Synopsis: Must Read After My Death follows Allis, her husband Charley and their four children in Hartford, Connecticut. Charley’s work takes him to Australia four months each year, so the couple purchases Dictaphone recorders as a way to stay in touch throughout Charlie’s extended absences. A modern woman at least a decade ahead of her time, Allis struggles against conformity – against the conventional roles of wife and mother. She finds the recordings cathartic and, with the family’s cooperation, incorporates them into their everyday existence.
Case Study: Must Read After My Death
Director: Morgan Dews
Producers: Morgan Dews; Sarah Langley; Cristina Gironés (co-producer); Alison Palmer Bourke (executive producer)
Financing: self-financed; $3500 grant
Production: None The film is comprised of archive footage and recordings; various original sources, home movies; photographs; Dictaphone recordings, reel-to-reel tape recordings, made during the 1960s; cut together into a cohesive documentary.
Shooting Format: 8mm
Screening Format: HD U.S.
Premiere: 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival Awards: International Grand Prix at FID Marseille, Golden Magnolia at Shanghai TV Fest, Odissea Prize for 1st Doc at DocLisboa, opening film at FATP Brussels, Special Mention, Audience Award in Florence Film Festival and Special Mention in Pamplona.
Development and Financing
After Morgan’s grandmother passed away in 2001, he discovered a collection of audio recordings, journals, photographs, and 8mm footage, which she had marked, “Must Read After My Death.” When Morgan first listened to them, he thought they would make an interesting short film collage. However, upon discovering more material, he decided that the story had to be made into a feature film.
“It was a gold mine,” says Morgan. “I studied history in school and this is exactly the kind of great first hand journal we looked for.” Many of the recordings were old Dictaphone recordings between Morgan’s grandmother and grandfather, recorded on a daily basis while he was in Australia on business. They were a great first-hand history of a mid-century American family. As he listened further, Morgan discovered a fascinating record of a family in meltdown, with his grandfather revealing an affair with another woman and conversations about the mental breakdown of one of their sons. It soon became clear that Morgan’s grandmother was a classic “unreliable narrator.”
Living in Spain at the time, Morgan recorded all of the audio tapes into his computer and began pitching the idea to broadcasters. “They were more interested in my feelings about the changes in my family,” says Morgan. “I thought the story had more to do with the ‘what’s going on behind the picket fence of a microcosm of America.’”
Cristina Gironés, a friend of Morgan’s, was a commercial documentary producer and agreed to help him out when she heard about the story. After a brief attempt at meetings in Spain, Morgan knew he had to go back to the United States to work on the film. After six more months of meetings with broadcasters who had very different visions for the film, he was convinced that he had to finance and complete the project on his own. Morgan remembers feeling that, “It would be most economical if I do it myself, I don’t have to make any compromises, and I don’t have to make that much money back.”
Morgan sold his home in Barcelona and made enough money to move to Brooklyn to work on the film full time, living like “a starving writer.” He attended seminars to help educate himself, and began editing the footage in the spring of 2004. For Morgan, the idea of skipping traditional production and going straight to post was very compelling.
(Post) Production Highlights
Originally Morgan digitized all 8 hours of the old 8mm footage himself—he projected the films on the wall and filmed it with his Sony PD150 in Pal Mini DV. Later, when the project had legs, Morgan found a cheap one-light telecine transfer to HD and then reframed all the shots from the original 4:3 to 16:9, emphasizing the grain even more.
Sarah Langley, Morgan’s wife, was on from the beginning as a producer, as was his design director Lisa Kwon. Two years after Morgan began editing the footage, he met Allison Palmer Bourke at a party. Having recently left IFC as an Executive Producer, Morgan asked her to watch his footage and give him notes. She agreed, and watched several cuts over the next few months, in November 2006, Palmer Bourke officially came on as the film’s Executive Producer.
“I’m very autodidactic and didn’t have any documentary experience before this,” says Morgan. “She [Palmer Bourke] brought a different skill set and level of professionalism to the project.”
