Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Background on Lance Weiler and Head Trauma: Lance's Historic First (Collaborative) Feature, The Last Broadcast

As promised on Monday, here's some background on the first feature film co-directed by Lance Weiler, whose new (solo) feature Head Trauma weaves its nightmarish narrative in part around a faux-Christian comic tract by yours truly and my son Dan. I've posted the link to the just-launched Head Trauma website in the "links" menu at right, and as Lance noted in his comment to Monday's post, there's some goodies hidden on the website within the section on the comic.

I first met Lance and his Last Broadcast co-creator Stefan Avalos at a pretty heated panel at the summer 1999 Video Software Dealers Association (hereafter VSDA trade show. Lance and Stefan were attending to promote their film, which they had tried with limited success to independently direct-sell to the national video marketplace of independent retailers. After over a year of frustrating stop-and-start efforts, they had at that time negotiated a very limited 'exclusivity' window of distribution for The Last Broadcast to the Hollywood Video national chain, prompting video trade magazine press -- the first the film had received in the industry -- and much ire from indy retailers, who felt they were being denied access to a film suddenly 'hot' & in demand due to its mounting underground reputation fueled by rumors (true, as it turned out) that the summer's blockbuster indy hit The Blair Witch Project had plundered its premise and internet ballyhoo from Last Broadcast.

Lance and Stefan impressed me instantly, standing before a room of angry retailers and not only stating their case -- they'd tried to get their film to indy retailers, but had been ignored and denied release via industry distributors because they weren't perceived as peddling anything of interest or merit -- but ultimately winning the respect, empathy, and admiration of everyone in the room. I had entered the room hungry to see The Last Broadcast, having first heard of the film early in '99 but unable to find or buy a copy; by the end of the session, every retailer in the room was dying to see and rack the film in their shops.

Lance and Stefan took and turned the heat over the Hollywood Video exclusive (among the first, and in fact the impetus for Hollywood's subsequent "Asylum" exclusive first-time filmmakers series, an interesting but ultimately failed experiment; Blockbuster was already quietly seeding their shelves with exclusive product from imprints like "Square Dog" and "Stepping Stone," all umbrella shells of DEG, Blockbuster's production and acquisition company, featuring name actors in made-for-video films in multiple genres). There was also the caveat that The Last Broadcast had been available for months via and in easy reach of every retailer in North America, had they bothered to check. (As I found personally in the following couple of years, indy retailers were quick to complain when something was denied them, but quicker to ignore or openly revile sight-unseen indy films that were available -- and, as I argued, essentially 'indy exclusives' given the chains refusal to carry such titles -- because they weren't presold commodities with high-ticket names stars.)

Furthermore, Lance and Stefan had the wherewithal to negotiate a very limited exclusivity window with Hollywood Video -- thus, Last Broadcast would be available to all by the winter of that very year. With the push the Hollywood Video release had given their film and increasing infamy associated with Blair Witch's pirating of their concept and innovative internet promotion, their decision to work with Hollywood Video had indeed brought the attention to their pioneer film from the very market -- the indy retailers -- who had previously given it the cold shoulder.

More importantly, The Last Broadcast was clearly The Jazz Singer of digital feature films: Lance and Stefan had produced their $900 marvel entirely as a digital production, and in fact broke potent new ground by rolling out their film as not only the first digitally-projected theatrical feature, but the first digitally-projected theatrical feature downloaded via satellite. No cans of celluloid, no reels of film, and none of the prohibitive overhead that inevitably lashed filmmakers either to corporate distributors or limbo: this was a future of filmmaking and exhibition that George Lucas would claim as his innovation over a year later, when he opened the dreadful Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Thus, The Last Broadcast had its thunder stolen not once, but twice: by the producers of The Blair Witch Project (one of whom had orchestrated the bumping of Last Broadcast from Sundance, clearing the way for the following year's calculated Sundance 'find' of Blair Witch cynically stealing and polishing everything Last Broadcast had already accomplished), and by billionaire Star Wars mogul George Lucas, pretending his "innovations" were walking trails blazed over a year before by two young, truly innovative Pennsylvanian filmmakers.

