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MOVIES | FROM SLAMDANCE TO SUNDANCE | FILM CLIPS

Maybe There's a Role for Johnny Carson

May 26, 1996|Kathleen Craughwell

It's been a big year for the heartland, cinematically speaking. The summer's first blockbuster, "Twister," takes place in tornado-alley Oklahoma. The Minnesota-born Coen brothers returned to their roots to make the critically acclaimed "Fargo," released in March. Robert Altman's "Kansas City," about the '30s jazz scene, will hit theaters later this summer. And arriving Friday is "Omaha (The Movie)," the self-distributed debut film of 29-year-old writer-director Dan Mirvish.

Mirvish, a USC film school grad who grew up in Nebraska and now lives in Los Angeles, has spent the last year showing his movie in theaters in some 30 cities. (He is billing the 7 p.m. Friday showing at downtown's Laemmle Grande as a "gala premiere," complete with the stars of the film, and a steak and corn giveaway to all fellow Nebraskans.)

Although he had several distribution offers, he and co-producer Dana Altman (grandson of Robert) decided to do it themselves. Mirvish founded Bugeater Releasing (named after the long-ago nickname of the University of Nebraska football team) and started booking venues in Midwest cities such as Omaha, Kansas City and Cincinnati. The film has grossed more than its $38,000 production cost, Mirvish says.

"We were told the distribution would cost at least $100,000 but we've done everything ourselves and it's ended up paying for itself. And we've done remarkably well in multiplex and mall theaters against films like 'GoldenEye' and 'While You Were Sleeping.' "

He made "Omaha" while in USC's School of Cinema-Television, but when he found out that as a condition of using school equipment and facilities the university would own the film, he utilized the little-used option of finding his own equipment and funds to ensure rights to the film. "It was hard, I couldn't even use a USC photocopier, but it was definitely worth it to own my own film."

When his film was rejected by the Sundance Film Festival in 1995, Mirvish and several fellow rejectees founded the Slamdance Festival, a cheeky alternative to Sundance.

The real fun came in actually making the movie. When Mirvish shyly asked then-Omaha Mayor P.J. Morgan if he would be interested in making a cameo performance, the mayor responded enthusiastically, showing up on the set on his Harley Davidson in full leather biker regalia. Not wanting to be outdone by the conservative mayor, Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, asked if he also could be in the film. Mirvish obliged, swiftly cranking out a part for Nelson.

With the governor and mayor on board, Mirvish had no problem getting local restaurants to donate food for cast and crew in exchange for a film credit. Even Mirvish's mother, Sylvia, baked cookies every day during production and is listed in the credits as the film world's first "cookie grip."

"My mom's cookies are great. Even Bob [Altman] wanted some sent to the 'Kansas City' set."

But perhaps the sweetest irony for Mirvish is that "Omaha," a tale of a spiritually enlightened if hapless Nebraska son who must elude two bumbling jewel thieves while searching for his "perfect peace," will start airing on the Sundance Channel on June 3; it is the only Slamdance film to be picked up by the cable outlet.

"I'm still not sure if they knew I was the Slamdance guy. And I didn't ask till after I signed the contract."

So what's next for the director who passes out fliers advertising his own film on weekends, often runs the projector himself and serves doughnuts at press screenings?

"My next script is 'Stamp and Deliver,' a modern-day postal western, and the last in what I call my Nebraska trilogy is the one that will probably get me kicked out of Nebraska permanently: 'Make Love, Not Steak.' "

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