One of the inherently intriguing backstories of the Sundance Film Festival are the reports of independent filmmakers who — against all odds and on a shoestring budget — acquire big-time distributors for their small-time creations.
But for every fairy tale ending of an underdog director finding cinematic redemption with an invite to Sundance, there are countless others who must deal with the harsh reality of rejection.
Underdog directors like Ryan McDonald and Jason White.
After years of work — mostly on weekends and evenings in between their day jobs — each of the Weber County men submitted their first feature-length films to this year’s Sundance competition. McDonald entered “Married and Loving It”; White entered “The Truth About Us.”
Neither film was chosen for the prestigious festival, which opens Thursday, Jan. 23, in Park City and continues through Feb. 2 there and at satellite venues in Salt Lake City and Sundance Resort.
So, what does that kind of rejection feel like?
“Well, one can’t help but feel a little disheartened,” McDonald admitted after getting the bad news. “But at the same time, we were shooting for the moon.”
McDonald is both practical and philosophical about the Sundance experience, noting that while thousands of hopefuls from all over the world submit their films each year, as the old saying goes, "You can’t win if you don’t send it in."
“So the odds are already against you,” the Ogden man said. “It’s definitely disappointing. But then, it’s always a ‘no’ if you never try.”
Despite the Sundance setback, McDonald and White say they’ll continue to pursue their passion and submit their films to festivals around the country, hoping to get them in front of an ever-larger audience.
“I submitted ‘Married and Loving It’ to probably 60 festivals across the globe,” McDonald said in early December, just before the Sundance selections were announced. “If I get in (to Sundance), that would be spectacular. But if not, I’m looking forward to hopefully getting into the next festival.”
Indeed, as of early January, McDonald is now up to a whopping 72 festivals to which he’s submitted his movie. And in any event, he’s set a goal to have “Married and Loving It” distributed on Amazon Prime by the end of the year.
For his part, White — who has submitted his film to more than a dozen festivals around the country — is taking the Sundance news in stride.
“I’d love to get picked up by all the festivals, but realistically, if I get into one or two, I’d consider that a success,” White said. “There are a lot of interesting stories out there to tell, so it’s very competitive. It’s like winning the lotto.”
White says he spent about $10,000 to make his movie, McDonald is close to $6,000 out-of-pocket.
New Ogden Cinema
McDonald grew up in Ogden. He attended Fremont High School, then went off to Florida where he worked on a bachelor’s degree in film at the University of Central Florida.
White was born in California, but his family moved to West Haven when he was age 15. He, too, attended Fremont High School, and now lives in South Ogden.
About nine years ago, the two longtime friends created a local, loose affiliation of filmmakers and film buffs. Called New Ogden Cinema, the idea behind the organization was to provide a place for local filmmakers to learn from — and lean on — one another. Their Facebook group has about 400 members, although the active members who meet on a weekly basis varies anywhere from three to 25.
“Ryan and I started making short films together, but then we started wondering, ‘Who else in the area is making films?’” White said. “So we started our own group.’
White describes New Ogden Cinema as a collective.
“We use it as a resource to promote our films and reach out to other filmmakers,” he said.
Through the group, members are able to connect with others who have a variety of skills in the moviemaking business.
“I know where my strengths and weaknesses are,” White says, so he reaches out to others who can help him in those areas where he is lacking.
McDonald says that through the New Ogden Cinema group, they’ve produced 20 or 30 short films that they’ve entered in festivals locally, regionally and nationally.
“And we’re now working on our fourth feature film,” he said.
That film is “The Ancient Evil,” an anthology of four or five stories stitched together to create one feature film.
“By the end of this year, hopefully we’ll be ready for another series of film festivals,” McDonald said.
McDonald described his Sundance entry, “Married and Loving It,” as “a very dramatic comedy.” It centers on a couple on the eve of their 10-year wedding anniversary.
“It’s that basic, day-to-day ‘How can you love someone and hate them at the same time?’” he said. “It’s a toxic relationship that comes colliding all at one moment. … If you look at it from a different perspective on marriage, it may be a horror film.”
