'The Fits': Why Oscilloscope Took a Leap of Faith on the Low-Budget Sundance Hit
The filmmakers behindThe Fits sat down with their distributor Oscilloscope Labs to discuss the film's unlikely path to success.
With one gymnasium, 15 young girls, and €150,000, Anna Rose Holmer made The Fits. Despite its humble beginnings, the film went on to premiere at Sundance nationally and the acclaimed Venice Film Festival internationally, and garnered a coveted theatrical release. The story is a “psychological portrait” of an 11-year-old tomboy, trying desperately to fit in on her new dance team. It is proudly atypical and deeply visceral. IFP Film Week invited Holmer to discuss her movie’s trajectory with co-writer and editor Saela Davis, and Dan Berger, president of Oscilloscope Labs, the film's US distributor.
“The film’s origins are very strange.”
To set the stage, Berger explained where the film is now in its theatrical release.
“We released the film back in June,” he started. “It had a traditional theatrical release. So, it was exclusively in theaters around the country, for a certain number of months before trickling down to digital platforms.”
He was hesitant to list the numbers. “From a theatrical perspective, the film did about $160K in box office, which is how we measure stuff here, not based on ambitions, which is very American.” To put it in perspective, he says, compared to other films in its realm, “it’s not insignificant. Which is a little sad, everyone needs to go see more movies.”
They knew the film would be financially challenging, and they built a release that was appropriate and full of care. “We ultimately ended up opening 50, 60, maybe even more theaters around the country,” he counted aloud.
Holmer interjected, “I think it’s up to 100, including U.S. festivals.”
“So that’s a wide footprint for a film like this, for any independent film frankly.”
“It’s wild,” Holmer agreed. “One of the things that’s funny is, we know the film, and it’s tough in a lot of ways. My name doesn’t sell tickets, Royalty [Hightower] doesn’t yet sell tickets.” Hightower is the film’s 11-year-old lead actress (she was nine when she auditioned), apparently a star on the rise. Holmer continued to list potential marketing pitfalls. “It’s not narratively driven, it’s on the shorter side. There are a lot of hurdles. And then it’s like, on summer roundups, being judged against superhero movies of the summer.”
But, she shrugged it off, “For me everything has exceeded expectations. We’re still just in awe of its life.”
Bilge Ebiri, moderator and film critic for the Village Voice, then turned the conversation back in time, to the beginning. How did it all start?
“The film’s origins are very strange.” Holmer began. “This is my first time directing fiction. Actually Saela and I were working on a film called Ballet 422 which was directed by Jody Lee Lipes.”
In the process of working with the New York City Ballet, Holmer fell in love with dance on film. She wanted to expand its representation and what it could mean.
“I actually started musing on it very secretly by myself, for about a year, before I really brought in Saela and Lisa [Kjerulff] with this idea of going to the Venice Biennale, to pitch our film.” (Kjerulff was the third writer on the film.)
Holmer heard about the Venice Biennale College for Cinema through IFP and loved the challenge of its restrictions. “It was designed to be made in the constraints of the Biennale, which is a micro budget, micro timeline initiative for first and second time filmmakers.”
“I do very well with limitations,” she said. “For me, creatively, that works. So, I felt like designing the film within that framework was really where it started.”
From their work together as producer and editor in the non-fiction world, Holmer decided she needed Davis on board.
Holmer said of Davis, “She just has one of the smartest story senses that I had encountered. I think when you connect with someone, or admire someone, you should fight to keep them a part of your world. We had never written a screenplay, either of us, but I was like, ‘I want that brain in the room.’”
“I think when you connect with someone, or admire someone, you should fight to keep them a part of your world.”
So they got together, they wrote a treatment, and through sheer talent, or luck, or hard work, they got into the Biennale.
“And from that point on,” Davis said, “we were just in shock that it was happening.”
Once the development stage was set in motion, they had to make a movie within a year.
“We just started writing down ideas. Workshopping, the three of us,” Davis explained their process. “We had a very informal script initially because we were reluctant to do the traditional three-act structure. And eventually we forced ourselves to do it…”
Holmer interjected here, chuckling, “I think we kind of still resisted it, if you’ve seen the movie.”
As none of the three writers were actually writers, they had a non-traditional approach to their script.
Holmer said, “Essentially we saw a screenplay as a map. We never were trying to make a perfect document.” She added though that the script ended up being basically 1:1 to what you see on screen. “And,” she said, “it’s a pretty traditional screenplay.”
The sneaky thing about classic story structure is that it tends to reveal itself in even the most rebellious narratives. The one thing that did change was the dialogue.
“The dialogue was really loose,” Davis recalled. “We wrote these 10-15 year olds from our 30 year old brains so, that dialogue wasn’t authentic.”
When the cast and crew did a screening at the Metrograph theater in New York, early in their release, the kids poked some fun at their scripted lines.
“The way they described it,” Holmer joked, “they were like ‘yeah, it was a real throwback and it needed an upgrade.’”
