The first reinvention of Ed Burns, the one that transformed an average Joe film student from Valley Stream, Long Island into the breakout success of the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, involved scraping together enough funds to pay for 16mm cameras, re-canned film stock and processing fees to make his debut movie, The Brothers McMullen, a talky drama about a blue collar Irish Catholic family much like his own. Toss in Burns’ hustle for putting a tape of McMullen into the hands of Sundance founder Robert Redford while a production assistant at Entertainment Tonight and it’s no wonder he became an indie role model.
Burns’ second self-reinvention, steadily taking shape over the past five years, is more boldly transformative.
Burns is currently releasing his 11th feature film, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, about seven adult sibs (featuring Burns in front of the camera as the oldest) coping with their estranged father who wants to reunite for Christmas.
Fitzgerald Family Christmas is classic Ed Burns storytelling, meaning a low-budget, character-driven drama of romance, love, Catholic guilt and blue-collar family commitments. It’s also something of a cast reunion with McMullen stars Connie Britton and Mike McGlone returning in key roles.
What’s innovative about Fitzgerald and what had Burns sitting alongside distribution execs at a Toronto Film Festival panel discussing video-on-demand (VOD) is his increased efforts to sidestep traditional specialty film distributors like Sony Pictures Classics and Fox Searchlight, the company that launched his filmmaking career by acquiring and distributing McMullen. Convinced that the old ways of releasing art-house movies were no longer profitable, Burns set out to build his own release models as a self-distributor focused on digitally streaming movies to multiple platforms via iTunes, Google play and VOD all with the publicity boost from his celebrity profile.
"I’m a filmmaker," Burns said matter-of-factly, sitting front and center at the panel. "My connection to VOD is trying to stay in business and figure out a way to make money making movies."
It’s one thing to be a Sundance sensation in 1995. It’s another to reinvent oneself and become a player in the digital realm of moviemaking.
"I know we all admire Ed as a great actor and director but he’s also a great distributor," said fellow panelist Tom Quinn, co-president of RADiUS-TWC, digital arm of The Weinstein Co. "We can all learn from him."
Burns, married at age 44 to model and maternal health advocate Christy Turlington and the father of two young children, is now a grownup version of his Indie Brat Pack self and a reminder of New Hollywood, that long-ago, first wave of independent films. He’s too experienced now to be called a "Wunderkind," and during a recent phone call, we laugh over how we briefly met way back at Sundance ’95; a crazy time when Burns and McMullen co-star McGlone took Park City by storm using mobile phones that weren’t smart, just laughably large.
Burns comes to Fitzgerald Family Christmas with loads of indie history and his expertise in digital distribution models for movies is self-taught.
"I really stumbled upon it just out of a need to survive," Burns tells Co.Create, from his Tribeca offices in Lower Manhattan. "For me, it was a return to the DIY filmmaking and the micro budgets of McMullen, but now, embracing digital technology."
The traditional specialty release model of N.Y. and L.A. openings with a steady platform release later no longer works for his low-budget movies. His appearances on late-night talk shows don’t help when his movies slowly roll across the country via a platform release to mostly urban cinemas inconvenient to his suburban fan base.
Encouraged by his longtime attorney, Cinetic Media founder John Sloss to take full advantage of his publicity work, Burns says he took a risk and in 2007, offered the first film to debut exclusively on iTunes, Purple Violets. Encouraged by the iTunes success with that film, Burns added VOD and day-and-date releases with his subsequent movies Nice Guy Johnny and Newlyweds and hasn’t looked back since.
"My crew and I, we were all happy again on a movie set and fell back in love with the process like when we were 18-year-old kids back in film school" Burns says. "When the gambles paid off and we made money I said, 'you know what, that was fun and we made money and how often does that happen in the movie business with regularity? We need to tell more stories and we cannot wait for Hollywood to cut a check for us.'"
Burns isn’t a Hollywood outsider, but a true hybrid flitting between his low-budget movies and acting work in larger studio action movies like Man on a Ledge, the Katherine Heigl comedy 27 Dresses and the biggest movie of his career, Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama Saving Private Ryan.
Like John Sayles he’s a one-man convergence between studio projects (yes, he’s also the affable partner to Tyler Perry’s Detroit detective in the recent cop thriller Alex Cross) and his own indie films.
Burns insists it’s good to have his feet in both communities and to keep learning from two sides of the film industry. In fact, he credits Perry for teaching him the value of building his own brand identity, cultivating his fan base and giving them exactly what they want: a sequel to The Brothers McMullen he plans to start shooting next year.
Just as Burns is an entertainment hybrid, Fitzgerald is also a hybrid release.Burns is releasing the movie with the support of Tribeca Film, which acquired the film after its Toronto festival premiere.
In addition to its early success on video-on-demand and digital platforms, Fitzgerald will also play select specialty cinemas in areas heavily populated by Burns’ loyal fan base and with Burns supporting the screenings with Skype Q&As.
Despite the extensive self-innovation and the huge amount of time and energy he puts towards the release strategies of his movies these days, Burns insists that some key aspects of his creative life remain the same.
He still works on "poverty level" budgets asking his cast and crew members to buy a share of the movies in exchange for salaries. The difference is that the low budgets don’t matter as much anymore because he’s developed a model for near certain profit.
"I guess I have transformed myself but I never set out intentionally with a game plan," Burns adds. "I have never viewed myself as a filmmaker but always as a storyteller. My goal is how do I continue to tell my stories after making movies that did not do well financially and I was having a tough time getting my movies financed."
It’s worth noting that there are other success stories from the "New Hollywood" class that came of age with Burns back at Sundance ’95.
Steve Buscemi continues to enjoy the role of a lifetime on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Ben Affleck experiences the best reviews of his career with his third directing effort, Argo and Spanking the Monkey director David O. Russell remains busy with Hollywood features like The Silver Linings Playbook. The godfather of modern indie cinema, Quentin Tarantino is back this holiday season with Django Unchained featuring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Burns, perhaps always clinging to his working class roots, is meant to head in a more modest direction with Fitzgerald, his blue-collar twist on his favorite holiday movie, It’s A Wonderful Life.
After his work with Fitzgerald is over, Burns starts work on the return of Jack, Patrick and Barry as the three Irish American New Yorkers in the Brothers McMullen sequel. There’s also a series of 12 short web dramas titled Winter Spring Summer Fall starring Burns in the leading role as a failed, fortysomething novelist and struggling freelance journalist who connects with a struggling actress. Set to start shooting in early January, Burns plans for Winter Spring Summer Fall to be his first Kickstarter project with the goal of editing all the webisodes and some additional scenes into a full-length feature for a direct-to-consumer digital sale.
After being the uncrowned king of VOD, Burns understands that there are always new digital platforms to test and the former boy wonder and Sundance discovery, well, he has to keep reinventing.