In the summer of 2007, after having spent 3 1/2 years on the film, Morgan had a cut that he felt was film festival worthy.
Festival Preparation and Strategy
Must Read After My Death premiered at the 2007 São Paulo International Film Festival, followed by the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).
Morgan applied to 160 film festivals out of his database of 240. “I had been to a lot of festivals before and loved them. I thought they might be the only way for the public to see the film in a theater,” says Morgan.
In January of 2008, Palmer Bourke brought Mark Lipsky (of Gigantic Digital) to Morgan’s 40th birthday party in New York. When Mark mentioned that he had started a new distribution company, Morgan asked him to watch his film. Three weeks later, Gigantic was signed on as distributors of Must Read After My Death.
Lipsky hated the sound quality of the film and offered to pay to have the soundtrack cleaned up and remixed. Gigantic also found a new composer to rescore the film. Morgan liked the original score but felt it didn’t fit. Festival crowds were even less enthusiastic—at a Q&A at IFDA, Morgan had asked who in the audience didn’t like the score, and 90% of the crowd raised their hands.
Soon after the Gigantic deal was in place, Morgan received a call from Rachel Rosen, Director of Programming at the Los Angeles Film Festival, who loved the film, and wanted to program it in the 2008 festival.
Sale and Release
“Between agreeing to distribute, and before the contract [with Gigantic] was signed, I realized that LA Film Fest would be the place to announce this to the trades and premiere in Los Angeles,” says Morgan. The film had its U.S. premiere at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival. “LA was really exciting for me,” says Morgan. “A lot of the important things that happened for my film happened because of parties.”
Gigantic hired Marina Bailey (Film Publicity) for PR in Los Angeles, and Susan Senk in New York and Sharon Kahn, Gigantic’s in-house publicist in New York, also contributed. Publicists were paid by Gigantic Digital, as part of their deal with the filmmakers. They did a great job: “We wound up with press in 100 markets all across America,” says Morgan. Mark Lipsky and Jillian Chesnick (Digital Marketer at Gigantic Releasing) spoke to press across the country, calling it a nationwide theatrical release.
Gigantic Digital released Must Read After My Death in February of 2009. It was the first film to be released Day-and-Date in theaters and online. The film can be streamed online for a cost of $2.99, in near HD quality, depending on the viewer’s internet connection. Gigantic managed to control the availability of the film online, blocking it in markets where the film was playing theatrically—often the only conditions under which the exhibitors would agree to screen the film.
Gigantic purchased all North American rights (as well as Israel, India, Ireland, and England). Morgan kept continental Europe and has made his own TV sales there. After winning a prize at a Shanghai film festival, the head of the jury, Michel Noll, who works in France, came on to rep the film in other European venues, which will allow Morgan to recoup the money directly.
Must Read After My Death played theatrically in New York for two weeks and in Los Angeles for one week. It was the highest earning film at the Laemmle Sunset 5 during its run. Final box office gross was $21,286. The DVD release has not yet happened.
The terms of the Gigantic deal are global with 70% of all rights, theatrical, DVD, and online, and Gigantic must recoup the entire $140,000 that they spent in P&A before the filmmaker can see any return.
Morgan paid roughly $6,000 to each of the approximately 6 people that he worked with who signed on for deferred fee out of the love of the film. He also spent about $6,000 on legal.
Advice from the Filmmaker
“Dumb luck and trial and error is what got me through the process of making this film,” says Morgan.
“Taking it to so many festivals was a really helpful in so many ways. It gave me a chance to fine tune the film, experiment with subtitles for difficult to hear section, and respond to audience feedback especially about the sound. I also optioned the film to producers Alan Poul and Craig Wright (Six Feet Under) to make a feature out of it, and found Michel Noll to rep the film in Europe and won €11,000 in prize money.
“I think it was a big mistake not to have a DVD to sell at festivals already.”