Along with the digital media revolution, our country is living through a renaissance in craft beer brewing. On April 16, an innovative producer/director tried something new to market her indie doc "Beer Wars," a film that gives insight into the struggles of this most dedicated sector of American brewing.
Instead of four-walling it or trying a rolling release campaign, Anat Baron and her company Ducks In A Row Entertainment decided to partner with Fathom Events, a division of National CineMedia, to present "Beer Wars" as a one-night-only special event in over 440 theaters across the country.
Baron made the evening extra special by tagging it with a live panel discussion among leaders in the U.S. craft and homebrewing movement, which was delivered live (except on the west coast) via satellite to all the theaters showing the film.
Now that "Beer Wars" has been released on DVD, kick back and pop a cold one to celebrate this unique approach to attracting a niche audience and the fine job its editor, Douglas Blush, did in making this a cut above the miasma of most indie docs.
Ducks In a Row Entertainment partnered with Fathom Events to present "Beer Wars" as a one-night-only event in over 440 theaters across the country. Blush is co-owner of MadPix Inc., a boutique post house in Los Angeles, and a veteran of cutting-edge documentaries such as this summer's "Outrage" and a hit of last year's SXSW Film Festival, "Some Assembly Required." Blush was brought onto the "Beer Wars" project last spring after a half dozen other editors had wrestled with it without generating a final cut.
FILMING THE CRAFT OF BREWING
The film follows the travails of Sam Calagione, founder of Delaware's successful Dogfish Head craft brewery, and brewing industry veteran Rhonda Kallman's frustrating attempt to get investors to back a new microbrew, Moonshot; its only distinction seemingly that it includes a jolt of caffeine. Interwoven throughout are producer/director Baron's attempts to get access to the heads of major megabreweries and ruminations on the relative value of mass marketed suds, made all the more difficult because Baron's allergies kept her from drinking beer at all. Faced with a multi-threaded panoply of themes, Blush recognized that "Beer Wars" needed a stronger structure to its rambling script.
"Anat and I started by arranging 3x5 cards on a cork board to establish a through line for all the characters," Blush said. "Basically, we built this film on cardboard before we even started final editing. For two to three weeks Anat and I just battled over ideas, and it worked out great. By the time we were ready to assemble the film, it followed our storyboard almost exactly."
Blush has edited on most of the major NLEs, but insists that Apple's Final Cut Pro is the wave of the future, especially on his 8-core Mac Pro platform. As he put it, "Final Cut Pro interoperates smoothly with all my other post-production software, and I like its open framework so even a boutique shop can build its own system."
The footage Blush was given included archival shots of American brewing's history in addition to DP Sandra Chandler's on-location shoots, and animation created by Casey Leonard and Dave Stone.
"The animators saw the animatic I had created," Blush said, "and adopted a '50s retro-style to suit the look of the archival footage."
The movie is more "Wars" than "Beer," since its main message is that the big breweries are dumbing down the American beer drinker's palette with massive advertising instead of adopting the sophisticated brewing ingredients and techniques of the new craft brewing revolution.
MAKING A POINT
In fact, Blush felt his greatest editorial contribution was to a beer evaluation scene in which beer drinkers who claimed to be fans of specific mass market brands could not identify their favorites in a blind taste test.
"We were both laughing throughout this scene, and we used it to prove a point that had not been addressed yet in the film," Blush explained. "Most Americans have been gulled into thinking there is a real difference between the taste of major American beer brands. By cutting this taste-off with humor and style, we tried to dispel that illusion."
"I was trying to present an overview of the current state of the beer industry while still making a character-based film," Baron said. "That was what presented most of the challenge during editing since we definitely did not want to end up with a typical talking head film. We wanted 'Beer Wars' to be both informative and fun."
The film's one-night showing was capped by a live panel discussion I witnessed in front of a beer-loving audience gathered in UCLA's Royce Hall. Baron was able to get writer/celebrity Ben Stein to moderate the question-and-answer period that included all the film's participants along with brewing guru Charlie Papazian, founder of the U.S. Association of Brewers.
The additional attraction of the discussion was one reason Fathom Events was able to charge $15-$16 for people to experience the whole evening. Since then "Beer Wars" has been shown at several other venues such as The Great American Beer Festival, and has generated quite a buzz on Internet chat groups devoted to beer.
Is this a harbinger of a new way to market independent documentaries? Sadly, this unique approach to releasing a special-interest project has become entangled in litigation, which may be why Fathom Events would not return my calls. But the audience I saw it with was both entertained and activated by its content. I am also glad to say that according to the Association of Brewers, the craft brewing industry grew by 5.9 percent by volume and 10.1 percent by dollars in 2008, a return many film producers would envy.
When asked, "What do you think people should get from this film?" editor Blush laughed. "They should go get a beer. And hopefully a craft microbrew."
In addition to his career as an editor, Jay Ankeney has won over 100 awards in nationally sanctioned homebrew competitions, is a certified beer judge, and author of the beginning brewers' book "Easy Beer."
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