That said, The Last Broadcast remains one of my favorite indy films of the '90s: a modest, inventive thriller that subverts its own premise to the disappointment of some viewers (refuting its supernatural trappings) while delivering an unexpected frisson to others. On its own terms, it's well worth seeing (like its fellow digital innovator Party Girl, which some sources cite as the first online 'streamed' feature viewable via the internet) -- but it's important to remember that The Last Broadcast is also a seminal film in the digital revolution we're well into today.

Lance and Stefan have remained good friends, and we've all kept in touch with one another over the years. Lance and I actively worked behind-the-scenes (and, in my case, on the scene: I moderated panels and events for two years) with the VSDA's short-lived "Filmmakers of Tomorrow" program; alas, long before the VSDA trade shows diminished to their current withered state, it became evident the program wasn't fulfilling expectations for either the organization or the filmmakers eager to participate. But we'd given it a game go; the plight of the indy filmmakers struggling to get their creations to market was one I was intimately familiar with as an indy self-publisher and co-publisher in the comics marketplace. The particulars are different, but the issues and dynamic are essentially identical. The corporate powers forever labor to either shut-out or absorb talent and innovative product, and potential viewers/readers may never know something they might savor even exists.

So, here ya go -- a little background on the maker of Head Trauma and his first feature, and a peek back at the weekly "Video Views" column I scribed (without missing a deadline) from 1999-2001. The following two columns are reprinted in the upcoming four-volume book series S.R. Bissette's Blur from Black Coat Press, due out this spring.

(Sorry, I simply haven't time this morning to properly html code the film and book titles in these two archival pieces -- so, they appear here as 'raw text' -- I hope they're still easily read and enjoyed.)

[Final paragraphs from "Video Views" weekly column, December 3, 1999:]

A recent “mockumentary” particularly deserving of attention is THE LAST BROADCAST (1997). This is necessary viewing for both fans and detractors of The Blair Witch Project, and anyone who is interested in -- or part of -- the new generation of digital feature filmmakers. This is not a fad; this is a new frontier, as revolutionary as the coming of sound in 1927, and just as likely to change HOW we see and think of movies (and devastate Hollywood) as irrevocably. This new wave has justifiably garnered increasing media attention (via the success of Blair Witch and articles in zines like Wired), and The Last Broadcast is an unsung landmark in this new media landscape -- the first feature to enjoy all-digital broadcast theatrical showings (in five concurrent venues in 1998). As your local independent video superstore, First Run Video is proud to bring this overlooked independently-produced and distributed gem to Brattleboro.

The film chronicles the terrible fate of a TV news team that ventures into the New Jersey wilderness to investigate the fabled Jersey Devil. Sound familiar? Don’t be so quick to dismiss this as a Johnny-Come-Lately rip-off, which it most definitely is not; if anything, it’s the Johnny-Come-Early precursor to Blair Witch and one of the key independent films of the 1990s, finally achieving widespread distribution on home video this week after struggling for years to reach its potential audience. The Last Broadcast is a nervy, subversive tale, unfolding via a calculated showcase of interviews, investigative TV journalism, and “found footage” of the narrative’s central atrocity. Despite ongoing media coverage of their film in at least one major newsstand magazine per month since August 1997, Pennsylvanian independent directors Stefan Avalos (who previously directed The Money Game, also on video) and Lance Weiler (currently working on his own solo debut feature) were unable to negotiate a palatable distribution deal for their film, choosing to self-distribute while suffering the frustration of their accomplishments being swept aside in the attendant big-bucks promotion mounted for thunder-stealers Blair Witch Project and George Lucas’ Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (which claimed to be the first digitally-broadcast theatrical feature). Turn off the phone, turn down the lights, and tune in to The Last Broadcast.

[Followup article for The Brattleboro Reformer, January 13, 2000:]


Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler, the directors of the first digitally-produced and theatrically “broadcast” feature length film THE LAST BROADCAST, will be visiting Brattleboro at First Run Video (927 Putney Road) on Saturday, January 15th from 4 PM to 6:30 PM. These two young filmmakers from Pennsylvania are being welcomed not only as the second guests in First Run Video’s ongoing “Meet the Filmmakers” series (the first, Stranger in the Kingdom director Jay Craven, appeared at the store in August 1999), but also as pioneers.

