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Last fall in Los Angeles, a curious event popped up at Cinefamily, a short films program entitled “MEMORY Presents “Program No. 1.” A visit to MEMORY’s own site didn’t provide much info, only the company’s distinctive pulsating logo — an all-too-apt image of the letters that form their name rising to the surface — while a look at the event notice posted by the theater offered up a list of directors whose work was being shown that read like a who’s who of up-and-coming filmmakers including “The Witch”’s Robert Eggers, “The Overnight”’s Patrick Brice and Pippa Bianco, whose Cannes winner “Share” would play, but little more. Still, the line stretched down the block that evening in such fashion that passersby would be forgiven for thinking it was one of the limited edition sneaker releases that cause teens to wake up at the crack of dawn to wait on the sidewalks of Fairfax, and once inside, MEMORY’s co-founders Riel Roch-Decter and Sebastian Pardo were greeted like conquering heroes, with even the aisles filled with applauding fans and the slight concern the fire marshal would have to be called. This was no mere screening they were having.
“We had friends of ours in L.A. and their shorts had played at Cannes and South by Southwest, and some won [awards],” recalls Pardo of the genesis of the event. “Through our connections, we found out about Eggers having this short on a hard drive that nobody had seen. That was the germ…Rather than [the filmmakers] dumping these shorts online, which seemed like such a waste when they’re made at such a filmic level — 35mm film, professional sound mixes — we saw it as an opportunity to get a community together, continue the [shorts’] theatrical life by showcasing them at our event, and establish us as a company and showcase our taste, so that we’d continue to further our relationships with filmmakers but also begin to build a relationship with an audience.”
Ultimately, Roch-Decter and Pardo did put the shorts online — the collection was made available to rent on Vimeo on Demand last week — but only after doing similar one-night-only screenings in New York, Montreal and Toronto that announced not only a group of filmmakers who will be doing exciting work on the big screen for years to come, but a home for new, daring voices whose individuality may make them difficult to classify collectively otherwise.
“If someone sends us a movie or a script and we have trouble trying to explain it, then we’re probably in because it’s doing something different,” laughs Roch-Decter.
That much has been clear as MEMORY has taken the festival circuit by storm in recent months. In addition to their short film showcase, the company has debuted three features they’ve produced since September, first bowing Celia Rowlson-Hall’s “MA,” a radical reinterpretation of the desert-set travails of the Virgin Mary told through movement rather than words that picked up prizes at AFI Fest, Ashland and Sarasota after its premiere at Venice. As “MA” continues to travel, screening later this week at the Philadelphia Film Society and the Nitehawk in New York, it has been joined by SXSW premiere “Another Evil,” “Silicon Valley” writer Carson Mell’s deliriously funny feature debut, bowing soon at the Seattle and Chicago Film Critics Festivals, featuring “Togetherness” star Steve Zissis as a family man who discovers his house is infested with ghosts but quickly realizes after hiring a tetchy ghost hunter (Mark Proksch) that he fears the latter far more than the former, and “Fraud,” one of the most talked-about films recently at Hot Docs that marks the debut of “Marcel the Shell” co-creator Dean Fleischer-Camp, who collected one family’s home movies posted to YouTube to create a disturbing rumination on consumerism.
“Nothing is made cynically, like, “Oh, the market is in need of this type of film.’ It’s all about the director’s expression,” says Pardo of how he and Roch-Decter decide which projects they decide to work on. “The industry is hard enough. If you’re having to come from a place of guessing what other people want rather than what you believe in, it’s just going to make it that much harder.”
The two first met at the Directors Bureau, Roman Coppola’s amorphous production house for commercials, music videos and the occasional feature or TV show where Pardo worked in the company’s Special Projects division and Roch-Decter would visit in his capacity as an assistant for “Rabbit Hole” producer Leslie Urdang’s Olympus Pictures to help oversee pick-up shoots for Mike Mills’ “Beginners” as it went into editing. Pardo had set up a screening of shorts at the Globe Theater in downtown LA, including one he’d helmed himself in addition to films from Gia Coppola, for whom he’d later help produce her feature debut “Palo Alto,” and Kahlil Joseph, renowned video director and future helmer of the Arcade Fire doc “The Reflektor Tapes.”
“It was a bunch of friends getting together in a warehouse somewhere to watch some stuff,” Roch-Decter fondly recalls. “I was so inspired by that. It’s funny that years later we got together and [Sebastian] comes to me and he’s like, “Why don’t we do something like that, but on a bigger scale?”
