Indie Shop’s Indie Film Touts Caymans

NEW YORK After years of script rewrites and fruitless pitches to actors and studios, Jim Ritterhoff believed his passion project — a family-oriented feature film set in the Cayman Islands — would never be produced.

Two years ago, Ritterhoff, a would-be screenwriter and principal in New York ad agency Chowder, tossed the script for Cayman Went into a drawer and stopped talking about making a movie.

Six months later, an offhand comment from a friend shooting tourism marketing footage for Chowder on Cayman Brac — where the script was set — got Ritterhoff thinking again. The friend, director Bobby Sheehan of Working Pictures, took in the colorful, cinematic surroundings and said, “Somebody should shoot something down here.” Ritterhoff mentioned Cayman Went, Sheehan offered to hone the script, and thus began a partnership that resulted in a 90-minute film, shot in 18 days for less than $1 million.

The producers are now seeking distribution for their independent, self-financed movie, and are screening it in cities like New York and Los Angeles, and, last Tuesday, in London. While finding an outlet — be it theaters or cable TV — won’t be easy, the challenge is at least familiar to Chowder, a 6-year-old independent run by three former top executives from The Lord Group: Ritterhoff, Tony Kobylinski and Kim Ketchell, for whom the Cayman Islands was a founding client.

“Now, the best thing for us and the film is to have as many people as possible see it. Who affords us that?” asked Ritterhoff. “Who do we not lose money with that will give us as many eyeballs as we can, which will in turn help Cayman?”

The initial hurdles in getting the film made — locking in actors, inking a studio deal — were foreign to the ad executives, who found themselves hanging on every e-mail response and chasing tenuous connections with actors like Josh Hartnett. Like many first-time filmmakers knocking on Hollywood’s door, they knew what they needed, but lacked the experience and contacts to make it happen.

Eventually they shifted to a do-it-yourself approach at the urging of Sheehan, who had made a feature before (2000’s Seed, also self-financed) and had the production contacts to pull it off. They threw in their own money and found outside investors. Sheehan lined up a crew from Nova Scotia, Nice Shoes, for post-production, and Working Pictures partners Sara Feldmann Sheehan (who’s also his wife) and Gil Wadsworth as executive producer and producer, respectively. The project became as much about networking and relationships as perseverance and luck.

“An ad agency and a production company can be that organized and get it together quickly,” said Sheehan, who served as director, co-producer and co-screenwriter. On the set, that sometimes meant getting a scene in one take. “I don’t think of it being fast. I think it’s just being decisive,” Sheehan said.

Cayman Went tells the story of Josh Anders, star of a fictional TV series called Diver Down, who flies to Cayman Brac at the behest of a mogul who wants to build an oceanfront resort there, but needs some choice land owned by recalcitrant islanders. The mogul knows the series (and the actor) are popular in the Caymans, and tries to use that to win over the locals.

The actor, played by Michael Lombardi, has some early success, but runs into a roadblock with Rodgers Bowman, a sixtysomething eccentric whose parcel of land sits within the proposed development. Anders works hard to win him over, but in the process grows to appreciate the old-timer’s love for the island, and ultimately becomes aligned with islanders rather than his boss.

The lead character’s transformation from smug, self-centered actor to island enthusiast is triggered in part by the natural beauty of Cayman Brac, a relatively small, underdeveloped island of about 1,500 residents. In one scene, Anders scuba dives with a woman who is a wildlife expert and encounters a school of yellowtail snapper, a coral reef and a giant stingray. Thus, the island itself acts as a main character in the movie and one that is pivotal to Anders’ change of heart.

Ritterhoff and Sheehan “both started to see the priority of the story” rather than the marketing angle, according to the director. “You could go and shoot a pretty movie and, at the end of the day, it’s like, who cares?” said Sheehan. “We don’t want to make a 90-minute infomercial for the Cayman Islands. Jim is the owner of an ad agency and he’s the first person to say that.”

One outside investor, bond trader Bob Eick, sees Cayman Went as a “feel-good” film in the vein of Flipper and Swiss Family Robinson that could fit either on the big screen or on a family-oriented cable network. Eick, who also invested in the 1999 indie breakout hit The Blair Witch Project, believes Cayman Went is highly marketable as a message movie that can appeal equally to 10-year-olds and 50-year-olds.

As a tourism vehicle, Ketchell hopes the film can do for this small set of Caribbean islands what Sideways did for the Santa Barbara wine region of California or what Field of Dreams did for Iowa. That said, Hurricane Paloma, a Category 4 storm, badly damaged Cayman Brac in early November and has dampened such enthusiasm. Ritterhoff has offered to screen the film on Grand Cayman to raise money for rebuilding.

“As a film, we want to do what we can,” Ritterhoff said last week. “The tricky part is managing the messaging.”