“But that was the intention from the beginning.” Davis followed up. “We wanted to be working with these kids, and Anna wanted them to be storytellers.”
So they wrote their script, loose dialogue and all, and brought it back to Venice.
“Hearing ‘no’ is good. It’s healthy, and they were right. We just couldn’t see it.”
“It’s a very open, loose, development lab,” said Holmer. She described meeting filmmakers from all over the world there. “That budget [of €150,000] is very different in the UK, as it in the Philippines, as it is in the US, so what micro budget filmmaking looks like is very different around the world.”
Not only were her Biennale peers creatively different, but their ideas about the function of cinema were different too. Holmer explained that to consider not making a film, “wasn’t on the table.” For Berger’s part, he and his team are constantly keeping an eye on programs like this one.
“I can assure you that we are looking for those projects all the time,” Berger said. “Yes we’re looking at what’s in the Sundance Labs. I have a colleague who’s meeting with folks at IFP throughout the week. We’re very much ingrained in that.” Though Oscilloscope doesn’t often get involved at the development stage, he said that they’re always gathering information. “Because you’re better situated to go into a major festival like a Sundance, if you already know about these projects.”
Holmer noted that The Fits worked with Sundance as well, prior to the film’s completion. “It was an inaugural lab with the Sundance Institute, for an edit intensive.”
“It actually came at the perfect time in the process,” Davis added.
To elaborate, Holmer explained their production timeline. “Because of Venice, we had a twelve-week edit, which was just insane and we couldn’t take a week away to look at the movie. Which you really need.”
All agreed that outside voices are crucial during the edit stage. “It was so valuable and hard.” Holmer added. “It was hard to hear people be like, ‘nope.’ And you have one week more before Venice is going to see it. But hearing ‘no’ is good. It’s healthy, and they were right. We just couldn’t see it.”
The conversation returned to shooting, and specifically, working with Royalty Hightower. “Really, the casting of Royalty started with casting the Q-Kidz.” Holmer explained her process.
“So one of the very early ideas for the movie, and one of the reasons I wanted to make this outside of any traditional financing model, was I wanted to work with a team of girls. I feel like there’s this visible fabric that is important to what I’m saying about groups of girls and teams.”
So they found the team first, through YouTube, during Holmer’s year-long project incubation period. See one of the many Q-Kidz dance videos below.
“We opened up casting only to the girls in the Q-Kidz, initially.” The Q-Kids are a few hundred girls, based out of Cincinnati, who dance competitively after school.
When Holmer wrote the casting notice, she was not expecting to find someone as young as Hightower. “I just thought we would find a girl who was 15, who looked like she was maybe 12.”
They met Hightower on casting day one, and she was nine.
“This connection I had with her was very immediate.” Holmer explained. “What really blew me away was her capacity to listen. We did scene work,” Holmer described an ear piercing scene where several girls rotated parts. “And I couldn’t stop looking at Royalty listening to the other girls give their lines.”
In her excitement, Holmer sent Hightower’s tape to Davis, who wasn’t able to be at auditions.
“I think you were like ‘Anna, whatever you felt in the room is not on the tape.’”
“There were days on set where crew would come up to me and say, “I can’t believe we’re making Royalty Hightower’s first film.”
Booking an actor that age is risky, especially when the entire film depends their performance. Holmer’s team was nervous, but they went for it, something that seems to be common in their journey. Holmer, no doubt relieved that her instinct had been right, raved about Hightower’s success on the shoot. “There were days on set where crew would come up to me and say,“I can’t believe we’re making Royalty Hightower’s first film.”
They finished the film and made their World Premiere at Venice in 2015. From there, they received several more grants from places like Cinereach and Rooftop Films, which allowed them the publicity to land on Oscilloscope’s radar. Oscilloscope bought the film based on a single positive review—the only review in English—from The Hollywood Reporter. Berger concludes, “There’s always some semblance of a leap of faith in getting involved in a film.”
At the end of the panel, a question came from an audience member about why one would intentionally make such a decidedly unsellable film.
“For us, this movie by design wasn’t paying our rent. I knew that, I had to know that because that enabled me to make the creative choices that I needed to make in this film.”
“There’s different currencies,” Holmer answered. “Money is one currency that we use to measure the worth of things, and it’s how we operate in our economy. But as filmmakers, it’s not the only currency we are trading in. Because as filmmakers, the other currencies are relationships, or you’re building a portfolio of your voice. And for each film, you have to measure and know what currency you’re trying to cash in on. For this film, we made it with grants. The equity is us, our time; we were not paid for this film. For us, this movie by design wasn’t paying our rent. I knew that, I had to know that because that enabled me to make the creative choices that I needed to make in this film.”
Though ultimately the film ended up in an exchange market, Holmer said, "for me that’s not the currency of this film. And every creative decision we’ve made is about heightening this other currency, which is putting out in the world our artistic voice.”