On the road with Range Life’s Todd Sklar – and a van full of movies

The last time I talked to Todd Sklar he was in a van in a snowdrift, having gone off the road during a tour to promote his film “Box Elder,” (‘A movie about dudes being dudes’) near Ames, Ia.

This time I caught him eating breakfast in a hotel in Milwaukee, where he spoiled the rhapsodic description of his steal-cut oatmeal and fruit by admitting a 3 am chicken strip eating contest had taken the edge of his appetite.

This is just all part of life when you are trying to re-calibrate the movie distribution system in America.

Sklar is on his way to the Trylon Cinema in Minneapolis tonight where he and his pals on the Range Life Entertainment bus will end their 2009 national tour by showing two movies: the comedy noir “Assassination of a High School President” (with Mischa Barton and Bruce Willis) and the air-drumming comedy “Adventures of Power” (with Michael McKean and Jane Lynch.)

They are two of the 14 films which Sklar has had on the road since early September. (This is the second visit to Minnesota on the tour.)

The movie theater isn’t big but the idea is to build buzz. When Sklar went on the road last year he took movies that didn’t have distribution deals. This year that’s still true of about half his stable, but the other half do have deals, and as in the case of both “Assassination” and “Adventures” got a lot of festival love before falling foul of the economy.

“While we were kind of honing in and figuring out how to make this little road apparatus work as a distribution method,” Sklar says, “I think the rest of the distribution landscape continued to fall apart. I think they thought that everything bottomed out and levelled out last year, but the sky was still falling apparently because at this point it’s interesting that a lot of the larger films, and even the films that we are working with partners on, are even more excited and more aggressive on what they are doing with us than some of the smaller ones.”

Sklar admits that sometimes he’s not as convinced as the folks he’s working with that what they are doing is working.

“I don’t know that I necessarily feel that it’s working, but everybody else feels like it is,” he laughed. “I know we all feel like there’s a lot more to improve.”

Sklar says some of the films had offers from companies which then went bankrupt. He says films which might seem like naturals for the movieplexes have ended up sitting on the shelves for months. He calls them “PoW’s of this whole thing.”

Sklar claims that there are now so many gatekeepers in the distribution business that it makes it hard for some worthy movies to get into theaters. So that’s where Sklar comes in with his quick hit shows at colleges and art houses.

“It’s easier for us to do that than for a distributor to open for a week in 40 cities,” he says. He points to “Assassination” as a case in point. After several attempts to get it into theaters failed, the distributor asked Range Life to take it on the road.

“We have no business being a part of a movie like that,” Sklar says. “But at the same time it’s very indicative of the current state of the film industry.” He immediately agreed to the deal.

Sklar says Range Life offers a low-cost, high efficiency way of generating interest in a movie before it comes out on DVD.

Meanwhile he is still promoting his original mission, promoting low-budget movies that don’t have a distributor, but he thinks deserves an audience.

Another less publicized part of this tour is Sklar and his associates have been creating a network of people in each city they visit which they hope they can use to promote some of the movies when the Range Life van isn’t on the road. He hopes they can be showing films, or even making films which can come together through this network.

“A little ‘Range Life’ army around the country,” Sklar says. He hopes it could lead to what he calls a whole new generation of content. He says he couldn’t have made his own first feature without help and this could provide a framework for future film makers.

As for his own film work it has been on hold because of the touring, but he hopes to have a couple of pieces in play soon. He just produced a film with writer/director Dean Peterson called “Incredibly Small” which he hopes will be out in the spring. He is also writing a film with one of the stars of “Box Elder” which they will shoot in the summer. “It’s taken a lot longer than it probably should have,” he says.

He promises a Minneapolis show.

“The Twin Cities is the core of what we do,” Sklar says. “You’ve got to bring it back home.

Sklar and his pals will be at the Trylon tonight at 7 for “Adventures of Power” and 9 for “Assassination of a High School President.”