In 2013, Roch-Decter and Pardo saw an opportunity to start a new kind of production company as even the most established indie producers were rethinking their business models as budgets shrunk, putting them into jeopardy since they’re heavily reliant on production fees from one big movie to keep the lights on when developing others. Their skills were complementary, as Roch-Decter studied economics when he wasn’t shooting skateboard videos in college, eventually cultivating relationships with agents and learning the legal side and accounting from his job at Olympus, while Pardo went to film school for directing where he prioritized learning every crew position as an admirer of the Dogme 95 movement. Having built up a network of talented collaborators in the years prior, the duo envisioned MEMORY as a brand that could champion the diverse artists they admired and in the process create an identity for themselves, rather than taking on films that might pay the rent but wouldn’t build a reputation.
Almost immediately, they found the type of project they were hoping to get involved with, approached by filmmaker Eva Michon to assist with putting the final touches on her rock doc “Life and Death From Above 1979,” about the Canadian cult dance-punk duo Death From Above 1979. Roch-Decter and Pardo came on to help with finishing funds, guide the final edit through color and sound mix and act as a sales agent, but after becoming that hands-on, the two wondered, “Why not go one step further?,” sensing there might be an opportunity to release the film to coincide with the band’s latest album in September even though they only just joined the project in June.
“Instead of going the classic festival route and waiting for a distributor to knock on our door after it premiered somewhere, we’re like, ‘Let’s just put it out around the same time as the album,” said Roch-Decter. “We did a deal with Vimeo, which we had never done before, and they were like, ‘Here’s an advance,’ so we released it exclusively with them for 30 days, then did screenings of the film while the band was touring. [Death From Above 1979] hit Kansas City, do a show, and the next day we’d do a screening, then the band would show up for a Q&A. We did screenings at Drafthouse Theaters in certain states, then when they did a Canada tour, we did screenings all over Canada. We were basically acting as distributors.”
The experience proved to be an epiphany for the pair, who applied the lessons learned on the road with that movie to their decision to create a traveling shorts program and emboldened them further in staying true to their instincts when producing, knowing that if they make something, it’s going to get a release, even if they have to do it themselves.
“The biggest part is engaging with the audience now that the internet has allowed the gatekeepers to be removed,” said Roch-Decter. “Fifteen years ago, you needed a distributor to print 10,000 prints of a film and get it out into the world, and now we don’t. The only thing that separates the Weinstein Company from some other company is how much they have in P&A and how much their brand is valued. If we can engage with an audience, whatever that niche audience might be for the films that we do, we can connect with them all over the world. If they see our brand and it means a certain thing to them, that’s great. We can continue to deliver content straight to them and not need to rely on big distribution companies.”
Adds Pardo, “If we can have a one-to-one relationship with the [audience] and stay engaged with them, then you’re circumventing what all these companies need to do in order to have people care. Younger people are getting savvier and savvier, and don’t necessarily engage with the old models in the same way in terms of TV and billboards. I don’t know that those motivate people in the way that feeling like part of a community does.”
Already, Roch-Decter and Pardo are ahead of their three-year plan, which was to produce a few shorts leading up to a feature. It’s notable that two of the shorts featured in “Program No. 1” were by Mell and Rowlson-Hall, multidisciplinary artists who they would later collaborate with on their feature debuts, a sign of MEMORY’s aim of growing with their artists, in whatever direction that may take them.
“We want to be a place that people go to for a certain kind of film, for a certain level of quality and for artists that aren’t just filmmakers but artists that do books, do dance,” says Roch-Decter, alluding to Mell’s background in animation and Rowlson-Hall’s career in choreography. “They’re artists in the full meaning of an artist and [we don’t want to] limit ourselves to films and shorts. If you want to go do a book, let’s go do a book. You want to do toys, let’s do that, as long as it fits in with them and the message they’re trying to convey.”
To that end, MEMORY’s next project is a web series, written and directed by Fleischer-Camp and starring “Nathan for You”’s Nathan Fielder that Roch-Decter suggests will please fans of the director’s other comic web series “Catherine.” A collaboration with the comedy web channel Super Deluxe, it is also one of the first productions MEMORY has worked on for an outside company, something that threatens to be a common occurrence considering more in the industry have taken note. Still, Roch-Decter and Pardo are intent on protecting the unique nature of their projects so far at all costs, knowing it’s what has made them stand out in the pack in the first place, and the partnerships they’re most excited about remain with the artists — and the audience — that they hope to build MEMORY with together.
“From the ‘MEMORY Presents…’ screening, we met a lot of good writers, directors and cinematographers that had seen the program, very immediately understood what we were about and wanted to work with us,” says Roch-Decter. “That’s been a huge help in getting projects sent to us, but also being able to reach out to those filmmakers to develop projects with them. So far, a lot of good things are coming to us this year, which makes the last two years of super hard work feel a little bit rewarding. Now, the hardest work is ahead.”