Milling around a food court in UCLA's Ackerman Union, the five members of the comedy troupe Broken Lizard--Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter and Eric Stolhanske--could easily be mistaken for graduate students taking a smoothie break. Instead they are waiting for the end of a screening of "Super Troopers," a film they have written, directed and starred in, so they can field questions from the college audience.
On the fifth day of a 37-day tour that will take them to 24 colleges from Seattle to New York, they are all in good spirits, excited about the trip and the nationwide release of their Fox Searchlight film on Friday.
After patiently talking one-on-one with audience members, signing some free posters and answering more questions, they will pile into a tour bus with their likenesses on the sides and ride all night to the next day's appearance in Phoenix. It's like a rock tour--without the rock stars or the groupies or the roadies.
Their driver proudly recalls such previous passengers as the Allman Brothers and the Doobie Brothers. The tour manager has a leather jacket and a British accent.
The Spinal Tap jokes are not lost on anyone.
They've traveled a long distance from their first film, the 1996 indie comedy "Puddle Cruiser," which they booked and promoted on their own at colleges around the Northeast. One of the stops was Colgate University in upstate New York, where the group was formed in 1989. Unable to secure distribution even after successful screenings at the Sundance Film Festival, they hoped the tour would both raise awareness and maybe make a little money back for the private investors who financed the $250,000 picture.
Comparing the two tours, Stolhanske jokes, "The big difference is the bus. Last time we were all stuffed into a Winnebago and did the driving, which is probably how we ended up in a frozen Vermont ditch."
"We also had to set up our own press," recalls Soter. "Now there's TV ads, radio ads, print ads. It's just bigger."
"The last one we couldn't get enough schools to take us," laments Lemme. "By the time we knew what we were doing, it was over."
So when it came time to make another film, they pursued studio financing with the assistance of Jersey Shore, the specialized arm of the Jersey Films production company, which originally saw the project as a possible TV show.
But when that fell through, they again turned to private financing.
A college friend, whom they refer to only as Cricket, introduced them to her father, a retiring investment banker interested in pursuing film finance. He provided the $1.3-million budget for "Super Troopers."
"We went in to studios and said we want to make this movie, we're going to star in it, he's going to direct it, give us the money, and we'll make it," Heffernan recalls. "And they'd just laugh, like who are you? So ultimately we had to go do it ourselves."
Adds Soter, "But the association with Jersey helped to put a more legitimate tag on the project for casting. And the investor certainly felt more comfortable because of it."
For Fox Searchlight, which paid $3.25 million for distribution rights after a midnight screening at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, the tour is no laughing matter. Although "Super Troopers" is a broad comedy about a bumbling band of small-town cops without Farrelly-style gross-outs or "American Pie"-style raciness, its R rating precludes marketing the film to anyone younger than 17. (The R rating is for language, sexual content and drug use.)
That leaves the 17-to-25 age bracket as the film's primary target. Additionally, according to Fox Searchlight's marketing president, Nancy Utley, reaching that age group requires that the film open wide on more than 1,000 screens, an extremely large number for a relatively small film.
After a post-Sundance marketing meeting, where the Broken Lizard team related their college tour experiences with "Puddle Cruiser," it was decided to use the same tactic with "Super Troopers."
Although sneak preview screenings on college campuses around the country are not uncommon, and directors or actors sometimes drop by schools in major markets--DreamWorks did this for "American Beauty" (1999) and Woody Allen often does so for his films--an outing of this scope is unusual.
The group ethos of Broken Lizard was at least partly responsible for making the tour a possibility, as the logistics of getting the creative team together for such an extended period would normally make the idea cost prohibitive and unworkable. With the troupe performing its sketch comedy routines before the movie and answering questions afterward, the tour could be a return to old-time roadshows, but with a decidedly computer-age twist.