Stefan and Lance’s The Last Broadcast is significant not only as the precursor and blueprint for 1999’s independent boxoffice sensation The Blair Witch Project. More importantly, their debut feature stands as THE first digitally-produced and satellite-broadcast theatrical feature in history... predating the theatrical presentation via satellite of George Lucas’ Star Wars: The Phantom Menace by almost a year.

Eventually earning national coverage in Forbes, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, and many other magazines and newspapers, The Last Broadcast was made for about $900 with borrowed digital (and a kid’s toy) cameras and edited with available Adobe software and a 166-megahertz personal computer. Through their own distribution firm Wavelength Releasing, Stefan and Lance’s film debuted in 1998 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (long before Blair Witch) as a digitally-projected theatrical event. It’s successful one-week run was followed by a festival tour and (in conjunction with Cyberstar, Digital Projection, and DLP) momentous satellite-distributed showings in five US cities in October 1998 and five international showings in May 1999 (New York, Cannes, London, Dublin, and Stockholm).

Make no mistake: Stefan and Lance are heralds of a new age in how films are and will be made and shown. They did it essentially on their own, bucking enormous odds -- and they would be the first to say The Last Broadcast is only the beginning.

Here in our own neighborhood, digital filmmaking has established a beachhead. The technology is being taught in our local high schools and colleges. On December 9th, 1999, director Jay Craven hosted a lively collection of student films at Marlboro College, his second such presentation since taking on the teaching of film studies at Marlboro. These short films demonstrated a remarkable affinity for and skill with the new filmmaking technologies; a few examples were spectacular. The young filmmakers brought an engaging range of abilities, interests, and accomplishments to the screen, proving a significant advance over the previous year’s worthy efforts (when Jay hosts his next presentation, I urge all of you to attend!).

As you read this, local filmmakers Joshua Moyse and Nathan Diamond are putting the finishing touches on their own debut horror feature film Blood Rites, which enjoyed a successful theatrical “sneak preview” at the Latchis Theater in October 1999. Digital editing and effects are an integral part of Joshua and Nathan’s tool kit, providing control over the finished product and fresh opportunities prior generations could only dream about.

In this digital generation, Stefan and Lance stand tall, setting an example for all who follow.


The Last Broadcast is a horror movie, and a mystery film, with much to recommend it. The story is simple, but its telling is tantalizingly convoluted and intricate. In the context of an imagined “documentary” by an obsessed filmmaker David Leigh (David Beard), we are presented with the facts in the case of Jim Suerd (Jim Seward), a young man who was tried and convicted for the murder in the Jersey Pine Barrens of two cable access program creators and their sound man. This amateurish cable “news team” (played by Stefan, Lance, and Rein Clabbers) had wandered deep into the Jersey Barrens in search of the “Jersey Devil,” a legendary demon or monster long believed to haunt that wilderness area. Though Suerd was convicted for the crime, Leigh believes someone or something else -- perhaps even the Jersey Devil -- was the culprit. As the film unfolds its calculating, intriguing tapestry of lies and misperceptions, we discover the horrifying truth of what happened that night.

The often-despised horror genre has provided fertile turf for many debut features: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari broke fresh ground in 1919 for its makers and German cinema as a whole. In recent memory, prominent filmmakers like George Romero (with the “shock felt ‘round the world” Night of the Living Dead, 1968), Steven Spielberg (TV features Night Gallery, 1969, and Duel, 1970), Wes Craven (Last House on the Left, 1972), David Cronenberg (Shivers aka They Came From Within, 1975), and David Lynch (Eraserhead, 1977) made their debuts with fresh, bracing explorations of the dark side of our human nature. Stefan and Lance’s decision to cut their teeth with such a film is an esthetically and commercially sound one, and it earns them a place in a proud tradition.

Furthermore, The Last Broadcast is based in genuine Americana folklore. The event the film “documents” is fiction (the disappearance and murder of the “Fact or Fiction” film team, and conviction of Jim Suerd for their murder never really happened), but Stefan and Lance didn’t create the Jersey Devil legend. They grew up with it. Unlike the completely fictional “Blair Witch” invented for their lucrative successor, the “Jersey Devil” at the heart of The Last Broadcast’s narrative and mystery is -- or was -- the real McCoy. As mentioned in their own video and DVD “extra,” the Jersey Devil legend commonly names a woman named “Mother Leeds” as the wretched mother of the devil, born to an impoverished and overburdened family living in the desolate Pine Barrens during the early 1700s. Her child was either deformed or cursed, depending on which version of this oral legend you subscribe to, incarcerating the “devil” in her attic or cellar until it broke loose to haunt the Barrens for the next three centuries. Other versions chalk its origins up to a gypsy curse, Revolutionary War treason, or a documented birth in 1855 in Estellville in Atlantic County, among others.

