By Annette Hinkle
On the documentary circuit at this year’s Hamptons International Film Festival is a film by a former East End resident which offers an insiders look at the movie making business.
And ultimately, it’s a cautionary tale.
“Misfire: The Rise and the Fall of The Shooting Gallery” is a film by Whitney Ransick (he’s a second cousin of Sag Harbor’s Nada Barry and as a kid lived in Bridgehampton and attended the Little Red Schoolhouse in Sagaponack).
Ransick went to film school at SUNY Purchase in the 1980s, an era when independent filmmaking was finding its footing and film school grads around New York were shaping the indie movement. People like Hal Hartley were turning out low-budget gems and building on the success of directors like Spike Lee, John Sayles and the Cohen brothers.
Based in lower Manhattan, The Shooting Gallery began in 1991 as a collective of film school grads from Purchase, including Ransick and his friend Bob Gosse, among others. It was designed to be an extension of the camaraderie of their college days, but within 10 years, the firm had ballooned into a massive production company out of control with no direction and in serious debt. The downfall came largely due to major differences in philosophy between the company’s filmmakers and the people who controlled the purse strings.
While in the beginning Ransick and the others worked for free to make each other’s movie projects a reality, when Gosse brought in Larry Meistrich as the company’s CEO to manage the finances, things changed. The problem, as Ransick sees it, is while Meistrich had business acumen, and helped finance many films, including Ransick’s, he was setting out to build an empire, not support filmmakers.
“It’s really interesting that Bob Gosse invited Larry in,” says Ransick. “It was the creation of The Shooting Gallery — the collective part II — and in some ways the death of the company.”
“The simple reality is you have to pay the bills,” he adds. “It actually is a business. It wasn’t a company in the beginning, but we all grew up.”
Ransick’s documentary traces the life of The Shooting Gallery from 1991 to 2001. Though Bob Gosse was there from day one till the end, Ransick left in 1994 with the uneasy feeling he wasn’t protected as a filmmaker there.
“I remember at a meeting it was laid out that moving forward, it was every man for himself,” says Ransick. “The collective died that day.”
Ransick notes there were great indie films made along the way and some major financial successes, most notably “Sling Blade” which The Shooting Gallery sold to Miramax for an unheard of $10 million. But ultimately, he says, what was lacking was a commitment to movie making. Meistrich brought in his friend, Steve Carlis as CFO and the pair had a different vision, one that involved everything from production management to building studios and even riding the dot.com wave.
When that wave crashed, the founders of The Shooting Gallery came to realize their company had been destroyed by financial rocks which, like icebergs, were hiding mountains of debt beneath the surface. And none of them ever knew they existed.
“We didn’t have a creative producer who could keep a continuity of films being done,” says Ransick. “If you look at the track record, it’s phenomenal, but you can’t carry a company looking to branch out into so many things.”
But the question remains. Why, 20 years after the founding of The Shooting Gallery and 10 years after its demise, did Ransick decide to make this documentary?
“I was reading the book ‘Down and Dirty Pictures’ and there was a paragraph that said in New York in the ‘90s there were three producer driven companies making indie films — Good Machine, Killer and The Shooting Gallery.”
“It was one of those ‘whoa’ moments to actually see The Shooting Gallery name in the book among other great companies,” says Ransick. “At that moment it dawned on me that it would make a great story to tell.”
And that story is also about the rise and fall (or at least the shifting) of independent low budget feature films.
“The Shooting Gallery is important in terms of being a reflection of the times,” says Ransick. “The legacy speaks for itself and there’s a lesson to be learned from it. That’s the hard part of the movie.”
Along the way, something happened to the indies as well. They became mainstream. Studios like Miramax and Fine Line are hardly the kind of upstarts Ransick and his friends were. Even Sundance, the little indie film festival that could, has became a major player on the blockbuster circuit.
“To me the demise of The Shooting Gallery was the beginning of so much change,” says Ransick. “And we’re still feeling it today.”
“If anything comes out of it, we made great movies – and we made a lot of movies. It was a fantastic ride, unfortunately the artists took their eyes off the ball,” adds Ransick who, in hindsight, offers aspiring filmmakers this bit of advice:
“Keep your eye on everything and mind the store.”
“Misfire: The Rise and The Fall of The Shooting Gallery” screens October 12 at 2:15 p.m. at East Hampton UA3. Visit hamptonsfilmfest.org for details and full film festival schedule.