“Married and Loving It” was shot entirely on an iPhone 6, which produces “great video quality” at an affordable price, according to McDonald.
White believes his “The Truth About Us” film could one day be adapted to the stage.
“The film itself is about two couples getting together for a date night without the kids, and looking to have a fun night of release,” he said. “But as the night unfolds, alcohol and personalities ensue, and things start to unravel.”
White’s film took longer to finish than anticipated; he says there were some color and sound challenges that needed to be overcome.
“I regret that it took me four years to complete this film, but here we are, and I want to make sure it gets its due,” he said.
White said independent filmmakers are blessed to live in a time where the technology is fairly cheap to make films. He hopes to get his film out there to be shared, and he’d love to meet with other filmmakers to get their feedback.
“At the end of the day I’ve made this film to share, but I would also like to try to push that to the next film,” White said, “whether it gives me money to make the next movie or it acts as a diving board for the next film where maybe somebody is interested in using my writing or directing skills.”
That networking aspect of the New Ogden Cinema group is one of the things that attracted Ogden filmmaker Brandie Rich, who has a producer credit on McDonald’s “Married and Loving It.” Rich’s father was a stuntman in Los Angeles, and when Rich was 12 or 13, she remembers spending time with him on the set of “A Life Less Ordinary,” the 1997 Danny Boyle romantic black comedy starring Ewan Mc Gregor and Cameron Diaz.
“I’d go with my dad on set in Utah, and I’d think, ‘This was magical,’” she recalls. “I’d been with my dad on a couple of low-budget films here, and I just fell in love with it.”
Rich is currently shopping around her own short film, about a homemaker who is trying to become a filmmaker. When her film was rejected at a recent competition, she recalls thinking, “That’s OK, I’ll get into the next one.”
Rich realizes that some might consider making a film like that as a lot of hard work for nothing, but she doesn’t see it that way.
“Because, in the end, I made a film,” Rich said. “Instead of sitting on the couch and watching Netflix, I went out and made a movie.”
In a year when female directors were shut out of Oscar contention for best director, Rich is hoping to interest more local women in the film industry.
“I would love to see it (the male-dominated industry) turned around, but aside from doing it locally, I don’t know how else to do it,” she said. “I meet women all the time here locally who tell me, ‘I love what you’re doing. How can I do that?’ And I say, ‘Great, come meet with us on Tuesdays.’”
The New Ogden Cinema group gathers at 5:30 p.m. every Tuesday at Kaffe Mercantile, 2276 Washington Blvd., in Ogden. Rich said she’d love to see more local women getting involved in the local cinema scene.
“I know they’re out there, but not a ton of ladies come to the meetings,” she said.
Rich produced McDonald’s “Married and Loving It” and is now writing a children’s book centered around a little girl and her experience in a movie theater. Rich and McDonald, who met through the New Ogden Cinema group, are now engaged to be married.
“Two filmmaker lovebirds, getting married in May,” Rich laughed.
The couple realizes it won’t be easy making independent films going forward — not that it ever was. They each have custody of two young daughters.
“Together we’ll have four daughters, all under the age of 8,” Rich said. “People are, like, how do you do it? Well, sometimes we bring the kids on a shoot, when we can, and they’ve started carrying cameras for us. And they’re also starting to want to shoot their own movies.”
Whether or not he’s accepted into a film festival matters less to McDonald than being able to do what he loves to do. While it would be great to be successful enough to quit his day job and make movies full-time, McDonald says it’s all about creating art — “Like an artist, we paint for the love of paint,” he says.
And McDonald, White and Rich say they’ll continue to submit their creations to film festivals, no matter the outcome.
“I think, as a filmmaker, not everybody in their lifetime will make a feature film,” McDonald said. “So for the ones who do, it’s a disservice if they don’t submit them to the top festivals. That was the life goal.”
But while entering a work in the Sundance Film Festival may check off an important goal for filmmakers, that’s only half of the dream, according to McDonald.
“The second part of that bucket list would be getting in, being accepted — Sundance, of course, being THE film festival,” he said.