Whatever its origins, the Devil is described as a bat-winged, serpentine monster with the head of a horse, hoofed feet, and taloned forelimbs. It plagued the area enough to provoke an exorcism by a local priest in the 1740s; to yield a rash of sightings and barnyard mayhem in 1840, the 1850s, the 1890s, and in 1903. Most astonishing of all remains the cycle of sightings and encounters with the Jersey Devil in January, 1909. Between January 16th and the 23th, literally thousands of people in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (including citizens of southern Philadelphia) reported encounters with the Devil or discovery of its footprints which defy rationalization to this day. Among the witnesses was a Burlington, NJ policeman, a priest in Pemberton, two trolley-car conductors, a Trenton City Councilman, numerous search parties, and firefighters in West Collingswood, NJ, who actually turned a hose on the creature and fought with it!

Thereafter, the Jersey Devil receded into memory. More sightings and encounters followed, though none as dramatic or easily mapped or documented as the 1909 week of horrors. Though bounties (from $1,000 to $100,000) were offered and hucksters ballyhooed sideshow Jersey Devil fakery, the Devil was never killed or captured. Reported sightings and encounters periodically hit the newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s, and sporadically in the 1950s and early 1960s, with the last known report filed in 1966. Whatever it was, if ever it lived, the Jersey Devil retired to local lore and folklore circles until The Last Broadcast disinterred its almost-forgotten legacy for a new millennium.


Like its often-cited successor The Blair Witch Project, Stefan and Lance’s The Last Broadcast is a fake documentary, a genre also referred to as “mockumentary” or (for its more horrific entries) “shockumentary.” Furthermore, The Last Broadcast uses the form to dissect, critique, and condemn the sort of “reality TV” contemporary networks have so recklessly exploited. It also cuts much deeper to probe the psychology and pathology behind the making of such fare. The conceit is central to the film itself; indeed, the opening credits do not acknowledge Stefan and Lance as the directors, but rather announces itself as “A Film by David Leigh,” placing the fictional filmmaker at its center from the beginning.

The Last Broadcast has many precursors, including Peter Watkins’ The War Game (BBC, 1967) and Ruggero Deodato’s notorious Cannibal Holocaust (1981), which also attacked the ethics of filmmakers responsible for once-popular “shockumentaries” like Mondo Cane (1963) and Faces of Death. And let us not forget Orson Welles hysteria-inducing CBS Radio Halloween, 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds which terrified listeners out of their homes, believing the Martians really had landed!

There have been plenty of playful “mockumentaries,” too, prominent among them the popular rock parody This is Spinal Tap (1984), and The Last Broadcast belongs in their ranks. In their engaging DVD commentary, Stefan and Lance also cite the “autobiographical” independent classic David Holzman’s Diary (1967), in which writer/director Jim McBride and co-author and lead actor L.M. Kit Carson (playing Holzman) targeted the pretensions of student filmmakers with droll precision and wit. The fictional Holzman, a geeky and endearingly earnest youth aching to pierce to the “truth” of his life via his obsessive filming of every aspect of it, brought a new satiric archetype to the cinema that has been imitated ever since. Thus, McBride (who went on to direct Breathless, 1983, The Big Easy, 1987, and many others) and Carson (who later wrote the screenplay for Paris, Texas, 1983, and play character roles in Running on Empty, 1988, and others) mirrored the narcissism of all who followed in their footsteps, and anticipated the intrusive effects of bombshells like the PBS documentary series An American Family (1973). Clearly, “David Leigh” is Stefan and Lance’s “David Holzman,” with a much darker twist relevant to its generation.

This is a rare opportunity for any and all interesting Brattleboro area residents, filmmakers, and aspiring filmmakers to meet these pioneer entrepreneurs. They will be at First Run Video to meet and talk to you, sign autographs, sell their own collector’s edition of The Last Broadcast and Last Broadcast one-sheet posters, and more.