Par-T-Com Productions, LLC, produces their first full-length feature film with professional talent, a limited budget and dreams of national distribution.
May 10, 2006
By Anita Martin
Between the narrow, chalk-inscribed brick walls of Bagel Street café, production assistants huddle around a laptop and production monitor while camera operators record and re-record an opening scene. A voice rises above the din: "Rolling camera, speed and action!"
While no Hollywood production, neither is this some shoestring-operation class project. It's the set of "Relative Obscurity," the first full-length feature film produced by Par-T-Com Productions, LLC, a creative and commercial media production company founded by students of Ohio University's School of Telecommunications and School of Theater and based in Athens.
The film, a product of more than two years of work, employs a high-resolution HD camera, a 23-member crew and an 11-member central and supporting cast of alumni, faculty and such professionals as Larisa Oleynik of "Ten Things I Hate about You" and "The Secret World of Alex Mack" and Jack Kehler of "Fever Pitch" and "The Big Lebowski." The crew consists of alumni and students of Ohio University, and the film reflects their world.
"'Relative Obscurity' is an ensemble drama about seven students who are struggling to figure out what they want to do," says Jeff Rosenberg, writer and director. "The story begins in their freshman year of college and then moves on to their senior year, when the majority of the drama takes place, which is 2004-05."
Par-T-Com's goal for the film: to rise, out of its own relative obscurity, to national distribution.
Up, up and away
It's a rare project for Athens, Ohio, considering the scale, cost and aspirations, but then, Par-T-Com has proved a rare group.
They began as a social TCOM club in 2003. In their first year, the group's short film "Detonate" won the 2004 MTV-U Best Film on Campus Award and the 2004 Student Production Award at the Ohio Valley National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Emmys. The following year another short, "Climax," won Ohio University's Shoot Out competition and another Ohio Valley Emmy. Both films were selected for the Athens International Film and Video Festival. Soon Par-T-Com was producing paid commercials.
In February 2005, they formed a limited liability. "We needed a legal entity," says John Swartz, business manager and producer. "It solidified us as a legitimate production group that was doing good narrative production as well as commercials and corporate videos."
Spencer Houck, video and special effects editor, calls Par-T-Com "a pretty tight-knit group. Each of us has a very specific goal in the field, and so we all fit into our roles in the flow." After about a dozen shorts, Rosenberg completed his script for "Relative Obscurity" and persuaded the group to go big time.
"I think we've essentially mastered as much as we can out of the five-minute short and I felt it was time to get better equipment, hire professional actors and to really go for it," Rosenberg says. "At some point you're just going to have to put yourself out there."
Art imitates life
Inspiration struck during Rosenberg's senior year when Associate Professor of Theater Esiaba Irobi asked the students in his performance and identity course to consider the following quote by Franz Fanon:
"Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, betray it or fulfill it."
Irobi appears in the beginning of Rosenberg's "Relative Obscurity" before a large lecture hall, issuing the same challenge. The quote frames the experiences of the seven characters, six of whom attend college between fall 2001 and spring 2005, when the movie's climax occurs.
"The climax of a movie is when you realize where the rest of the journey goes for the characters," Rosenberg says. "Some of the students, when senior year rolls around, find out where they want to be, and some have absolutely no clue."
With more than 30 students and alumni of Ohio University on board, the cast and crew can well appreciate the theme.
"I think that everyone I know can relate to one of the characters," says Amanda Lenker, casting director. "And to have the privilege to do this at the end of my own college career is something that is very special to me because it wrapped up everything I just experienced while providing real-world practice."
"There's a saying: movies aren't made; they're forced into existence," Swartz says. "Every project is a challenge."
During the four months after his graduation, Rosenberg raised money for the film with investment shares and press kits designed by Swartz and Houck. Meanwhile Devin Doyle, director of photography, rented high-resolution cameras from HD-Cinema, a company in Los Angeles, and Swartz began learning the ranks of actors' unions, agent negotiations and production finance. "Relative Obscurity" was a go.
