last Friday, May 1st, with a new episode showing up each Friday after that. But TV distribution is only the tip of the iceberg. For the sake of accuracy I’m copying the ancillary points from the press release :
- AMTV – AT&T will host a full “AT&T $5 Cover Week” from 3 a.m. to 9 a.m., Mondays through Thursdays, that gives fans access to exclusive videos, interviews and short form segments.
- MTV2 – A “Memphis”-themed week beginning May 4 will include short form series episodes airing nightly for three weeks at 11 p.m., along with the documentaries, music videos, and more.
- mtvU – “$5 Cover”-themed programming, packaged music hours, interstitials, and other short form efforts will be featured, driving fivedollarcover.com.
- MTV.com and Fivedollarcover.com – Viewers can watch the content on demand, listen and download the music, learn about these artists and take a deeper dive into this fascinating scene.
- AT&T mobile phones – AT&T wireless customers will be able to access content from the series in the form of Cellular Video (CV) clips, ringtones and content available through their mobile Web browsers.
- MySpace – Exclusive content and promotion will be found on the $5 Cover community at www.myspace.com/fivedollarcover. Additionally, MySpace users may stream music from the series for free on the site. Each artist being featured in the program will utilize their official MySpace profiles to promote the show.
It really is a very cool multi-platform delivery model that uses online and mobile touchpoints not so much to advance the story but to simply provide depth to it. Download music from the artists here, view actual documentary footage there. Do all that during the week and then come back on Friday night for the next serving of the story. By that time you’ll have such a connection with the people the story is about you’ll feel like you know them more personally.
Also interesting about this is that Brewer really seems to have done it as the definition of a labor of love. He loves this scene and wanted to document it. There’s a line in one episode where a guy who video records band’s shows (he’s kind of the Brewer surrogate in the story) says that he has footage of a band that broke up and whose lead singer died recently. They never recorded anything and didn’t make much of a splash so, he says, he’s in possession of the only lasting proof the band ever existed. Likewise $5 Cover is a document of a particular time and place and might wind up being the sole time-capsule item some of these artists and bands ever get.
Part of that commitment to the community is evidenced in how he didn’t end his involvement when the cameras stopped rollling. Again I’m pasting from the release.
MTV and Brewer collaborated with the local newspaper, filmmakers, tourism bureau and film commissions to ensure that “$5 Cover” has the authenticity and involvement of the Memphis community. Acclaimed photographer and documentary filmmaker Alan Spearman, of the city’sCommercial Appeal newspaper, shot almost 150 hours of footage to make 12 mini documentaries providing insightful and remarkable portraits of the artists in the series. The Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau brought on the founders of the popular Memphis-focused Web destination “Live from Memphis” ( http://livefrommemphis.com) to produce dozens of shorts called “Flipside” to bring the viewer snapshots into the colorful local scene. Additionally, the Tennessee and Memphis Film Commissions supported the project with unique incentives and rebates to provide full support for this fledgling new form of entertainment.
You can keep up with the series and all the assorted supporting content at the $5 Cover Blog, which also will give you access to some of the preview footage that MTV brought to both the Sundance Film Festival (where I first caught wind of it) and SXSW.
I love Brewer’s idea of this being the first entry in a series, with local filmmakers covering their local music scenes in similar ways. Every city has one of varying size and it would be interesting to see a bunch of these that span the country. My only worry is that not all of them would sport the intimate touch the Brewer brought to the Memphis installment.
Not only does $5 Cover provide an interesting and intimate look at a scene that most of us are not as personally invested in or aware of but it provides an interesting case study for how to support a core feature film with cross-media executions.
Now I know that not every independent filmmaker is going to be able to secure a deal with MTV that is sponsored by AT&T and distributed in part by MySpace. But there are guideposts there that can be taken by just about anyone and scaled to the resources available to them. Shooting a documentary? Have a friend man a B-Unit camera and release that footage online in bits and chunks to support the main product. Can’t afford mobile video? That’s fine. But collect phone numbers and send your fans, friends and followers SMS updates when new content is released. Take the ideas, if not the exact executions, and use them as best you can.