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O.C. filmmakers bring their movies straight to theaters

Vietnamese American filmmakers, two from O.C., launch their own distribution company.

The Orange County Register
Stephane Gauger, writer and director of “Owl and the Sparrow.” In the background is actor Le The Lu.

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Four Vietnamese American filmmakers, clockwise from left Charlie Nguyen, Stephane Gauger, Ham Tran and Victor Vu are making waves in the film scene. They are part of the new “Viet wave” of filmmaking, which includes other young directors. Gauger and Tran are part of Wave Releasing, a film distribution company.

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Pham Thi Han stars as Thuy, a 10-year-old orphan who sells flowers on the busy streets of Saigon in “Owl and the Sparrow.”

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Cat Ly (left) stars in “Owl and the Sparrow,” written and directed by Stephane Gauger.

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Ham Tran directs Nguyen Thai Nguyen in “Journey From the Fall.”

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Every filmmaker’s dream is to have his or her movie in the theaters.

Stephane Gauger made his film on a shoestring budget. He took it on the festival circuit, then, after winning accolades and awards, negotiated with distributors for a wider release.

The trouble was, the movie companies viewed his project as too small, and the deals they were offering didn’t seem like they benefitted the writer/director at all.

“It looked like we weren’t going to get anything in return,” said Gauger, 38, who grew up in Orange County and graduated from Cal State Fullerton. His debut feature, “The Owl and the Sparrow,” opens Friday in Orange County and Los Angeles. “We’d be selling the rights away for 20 years. So to protect ourselves, we didn’t take the deal.”

Instead, Gauger and four of his filmmaking buddies created their own distribution company – Wave Releasing. This organization of Vietnamese American entrepreneurs could be the first of its kind – a group of Asian American independent filmmakers who create, finance and screen their own movies, completely outside the studio or standard distribution systems.

“We have a lot of talent right now in the Viet film wave, and we are making some pretty amazing films,” said Ham Tran, writer/director of 2006’s “Journey from the Fall” and executive producer/editor for “The Owl and the Sparrow.” Tran and his colleagues are part of a new movement of young, Vietnamese American filmmakers who have written, directed, edited and produced films within the past three years.

“We know how to market within the Vietnamese community,” said Tran, 34, who grew up in Santa Ana. “At the same time, our films are art-house films. The goal is to share Vietnamese culture to a broader American audience. It’s no longer just about the Vietnam War.”

The other key members of Wave Releasing are writer/director Timothy Linh Bui (“Green Dragon”), producer Nguyen “Wyn” Tran and businessman Kenneth Nguyen (who attended St. Michael’s Preparatory School in Silverado). Among these five friends, the credits are impressive. The filmmakers have all worked on each other’s projects, and have racked up awards at the Los Angeles Film Festival, numerous Asian film festivals and Sundance. Plus, they’ve shown their works across the country, from California to Colorado to New York.

Each has faced the difficulties of working alone with distributors and the established movie-making machine.

“A lot of independent filmmakers, they just kind of give up, move on, and get another project,” Gauger said. “Often their work never really sees the light of day.”

Tran points to a recent Vietnamese American film, “The Rebel” by Buena Park’s Charlie Nguyen, as an example of a quality film that didn’t see a U.S. theatrical release, despite picking up awards and positive buzz.

“It didn’t get a release here all,” he said. “It had a theatrical release in Vietnam, where it broke a million (dollars), which is great for Vietnam. It has done well on DVD. If there had been a Wave Releasing, it would have shown here.”

USING THEIR CONNECTIONS

The “Viet wave” comrades – who draw inspiration from the “three amigos” of Mexican cinema – Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu – are tapping their connections large and small to get “The Owl and the Sparrow” in movie theaters.

From their previous filmmaking experiences, they’re using their friendship with Regal Cinemas to establish theater booking deals, in which profits would be shared. That way they don’t have to pony up a lot of cash upfront, rent out theater venues and sell tickets themselves.

They’ve acquired free radio and TV time. They’ve gotten free ads in newspapers and magazines. They’ve managed to screen free trailers in theaters. Plus, they’ve created some clever promotions on the Internet, including a two-minute plug by MTV’s Tila Tequila, who praises “Owl and the Sparrow” in front of a pho restaurant.

“That kind of brings in Tila’s fans and gives them some awareness,” Gauger said. “The great thing about YouTube is that it’s free.”

WINNING PRAISE, EYEING THE FUTURE

Of course, an independent marketing effort can’t survive if the movie’s no good. On the contrary, “The Owl and the Sparrow” is a fresh, vibrant and touching film that has won several awards, including the audience award for best narrative feature at the 2007 L.A. Film Festival.

“Owl” follows the lives of three lonely Saigon residents: a 10-year-old orphan who sells roses on the streets, a beautiful flight attendant, and an earnest zookeeper who talks to animals and lives in a shack on the zoo grounds.

It was shot on the bustling streets of Saigon with hand-held cameras, in a realistic, cinéma véritéstyle. The film cost less than $100,000 to make.

L.A. Weekly called “Owl” “tremendously resonant,” and Variety said it is “a sweet story sure to make audiences feel warm inside.”

After “Owl” opens in Los Angeles and Orange County, the film will open in San Jose on Jan. 23, Houston and Dallas on Feb. 6 and San Francisco on Feb. 13.

Wave Releasing is hoping the film will gain momentum, and interest will build in screening the movie on the East Coast.

Meanwhile, the fledgling company is eyeing other films, including “The Legend is Alive,” starring Dustin Nguyen, and “Passport to Love,” a project by Victor Vu of Fountain Valley. If Wave Releasing is successful, the company may consider other non-Asian movies as well.

“It’s not only about bringing Vietnamese voices into the mainstream,” said Tim Bui, CEO of Wave Releasing. “It’s about finding that little gem, that independent gem, that some of the major studios have passed over and overlooked. It could be from Vietnam, Russia, or an American indie.”

But for now, the focus is on Wave’s first theatrical release. For Gauger – who sold popcorn at Edwards South Coast Village during high school – it is a dream coming true, on-screen.

“I am excited. At the same time, it’s a lot of work,” he said. “It does require a lot of energy. I’m excited to get it out to an audience and share the film. Hopefully, we will be able to tell more human stories in the future.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-6026 or rchang@ocregister.com

One comment on “O.C. filmmakers bring their movies straight to theaters

  1. Chico Atcheson
    May 25, 2013

    Owl and the Sparrow is the best film I’ve seen all year. Pham Thi Han touched my heart.. Great story. Beautiful young actress.

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This entry was posted on January 17, 2009 by in Uncategorized and tagged .
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