Professionals were flown in from Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and Cleveland. Some were alumni and faculty of Ohio University, while others, such as Oleynik (Claire), Kehler (Bob), Owiso Odera (Cofi) were actors with no previous connection to Athens.
"The highest level of professionalism I ever had to execute on set in TCOM was 419," says Houck, referring to his advanced video projects course. "This was like 419 on steroids."
Because the film is set in the bustling student world of Athens and had to accommodate academic schedules, the entire production process was packed into Ohio University's winter break. "Anyone will tell you that we shot a 35-day movie in 26 days," Swartz says.
The cast and crew arrived on set each day at 7 a.m. and worked until between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Before Columbus shoots, the group woke up as early as four in the morning.
"It was a very specific process we had to map out from the beginning or else it wouldn't have worked," Lenker says. "We overworked ourselves definitely, but we had to, and we knew we had to, and none of us had a problem with it while we were doing it."
After the final shoot, the flurry of post-production begins: editing, dialogue re-records, music licensing, taxes and meeting festival entry deadlines. Despite the toils of filmmaking, Swartz' experiences with "Relative Obscurity" and the School of Telecommunications have reinforced his goal of becoming a movie producer.
"My academic training at OU directed my interest," Swartz says. "My interests were channeled by all the other courses I took and all the extra-curricular activities I was taking when I stumbled into producing."
Swartz' colleagues echo his story of self-discovery.
Lenker originally planned to transfer to the University of South California to study acting after two years at Ohio University. Instead she stayed on, recognizing the potential of her TCOM peers. "I think that's what makes OU so special - it's kind of secluded, but there's a wealth of really ambitious people here."
She began working in production and soon discovered her calling. "I knew I wanted to do something with actors, because that's my background, and 'Relative' really solidified the casting director position with me."
After just two years, sophomore video production major Bryan Olinger, who worked as second assistant cameraman, says he feels like a specialist. "When I came to Ohio University, I knew nothing about lighting," he says. "I now feel comfortable talking shop about lighting on any set."
Next stop: Hollywood
An ensemble drama, as Swartz defines it, is a character piece. It follows individuals whose lives interweave and arc together. "Some lose their way along that journey," he says, "and some figure out who they - and their friends - really are."
A look behind the scenes of "Relative Obscurity" reveals a real-life ensemble drama. While their academic and extra-curricular experiences at Ohio University helped them define their goals, the characters involved made the real difference.
"The biggest help that OU has been to me has been the networking and finding the group of people that I've found," Houck says.
The group's bond and momentum show no signs of letting up. Following commencement, 11 "Relative Obscurity" veterans will follow their dreams to Los Angeles, dissolving Par-T-Com Productions, LLC, in their wake. Rosenberg, Swartz, Houck, Lenker and Doyle are among those Hollywood-bound, along with Adam Abramowicz (art director), Brenden MacCredie (lighting director), Whitney Fromholtz (first assistant director), Lisa Kelley (assistant casting director), Jim Cartwright (audio engineer) and Ed Quinn (grip).
"There's actually a decent OU base in L.A.," Houck says, "We're just ready to ride on whoever's coattails, and we'll provide those coattails for whoever needs them."
Rosenberg says that many of his classmates moved to Los Angeles or New York immediately after graduation in 2004, but he decided to stay with Par-T-Com and make his movie. Now when he arrives in Hollywood, Rosenberg plans to hand prospective producers a fully produced 90-minute drama, along with a script for his next project.
"Even if we can't find distribution on this, everybody involved has one hell of a résumé," Rosenberg says. "And that résumé is 'Relative Obscurity.'"
Those crew members still completing their degrees can benefit from the résumé boost, ready-made professional network and inspiring legacy of "Relative Obscurity" and Par-T-Com Productions, LLC.
"'Relative Obscurity' didn't happen just because of the money. It happened because the right people were at OU at the right time," Olinger says. "This was the culmination of an all-star team."
Anita Martin is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.