One Indie Movie’s Hollywood Ending

matt mcgrath william h macy and andy fowle in robert bellas colin fitz lives courtesy of ifc films One Indie Movie’s Hollywood Ending

Blame Kevin Smith, or perhaps Edward Burns. They took their little indie films (Clerks and The Brothers McMullen, respectively) to the festival circuit in the mid-’90s, grabbed a distribution deal and went on to fame and fortune. “The popular story that got everyone’s attention at the time was the young filmmaker who put the entire film on his credit card,”  actor William H. Macy told The Observer. “His parents mortgaged their house and he sold his car, and it went to Sundance and Harvey Weinstein brought it for $8 million and everybody got healthy.

“But for every one of those stories, there’s a Colin Fitz. There are a lot of very expensive home movies out there.”

The long and (rather incredible) winding road for Colin Fitz, in which Mr. Macy co-stars, ends on Wednesday, Aug. 4, when the film is resurrected as Colin Fitz Lives! and available on demand via Sundance Selects. For those keeping score at home, that’s more than 13 years after it premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival, in 1997.

Colin Fitz is a very witty film about two security guards (Matt McGrath and Andy Fowle) guarding the grave of rock star Colin Fitz on the anniversary of his death. Over the course of the evening, beers are chugged, epiphanies are had and a bunch of very familiar faces show up in supporting roles-in addition to Mr. Macy, there’s Martha Plimpton, John C. McGinley, Julianne Philips, Mary McCormack and Chris Bauer.

Shot over two weeks at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx for $150,000-and completed in postproduction for an additional $100,000-Colin Fitz went from table reads to the film festivals in six months. “It was pretty crazy how fast it happened,” said Colin Fitz screenwriter Tom Morrissey.

But that was just about the only thing that went quickly: Despite the positive reception the film received at festivals-New York Times critic Caryn James called it a “deftly amusing dark comedy” when it premiered at Sundance, and it was named “Best of the Fest” at the Austin Film Festival-finding an acceptable distribution deal proved difficult. “Deals were offered,” director Robert Bella said in an email to The Observer, “but unfortunately none of them would cover all of our finishing costs. … I tried for over a year after Sundance to try and secure a deal that would allow me to pay everyone back and get the film, as well as myself, out of hock.”

For Mr. Morrissey, it was a hurdle he never expected to encounter. “It was terribly disappointing,” he said. “It started to feel that it was easier to write and make a movie than it is to get it distributed. You have to answer the question from your aunts and uncles and everyone you know: ‘When am I going to get to see your movie?’ It was very frustrating-‘I don’t know … maybe soon?’ And then your voice just trails off.”

Said Mr. Macy: “There can be bit of shame attached to [not getting a deal]. We went to Sundance and didn’t sell. It’s like when someone goes into rehab, you don’t want to go, ‘Hey, I heard you’re a drunk!'”

While friends, family and the general public weren’t able to watch Colin Fitz, the film had a loyal following. “There was a cult status that it went into-people writing about it online, scenes went onto YouTube,” said Matt McGrath. “People were carrying this torch for this thing.”

Those fans plus the persistence of director Robert Bella kept Colin Fitz alive. “For nearly a decade, I slowly paid down the debts and bought back the pieces,” Mr. Bella said. “Little by little, the total amount owed got smaller and the finishing costs were reduced, which ultimately made it much easier to sell the film.”

That and some new, never-before-seen talking-head interviews (including Fitz fan Harry Knowles), which further fleshed out the film. “IFC felt that the new footage helped frame the original story in a great way, while allowing them to release a new film, rather than one from 1997,” said Mr. Bella. Arianna Bocco, IFC/Sundance Select’s vice president of acquisitions and distribution, purchased this version of the film, newly titled Colin Fitz Lives!, from Mr. Bella over drinks.

“It just sounded like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ After 14 years-we made it in 1996-I didn’t even think Robert was still plugging away at this,” said Mr. McGrath. “I’m curious to see it, especially this version.”

Mr. Bella told The Observer that he paid for the delivery of the original Sundance cut to IFC, and hoped that they would release both versions of the film eventually.

As for Mr. Morrissey, forgive him for still having a bit of trepidation, even on the eve of the release. “Honestly, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I think after 13 years, I was entitled to think that. But now that it’s finally here … will I tell my aunts and uncles to go watch it? Definitely.”

editorial@observer.com